An investigation into Netflix’s TechBlog reveals:
- How Netflix built its competitive advantage in recruiting
- How the value of blog posts multiply through time
- How the Netflix team actually writes their blog
Disclaimer: I have examined the Netflix TechBlog’s blog posts and corresponded with some of its former and current team members to understand its inner workings. I have neither worked at Netflix, nor written for the blog myself.
In september 2020, 4,100 respondents in a survey ranked Netflix as the best place to work, over GitHub and Google. That is, in no small part, due to its salaries, its culture, and its brand. But of course, Netflix also has a not-so-secret asset where it shows its culture to the world: the Netflix TechBlog.
As of December 31, 2020, 526 of Netflix’s engineers have written 407 blog posts at the TechBlog. According to SimilarWeb, the TechBlog gets just over 250,000 pageviews per month. 4.62% of those people end up going to the Jobs page—11,550 organic visits each month.
Whether you’re a leader at a corporate innovation team, an emerging unicorn, or a budding startup, you’re now competing with everyone for talent—including Facebook, Shopify, and Twitter for talent. As First Round Capital reported, 10.8% of founders would clear their schedules to focus on hiring.
A few months ago, Dan Luu wrote about how companies would benefit from doubling down on their own blogs. Places like Segment and Cloudflare’s engineering blogs were exemplars. I thought Netflix would be an incredibly useful example as well. Here’s a dive into how they write their blog:
How Netflix Started Its Cumulative Advantage in Recruiting
On December 1, 2010, Netflix’s VPs of Engineering Kevin McEntee, Greg Peters, and John Ciancutti published the first blog post at the TechBlog, which was hosted at Blogspot.
At the time, the company’s brand was nothing like the powerhouse it is today. Netflix had just started their first streaming-only plans. It was three years before the debut of House of Cards. Google was already the place to work—and would go on to be the subject of The Internship.
McEntee, Peters, and Ciancutti introduce the blog, and the company:
This is a new Netflix blog focused purely on technology issues. We’ll share our perspectives, decisions and challenges regarding the software we build and use to create the Netflix service.
Netflix is a software company. We don’t sell software, but nevertheless software is our lifeblood. We’ve been a software company since an accomplished engineer, Reed Hastings, co-founded the company in 1997. That competence has been critical to our growth and in our transition to a streaming-focused company from a company that mailed DVDs.
This cultural change starts with the leaders actually doing what they want other people to do. Throughout December 2010, they and other VPs of engineering wrote the first five blog posts that still exist at the blog. Gradually, in January 2011, some directors started writing. From March onwards, more team members started writing at the blog.
The earliest posts include covering why Netflix uses Amazon Web Services and what they learned from the process. Another post covers open source software (while dryly rebuking the wine and dine sales process). Sometimes they even just simply announced the webinars they’d be at.
Looking from the outside in, its first major success was written by then cloud directors Yury Izrailevsky and Ariel Tseitlin, entitled, “The Netflix Simian Army.” The piece received over 100 upvotes from Hacker News, which presumably had fewer members back then. It went on to become the fundamental building block of chaos engineering. When they open sourced the tool the following year, they subsequently got coverage in Ars Technica. Years later, I heard about “The Netflix Simian Army” post from two software engineers at a different technology company. And of course, we can’t forget Antonio García Martínez’s book title, a nod to the chaos monkey.
The writing seems like the simple part; ideating, developing, and deploying the programs were the complex part. After all, having a blog wouldn’t mean much if Netflix didn’t have anything to write about. But, I’ve heard many company leaders have the opposite problem—they have a lot of interesting stuff going on, and nobody knows about it.
That’s the problem the blog solves. By making people aware of what’s happening inside the company, the people who find the posts and projects interesting will also become more aware of the interesting work inside the company.
Throughout the years, the publishing schedule doesn’t look regular—anywhere between one to five posts per month—but the team is getting into and maintaining the habit. After years of doing this, they have over 400 blog posts that still draw traffic back to the blog.
According to SimilarWeb, 50.48% of traffic is direct. As far as we can trust a traffic estimator (and SimilarWeb seems to be the best), I’m guessing a fair chunk of that direct traffic would be from a source that’s difficult to attribute referrals to—Slack, emails, and such. Perhaps the remaining chunk is people actually visiting the block directly (typing “netflixtechblog.com” into the browser), which is a sign that people actually want to read the blog.
13% of its traffic is referrals, from which Hacker News provides 36.43%, and 23.28% from Medium.
24.12% of its traffic is through search, with most being long tail keywords—“netflix blog” and “netflix engineering blog” are the most searched terms, each bringing in just over 2% of search traffic. This is a good sign—people have heard good things about the blog and want to read it.
