A Series of Fortunate Events
January 31st 2018 will be my 3138th day working at Netflix. It will also be my last one. I will have worked for Netflix for eight years, seven months, and two days. For me, it’s a profoundly long time, and it’s led to some thoughts and reflections, not least of which is “oh my God, I can’t believe I’m leaving Netflix voluntarily”.
There’s a common way this is supposed to go — we join a company because we love it, and we’re bright-eyed and optimistic. We start off and experience a honeymoon. Slowly but surely, our dreams are crushed, our eyes opened, our hopes collapse. We leave for the next place, grateful to have found a way to leave our workplace without worrying about how we’ll make rent, and are glad to be rid of it.
This is not that story.
I was unemployed in 2009 when Netflix reached out to me. My spouse and I saw our resources dwindling, and were starting to consider some Plan Bs. Netflix was known as a DVD shipping company of course, but streaming was just starting, and Netflix’s tech brand was not particularly noticeable. The tech stack was pretty weird — Linux on PowerPC, Oracle on AIX on PPC, believe it or not. The famous Netflix Culture deck wasn’t yet public — a friend of mine smuggled me a copy prior to my interview.
It was a bit of a tossup — right at the time Netflix gave me an offer a previous employer offered me to come back and take a remote position that would have allowed me to work anywhere I wanted. My spouse wanted us to move to Portland so she was pretty attracted to that option. I finally reassured her that the Portland option could still be something we could pursue soon and told her “Oh, don’t worry — I’m probably going to get fired from Netflix within a year, but it’ll be a great ride, and then we can go to Portland.”
It was just about a week between my first contact with Netflix and the job offer. In that time, my position was redefined twice, starting with “Come in and play an architect role to help IT figure out how to work with Engineering on the move to the cloud,” then a day or two later “well, before that, help IT figure out how to do automation better in the datacenter,” and ending with “well, before that, we’re super busy so we’re going to have you do a bunch of provisioning stuff first until we catch up, and then we can totally invest in the future.”
I came in and I started working with a group of Systems Engineers who were deeply committed to serving their customers, and the company, though I wished we were more lazy — getting things done was hard and complicated and frustrating and … weirdly acceptable to a bunch of us. About a month after I joined Netflix I sat down with my Director, my boss’s boss, and he asked how I was doing, and I told him “I come to work every day pissed off and angry about the state of how we get our work done, but … I think I’ve come to realize that that’s why you hired me.” And he basically said “that’s accurate.” I remember spending most of Labor Day 2009 trying to debug a failing application server because that one server was a disturbing portion of our overall capacity. I remember being considered a hero (by Engineering) for configuring ten servers in 2.5 work days. “2.5 work days? Are you sure?” Said the engineering director whose team depended on me getting this done. “I’m willing to bet my job on it,” I said, and later was counseled that I should not make such wild promises because we never know what might happen.
I am no longer pissed off and angry.
Netflix technology today delights me. Everyone knows about the technology, and the infrastructure. Servers don’t matter anymore. Hundreds of thousands of them run with pretty much nobody noticing when one of them fails, or is terminated. Netflix provisions a datacenter or two worth of machines every day as its server count increases to deal with traffic and decreases later. Engineers are unblocked, free, empowered to run their systems without having to wait for people to get them the resources they need. There’s so much more work we can, we will, we must, do to make our service and our ability to deliver this service better (and I’m incredibly enthusiastic what Netflix — and my own team — does in 2018), but it’s largely in the realm of “better,” rather than “oh God, please let’s not continue to suck.”
It’s pretty glorious. But forget technology.
Netflix’s culture feels like the sort of thing that shouldn’t actually be able to exist in nature. I mean, sure, you want to have an intimate, trusting, safe place to work, find some sort of small to midsize company where you can know everyone. Once you break 1000 employees, 2000 … once you’re no longer working at the kind of place where it’s likely the CEO knows your name, it just becomes one of those places.
When I joined Netflix, it was doing quite a few things when it comes to people management really well. Freedom and Responsibility, Context not Control, all of these principles were already here and on the ground and largely in effect. But I don’t know that I’d describe Netflix in 2009 as a place that deeply cared about humans, and which prioritized caring about humans as a quality that people leaders were supposed to have. The flip side of “we’re professional adults and we’re here to work and then go home” was a certain lack of warmth, and humanity.
I look around me now, and I see people supporting each other in their humanity. I see a Women at Netflix group, and a Black Employees at Netflix group, and an LGBTQ group (among others), all started as grassroots efforts, rather than as some sort of HR program. I see a workplace where I’m privileged to have been able to have been able to have deep, vulnerable, and illuminating conversations when I asked “What’s it like being a woman at Netflix?” And “What’s it like being Muslim at Netflix?”
I see a place that has expanded its interpretation of a manager’s job being “attract and retain world-class talent” to mean that being good with people is table stakes. I see people who were failing at this, but who wanted to get better and worked their butts off be given the chance to improve, and I see them flourishing now. I see people who didn’t care enough about people not be here anymore. And both feel great.
I see a place that continues to have humility and candor in its bones in ways that are just … it’s just bonkers.
I once called a 1o1 with my boss’s boss’s boss, the Chief Product Officer who at the time had something like 1500 people working for him, and started the conversation with something like “hey, this thing you did, I see what you’re going for, and I’m totally in support of it, but the way you executed that feels like you flubbed it, and it resulted in some bad outcomes.” And he listened, and then talked, vulnerably, about his personal challenges balancing control and context.
I saw a VP deliver a presentation where he came across a bit like an ass. And I sat down with him later, the first time we exchanged any real words, and said “that presentation … it didn’t work well.” And he took the feedback and thanked me for it and it was done. This wasn’t a Roy thing. This wasn’t because I’d been here a while. And I know, because I persuaded some brand new people to the company to go have that conversation with him as well (they were totally disinclined to do so. “I don’t think I want to give a random VP a piece of my mind. That doesn’t seem awesomely healthy”) and they had exactly the same rewarding, warm, intimate conversation.
I’ve had thoughtful, collaborative, conversations with engineers here. And VPs. And lawyers, and HR people and Corporate Communications people. And it was always clear that we’re all trying to be thoughtful, and reasonable, and caring. I’ve never really liked working with HR people in my life — I’ve been known to say that HR professionals are the natural predators of the creative class — and there are at least three HR business partners I’ve worked with here who I would so love to work with again that if they ever called me from their new company and said “I’d love for you to interview here because you’ll get to work with me,” I’d go “yeah, sure, when’s good for you?”
“I come to work every day pissed off and angry about the state of how we get our work done,” I told my director in 2009.
I’m not pissed off anymore.
I love this place, and its people, and its culture.
I’ll miss it terribly.