What Fascinates Chris Saint-Amant, Director of UI Engineering at Netflix?

Pondering Netflix company culture, working styles in Boston versus Seattle and the best reason to start a Nirvana tribute band.

What Fascinates Chris Saint-Amant, Director of UI Engineering at Netflix?

In this episode, Bobby talks with Chris Saint-Amant, who leads one of the UI Engineering Teams at Netflix. They dug into Netflix’s tremendous influence on company culture (Google “Netflix culture deck” for more details) and compared how culture was encoded at some of the startups Chris worked at, as well as at megabrands like Disney and his present employer.

It’s also worth mentioning that Chris, like a lot of successful people, did not have a cookie-cutter approach to his career. It was far more fascinating than most. As a special easter egg, see if you can spot the Netflix show poster behind the pic of Chris and me. Stick around until the end, and find out what instrument he played on his Nirvana cover band.


Bobby: I'm very excited to be recording this episode here at Netflix. Without further ado, I'll let my guest introduce himself.

Chris: Hi, I'm Chris Saint-Amant and I lead one of the UI engineering teams at Netflix. It's a frontend development team focused on customer growth payments, new member onboarding and account management.

Bobby: Terrific, Chris. You've been really generous with your time with me in the past with trading notes on growing engineering teams and best practices, and I've always enjoyed your counsel and kind of your advice on things. So I thought my broader audience would kind of enjoy the same before we dive into those specifics. I thought it would be super useful if you could take a couple of minutes to maybe give us a little bit of a backstory of how you came to be here at Netflix.

Chris: Well, if we go all the way back, it started when I was a teenager in the ‘90s playing in a Nirvana cover band and was always really into music, really into kind of art and design. And this newfangled thing called the worldwide web had just come along and you weren't really anyone if you didn't have a website.

So I took it upon myself to try to create a website for my band. Pretty sure I ended up putting it up on Tripod, for those who remember that way back in the day, and started learning and teaching myself very basic HTML and JavaScript. CSS was not a thing at the time and had to figure out a lot on my own, but eventually got a website up and running. So that's where it all initially began. There's a long period in between, between getting from there to where I am now, but it ended up being lots of people taking chances on me along the way.

Bobby: Okay. So that's definitely the most original and way more rich than I'd expect it. That's fantastic. But, you know, being that high school kid, being a musician? Was that kind of your dream at the time?

Chris: I wasn’t sure. I mean, I think every kid that’s in a band thinks that someday you're going to make it big, but I don't think I had those aspirations as such. I actually ended up thinking I wanted to go more into graphic design.

I had also gone to a vocational school in my freshman year, and you try a bunch of different shops. You do carpentry, auto body, plumbing, all the traditional trades. And one of their shops was graphic design and they had Photoshop three on their computers and a bunch of printing equipment. And so that's the shop I ended up choosing.

I left that school after a year for a number of different reasons, but that experience in graphic design really stuck with me. And so I thought I ultimately wanted to go into some sort of design whether that was graphic design and the print world, or some sort of interactive or web design, which again was still very much in its infancy in those days. Interactive design really at that point meant CD-ROM kind of development, those types of things.

So that's what I initially thought I wanted to do. And in the very early days of my career, I ended up getting an internship at a consulting firm right out of high school. And I ended up doing a little bit of both. I was in a role that was at the time called an information architect. So kind of doing site models and wireframes and content strategy, and also some front end development.

So I did a little bit of both, quickly realized that I was much better at the engineering work than the design work, and ended up going really deep down the technology stack because in a small company, everyone has to do a little bit of everything. And especially in a consulting role where you're doing what you need to do for a variety of different customers.

So I got to play a lot of different types of roles and eventually realized that my passion really was that front end customer experience and that I could blend my passion for both design and engineering by staying in kind of UI focused roles where I could kind of straddle that line between those two worlds.

Bobby: You've had a lot of interesting stops along the way. It would be useful to maybe touch on a few of them that you felt had more of a meaningful guidance to getting you to this point, because I'm sure there is a fun backstory there.

Chris: Yeah. So I think that that consulting firm that I was at for, ended up being about eight years total that I was there and I started right kind of in, during the dot com boom. The company went from about 20 or 30 people up to about 120 and then back down to 10. When the kind of the bust happened, I guess, around 2001, and I think they kept me around because I was cheap and versatile. But what I think was really formative for me there, and what really influenced me was that idea of, you have to jump in and figure things out.

And there's no job that's too small for anyone on the team. And you kind of figure out as much as you can along the way. And so I was able to learn a lot just through the sheer diversity of projects that we worked on. So we were doing everything from corporate websites to internal business applications, to full usability and design engagements where we didn't do any engineering work, to other projects where we were doing all the engineering work and nothing else.

So you get a random, really run the whole gamut. And you know, when you're a company that's that size and you're trying to stay afloat, you kind of go after a lot of different things and do what you need to do to stay alive. So that was, that was really formative. What was also really interesting about that time was, because you're working with so many different types of customers and different types of clients, I got exposed to a wide range of company cultures and environments. So I'd be at times embedded with different types of teams that had very different ways of working and it was my first exposure to much larger organizations. Even after that consulting firm, most of the companies that I worked at were a much smaller, under a hundred people, but being in a consulting role, you get exposure to much larger scale organizations and how they work.

