Why did you join Netflix?

[April, 2016, Los Gatos, California]

Interviewer:  “You’ve been at Uber for four years, how’s this going to play out, this whole ridesharing thing?”

Me: [Pause, thinking of answer; thinking whether I should give that answer; deciding, “Screw it, why not”]:   “Well...Reed...I tend to think about it like that email scam, where scammers write you a flowery email as the “former prince” of Nigeria. They ask you for a small amount of money so they can then unlock the hundreds of millions their family is on the cusp of reclaiming -- showering you in riches in return for your help. If you decide to do it you might give them a thousand bucks. Then a few weeks later they write you again:  “Good news! We’re SO close to unlocking the millions! We just need a bit more from you to make this happen. Think of the millions that are coming your way!”.  And you say to yourself, “Well, I already put in a thousand, and that’s gone. And now they’re so close...”, and you put in more. And on and on it goes.

With ridesharing, the rideshare companies are the ones promising the millions, and the investors are the ones who’ve already sunk a whole bunch of money into that promise, and keep getting asked for more.”

[Interviewer gives this thought, but doesn’t say a thing. Just gives a nod and a semi-grunt, and gets up -- this thing is over. I nervous-chuckle, realizing how far out there my analogy may have been. Stand up, shake hands, thank him for his time, and wonder if I’ve scuttled my chance at a great job].

The Reed above -- the interviewer -- was Reed Hastings, the founder and CEO of Netflix. And I really did decide on-the-spot to compare the industry I worked in to a notorious Internet scam.

But, all’s well that ends well: I got the gig, and I wound up having an amazing experience at Netflix.

I spent most of the last 5 years there, but on the other side of the table -- interviewing hundreds of job candidates. As an interviewer, you try to make things as conversational as possible; to share insight at the same time as you’re evaluating someone. But there’s always a point at the end of an interview where you open it up for questions that a candidate has for you. Candidates sort of expect it, and there’s an element of reciprocity at play. (I also say at the start that I’m going to leave time for questions; actually doing it builds trust and credibility).

When you do this hundreds of times, you get all sorts of questions from people. But the one I got most?

“Why did you join Netflix?”

Truth be told, that’s a very good question to ask an interviewer. It can give you insight, and it’s personal. It gets the interviewer to open up, and to talk about themselves. And if you ask it of multiple interviewers during the hiring process, you can get a nice sense of what motivated employees to join the company you’re speaking with.

I especially liked getting this one at Netflix, because it always reminded me that decision to go there seemed like such a “no-brainer”.

So why’d I join up?

Timing: In 2016, Netflix was only around 25 or 30 employees in Asia. All of them were based in one office in Singapore, where I was already living and working. Globally, the company was only 2,500 employees, despite having been around for close to 20 years. It was early, early days as far as international expansion, and there was a lot to figure out and to impact, to get the culture and business humming in Asia. I knew from past experience that this phase and combination of somewhat-but-not-fully-baked was my sweet spot.

Culture: I first read about Netflix’s culture when it published its “culture deck” (now repurposed as a memo). I was working at Google, and I debated it with others on the “People Operations” team there. I remember, acutely -- and smugly, I admit -- asking two things:

  • Cute, but did your quirky culture enable your success, or did your success enable your quirky culture?
  • You’ve published this bold manifesto -- but it remains to be seen if your company will be a long-term success.

I couldn’t help it! I was perched at Google, a first-hand witness to one of the greatest cash-generating business models of all time. But even if those were fair questions in 2009, I think it’s also fair to suggest they were well-addressed by 2016. By then, Netflix had another 7 years of ever-increasing success under its belt.

At one point, I did a video call with a US interviewer. I took it from home, one of those stealthy, “I’ll be late, I-gotta-let-the-electrician-in” type of interviews that you did pre-Covid, when working from home was so rare. I called my wife afterwards, saying, “Whoa, this just got real. If I have the chance to see this from the inside, to see how this culture actually works, I’m gonna be hard-pressed to turn that down.” I was just so intrigued, and the closer I got to the culture, the more curious I became to see and be a part of it.

Part of that curiosity was because I’d been reading and hearing about it for as long as I had. But part of it was the growing realization that the value I now brought to an organization -- at that point in my career -- wasn’t so much the recruiting I’d done and the teams I’d led. It was actually the breadth of experience and perspective I’d had across several unique cultures, products and teams. Given that belief, and fancying myself a student of business, culture and organizations as I do, the prospect of adding Netflix to the mix became almost intoxicating.

