What It Was Like to Work At Netflix
I thought I would share my experience working at Netflix, since people often ask me what it was like, and there are also a lot of misconceptions about it.
While it wasn’t perfect, joining Netflix was easily one of the best decisions I ever made.
I don’t believe in “dream jobs” (to me, it’s an oxymoron), but there were times that it felt like one.
Of course, each person who worked there will have a different experience based on their role, etc. but I was there long enough to get a pretty deep view of the culture.
I worked at Netflix for 8 years (2012 to 2020) in Los Gatos (in Silicon Valley), where the product organization (engineering & design) is located. The content side of the company is in Los Angeles.
At first, I was a user interface (UI) engineer working on the web app. Then I joined the TV UI design team as an interface prototyper.
My final role was on the interactive design team, the group that makes interactive shows like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
Being on the UI side meant I worked with people from a lot of different areas: product managers, designers, data scientists, consumer researchers, writers, translators, content managers, and show producers.
I also joined the company just as it began making original shows. I worked on a variety of projects for House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Arrested Development, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Stranger Things, Battle Kitty, Cat Burglar, and others.
After 8 years, I just had a gut feeling that I was ready to move on, even if I didn’t know what the next thing would be.
This was also during the pandemic, when it was common for people to re-prioritize things in their life.
Nearly everyone I worked with was really good at what they did, but they were equally pretty humble about their backgrounds.
I never heard anyone at Netflix imply that they are part of some exclusive group of people that consist of “The Very Best.”
Instead, Netflix has a philosophy of hiring people who have a lot of experience, show good judgement, are curious about areas outside their expertise, and are interested in how the company works as a whole.
That said, a lot of people want to work there these days, so it’s probably pretty hard to get hired there.
I don’t have a college degree, and am self-taught when it comes to programming and design.
Others didn’t have a degree either. (See this article.)
What I did have was about 10 years of experience, and my portfolio included a couple of apps that I created, which showed that I had experience making a variety of consumer-facing decisions.
This helped a lot because I had a good understanding of what my project partners (designers, analysts, etc.) were trying to accomplish, and I genuinely wanted to help them.
There were some people there with super impressive credentials, but those things never came up in conversation. We all worked together as experts in our own roles.
Not at all.
I would say the majority of my co-workers were in their 30's and 40's and many of them had families.
Co-workers would frequently leave early or take time off for family reasons, and no one ever thought twice about it.
Netflix was extremely generous. My starting salary was double what I had made at my previous job.
Every year, my salary was upgraded way beyond the typical 5% you get at other companies, and I never had to negotiate.
I never once felt like I was underpayed or unappreciated, which is a rare thing in the corporate world.
It was intense, but I wouldn’t call it “cut throat”.
In fact, with few exceptions, everyone I worked with was super nice.
Your success there depends a lot on how well you work with other people, so there was little incentive to engage in politics.
When you had a conflict with someone, the culture emphasizes working it out like adults, which certainly isn’t easy or comfortable, but was much healthier than typical office politics.
During my first year or two, I did feel quite a bit of imposter syndrome. But this was all in my head, and not from anything that anyone said to me.
I've read that the turnover rate at Netflix is actually on par with the industry average.
However, they were pretty decisive when it came to letting people go, even if they’ve been with the company for a long time.
It’s not a place where you can coast.
In some cases, they let go of top performers who caused personal conflict with a lot of other people. Being a “talented jerk” was not tolerated for very long.
Of course, it was a bit of surprise whenever someone was let go, but in retrospect, I usually understood the reasons behind it.
They also give generous severance packages at least, and everyone seemed to get good jobs elsewhere.
Not at all.
Once a year, they do something called “360 feedback”, which is an internal way of giving non-anonymous constructive feedback to the people you worked with.
This isn’t tied to raises, since salaries are all based on the top of the current market.
Terminations are tied to individual performance, not some bell curve or quota.
On my typical day (pre-pandemic) I would get into the office at noon (for the free lunch) and I'd leave around 7pm.
If I was approaching a deadline, I would work more hours to make sure I delivered.
The office was usually empty by the time I left. Most people would come in, work a normal 9 to 5, and then leave.
I almost never worked on the weekend, and there was zero pressure to work or answer email outside of normal hours.
I did travel 3 or 4 times a year for a consumer research trip, but that was my favorite part of the job anyway.
While the hours weren’t long, I found each day to have a focused intensity from beginning to end. Aside from the occasional fun distraction, there was rarely ever time to sit and play Minesweeper or anything like that.
Of course, things are probably different now, with remote work being more common.
I don’t know what the current policy is. It probably depends on the role.
During the pandemic we were 100% remote.
Pre-pandemic, they allowed a lot of flexibility to work from home, but it was still important to come to the office on most days.
In fact, there was a lot of cultural pressure to take plenty of vacation.