Bobby: Are any of the customers of that consulting organization, companies that people would know?

Chris: Yeah, one really interesting one was a subsidiary of GE Healthcare, where we were working on radiology software, to both kind of manage an entire radiology department, as well as some of the tools that the radiologists were using to read scans and x-rays.

Bobby: Terrific. And so how does that transition happen from that consulting company to getting to Blue Nile?

Chris: That was actually a big, big jump for me. I'd gone to a mobile consultant firm after I was going to my second big job. And that ended up moving me from Boston to Seattle. And I found this opportunity and it was a really interesting role because it was kind of a frontend software architect. And usually when you think of software architect roles, they're not that specialized, it's much more generalized.

And so it’s an opportunity to have a big influence over kind of the front end architecture for a large e-commerce site. But the big inflection point, as you touched on, was moving from consulting to more of a product development focus. And I was a bit anxious about that to be candid. I had really liked the variety and diversity of work I was able to do in a consulting role.

And so I was skeptical that moving into a product focused role on a single product that I would be as challenged and as stimulated. And so I talked to a bunch of my peers. I talked to people that I knew that had worked in different types of companies to understand what the pros and cons of that would be and decided to take the leap.

And it was one of the best moves for me. I really enjoyed it, and what moving to kind of that more of a product focus role, it gives you more of that long-term ownership, that long-term visibility. I remember countless times and consulting roles, there'll be allways, oh, well, we're going to cut the scope on that. And we'll put that into a phase two and phase two never happens and you're, that's really out of your control cause you're not really the one in charge of planning or resourcing. Whereas when it's your product, you can have a much bigger influence over that and pick a much longer view over how a product, a platform and the technology evolves.

Bobby: So in addition to this shift in the career, moving from Boston to Seattle, I mean, those are two very different kinds of ecosystems, technical ecosystems, I would say. When you made that shift, what were the differences that you noticed between living in Boston and the tech scene there versus the tech scene in Seattle?

Chris: A lot more casual dress in Seattle. I think for those who've been to Seattle, I think it's not uncommon to see people out on a Friday night, you know, dressed like they're about to go hiking. And so coming from a consulting world where I was used to, if I was going to go onsite to a client, you'd be wearing slacks and a nice shirt to being able to be much more casual, but that's of course a pretty surface level thing.

Bobby: But it is indicative of that deeper cultural difference, I think, the more casual nature. I don't know if Nirvana would've started in Boston.

Chris: There’s a lot of good Boston bands. We won't go too far, but maybe not that particular one, there is something about the gloom of the gray of the Pacific Northwest that might've bred that. I think what I really noticed was the impact that a very large base of, kind of Microsoft people and talent that influenced the broader ecosystem there.

This was before Amazon had really become the behemoth that it is now. So now I think when people go to Seattle, it's all about Amazon and the imprint, but at the time it was still Microsoft having a pretty large imprint on the scene there. it also helped that it didn't necessarily hurt that I was working for a startup that was very closely aligned with Microsoft and the technologies there.

But generally that was something that I felt that permeated the culture there. Whereas in Boston, at least in some of the companies and the people that I knew, there wasn't that like one singular company that influenced, had an outsize influence over the environment, at least in that area era, when it came to kind of online technology, like if you go back many years there's like digital equipment. And even, you know, more hardware companies and defense contractors like Raytheon and those types of things, but specifically in kind of the internet realm, there wasn't that single big company that had an outsized pull that was always gobbling up talent or where everyone was kind of an ex-whoever, ex-Microsoft, or ex-whatever.

Bobby: I guess the Lotus era had passed. Do you even remember who the smaller feeders of alumni would have been in the Boston area in that year that you were there?

Chris: Certainly when I was, since I was in the consulting world, it was companies like Razorfish, like Molecular. I'm trying to think of some of the other big consulting firms. There's a lot of like, you know, just a lot of big consulting firms that, that was kind of the realm that I was in.

Bobby: Actually, I should just let you for folks who don't know, I think a lot of people do, but just briefly what Blue Nile does.

Chris: So Blue Nile is an e-commerce company that focuses on diamonds and high-end jewelry. The majority of their business is engagement rings, and they've taken an industry that has an extremely high markup and been able to be successful by genuinely reducing that markup and having a very large inventory of diamonds, which the diamond marketing industry would like you to think that the only way to do that is to see it in person and choose it. But in fact, it's a very quantifiable commodity with very concrete attributes of each of those diamonds. And so, so they had an interesting approach to kind of scaling out that business and providing a large pool of diamonds and jewelry that was significantly less costly than you would get in many of the big box stores. And because they didn't have to hold as much inventory distributed across hundreds of stores, they were able to be a lot more competitive.

Bobby: Even as you sit here today and talk about this company, you know, it's 2019, and I think about Blue Nile, even now, it still staggers my mind that people actually make that kind of purchase online but they do.

Chris: You get a FedEx box with a $15,000 ring in hand.

Bobby: Yeah. I mean, you know, I think at one time, you know, people were concerned that Zappos would never make it because who the hell would buy shoes without trying them on? Of course there had been a bit of a precedent with mail order catalogs selling lots of shoes. So there was some precedent, but I don't think Blue Nile, I don't think there were mail order catalogs for diamond rings in that era. In any of your consulting projects before you arrived at Blue Nile, had you done any e-commerce work?

