A Netflix Engineering Manager on growing into leadership and moving from academia to industryFeatured

I spoke with @jordanna, an engineering manager at Netflix. She leads a team of engineers focused on building and innovating the member experience in the Netflix iOS app. Prior to Netflix, Jordanna was a software development team lead at a small B2B startup that was later acquired by SAP, and before that, an engineering manager at BlackBerry (fka Research In Motion). She graduated from the University of Waterloo with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and a master’s degree in systems design engineering.Did you consider staying in academia after college and your master’s? What drew you to industry?The University of Waterloo has a five-year co-op/internship program, where students alternate between four months of school and four months of paid work. So by the time I graduated, I already had a taste of industry work that amounted to two years of experience. I was offered a full-time position to continue work on email server development after my last co-op job, but I knew by then that it wasn’t area I was particularly passionate about. I decided instead to pursue a master’s degree at my alma mater studying human factors engineering. It was compelling research that involved designs for industrial human-computer interfaces such as aircraft cockpits and power plant control systems.While I thoroughly enjoyed the subject matter, I found that I was much more interested in designing user interfaces than writing about them in academic papers. This led me back to industry after I completed my master’s thesis, but not in the way I anticipated. It turned out that my programming skills were much more sought after than my design skills (digital product design was not yet mainstream), so I ended up at the intersection of UI and software engineering. What do you find most interesting about this intersection (of UI and engineering)?Front-end engineering is often, unfortunately, devalued relative to backend engineering due to the perception that it’s “easy”. In reality, some of the most complex problems are found at the interface between user and machine. It’s much more difficult to build the right thing because you need to take so many different variables into account including human behavior, psychology, and the broader market landscape. There’s as much art involved as there is science. Ultimately, I’m fascinated by these challenges and what it takes to build great user experiences.What is the biggest difference between the role of an engineer and engineering manager?The distinctions can vary depending on the company or organization, but in general, the focus of an engineering manager is on people and organizational matters. Much of my time centers around recruiting, hiring, and retention. Strategically, it’s about putting together and growing an exceptional team to solve business objectives. It’s my job to provide sufficient context around the business needs and to create an environment that empowers the engineers on the team to make the technical decisions needed to build the best solutions.As an individual contributor, you have control over the outcome of what you build. As an engineering manager, you no longer have direct control over the output and it’s much more difficult to attribute success or failure to something you did or didn’t do. There is also a much longer delay between the time you make a decision, such as to hire or fire someone, and the time you start to see results.What is the biggest hack you have discovered?I think being candid and open as a leader (such as admitting to feeling impostor syndrome) is incredibly important. It’s counter to what I think a lot of us are taught and raised to believe, i.e. needing to know how to do everything and to be perfect. Right now I’m stepping in to write product strategy memos and I feel like I’m faking it since this work is typically done by product managers. I’ve found leading with vulnerability to be effective in driving a more inclusive environment, greater team cohesion, and ultimately better, innovative solutions. In such a culture, there’s a sense of psychological safety that allows team members to take risks, learn from mistakes, and ask for help without feeling insecure.What is the most interesting thing you have learned about consumer psychology?What consumers say they like and what they actually want are often quite different. Qualitative studies like focus groups or individual interviews can provide some insight into consumer preferences (such as for a new app feature), but it isn’t until you actually A/B test that you see how consumers actually behave. However, this type of experimentation isn’t suitable for all consumer products and works best when there is a sufficient user base (sample size) required for statistical significance in the results.How have you seen Netflix change over time?I joined Netflix in 2013 as a JavaScript engineer on the mobile UI team and have seen the company both grow and evolve significantly since that time. It wasn’t until 2016 that Netflix expanded its service globally, which meant there was a lot more emphasis on the UI and content teams to add support for new languages and locations. It also opened the door to regions around the world where smartphones were the only screens people owned (no TVs or laptops), and this made mobile platforms a much bigger priority. To that end, we sunsetted the mobile WebKit app and pivoted to native mobile app development in order to build a better user experience. More recently, Netflix is investing in its studio productions and infrastructure, including a lot of new and exciting technologies that enable creators to much more effectively bring their stories to life.What advice would you give your younger self?I would tell myself to take more risks and to not be afraid of failure. It wasn’t until university that I realized I missed out on a lot of learning experiences earlier in life due to my upbringing. I mostly played it safe when it came to academics and my early career. One of the most influential pieces of advice I’ve gotten was from a more senior colleague at BlackBerry who asked why I, a 28-year-old at the time, was still in Waterloo putting up with the Canadian winters when there were opportunities aplenty elsewhere. A year later, I took a bet on a small startup and moved to San Diego where I didn’t miss the snowy winters one bit!