GitPrime elevates engineering leadership with objective data. In this interview series, Engineering Leaders talk about how to build high performing teams.
If creating a magnetic culture was as easy as having themed conference rooms, providing snacks, or hanging values on the wall, ‘culture’ would be a simple equation to solve.
Take Netflix. Their culture deck is widely renowned. You can book your meeting in ‘The Matrix’ or ‘Dr Strangelove’ conference room. And if you need some noise-canceling headphones, just swipe your ID on one of their ‘tech vending machines’ and they’re yours at no cost.
It’s attractive, to say the least. But the physical reminders of Netflix’s ‘way’ are just that: reminders. These artifacts aren’t the driving force behind their highly engaged, high-performing employees—they’re byproducts of shared values, behaviors, and habits.
Even at Netflix, culture requires proactive attention at all levels.
That’s why we turned to Nathan Towery, Director of Product Data Engineering & Analytics at Netflix, to learn about what shaping culture looks like in practice — at a team level.
While Towery migrated from engineer to director at Netflix, he discovered a passion for building teams, rallying them around a vision, and helping do their best work. In doing so, he learned about what shaping a work environment really looks like, from one of the most profound company cultures in the world.
In this interview, Towery breaks down the key goals of leadership and illustrates how culture is the thread that weaves it all together.
Hiring beyond skill
“I’m not responsible for delivering amazing code,” Towery says. “I am responsible for building an amazing team that is delivering amazing code.”
But, you don’t hire a whole team at once. You’re still hiring a bunch of individuals and assembling a team out of them. “That’s why I hire for aptitude and attitude first,” Towery says. “I view a technical skill set as necessary, but not sufficient.”
Of course, at any company, new hires need to be at least at an adequate technical level in order to contribute. But the reality, Towery says, is that technology changes rapidly. So while many companies will rule out a candidate because they didn’t know some nitty-gritty detail, Towery recognizes that this does not provide an accurate determination of a person’s ability. And it can even be stifling in the long-term.
“We don’t hire for the ability to memorize little pieces of trivia: you can Google it, you can ask somebody, you can figure it out.” he says. “What I mean when I saw we hire for attitude, as cliché as it may sound, is that we’re hiring for character.”
“I’m really looking for that person who has that drive, that tenacity, that character, who’s super smart, super hungry.”
“Attitude” and “character” sound like great traits to hire for, until you realize how nebulous the terms can be. So we asked Towery what he means by them.
“You’re looking for somebody who is passionate about the business,” he explains. “You’re looking for somebody who embodies the company values. You’re looking, I think, for somebody who had tenacity, who has grit, who has selflessness, who is willing to put the team and the business first over and above their own personal ambitions.”
These aren’t necessarily quantifiable attributes, but it’s a leader’s role to take an honest, human read of any potential employee. Netflix’s famous Culture Deck (since streamlined into a single document) states clearly and explicitly what it expects from employees, and what employees can expect from Netflix. That thorough, collaborative, and honest culture statement gives Towery a concrete foundation for evaluating potential hires. And, importantly, it strengthens his ability to take a chance on engineers’ hearts over their experience.
“If it’s coming down to someone who is a little more junior in their career but has a higher ceiling, and somebody who is mid-career but maxed out, I’ll go with the person who has less experience every time,” he says. “We have a team — a company — of high-performers. And while experience is a good indicator of performance, a curious and driven individual is of much higher value in the long-term.”
The skill set, though, is still a necessary element in building a high-performing team. Particularly if your company is scaling, you’ll see the need for increased specialization. In those early days, Towery acknowledges, you can hire a jack-of-all-trades. That’s fine, he says, when you’re operating with 24-hour SLAs and small data volumes.
But when a company grows, you begin to need people with specialized skills. “And within those skill sets, you begin to look for people with different backgrounds and strengths,” Towery says. “All of that will depend on your company values, what your team needs, and where you’re headed. As leadership, it’s our job to build teams with a balance of solid skill sets and the ability to evolve.”
Open the tap on context
“I’m not the smartest person in the room. And I don’t make all the decisions.” Towery says. “But it is my job to make sure that my team has the necessary context they need to do their best work.”
Part of your job as a manager is to know what information different people need, in their different positions, to effectively do their job. But it’s also important to not distract the team with too much information. To find the balance, it really comes down to communicating the “why.”
“It’s about making sure your team understands the why behind what they’re doing.”
Helping people understand the “why” behind their work decentralizes decision making and provides a motivational force for good work. We know that our team members will be working with some level of ambiguity (we hope that they are — when individuals have wiggle room for creativity, they often end up surprising us). With an understanding of why, they can navigate through the challenge with autonomy.
Whether it’s through 1:1s, all-hands, or emails, emphasizing the “why” is a perfect example of doing more with less.
“My philosophy and my perspective is this: if I have an amazing engineer on my team who is deep technically, who is collaborating regularly with relevant business partners, my role is to make sure that engineer has the necessary context and the access to the appropriate people or tools,” Towery says. “And then I’m knocking down any problems that may be in his or her way.”
It’s important here to remember that the impact of what you say is different than the impact of what you do. Cultures are formed more by action than word. So while it’s important to communicate the why, and to communicate company values, it’s even more important to embody them.
Tying it all together, Netflix-style
“Companies will often have the technical people, the business people, and then the middlemen,” he says. “Netflix has made the decision to instead hire well-rounded senior engineers who are willing and able to communicate with external stakeholders.
“We made that fundamental bet. And the reality is, we pay for them. But we have found that it allows us to cut out the middleman.”
“We’ve made a decision, as a company, to hire people that thrive with an enormous amount of freedom and latitude.”
This conscious cultural approach has allowed Netflix to iterate and innovate much more rapidly. Towery thinks of it this way: on a factory floor, a rockstar is maybe 10% better than everyone else. But in an engineering or other creative discipline, a rockstar might be 10 times better than everybody else. That’s true in coding, sure, but also in improving the flow between engineering and business disciplines.
While Towery points out these three keys of an effective leader – hiring quality employees, moving the right people to the right places, and embodying the company’s values – they really come together as facets of a single company culture with the ultimate goal of allowing your engineers to do outstanding work.
“We’ve made a decision, as a company, to hire people and then give them an enormous amount of freedom and latitude,” Towery says. “In order for that to be successful, one of the key ingredients is those engineers on your team need the relevant business product context, et cetera, to make great decisions.”
At the end of the day, your company’s culture can be used as the north star that guides your decision making. It should help you move the right people to the right places. It should help you your team understand what the purpose of your jobs are, why and how you do those jobs, and how to know whether you’re succeeding.