Chris: A little bit here and there, but nothing at that volume no.

Bobby: Yeah. Got it. So you move to Seattle, you start working at Blue Nile. What do they have you work on when you get there?

Chris: They said our most important feature on the website, diamond search, is slower than we'd like. Have at it, make it better, make it faster. So, did a lot of kind of tweaking and tugging and pulling here and there to make that experience much faster and snappy, basically a UI with a bunch of different sliders and controls to filter an inventory that ranged anywhere from a hundred to 300,000. And they wanted that to feel, you know, real-time and snappy. And, so that was a, that was a fun challenge. And, but to us eventually rebuilding the entire thing from scratch, that was a really fun project.

Bobby: So you started on the backend team then?

Chris: Nope, just on the UI. So just working on the, on the front end customer experience, and that also then led into a lot of work on their mobile platforms. So I had come from a mobile startup and they, at the time, didn't have much of a mobile web or even mobile app presence. And so also built out their initial iOS app and their initial kind of mobile website.

Bobby: Do you remember how long after they launched the iOS version of the app that they launched? The, you know, the one in the Google Play Store, the Android version?

Chris: I don't remember. I think it was actually after I left.

Bobby: Oh, interesting. Okay. So talk to us a little bit about the, the journey of, you know, broadly speaking, going from Blue Nile then to, I believe you worked at Disney for some time.

Chris: Yeah. So Collin had left Blue Nile and gone over to Disney and then called me about six months after he made that transition and said, hey, this was still in Seattle.

And a lot of people wonder how, what presence Disney has in Seattle. My understanding is that there was a Paul Allen company back in the late nineties called Star Wave, that Disney acquired because they also were saying, Hey, we need to get into this whole web thing and internet thing. And so they acquired this Paul Allen company that was based in Seattle.

And so when I started at the time, they had about 500 people based in Seattle that were working on a lot of core technology that was used by central Disney properties. ESPN, ABC News, et cetera. And the team that I joined was Disney parks and resorts. So Disneyland, Disney World, Disney cruise line, those types of things.

And they had historically been based in LA and Orlando for obvious reasons. And they were kind of tapped out on the talent pool there and said, where else can we hire? Disney has an office in Seattle, let's start building a team there. So when I joined, there was only about five or 10 of us focused on parks and resorts. And by the time I left, which was only 20 months later, that team was about 80 to a hundred.

Bobby: So many years ago, I remember going into the CIO's office of Disney in LA, like in the Burbank area. And I remember that one of the things he showed me that was very cool, and it was just off his computer, was he had down to the person exactly the number of visitor counts that were going into all the parks. He could tell, you know, like if it was an up day or a down day for Disneyland or California Adventure or the parks in Orlando so forth. Did you ever work on any of that?

Chris: One of the projects I worked on was the Disneyland mobile sites. And also trying to look at mobile ticketing for Disneyland as well. So you could buy a ticket and just pull it up your phone.

Bobby: Do I have you to thank for FastPass?

Chris: Sadly no. I've got lots of fun tips and tricks for how to take advantage of that. You can but no.

Bobby: When I went there with my kids, it was a big game of ours to figure out how to hack the system because apparently there's multiple FastPass nodes and they're not all connected. So if you understand how that all works, you can get on many rides.

Chris: And if you understand the timing of like when you can get your next FastPass, you can send one person from your group halfway across the park to run off to a different machine, take all your tickets, get everyone else's FastPasses.

Bobby: Exactly. Yeah, this is reminding me that, that a Disney World trip is long overdue for me, especially now that the Star Wars stuff is coming online. I think later this year, I have to go back. Very important question that everyone wants to know. What is your favorite ride in Disneyland or Disney World?

Chris: Space Mountain. Hands down, Space Mountain in Disneyland. I was not as much of a fan when I went to the Disney World one, they're a little different, they're a little, they’re a little unique, but for me, the Disneyland one wins.

Bobby: That's terrific. So that Disney work experience was all up in Seattle.

Chris: Yes, but I was, I eventually, I was by the nature of the small team that they were initially building out. All of us were just extensions of other teams that existed already in LA or Orlando. So we spent a lot of time traveling between those three locations. And eventually when I moved into management there, the team that I was leading was also split between those three locations. So I had a couple of engineers in each of Seattle, LA and Orlando.

Bobby: And then you got to Netflix. Netflix was your stop after Disney or?

Chris: Yes.

Bobby: And was that I assume it was always here.

Chris: Yes. Correct. Always in the Bay area.

Bobby: How did that come to, come to be that move?

Chris: It's interesting. The seeds of that for me were planted actually, when I was at Blue Nile still. The Netflix, I guess, infamous or famous culture deck had come out and the CEO of Blue Nile at the time sent it around to a number of us and said, this is really interesting. And for her, what was really interesting was less the kind of radical ideas that were in it, but more the idea of trying to distill and capture a company's culture in that forum and really trying to distill down what's the essence of what makes us tick as a company culture.

And so then I became part of a core group at Blue Nile that tried to do the same thing. The intent was not to create something, to publish to the world, but to serve as a, as a guidepost or kind of as a guide for people internally and for new hires of, Hey, here's the culture, here's the values that are really important to us.