Over time, Netflix migrated its TechBlog from Blogspot to Medium. The content is flexible, so long as you can export and import it. Don’t let that seemingly difficult decision paralyze you from starting—and don’t feel obligated to flex your muscles. Just do what works, and simplify. The most important thing is to actually write.
Writing scales across time and space, and its value often increases over time. I’ll quote Gene Shannon, the editor of Shopify’s UX blog, who says, “You create something and the value doesn’t just disappear the week the post goes out, but once you build up a corpus of content over time, that value multiplies on itself.” The key is to publish and share the work, and to keep on writing.
Netflix’s Writing Processes
Netflix’s team understands that writing the blog is to support recruiting. Each post has a call-to-action and link back to Netflix’s jobs page. Shortly before I wrote this piece, one Netflix team member told me that the writing process for the TechBlog is very organic. There isn’t much formal organization to it; managers provide gentle pressure to write as posts are great for recruiting and a team’s profile:
- Any person or team can decide to write a post, and they are expected to do due diligence.
- Colleagues and teams are expected to peer edit.
- The post is submitted to a formal review from corporate comms and legal, facilitated through an internal mailing list.
- When the post has been approved, it’s put through a simple scheduling system to choose the day to launch the post.
- Sometimes, posts don’t end up on the TechBlog but at LinkedIn or other channels. Sometimes, TechBlog posts end up getting cross posted at Netflix’s research hub as well as its Newsroom.
This laissez-faire method might sound counterintuitive (“Where is the editorial calendar?!” one might gasp), but it works because of a critical component. One of Netflix’s key themes is it removes standard operating procedures, and instead allows its team members to decide its own rules. Here it is in founder Reed Hasting’s words, from a lightly edited transcript of Tim Ferriss’s podcast:
“Well the mistakes in [my previous company] was that every time we had a significant error—the sales call didn’t go well, a bug in the code—we tried to think in terms of what process could we put in place to ensure that this doesn’t happen again and thereby improving the company. And what we failed to understand is by dummy proofing all the systems that we would have a system where only dummies wanted to work there, which was exactly what happened.”
With a combination of this culture, which expects its employees to rise to its expectations rather than fall to a standard operating procedure, as well as its recruiting objectives, team members write when they have something to say, and trust each other to write and provide feedback.
Throughout the 10 years, Netflix has made writing its TechBlog such a part of the culture there’s no need for a formal editorial calendar. While the process might be organic, the recruiting needs are very real. Here’s an example of what a “campaign” for hiring might look like.
As of January 2021, Netflix is currently hiring for seven senior roles in their data science and engineering department. In order to help draw candidates to this hiring need, the analytics team wrote a series of posts:
- The main one is an intro to the team. (SEO or content marketers might call this the “hub” page.)
- One is a Q&A about career paths.
- One is a “day in the life” blog post.
- One is formatted as a Q&A about the work process.
These posts are unique from a lot of the others. They’re not just about showing a specific project, but instead, are designed to give something of a realistic job preview. And, it works! People actually get value from these pieces, clap for it at Medium, and share it often at Twitter.
The Compound Interest of the TechBlog
There is more to Netflix’s recruiting playbook, but even the TechBlog is not a strategy you can rip off blindly. For example, if your company or team needs more organization and guidance, then the laissez-faire approach will not work as well for you. While there are simple principles and patterns, the major key is a lot of work, interesting projects, and organization where it matters.
As the VPs wrote in the introductory post, the Netflix TechBlog stayed true to its goal, “We’ll share our perspectives, decisions and challenges regarding the software we build and use to create the Netflix service.” A lot of the blog posts are simple documentation of the thought process behind a project. Whether it’s lessons learned from successes or failures, how you make decisions, or explaining the role of a team and its members, it’s all material. You can write sequels to popular posts (e.g., post, sequel).
It would be interesting to see what posts its legal and communications team vetted, and the criteria they use to determine things. But then again, knowing Netflix, perhaps each individual reviewer is trusted to use their judgment. Since Netflix is a public company, I’m sure this is an important part of the process.
There are a lot of things to consider when starting a team blog. Perhaps leadership needs further buy-in to the blog, perhaps people need greater incentives (Shopify was considering paying its employees to write blog posts), perhaps the culture needs greater transparency. It can get complicated, fast!
Starting and maintaining consistency is the key, which can best be done by setting incentives and building writing—and supporting recruiting—into the culture. If you have any questions or need guidance, feel free to respond to this piece, or contact me here. My studio has consulted with teams at Shopify and Flipp to start their blogs, and we could support you as well.