Ahead of her talk at LeadingEng West Coast in October, Netflix’s Carol Barrett talks about sustaining engineering innovation in highly constrained circumstances.
Engineering managers are all being asked to do more with less after rounds of layoffs and tightening budgets have ramped up the pressure across the industry.
While we all know that isn’t sustainable, the demands for continued product innovation aren’t going away in this new world, leaving engineering leaders with a unique challenge to meet these demands with the teams and resources they have.
Ahead of her talk on the topic at LeadingEng West Coast later this year, Scott Carey (SC) checked in with Carol Barret (CB), an engineering leader for product access at Netflix, to dig into the intricacies of the role.
The below conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. Carol’s full talk will be delivered at LeadingEng West Coast on October 18 in Oakland, California.
SC: Could you tell us a little bit about your talk?
CB: My talk is titled: Sustaining innovation through changing times. As engineering leaders we've really had to evolve through rapid changes over the last few years: the global pandemic, the great resignation, the great regret, working from everywhere, working from anywhere, the hiring spree, followed by the reversal of the hiring spree.
We're being asked to stretch ourselves and our teams, and we have to meet what feels like a continuously changing business environment. There's a constant expectation that we have to do more with less. Under those circumstances, what do you need to do to sustain innovation? Because times are constantly changing. I explore this through the lenses of trust and adaptability and the three P’s of people, processes, and product.
SC: What change has been the hardest for you to adapt to as a leader?
CB: Over the last year, most companies have reined in expenses and we've seen a large volume of involuntary attrition and a lot of change.
Netflix, on the other hand, has launched four different things in the last year, so looking at it from that lens, it's a very different view into what can be done and that not all change needs to be about cost reductions. There are opportunities to continue to sustain innovation even through these times. The way in which you adapt your systems and trust your systems has been very visible in how we've been able to accomplish all of the business priorities in the last year.
SC: And how do you achieve that?
CB: That's the crux of the talk. How do you think of this challenge in the context of trust and adaptability?
We tend to think of innovation as product launches and the shiny object that makes the news. As engineering leaders, we have to think about what we call innovation across three different dimensions of our work. One of them is building the necessary systems to do product launches. Another is constantly innovating the infrastructure, so that we can meet with scale, and meet new business requirements. The third is how you innovate the tools and processes so that you can adapt to these changes. When you look across all of these dimensions, you have to sustain that and maybe in one quarter you'll prioritize one thing and in another quarter, you'll prioritize the other.
SC: What do you hope the audience takes away from your talk?
CB: Really, I hope that through this talk, the audience gets a sense that it is possible to do. In the moment we tend to think about what needs to be done today. Oftentimes, I have found that trust and adaptability are at the back of our minds. If nothing else, I hope it starts a path of self-discovery and learning, which I think is very important as an engineering leader.