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Scaling the Engineering Team in a Distributed World:  4 Tips From a Netflix Engineering Exec

October 17, 2022
Matt Marenghi, former Netflix VP of engineering

Scaling your team can be one of the hardest challenges that a leader can face. A high-growth company like Netflix exemplifies everything that can go right—and wrong—when scaling your startup’s culture and creating a high-performance environment. 

When Matt Marenghi joined Netflix in 2009, streaming was still an add-on to the company’s DVD service. Over the next 13 years, he would see Netflix grow from 15 million subscribers to 220 million subscribers, expand from licensed content to original exclusive content, scale from English to over 40 languages, and much more. 

From managing one direct report to overseeing hundreds of people in Netflix’s client engineering organization, Marenghi “was fortunate enough to be along for the ride for the better part of that journey” as vice president of engineering. 

In a recent Founders + Leaders roundtable for engineering leaders at GGV’s portfolio companies, Marenghi shared some of his best tips for scaling and managing high-performance tech teams.

Embrace playbooks, not process

“Things can feel chaotic all the time, and that’s okay—as long as everyone involved feels aligned,” Marenghi said. “As you grow, there can be that instinct to instill process to minimize mistakes from happening.” To help provide structure while fighting unnecessary processes from settling in, consider these two tactics:

  • Lean into writing and seeking feedback: Capture your position/proposal in writing, share broadly, and invite feedback as comments, but avoid unnecessary hierarchy or consensus building for decision-making. According to Marenghi, “if you give [your team] as much context and information as possible, ideally they should be making better decisions.” 
  • Build repeatable playbooks and scalable frameworks: To help prevent engineers from being scared of pushing new code or going into legacy code, Marenghi’s team developed runbooks on deployment to “put some clarity in place on some of the gotcha points.” 

Seek feedback proactively

Given how well-known Netflix is for its company culture, what should engineering leaders keep in mind when scaling their own orgs? 

For starters, creating a transparent team culture often begins with you as the leader. Marenghi suggested selecting a group of employees to share relevant feedback you’ve received yourself: “Here are the top three things that I heard that surprised me. I’m sharing this so you can help me get better.” By modeling it yourself, effective feedback can become deeply embedded in your culture and “just sort of finds its way into this daily and weekly pattern of behavior,” Marenghi added.

Recalibrate remote vs. in-person work 

Now that we’re in this phase where workplaces are experimenting with hybrid models, how do you build a long-lasting company culture for remote employees?

For Marenghi, getting together in person on a periodic basis is “critically important because relationships are important.” If he were to start a new company, he’d do as much in-person onboarding as possible to cultivate that “early relationship development in person, and then figure out the right cadence to bring that group of people together.” To help make sure that any time spent in person feels meaningful, focus on strengthening relationships and connecting around purpose, strategy, and vision.

Play to your strengths 

Whether your team is distributed or not, leaders can’t afford to get stuck in the weeds. Relying on your team “frees you up to feel like it’s okay that you don’t know everything that’s going on,” Marenghi said.  

At the end of the day, building a team requires scaling through strengths and “by getting the right people in the right roles, which can change over time.” Take the time to understand your employees’ passions—and where your own strengths lie. 

Ask yourself, “Am I adding value?” 

For example: “I still love talking about product strategy,” Marenghi said. “But there came a point where I realized that we’ve hired really good people here to do this and as much as I’d like to participate, I’m not uniquely providing value at a low level of detail to this effort … You only have so many hours in the day.” 

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