Interview with Erin Kidwell, Build, CI & DevInsights Manager at Netflix

Published on Mar 7, 2018

6 min read

image for Interview with Erin Kidwell, Build, CI & DevInsights Manager at Netflix

Location: Los Gatos, CA.
Current Role: Build, CI & DevInsights Manager at Netflix

What’s your background and how did you get into management?

I’ve worked in technology for 15+ years, starting in the finance industry, moving toward education and then consulting before joining Netflix. Earlier roles offered me the opportunity to act as an individual contributor in backend engineering before, at some point, being asked to manage a team. This path is not for everyone. Occasionally, I see IC’s promoted to management because they excel in their role as engineers, not necessarily as people managers, and it causes angst for the team and the new manager. Luckily, I’ve found that being an individual contributor at a company before becoming a manager has allowed me to establish credibility I need to enable others and I’ve had the good fortune of several mentors recognizing that I can serve a broader purpose in management and coaching me through these transitions.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Balancing the needs of users and their feature requests, improvements and bugs with the demands of scalable and reliable infrastructure. Just when you’re ready to spike a new, long-requested enhancement to your product for engineers, you learn there’s a competing request for your team to invest their time in a new security, platform, or data requirement. This challenge presents a dual opportunity for alignment and to improve my strategic planning skills, so I try to look at each of these cases as a chance for the team to learn something while also delivering incremental value to our users.

For example, my team was recently prepared to kick off a long overdue feature request from engineers to automate conflict resolution for a rules engine we manage but were superseded by a request from security to integrate a code inspection tool into the build system and install a related linting plugin with the IDE. We could’ve seen this as kink in the plans to deliver for engineers but instead decided to proceed in parallel with both projects by asking team members from security to swarm and pair with us since it was our first time using this tool and we could use their expertise side-by-side to move faster. At the same time, we forged ahead with the plans to deliver the feature request to engineers but in thinner slices over a longer period of time. When I explained the security request to engineers and the reason for the slight delay, I did my best to demonstrate how they’d (ultimately) benefit from both initiatives. They appreciated the transparency and created a small working group of beta testers for the new feature to give us quick feedback, allowing us to iterate at a faster pace.

From this experience 3 years ago, I learned a valuable lesson to reach out to centralized teams on a fixed interval basis to learn if they anticipate any needs from my team – even if it’s only a 50% chance they’ll be dependent on us, so we can plan accordingly. This has helped me stay ahead of the curve when planning and allows me to minimize last-minute context switches for the team.

Competing requests for a team to deliver is not unique. There’s always more work than people to complete it. I take solace in the lessons from The Mythical Man Month and do my best to focus on our priorities but leave room for inevitable surprises.

What is your approach to hiring?

As a manager of centralized teams, I tend to have a high technical expectations for broad generalists. I find that people who are curious and can learn fast generally thrive on my team. These attributes often make it challenging to source candidates. Essentially, I’m asking: you don’t have to know everything about a specific product/tool/system but I do need you to have enough experience using them as an engineer (user) and an owner (implementer/maintainer). And, typically, you should have opinions on more than a few different options. Be able to weigh the pros and cons and be discerning enough with your judgment that results in an optimal user experience. Additionally, I’m ardent about sourcing and hiring candidates that align with Netflix values.

My interview process tends to mirror this approach: there’s a phone screen, a technical discussion and assignment that’s relevant to the work we do on the team. Once it’s complete, we review it together and I ask some questions about your design patterns, technology choices, so on. If a candidate makes it through that stage I bring them on-site for a series of interviews with myself, a member of the team, a user of our tools, our HR partner, and one of our partner team members. Each of those interviewers is focused on a specific set of questions from their vantage point and how they would interact with the candidate if they were to be hired for the team. I collect feedback from each of the panelists and pretty quickly get back to them.

In short, my approach to hiring is to find candidates that raise the standards of our team and offer new and different skills that collectively help us improve.

What’s your advice for managers who are just starting out?

Aim for growth, not perfection. Set clear and measurable objectives that also add business value. This doesn’t necessarily mean KPI’s, metric or estimates. It can be as simple some of the following examples:

  • Improve active listening by role playing with a peer and asking for feedback
  • Gain cross-functional knowledge and perspective in a domain your team is dependent on by interviewing other leaders and presenting your learnings back to the team; encourage team members to do the same
  • Build bonds on your team and share knowledge by encouraging pairing among engineers
  • Survey your peers and team members for actionable and specific feedback at 3 months, 6 months and 12 months; a simple format is “What should I Stop | Start | Continue doing?”

Whats your work day like and how do you manage your time, emails, etc.?

Before arriving at work, I check my calendar to prepare for the day and finish any pre-reads needed for meeting context so I am able to contribute meaningfully to those discussions. To the best of my ability, I try to block out a few 30 minute slots of time throughout the day to check email and Slack and do my best to adhere those timeframes. I’m an ardent note-taker and at the end of the day like to summarize my thoughts and action items written down in a journal or by using Google Keep.

What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?

I practice yoga regularly. Intentional breathing, meditation and movement help me calm my central nervous system and allow me to focus on the present.

Share an internet resource or tool that you can’t live without.

  • Bullet journaling helps me stay on tasks and remember things.
  • Youcanbookme helps me coordinate phone screenings with candidates by syncing with my Google Calendar availability.
  • Boomerang helps me pre schedule follow up emails with ease.
  • Google Canned Responses helps me be more efficient with stock message templates for communication I send frequently.

If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?

I’m going to cheat and recommend two related books: Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability. As a new or experienced manager, both these books provide practical and useful tips on how to manage your team and how to encourage your team to self-manage.

Where can we go to learn more about you? (LinkedIn, Twitter, GitHub, etc.)

This series asks engineering managers to share their experiences with the intent of helping other engineering managers learn and improve. Have someone you want to see featured or questions you think we should ask? Contact me.

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