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Netflix doesn’t hire the best engineers. It creates them.

Jan 9, 2020 by Kate MacAleavey

Netflix doesn’t hire the best engineers. It’s a commonly held misconception that engineering executives at the Fortune 500 use to deflect responsibility about their inability to innovate faster.

“Netflix can do this because they hire the best engineers”

Over the last 3 years, we’ve worked closely with many engineers at Netflix, Google, and Amazon. They do this by fostering an environment that requires: rapid learning, high tolerance to ambiguity, openness to failure, and finally intrinsic motivation.

I’ve known ex-Netflix engineers and engineers who went to work at Netflix. We can tell you they’re no different than the engineers sitting to the right and left of you.
The laziest engineer we know is an ex-Netflix engineer. We don’t mean that in a positive sense. Engineers sometimes take “lazy” to mean coming up with intelligent short-cuts. At Netflix he was not a lazy engineer, he worked on critical infrastructure and when we asked around he was well regarded. So what happened? He undoubtedly was the same guy with the same skills. What happened was that his environment changed, he was no longer in an organization that required his best and he adapted to that environment.  You don’t rise to the level of your potential. You fall to the expectations of your environment. This underscores the critical importance of company culture and its values.  It’s no surprise that the FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) companies are eating everybody else’s market share. They have the right culture that empowers the individual to grow and learn as markets adapt and emerge.  Their cultures are based on autonomy and trust. Their engineers and product managers have the autonomy to make decisions because they know the people at the edges are the ones who have the most information.

Learning Organizations

The basis of these FAANG organizations is hiring and firing engineers with a growth mindset.  A Growth Mindset is the belief that we are in control of our skills. That they are things that can be developed and improved. That we have the capacity to learn and grow. Skills are built. No matter where you are, you can keep growing.

This is as opposed to a fixed mindset. The belief that our skills and intellect are set, that we have what we have, and that we cannot change them. That we don’t really have the capacity to change and learn. Skills and talent are born.

Netflix creates the best engineers by creating an environment that leads to rapid learning.

Growth is rewarded even over past performance. Past performance indicates that you’ll be good at that one thing but what happens when the business changes? What happens when the market changes? How do you adapt? These changes are happening all the time. And Netflix knows, it’s better to be flexible than rigid. At the foundation of a learning organization is the belief in having a growth mindset over a fixed mindset. To celebrate learnings over success.

How to start creating a learning organization

When speaking to engineer leaders we bring up the story about the Netflix engineer above. We do this to emphasize the importance of the environment they are creating. “Creating,” being the operative word here. Environments don’t just happen, they are created through action. When leaders think about culture change they often think about big overhauling initiatives, they think about the leaders above them, the systems in place and what is happening to them. Rarely do they stop to ask themselves these questions:

  • What are my values?
  • What am I doing to encourage the behavior around me?
  • How am I contributing to the current environment?
  • How do I get people to grow and & change faster?
  • Do I need to change?

Nothing changes until you do”- Mike Robbins

We encourage leaders to start with their behavior. Culture change, of course, doesn’t happen overnight but it happens with hundreds of small intentional behavior changes. When you begin to change your approach you will very quickly start to see how people respond differently.

Behavioral underpinnings to creating a learning organization:

  • Creating psychological Safety
  • Become a coach
  • Get comfortable with uncertainty
  • Let go of control

One day, you too can say “My company creates the best engineers.”

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