My first couple of years there, I would only take some time off to visit family in the midwest, but I admittedly got a bit jealous of my co-workers who were going to places like Japan, South Africa, and Costa Rica.
That’s when I started traveling solo abroad. After that, I probably took 6 weeks of vacation per year.
Project schedules would be adjusted based on people’s schedule, and it was no big deal.
If someone left for a few months (up to a year) on maternity leave, they would usually hire someone as a backfill.
No, but there is a good reason for that.
First, they are already super generous with compensation, so the $200 a year is not a big deal.
More importantly, it means that all Netflix employees have the same experience as normal users, when it comes to sign up and billing.
This is a way of “eating our own dog food,” so if some part of the experience is confusing or broken, we will find it sooner.
Netflix is a super focused company, so not officially.
Within the culture of Freedom & Responsibility, you can work on a side project, but you should have a pretty good reason for it.
There was a dedicated “Hack Day” two or three times a year, and some employees did come up with side projects that grew into real things.
I personally got to work on April Fools projects and various easter eggs, but I just kind of weaseled my way into those early on, and it was always understood that my main projects had priority.
Nearly every single change in the service goes through the same process:
- A product manager comes up with an idea for a feature or a problem that needs to be solved.
- Designers explore many different approaches to that feature.
- Prototypers create functional mockups of some of these ideas.
- Consumer Researchers put these mockups in front of real customers in person, and listen to their feedback.
- The project team discusses and debates what was learned, and pick some of the variations to test within the product.
- Each of these variations (“test cells”) are rolled out to millions of users over a period of three months or more.
- Data scientists track a lot of different engagement metrics to see which cells are performing well.
- The cell (or combination of cells) that has the best engagement will be rolled out to the entire service.
- If none of the cells are better than what is currently there, no change will be made!
This process could take a few weeks to a year.
The nice thing about this approach is that a lot of people from different disciplines are involved in the process, it requires feedback from real users, and the criteria for picking a winning cell is largely objective.
This means that there is very little politics compared to what you have in other companies. For example, an executive can’t just step in and dictate an arbitrary change based on some article they just read.
Features are chosen based on their proven ability to make a positive impact, versus things that will advance an individual’s career.
Check out this presentation if you want to learn more about the process in detail.
(Netflix has a famous Culture Memo that describes the ideals and principles that set it apart from other companies.)
Yes, I would say the company is consistently good at following it.
Most other companies trot out a new set of motivational phrases every couple of years and then go back to business as usual.
I also found it was a good guide for making decisions while I was there.
A handful of times. Mostly I was in the vicinity of various showrunners.
When Daredevil season 2 launched, I met Charlie Cox and gave him my Pee Wee Herman friendship bracelet, which he proudly wore. So yes, that makes Daredevil my BFF.
And when I worked on the interactive team, I got to sip champagne with the creators of Black Mirror.
I also got to see the cast of Arrested Development and stand on the famous Bluth stair car.
Sadly, I missed an opportunity to get my photo taken with Bob Odenkirk.
(Disclaimer: I worked on the product side, not on the content side where those decisions are made. However, it was very transparent about these things internally.)
This is kind of a complicated topic, but the short answer is that they don’t want to cancel any show.
Each time they create a show, they want it to be a wild success.
However, users “vote” with their viewing time, and there is simply a tipping point where it would lose money to keep creating seasons of a show.
There’s no algorithm. It’s just simple math. The more expensive a show is, the more people need to watch it in order for it to be sustainable.
(One of our cultural values is “Spend our members’ money wisely.”)
However, based on my experience working with some of the people on the content side, I'm sure that they know that this is a common frustration, and are thinking of ways to do better.
(Netflix used to have star ratings instead of thumbs up/down. Her first special on the service received a lot of 1-star ratings.)
I actually worked on the first A/B test to explore different rating systems. That was a couple of years before the release of her first comedy special on the service.
Netflix wouldn’t make a sweeping, expensive change based on one relatively small piece of content.
In reality, the underlying systems didn’t really change much. It’s just that Thumbs provided a much clearer user interface.
To read more about that change, see this blog post.
Yes, with the caveat that you read the Culture Memo and decide that it would be right for you.
It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty great.
Netflix doesn’t give out referral bonuses. If you refer someone, it’s only because you want to work with that person.
And I don’t work there anymore, anyway.
- Read the Culture Memo and really think about whether it suits you. It’s not for everyone.
- If you want extra background, read the book No Rules Rules.
- Have a lot of experience in your field, and a genuine curiosity about adjacent fields.
I'm a shareholder in Netflix, so I'm somewhat motivated to encourage talented people to work there. =)
Everything I've talked about is true from my experience, or publicly verifiable at the links I've provided.
I was employed there under my real name, not my online pseudonym.