Business model. I’d supported an ads business at Google, and a marketplace business at Uber. Netflix’s core of subscribers and churn was similar to Uber’s, but this was an entertainment company. And I thought that getting my head around the ins and outs of that business would stretch me in the short-run, and make me a more versatile talent partner in the long one.

Business-driven. After yet another interview I remember commenting to my wife, “It’s weird, but I swear that during these interviews, I’ve talked more about pricing, customer acquisition, and content strategy -- than I have about recruiting, per se.” It was unique, it was attractive to me as a candidate, and in retrospect, it was intentional: Netflix was using its recruiting process to signal the extent to which I’d be expected to understand the mechanics of its business if I chose to work there.

Founder. I actually interviewed with Reed after I received an offer, but before deciding whether to take it. I asked to meet him, as the company’s founder. And I’m really glad I did, because it’s a fantastic way to understand a company and its culture; especially a founder-led company. I suggested this to the hiring manager and she agreed to set it up, so I flew to San Francisco (from Singapore) got off the plane, went straight to Netflix to meet Reed and 7 other people, and went back to Singapore the next day. To be clear, I already had the offer, but because I hadn’t accepted it, these were definitely interviews. No one said it, but they knew it, I knew it, and months later when I onboarded -- there in the recruiting tool was the formal interview feedback from all 8 people I had met that day, including Reed!

The meeting with Reed was critical: I was so impressed by what I heard, and it helped put a human face to the founder of a culture and company I'd been following from afar.

Diligence. I reached out to my network and was connected to one former Netflix HR exec who had spent close to 10 years there, from the very founding of the company. I still remember her saying, “Reed’s the real deal, one in a million.” Then I spoke to an ex-colleague at Google who had gone on to report directly to the manager at Netflix whom I’d be reporting to, and that call went well. I also called an ex-colleague from Uber in Singapore who had gone to Netflix — someone I knew and trusted — to ask about the office, team and culture. These takes were so insightful, encouraging and helpful to me in de-risking the opportunity.

Brand. As an American, Netflix was a household name, and I’d used the product since it’s DVD-only days. But in 2016, very, very few people in Asia knew Netflix well. From a recruiting standpoint this means a big challenge, because your hiring brand is largely a function of the strength (or weakness) of your consumer brand. So in practice this meant we would be pitching and selling Netflix to candidates, for as long as the consumer brand and awareness were low in a given market. I wanted this challenge of building a brand and getting talent markets excited about it. I’d already worked at Google, where sourcing candidates sometimes felt easy: I used to joke that you told people where you worked and before you finished the second syllable, they’d sent you a resume. But at this point my career, it was more fun and rewarding to get to see a hiring brand grow, and to influence that.

Product: As an employee,  especially as a recruiter taking a company into a talent market, you want to be really fired up about the product (and culture, and people) of the company you work for. I wasn’t just a long-time Netflix subscriber, I was also a film buff who loved watching content and believed deeply in the uniquely human power of storytelling.

Hiring manager. I was interviewing for a role that reported to the global head of recruiting, based in the US. I had actually first met her when I was an interviewer in 2014 -- at Uber. As part of her interview panel, during interviews for the global head of recruiting role at Uber. I liked her, a lot. I remember thinking: “Wow, you are refreshingly global. I could work for you, and I’d learn a ton from you.” I wasn’t the only one, and Uber tried to hire her -- but she took the role at Netflix. Fast forward two years, and I found myself interviewing for a role on her team. Over the course of my interview process I got to know her, and became even more excited to work together than I had been two years prior.

Recruiting: In 2016, Netflix’s approach to recruiting was less mechanized than anything I’d ever seen before. By that I mean it was faster, more fluid, less process-heavy. It also gave an unheard of amount of autonomy to hiring managers to be able to make the hire they believed was best for their team. What this means for a recruiter is that your role becomes less about process, repeatability, and on-to-the-next hire. And much more about using what you know of the business, the role and the talent market in order to influence a hiring manager towards great hiring outcomes. To a recruiting geek, this was very differentiated, attractive stuff.

So, you know how this ends. I took the gig, right?

Right. But truth be told, even with so many pieces in place, I struggled mightily with the decision. Not because I wasn’t excited about the opportunity -- I clearly was. But it was gut-wrenching nonetheless.  The candidates who asked me, “Why did you join up?” -- they never heard this part of the story. But next time around, I’ll write about why I came so close to turning down the chance to work there.

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