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The Pursuit of Impact: My First Year at Netflix

Building A Team
Hiring
Team Processes

23 February, 2021

Bruce Wang
Bruce Wang

Director of Engineering at Netflix

Bruce Wang, Director of Engineering, API Systems at Netflix, speaks of his personal journey to build thriving teams during his first year at Netflix.

Problem

Have you ever found yourself so encumbered with competing priorities that you freeze and panic? I found myself in this situation when I first joined Netflix as an Engineer Director for API Systems. Early on, I was balancing between ramping up on my teams and immersing myself into our hiring process. Since Netflix’s culture ([https://jobs.netflix.com/culture]) anchors on freedom and responsibility, it was up to me to maintain, adjust, and potentially change up the hiring process for our team.

Additionally, I needed to work with my team members to define our vision for the future. Combine this with regular weekly 1x1s with every team member and getting to know my many cross-functional partners; I was overwhelmed. I struggled to juggle and excel at what seemed like discrete activities. I snapped out of it while working on the onboarding plan for my first two new hires and realized this was all tied together in the same continuum of work and be effective in these four phases of team building life cycle: design, hire, learn, and grow.

Actions taken

Design your team
When I first started, I knew that getting to know my team was paramount. I conducted “getting to know you” 1x1s and then held regular weekly 1x1s ([https://github.com/batmany13/about-me/blob/master/1x1s.md#getting-to-know-you]) with each team member. I also quickly scheduled 1x1s with leaders on partner teams and participated in key cross-cutting projects. I held a team off-site to discuss our team charter and where we needed to go. I even came up with a pithy slogan (from hourglass to turbine or rocket) to represent a future where we shed our “bottleneck” ([https://www.infoq.com/presentations/netflix-api-graphql-federation/]) past and become a catalyst for product evolution.

I did all the “right” things, so why was it still so hard? My struggle really stemmed from a lack of true clarity. Slogans aside, I was fuzzy about the direction and vision of my team and lacked insight into the team’s capabilities and where it needed to grow.

True clarity is about understanding your team’s activities and the intrinsic value your team brings to the company and partners. It’s also about knowing each individual team member: how they fit and what they bring. Finally, true clarity is about having a complete picture of your teams’ abilities and what’s missing.

True clarity doesn’t mean you need to be 100% sure of things. Being a leader means making decisions with imperfect information. It’s about taking the time and effort to get deeper insights.

Hire stunning colleagues

Hiring has a life cycle ([https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/full-cycle-recruiting]) of its own. Nailing down this process is essential to attracting the stunning colleagues you want on your team. It's important to maintain talent density as it makes all the other phases that much easier and many managers focus on this area intensely.

I was no different. I inherited an open job req and an existing interview process and started executing on it right away. I worked closely with my recruiting partners, started sourcing, reviewing leads, and doing initial phone screens. I built a rich pipeline with highly qualified candidates, but something wasn’t right.

Looking back, drafting off the prior leader’s hiring approach was not as effective as owning it myself. I also wanted to incorporate the team clarity I had achieved. Therefore, I restructured our hiring process by creating my own flow, figured out the right group of interviewers, and templatized my interviews and hiring decision approach. I also had to change things up quite a bit once the COVID pandemic happened. This resulted in creating more time for our candidates by better pacing through the various interview stages.

Learning as the default

Always be learning. Onboarding isn’t just a temporary phase for new team members; it’s something all team members must do to stay current in a broad domain and a rapidly changing tech landscape. As you improve your technology stack and build out new features, it’s important to ensure everyone is up to speed.

One of my teams has 9 people in it and a very large scope - they are responsible for providing the API layer for Netflix’s consumer experience. The scope of that API aggregation layer has increased rapidly over the past few years as Netflix’s product experience has evolved. This poses a unique challenge: how do engineers within the team onboard onto various parts of the stack when the surface area is so big? I need a flow that encourages training and learning on a continual basis and not just when an engineer is first hired. Admittedly, I haven’t figured this out yet, but recognizing the importance of continual onboarding is the first step to building a learning culture. ([https://peakon.com/blog/diversity-equity-and-inclusion/psychological-safety/])

Growing an individual’s impact

Growth brings challenges at every stage of someone's team tenure. Early on the challenge is the steep learning curve and broad context to ramp up on. Later the challenge shifts to staying innovative and engaged once you feel like you've learned every corner of the codebase. The next level of impact is having a multiplicative effect on others on your team or partners. This can be easier if you have a high growth business because the challenges you face today are usually exponentially harder than what you faced just a few years back. Take Netflix for instance - we’ve grown by 120M subscribers in just 5 years!

Regardless of your situation, growing people is important. You should work closely with each team member to figure out their own growth trajectory. Innovation is waiting to be discovered everywhere, from years-old code and system designs to greenfield projects. Effective leaders enable their ICs to uncover these opportunities and start digging into places where innovations might be hidden.

Lessons learned

Tips to help achieve true clarity:

  • Ensure there’s safety ([https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it]) for issues to be debated openly
  • Be intellectually curious, ask probing questions to drill deeper in your understanding of how things work, e.g. “what’s holding us back”?
  • Create margin ([https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/creating-margin-karen-casella/]) for yourself and ruthlessly prioritize your time. Do not try to do everything. Push back on your calendar commitments. Set aside “X days” ([https://fortune.com/2020/06/29/winning-now-winning-later-author-david-cote-on-his-secret-to-corporate-creativity/]) for free thinking.
  • Find additional tips here ([https://github.com/batmany13/about-me/tree/master/pursuit_of_impact#designing-your-team])

Tips to make a stunning hire:

  • View each interview as a piece to a puzzle. Don’t take any single high praise or low score without considering the overall context.
  • Source with intention. Based on your findings in your design phase, determine the right set of skills, both technical and non-technical, that you need for your team
  • Have a set process, ensure everyone goes through it, and address areas of bias such as people with more free time to do longer or more complicated tech screens
  • Find additional tips here ([https://github.com/batmany13/about-me/tree/master/pursuit_of_impact#hiring-stunning-colleagues])

Tips to create a learning environment:

  • Again, create margin ([https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/creating-margin-karen-casella/]) for your team to learn and grow. Ensure your roadmap gives sufficient time for learning initiatives. You must prioritize this equally to product requests and infra changes.
  • Pair program! Using something like Tuple ([https://tuple.app/]) can make it easy for your developers to learn and grow together.
  • Normalize trying new things. Make sure you experiment with new techniques for your teams to learn. Make failures a learning opportunity so your next initiative will improve.
  • Find additional tips here ([https://github.com/batmany13/about-me/blob/master/pursuit_of_impact/README.md#creating-a-learning-environment])

Tips to grow individuals

  • Learn the strengths and areas of improvement for each individual member. Find projects to draw on those strengths and or allow them to stretch and grow
  • Diversity of thought ([https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/why-diversity-matters]) is critical to increasing impact. Ensure all voices are heard. Impact could come from a variety of sources and it doesn’t always have to be Big Bang projects.
  • Build a feedback culture by asking for feedback! ([https://www.strategy-business.com/article/Using-Neuroscience-to-Make-Feedback-Work-and-Feel-Better])
  • Find additional tips here ([https://github.com/batmany13/about-me/tree/master/pursuit_of_impact#growing-individuals])

Finally Flexibility is a virtue!

Each phase you execute on will inform your other phases and strength will build upon strength, learning upon learning. For example, if a new hire’s additive skill unlocks a new team capability then you might redesign your team accordingly. Or a team member stepping up and growing in a role might lead you to change your hiring strategy. Or you discover a new way to organize the team and now you can focus on hiring and growing technical specialties.

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