And again, getting beyond the, kind of just the words on the wall of like integrity and honesty, but truly what are the things that are the essence of our culture? And so I spent a lot of time studying the Netflix culture deck during that time and thinking a lot about company culture. So then fast forward a couple of years later, when someone from Netflix approached me, I couldn't wait to talk all about the Netflix culture.

And I think I probably drove them nuts. I spent a good chunk of my time interviewing here, just asking lots of different questions about, how does this work and how does this work and does it really work this way? And I'm really skeptical that you guys do this. How does this happen? And just peppering them with lots of questions about how the culture really played out day to day.

Bobby: And the Netflix culture deck, is definitely anyone, anytime anyone talks to someone at Netflix and doesn't work there, it's like a question that comes up near the top. What's interesting to me, is there, there are a lot of questions that I have, but I'll try and do these one at a time. So skepticism being on the outside and reading this deck and then meeting someone on the inside, what were you skeptical about?

Chris: About the culture. A lot of things, the context over control, which is a really central tenet of, as a leader avoiding kind of classic command and control, and instead sharing as much context and as much knowledge and information with your team as possible so that they can be informed and make decisions day-to-day themselves.

I had a hard time believing that that was truly how it worked, because what you're also getting to there is how much autonomy each individual has. And in, in many places that I'd seen, people didn't always have as much of that, that there were key leaders in key roles that really called the shots. And you had to figure out who to talk to and who to know and who to plant the right seeds with in order to get things done. And so I was understandably skeptical that, that I would be as empowered as I wanted to be in order to do what it was I thought was right for my team or right for the business.

Bobby: I can definitely see that. So when you, when the Netflix culture deck is making its public circles and you, you know, you're at Blue Nile, roughly how big was Blue Nile and people.

Chris: I mean, it was under 200 people and the technology team was probably under 50 people.

Bobby: Got it. And so this is an interesting question, just to sort of try and compare and contrast the cultures between Blue Nile, Netflix, which is very famous about its culture and Disney, which is also very famous about its culture and then fixed.

You know, Disney has a business line where they go to other companies, they charge companies for consulting on how to build a culture. And I mean, you can look it up. It's, it's pretty, it's pretty interesting. That's they're there. So they're very big on their culture and how that works, obviously. I mean, when you're, when you have, I believe the stat is still true today that in a physical location, in the U S. Disney is the world's largest, and like in one physical location, it's Disney World more than any.

Chris: It's like 150,000 people or something like that in a single location.

Bobby: I mean, Walmart, if you took the aggregate, obviously it's bigger, but yeah. So culture is important. I mean, you can't make that work without scale.

Chris: And that was really staggering for me, having never worked at a company that was larger than a hundred people to going to, I mean, Disney overall has many hundreds of thousands of people, but even the, the part of the business. Disney in and of itself is many different businesses. But the one business line that I was a part of in and of itself was also a couple hundred thousand people. And the technology function was a couple thousand people. So that was, that was a big shock for me. One through line. I think one thing that was common about all three of those places between Blue Nile and Disney and Netflix is really being customer obsessed and focused on. Everything we do measured up against what's right for the customer.

And that was what really drew me to each one of the big things, that drew me to each of those places. So Blue Nile was super focused on doing what's right for the customer because they knew that earning people's trust was incredibly important when you're making a purchase that large, where for many people, the first time you buy an engagement ring, that may actually be the single largest purchase you've ever made in your life. Right? Like, you know, you may have not bought a brand new car or you may have bought a beater car. You may not have bought a home yet. And now you're, you know, someone's telling you how, you know, if you want to get a good diamond, you might have to spend 10, 20, $30,000 on this ring. That is scary.

And then to do that online is even scarier. And so we focus a lot on doing right by our customers and building trust. And even come down to the customer service people, they weren't salespeople, even though part of their job was, and they weren't incentivized on commission. And so you'd have salespeople spend hours on the phone with, with customers. And that, that was completely acceptable because if that's what it took to build a strong reputation and build trust with our customers, we were willing to do it. We had an open email forum on the website. I don't know if this is still the case today where customers could submit feedback about anything and that email went to like a company wide DL where like every piece of customer feedback went directly to the entire company. And there'd be times where our CEO would set the example where she would see an email and she would take it on herself to reply directly to that email and help chase down whatever needs to be done.

And all of us were really encouraged to do that, where we, where we saw fit. And I think that that kind of customer focus, I think really permeated a lot of what we did and guided many of the decisions that we did. Then, if you go to Disney, it's very similar, especially in parks and resorts. Everything is about the guest.It's not even customer that were encouraged. Not even to use that word. They are a guest. And even, you know, even though my job was working on websites and mobile apps, my first week at Disney, they flew me down to Anaheim and I went through the same orientation that, whether you're selling tickets or working at the front gate at Disneyland, or whether you're managing one of the rides or whether you're on the legal team, whether you're in the technology team, everyone went through the same first orientation.

