Todd Yellin is a Netflix veteran of over 14 years and currently serves as VP of Product. He is responsible for leveraging vast amounts of data, sophisticated algorithms, and best-in-class user interfaces across numerous viewing devices to create easy, compelling ways for Netflix members to find something great to watch. He also oversees design, member acquisition, and how to best leverage localization and messaging. Netflix has a current market cap of $300B+.
What did the Product organization at Netflix look like in 2006 when you first joined and what does it look like today?
When I first joined Netflix in 2006, we were about 1/25th of our current size. We were still just shipping silver disk DVDs and we wouldn’t implement streaming until over a year later. At the time (and still to this day), we took pride in running a lean Product organization. I was one of only seven Product Managers (PMs), and I focused on personalization, which meant something totally different than it does today when we’re able to leverage machine learning (ML).
Today, as VP of Product, I oversee the teams for product management, algorithm leadership, XD, product creative & editorial and consumer insights. My direct reports are the VP of Growth, Product Management and Payments, the VP of Member Experience, and the VP of Studio Products, and a person heading Product Content Innovation. Steve Johnson, the VP of Design also reports to me, as well as Maria Ferreras, our Global Head of Partnerships.
How does Netflix set goals? Is it top-down, bottoms-up, or somewhere in-between?
I’ve changed this up over the years and frankly, there’s no one way to do it, but I’ll share a few things we’ve learned. Our high-level goal is to empower our teams and give them the resources they need to follow their noses and make bets. Obviously, we don’t do that totally loosely.
Every year, I give my VP-tier leaders a few high-level themes to focus on; this may be something like targeting a new market, going after mobile, or something else. Those leaders will then come up with their top three priorities for the year, taking into account socializing the ideas and, most importantly, farming for dissent. After that, the teams are generally within their lane to explore those priorities. This strategy has shifted over the years and will continue to, but broadly speaking, that’s our approach.
What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned to become a better leader?
There tend to be two types of Product leaders. The first is really into the nuts and bolts of the product itself and tends to be very hands-on and detail-oriented. The other is much more people-oriented. While the latter isn’t as involved in the nitty gritty details, they instead focus their energy on creating the right environment for individual contributors to succeed.
A monumental step I took, and the most valuable lesson I’ve learned during my leadership journey, was to look in the mirror and evaluate which type of leader I am. What I realized is that I tend to be the first type of leader—focusing on nuts and bolts. Knowing that’s an element of my style—that I like to be super hands-on and involved—I try to hire other leaders who are more people-oriented and have high EQ. Balancing those two sides of the leadership spectrum is extremely important in order to have a healthy organization. And an added benefit of hiring great people leaders is you learn through osmosis. While I’ve become a much better people leader with my experience, I always try to keep a pulse on where I fall on this spectrum.
You’re well-known for your “Iconoclast Culture” philosophy. Can you share more about it and why you’re such an avid promoter?
It’s such a competitive market out there, no matter what product you’re building or which company you’re leading. In this sort of hyper-competitive environment, success truly comes from being agile and knowing when to pivot and adopt new ideas. In the past, I’ve definitely become too attached to certain ideas where I should’ve pulled the plug earlier.
Maintaining a team culture where people aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo, ask the tough questions, and push back is crucial to staying ahead. People who spike in all of these areas can sometimes be exhausting to manage, but they’re key players to have on your team and the pros far outweigh the cons.
If your team is overly agreeable, you’re making your life easier in the short term, but diminishing the long-term potential of yourself, your team, and ultimately your company.
One of my favorite related stories to tell is of a time when an individual team member pushed hard against my opinion, and ultimately, it was for the better. Here’s how it played out: when you log in to Netflix (or really any streaming service) you tend to see a bunch of rows representing different categories like “New Releases”, “Horror Films” and more. At Netflix, certain rows used to be fixed so you always knew where to find that category. In other words, “New Releases” was always the third row down and so on.
An individual PM came to me one day and suggested that every row should “float.” In other words, rows should never have a fixed placement, but should vary based on the user’s personality. To be honest, I was very against the idea because I thought consistency was central and important to our home feed. But, I let this PM drive the idea forward, despite my silent expectation that it might not have legs. He ran a number of A/B tests to flesh out his theory. And, lo and behold, the results showed that floating rows positively moved all of our core metrics.
I had to admit I was wrong and I loved it. This is just one illustrative example of why hiring the right people and empowering them is so important. You need to let people follow their nose and not punish them if they fail or if they, respectfully, have strong conviction for an idea that you disagree with. It’s an easy point to make, but very difficult to execute in reality, and that’s why being self-disciplined as a leader is critical.
What tactics do you use to create a healthy team environment?
It’s not only important to hire smart people, but you also have to trust them and give them enough space to succeed and fail. Part of that is allocating enough resources to each person, and also expanding their responsibilities as they earn more trust.
Another tactic I employ is to instill and reinforce these values with your team aloud and cross-functionally. Celebrate success and failure, and treat failure as a learning experience. And be sure to create forums where every type of personality feels comfortable speaking up, whether that’s in an open Google Doc or setting up open meetings where people can express their thoughts. At Netflix, we call this tactic actively “farming for dissent.”
How do you balance team autonomy with being a strong leader?
I like to use the metaphor of having chips at the casino. When you’re a new or junior PM, you start with a small number of chips that equate to your resources and freedom to operate independently. As you become more senior, you accumulate more chips. As an executive, I obviously have my own chips and quite a few of them, but I’m intentionally more careful about what I spend those chips on––particularly because the bets I make tend to be more strategic and larger scale.
I also try to think about the double-edged sword I use when I get involved in a particular initiative. Because of my seniority and influence, I may add tailwind to the initiative (for better or for worse), but I also take away some of the agency of the product managers, designers, and engineers on the team. When I have a strong instinct or opinion, of course I’ll dive in and get involved, but otherwise I like to let my teams run as autonomously as possible. A question I often ask myself when thinking about getting involved in an initiative: “Will my opinion make or break this initiative?” If the answer is no, I try to be as hands-off as possible and let the team own it.
What are your favorite questions to ask in interviews?
Related to my earlier point on having a balanced team, one of my favorite interview questions to ask Product leaders is:
“On a scale of 1 to 10, how talkative are you during a meeting?” (10 = most talkative)
I don’t judge the person based on their number, but more importantly I immediately follow up with the “why” and “how” they think about their answer. Then, I ask them what they think that number will be in five years so that I can learn how they think about growing as a leader. For example, I used to be a 9, but I’ve consciously worked on discipline to get myself closer to a 5.
I also don’t pretend I’m going to have some incredible insight on a person after only one 45-minute interview. Some people present well and give a great interview, but they’re not great at the job. So rather than focus on interviews, I prefer to give people an exercise to complete and present. During the presentation I focus on how the person thinks through processes and also how well they accept feedback or pushback. I’ll ask questions like: “Did you think about this?” or “Why didn’t you do it this way?” The reason I like to ask those types of questions is because I want to see how stubborn the candidate is. While I want them to be flexible, I don’t want them to concede to everything I say.
A great Product leader has the maturity of judgment to be a good listener when receiving feedback and incorporating it when it matters, but is also able to stand their ground for what they have conviction in.