And all of us were really encouraged to do that, where we, where we saw fit. And I think that that kind of customer focus, I think really permeated a lot of what we did and guided many of the decisions that we did. Then, if you go to Disney, it's very similar, especially in parks and resorts. Everything is about the guest.It's not even customer that were encouraged. Not even to use that word. They are a guest. And even, you know, even though my job was working on websites and mobile apps, my first week at Disney, they flew me down to Anaheim and I went through the same orientation that, whether you're selling tickets or working at the front gate at Disneyland, or whether you're managing one of the rides or whether you're on the legal team, whether you're in the technology team, everyone went through the same first orientation.

It was a one day thing. So they fly you down and you stay in the Disneyland hotel. You spend the day backstage again, not behind the backstage, at the park. And you're learning kind of the history and the lineage of Disney, what led Walt Disney to create Disneyland, which was a distaste for many other theme parks and how dangerous and dirty they were.

They share all of these wonderful kind of rich stories and anecdotes that serve, one to demonstrate how important storytelling is to the company, and as a way to kind of teach you the core values. So, you know, when he first said he was going to open up Disneyland, somebody said to him something to the effect of, Why would you want to do that? Theme parks are dirty, disgusting, dangerous places. He goes, exactly. Mine isn't going to be like that.

Bobby: What's the term for the employees? Cast. So you were part of the cast.

Chris: Yep, exactly. You’re a cast member.

Bobby: So my outside view of what that must be like, I mean, is there, is there a black and white video of Walt talking about his vision or in that day are you shown footage...

Chris: Yeah, there's actually a whole bunch of different things. So there, there is footage. There's lots of quotes that they share, but a lot of it was other cast members coming up and sharing their own stories. And I thought that was extremely important. Their stories of either things that cast had done to support each other, things that cast had done in pursuit of a fantastic guest experience.

Chris: Yeah, there's actually a whole bunch of different things. So there, there is footage. There's lots of quotes that they share, but a lot of it was other cast members coming up and sharing their own stories. And I thought that was extremely important. Their stories of either things that cast had done to support each other, things that cast had done in pursuit of a fantastic guest experience.

And so you're, you're learning from these people that have been with Disney for, in many cases, decades, and have really infused and kind of really embodied the culture, kind of demonstrating that for you.

Bobby: When you were at Blue Nile, not to contrast, the onboarding experience, but it's a different sized company. You have different resources. But I often feel like people just assume, because you're not the size of Netflix or you're not the size of Disney, you can't do these things, but I'm not, I don't quite buy that. I mean, there's certain things you can't do, but I think there's a lot you could, but what, when you arrived at Seattle, what was the orientation for a new Blue Nile person?

Chris: There wasn't a whole lot of structure, but there were two things that they did that were important in your first couple of weeks and months. And one was to sit in on some of the customer service calls so you've got a sense of hearing from our customers and the other was, go to our distribution center to see what it takes to actually create, you know, an engagement ring overnight.

Because what you could do is you could pick your diamond online, pick the setting you wanted, and you could order that and have it to you in 48 hours. And what was actually happening behind the scenes is in many cases, that diamond was not in our inventory. It was in our virtual inventory. So it would get dropped, shipped from a diamond distributor in New York City to Seattle, to the distribution center, it would arrive, it would get set in a setting and then it would get sent right back out the same day to the customer.

And so, you know, within 48 to 72 hours, you'd have a custom piece of jewelry. And so seeing behind the scenes of what it took to actually make that happen. So I think those two things were formative in understanding core elements of, of the business and the culture.

Bobby: Got it. And then when you got to Netflix, was there on the spectrum of Blue Nile to Disney? I mean, where, where was Netflix in terms of how it was structured?

Chris: Much closer to Blue Nile in terms of the onboarding, a much more tailored individually of sitting down with my boss and figuring out what I needed to do to be successful here in the first couple of days and weeks. There was some amount of a new hire orientation, a new employee college. That's a one day event where you're talking a lot more about the culture and you're, you have the heads of all the different parts of the organization talking about their roles and their disciplines and the strategies. But for me, that didn't happen until I was nine or 10 months in, just various scheduling challenges.

So at that point, you know, nine or 10 months in Netflix time is, at times feels like two or three years with how quickly things move here. I think we've gotten a lot better over the years, but at least, you know, six years ago, for me, that was, that was the experience.

Bobby: All organizations kind of adapt to what's important at the, at the time. So maybe using that as a canvas, this journey, maybe you could talk a little bit about how you went from being individual contributor to being a manager and now a manager of managers.

Chris: Yes. So early in my career, when I was at that first consulting firm, I had a unfortunate encounter with engineering management and my first move into it. I'd mentioned we'd gone from 30 up to a hundred people back down to 10. And so at one point when we were down that small, you know, that the engineering team was only five or six people and the leader of that team left the company. And they looked around and said, Chris, you seem to be pretty good at keeping things organized and inspiring the team and you lead a lot of our larger projects. Why don't you take on this role and… part of the problem was I was only about 23, 24 years old at the time. You know, a year down the line, I was miserable and I'm pretty sure I was pretty bad at that job. And I think there's a bunch of reasons for that one.

I think I was just far too early in my career. I didn't have the experience or the maturity to do that successfully. And because we were small and lean, I didn't necessarily have the support and, and mentorship hands-on support and mentorship that was necessary for me to be successful. So I graciously, you know, my boss, the CEO at the time said, it's okay. He actually had a lot of confidence in me that I could get better, but recognized that I was not happy. And so let me step back down and stay there and, and bring in somebody else to lead the engineering team. So that was my first encounter.

So, you know, five or six years later, when I had another opportunity to move into an engineering management role, I was admittedly a bit skittish, but what I think had been constant is throughout the first, at that point, then 10 years of my career, I had been progressively taking on larger and larger responsibilities in terms of the types of efforts and projects that I'd been working on. So leading larger and more complex projects with larger and more cross-functional teams. So I think that's ended up setting me up well, whereas I hadn't had enough of that exposure in my first round of, of management, by the time I had that opportunity at Disney, I did have enough of that on the job experience, leading project teams to think, okay, I think I can make this leap into, into engineering management.

I also had a boss that was extremely supportive in mentoring me and at a company that had a really strong education department and a really strong leadership development program. If you look at many of the success stories in Disney's even senior leadership ranks, many of these people started out working as individual contributors at Disney 20, 30 years ago, and are now SVPs, or leading entire business, you know, multi-billion dollar business units. So they've invested a lot in leadership development there. And so in the short time that I was in a leadership role there, I was able to take advantage of those resources to, to learn and to grow.

Bobby: Now would you talk a little bit about the pros and cons of startup life versus bigger company life in breeding and helping someone get ready to become a manager.

Chris: I’m biased. But I think, I think a blend of both is useful. I think seeing in startup land at many points, you're going to go through periods of rapid growth. And if you haven't necessarily seen what a larger successful organization looks like, you may not know what you're working towards and you're figuring out a lot of those things as you go.

And there's enough other things to be figuring out as you go in terms of the product market fit, the technology, all of these other things that figuring out the basics of how to structure and manage your team is just one other thing that, that you know, is another challenge on your plate. So if you have had some of that experience, or at least you can have some, some mentors who've been in the larger organization that has scaled successfully, and that can help you think about what are you actually working towards.

Bobby: I think that to me, I'm biased. I just always felt like startups because of what you talked about earlier, because you have to handle so many challenges and wear so many hats and figure it out, I think gears you up very well to deal with the risk of uncertainty and dealing with the stress of uncertainty.

You just get practiced with that. And I think in a bigger company, my, my sense is that you, you get a bit more depth with some of the skills that you're going to need. And a bit more time and a bit more mentorship because it's a luxury you don't really have at a startup.

Chris: One benefit kind of growing up in a, in a smaller company, is that mindset that there is really nothing beneath you, that if you subscribe to kind of the, the servant leadership style of someone that is really there to support the rest of your team, then having that mindset of like, yeah, it doesn't matter what needs to be done. I'll jump in and make it happen. But nothing's really beneath you regardless of what level of leadership you're in. And that was actually something that was reinforced at Disney as well.

There was one of the things from that first day orientation that they showed us was the Disney scoop. Which is, if you're walking through one of the parks and you see a path piece of trash on the ground, you, as you're walking, you kind of leaned down and you scoop up the piece of trash and you keep walking and there's always a trash can within some number of yards that they'd figured out that there should never be trash cans further than X number of yards apart to keep the place clean.

And they asked you this question, how many janitorial staff does Disneyland have? And it's a quick question because the answer is every single person is responsible for that. And so they would tell stories of Walt Disney strolling through the park and literally picking up the trash and putting it in a receptacle nearby.

And so that mentality that everyone's responsible for those types of things I think is important. And so what's interesting there, and then what I just described is, you can get that both at a small company by necessity, or you can have that really infused into you by, in a large company, by having a really strong focus on the importance of that cultural value.

Bobby: What's interesting to me is the infusion of the culture, especially based on your earlier smaller company experiences. Is that something that, you know, really has to be done, you know, in the very early sub five people stage, otherwise it just doesn't scale, or can you, when you get to a hundred, 200 people kind of course correct, and codify a new culture and move forward?

Chris: I think there probably is a size where it becomes much more difficult. I think at Blue Nile, we talked a lot about that because when we were trying to distill down what the essence of the culture was we had a lot of debate about how much of that should be the reality on the ground of how the company currently works and how much of it should be aspirational.

And we felt that it was important for us to put a number of things in there that while there was elements of that that existed, but things that were aspirational because we wanted things that we could always strive for and continue to improve. I think once you get to that larger size, it's only really going to work if there's buy-in for those cultural values at every layer of leadership.

So I think from the top down and the bottom up that all of the leaders in the organization have to really live and breathe and embody those cultural values and not just give lip service to them.

Bobby: Yeah. How they act is what people are going to absorb.

Chris: Exactly. And that's why we spent so much time debating about the, the reality on the ground and capturing that versus the aspirational. Because if you go too aspirational then it's so disconnected from reality, that it’s not really the way that people are acting and then people will be super understandably skeptical. That you really mean what you say when you talk about your culture.

Bobby: Something that struck me, you just, you mentioned something earlier where you say, you know, we want an important culture and we just don't want words up on a placard. And Netflix is just one of the most famous companies on planet earth about culture. And as we were, you and I were just walking through and looking at cool things, it just dawned on me that I didn't see one plaque with any culture statements.

I saw everything about the wonderful things you guys do. But I, I mean, I might not have been looking, but I didn't see one. And, but yet we know, you know, everyone knows publicly, that this is a very strong culture

Chris: If you listen, and if you hear the conversations, you're hearing those words that are, that are important in our culture every single day. And you're hearing them reinforced whether it's freedom, responsibility, context over control, the idea of a informed captain for making decisions, all of these different ideas that are core to our culture. You hear those talked about constantly. So you don't need them up on the wall because you're hearing them every day.

Bobby: Yeah. So you get that reinforcement naturally from every interaction, every meeting and so forth. Okay. So a couple of things that you've been very helpful to me on in the past and give me advice, but I think others would enjoy listening to, let's start with the first one, which is talking a little bit about recruiting and engineering and broadly talking about what has worked well for you.

And everyone has a different bias about this, and there is no one recipe, but the recipe that you found works well and thinking about, recruiting and analyzing for technical competency as well as soft skills.

Chris: So I’ll get to the, the kind of the evaluation and kind of seeking out those attributes in a second. But I'd say my overriding philosophy that I, that informs a lot of how I approach recruiting is, really leveling the playing field and taking the power dynamic out of the hiring and recruiting process. In many places, you're exerting a lot of power over a candidate, and you're asking them to go through lots of different hoops.

And the idea is that the scarce resource is the job and that person is, is meant to do whatever they can to get that job. But when it comes to talented engineers, they're really the scarce resource. And they're the ones that, you know, that companies are fighting to acquire. And so, while I don't think that means that we should be catering to their every whim and desire along the way, it does mean that I think I have a desire to have a more level playing field.

And so what that means is being more transparent with them about what our process looks like, how we evaluate what we're looking for, being honest with them of when there's something that they have that maybe isn't in alignment with what our team needs and generally embodying some of the values in our culture that are important around honesty and transparency and candor.

So you have an opportunity to demonstrate what's important to you as a company from that very first conversation that you have with a candidate all the way through to whether you make a hiring decision or not. So even the way in which you approach making them an offer or declining them can say a lot about your culture and also treat them as a human.

So if you are going to turn somebody away, be honest with them about why you're turning them away, give them the benefit of a rather rapid response. Don't sit on something for a week or two. If you know, you know, don't, dilly-dally, tell them you are not moving forward. So I think that that permeates a lot of how I think about a bunch of different phases of the recruiting process. When it comes to evaluating what we're looking for, you and I had an interesting conversation a couple months ago about in your experience, anytime you found somebody that doesn't work out on team, an engineer, what's generally been the cause of why that person isn't working well on a team. Like how often is it that their technical skills don't measure up versus how often is it that some aspect of their soft skills is not working well with the team?

And I bet that, you know, the majority of the time it's the latter, the technical skills are, are often mostly straightforward to evaluate for. But many companies spend the vast majority of their evaluation on that above anything else. And so we strive to have a more equal balance between the technical evaluation, which is important to do the job, but then the, the kind of the soft skills evaluation of how do you collaborate, communicate, pushback, make decisions, make trade-offs, that's something that I focus quite a bit on. When you think about software development, you make a thousand different trade-offs every single day. And every decision that you make, every line of code that you write, every design decision, there's always some upside and some downside.

And so the maturity with which you make those decisions and even choosing which of those decisions you make in isolation a thousand times a day, versus which of those decisions you choose to pop your head up and tap a nearby engineer on your the shoulder versus which decisions you say, Oh, I need to get the whole team in the room and we need to figure out what we're going to do here, that, I think, is is an incredibly important set of skills for engineers to have.

And so what you're getting at there is judgment, is decision-making thoughtfulness, communication, collaboration, and looking at different ways of evaluating those soft skills is a big challenge and something that we focus a lot.

Bobby: Yeah. And it's a, it's a work in progress. I mean, if you have any hacks for how to get better at evaluating those human skills, I always think it's an irony, they're called soft skills.

I think they're the hardest ones. They're the hardest to evaluate for, I think they're the hardest to teach, hardest to measure, but they're incredibly impactful on the outcome. I think that's gonna be an ongoing trading of notes between you and I of how to, how to get that.

Chris: Yeah. The other thing that's interesting about that set of skills is we've been talking a lot lately about how to balance experience versus aptitude, because some of the things that we look for in engineers, like the ability to push back and question how and why we do certain things, are things that in some organizations are not encouraged and in fact are suppressed.

And so you don't necessarily want to dismiss a candidate that hasn't had the experience doing that, but if put in the right environment would actually be successful at doing that. So we've been thinking about similar to, how oftentimes when you're evaluating for technical skills, you are putting people through actual exercises.

And you're asking them to write code, but more often than not, when you're evaluating for soft skills, it's more of the flavor of, tell me about a time that you did X. And so you had this huge discrepancy in how you approach evaluation for those types of skills. So we've been looking at, how can we put people in collaborative exercises, both on the engineering side and more generally in how they collaborate with their peers in other roles and how we can evaluate for that aptitude rather than just looking at their past experience.

Bobby: Yeah. So making, trying to mimic the real world situation where these skills would then manifest themselves.

Chris: And then being very explicit with them about, this is what we're doing and why, and this is what we're evaluating for. It may feel like you're giving away the answer, but you're not, you're just, you're just telling them what the evaluation criteria is, so that they can be, come prepared and that they know that we're expecting them to question and push back and challenge.

Bobby: Yep. That makes a lot of sense. So then taking the next step of that, once you do make a selection and you, and you get a new team member to join, do you want to talk a little bit about things that you've found that are helpful in the onboarding process that maximize the velocity at which they can contribute to the team?

Chris: One of the important things in the early days in the first couple of weeks and months is for them to get a quick win under their belt, right. Is to get something that they can point to, that was a success. And whether that's just shipping some new feature or whether that's making some improvement to the code base, something that both builds their own confidence and, and establishes their credibility with their peers early on.

I also like to focus a lot on, important of course, to have them paired up with another engineer to help them learn the ropes of the technology. But again, if they are a skilled engineer, they will pick that stuff up pretty quickly. So what I focus more of my time and energy on is the business context. So going back to that context over control is the business and the organizational context around.

What are we working towards? What are the key strategy bets that we have this year? What are the different teams that they need to work with to get things done? And you know, how generally do we approach product development here and our approach to AB testing? So setting all that high level context for them. The other is when they're meeting with people in other disciplines.

One thing I learned recently, I got great feedback from an engineer that joined in the last year was, I gave them a list of people to talk to. I said, Oh, Hey, go talk to this person on the data analytics team, go talk to this product manager. Talk to this designer. What I didn't do is to tell him what to talk to them about.

I just assumed he would know, Oh, I'll just ask them a bunch of questions about their job and about this and that. And so I learned that a better approach would be to give him a list of questions or even the person that he's meeting with, say, Hey, I'd like you to spend time covering X, Y, and Z with this person so that they get a broader understanding.

So, giving them a little bit more guidance and structure, rather than just, go talk to a bunch of people and see what you can learn. Another thing that is important is setting crisp expectations about how they work as an individual. I talked previously about questioning and pushing back, and so I make it very clear to them and I reinforce this in their early days that if you just take a product spec and you just implement it and you don't ask any questions along the way, and you don't poke holes in anything, you don't bring any new ideas to the table, you're not doing your job. And so try to make those expectations very clear to them.

And so I think it's important, whatever your leadership style is, whatever your expectations are, to just be really explicit about those to avoid any surprises down the line.

Bobby: Is that something you'd? I mean, I'm sure you're going to have conversations, but do you back it up, with kind of like a written document that you just only shared with the two of you.

Chris: Yes. Yep. So I put something together that is basically a guide to their first couple of days, first couple of weeks and first couple of months in terms of some of the expectations of what I expect them to do within that timeframe. So there's a number of things that are written down there, but that more importantly serves as a guide for many conversations that we have.

So there may be very high level bullet points there, but then that's really just reminder for me to, Oh, we should have a more in-depth conversation about this or that.

Bobby: Yeah. And so then when you have these one-on-ones, there's like this roadmap for you guys.

Chris: I invest a lot of time and energy with them. So I probably spend five or six hours with them in the first week and then a couple of hours each week in the weeks after and there. And then by the time they're on month one or two, then dial that back to like a normal one-on-one cadence.

Bobby: So we're almost out of time, but I had one more fun question to ask you.

So you're the first person I've ever talked to that was any cover band of any band. And I'm just wondering how, firstly, what instrument did you play?

Chris: Bass guitar.

Bobby: Okay. How did the decision come together to be a cover band from Nirvana versus say Pearl Jam or something else of the era?

Chris: Super simple songs. And it was about all we knew how to play at the time. I mean, we ended up playing a bunch of other stuff and writing a bunch of original songs, but you know, the first year or two, we were just learning how to play our instruments. And so what better way than to just copy a bunch of really simple, really loud, really distorted songs.

Bobby: Do still like listening to Nirvana?

Chris: Absolutely. Yeah. I still, I still definitely have a strong affinity for a ton of kind of nineties era music.

Bobby: And a lot of loud rock and roll, is any of that conducive to when you're doing deep thought work?

Chris: Not at all.

I say the closest I get is there are a number of kind of heavy, instrumental rock bands that have no vocals. Maybe Sigur Ros is an example. They're not always super heavy and loud, but they have big crescendos and big builds. There's some other bands called, TWDY, This Will Destroy You, that kind of have a similar aesthetic that are ranged from, you know, very ethereal to very loud and layered guitars, but still slower and without any vocals.

And so for me, I can actually do lots of deep thinking working and in the past coding to that music.

Bobby: I think what we should do, for instance, we should start this movement of creating and these exist, but we should, we should create a boutique one of freely giveawayable playlists that are conducive to, you know, hardcore coding productivity.

Chris: Totally. I think it's going to be this going to be different for every person. Some people go way deep into like house music and other people, it doesn't matter. They can listen a little bit of everything.

Bobby: No, that's terrific. Chris, you've been super generous with your time. I'm very, very grateful. Thanks so much for doing this.

Chris: You’re welcome. I really enjoyed it.

Chris Saint-Amant
Director, UI Engineering, Netflix

Loka's syndication policy

Free and Easy

Put simply, we encourage free syndication. If you’re interested in sharing, posting or Tweeting our full articles, or even just a snippet, just reach out to medium@loka.com. We also ask that you attribute Loka, Inc. as the original source. And if you post on the web, please link back to the original content on Loka.com. Pretty straight forward stuff. And a good deal, right? Free content for a link back.

If you want to collaborate on something or have another idea for content, just email me. We’d love to join forces!