Netflix Sr Product Manager Shares Tips on How to Break into Product

This week Product School hosted Johnny Chang, a Senior Product Lead at Netflix, for an exclusive #AskMeAnything session. Johnny talked about how to transition into Product from various backgrounds, and how Product Management is done at Netflix.

Johnny Chang Senior Product Lead Netflix

Meet Johnny Chang

Johnny is a former Senior Product Lead who focuses on users, bringing leadership and vision and simplifying the chaos, and chunk vague problems. He was passionate about computer software from a young age and studied computer science in college and grad school, and was a Software Engineer for several years before transitioning into Product.

Johnny worked on a variety of different products including consumer web, enterprise, and platforms, at Yahoo, LinkedIn, and most recently at Netflix.

Do you use any frameworks for trade-offs between two features?

I’d say not a single rigid framework, but always make sure you make trade off in a structured way depending on the situation. A high-level general approach to start with is to focus on impact, understand the pros and cons of both, and be reminded that the decision is NEVER a binary.

Business meeting product team

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In your day-to-day product work, do you follow a strict methodical process like Agile or do you have a more freestyle lean startup approach?

We’re in between strict agile and free style. and it’s a good thing. As we grow we try to be more structured and consistent about how we approach product development, but for how fast things change we always are on the lookout for doing things differently.

What are the skills / competencies that Netflix looks for while recruiting product managers?

Not very different from the industry’s general bars, but Netflix puts a very strong focus on cultural fit as well – a lot about your value and how you operate and collaborate with teams.

I’m also on a career break and I’m interested in what things (if any) are you doing to stay sharp from a product perspective?

This is a great question, and what I think about everyday as well.

  1. Keep talking to people about the industry, product, and problems even just casually.
  2. Stay on top of news, and think about them strategically as if you work for the companies
  3. Start a side project
  4. Participate in the Product School community…like what I’m doing now!

For people entering an industry that is potentially new to them – what were some of the things you did to gain trust from your engineering team that you think might help?

Several keys:

  1. Be a servant leader, do whatever helps the engineers to move forward and let them do what they do best.
  2. Listen well, develop great personal relationships, and show you care.
  3. Bring them along the journey – don’t throw spec over the wall, bring them with you throughout the phases – help them see the problems, define vision together to make it “ours”, be in the mud with them through execution, celebrate with them through launch.
Netflix in a home office

I have a MS in Human Centered Design & Engineering and a lot of my fellow grad students are now Product Managers instead of doing UX. Can you speak about how UX designers may be good PMs?

I have a webinar next Thursday on this which might interest you. Double down on your superpower, build your unique brand around what you’re good at. Coming from a UX background probably enables you to be more user empathetic, and allows you to communicate with visuals. Use it more.

What’s the most unique cultural trait about Product Development at Netflix?

I’d say it would be the collaborative nature of decision making (large and small) throughout the develop process. We have large forums (we call product strat or tech strat) where proposal owners take the topics to get feedback from a LARGE group of attendees made of cross functional partners.

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How big do you think the video streaming industry would be in next 10 years? Would it be bigger than online gaming industry?

I think the two will grow together, and I don’t believe they will necessarily be as separate as they are today. Meaning, I see a world where passive video consumption combines with proactive interaction in gaming.

Gaming set up

What are the best traits for software engineers working with you? What do you look for when you make hiring decisions?

Product Managers participate but don’t own hiring decisions for engineers. We love engineers who are collaborative, and are proactive in communicating about their opinions, needs, and progress.

For someone who is venturing into product manager role from software engineering role, how do we prepare?

Among other things, find opportunities in your current role to expose to product decisions and works. E.g. volunteer to help your product manager (all of us need help) step up to lead cross team communication, etc. Learn from Product Managers you respect a lot.

I fear a lot of people in PM & in recruiting are prejudiced against anyone with an engineering degree. How was your transition to PM?

Not true anymore. I think most tech companies in fact not only welcome but prefer people from technical background. But that depends on the role of course. A good first step is to look for relatively technical product.

Tech colleagues

To get into the interview stage at a company like Netflix as a PM do you need referral?

If you know someone, a referral always is better. For the record, I applied through job board to get in 3 years ago. So it’s not impossible 🙂.

Do you now recognize mistakes you made when you started as product manager, if any, that someone new to that role may commit? Any “worst decision” examples?

My biggest mistake when I first started as a PM was to do local optimization and overlook bigger picture metrics.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the implementation of new features. At Netflix, if the team had a transcendent idea/feature they wanted to implement but didn’t have the data to show the interest, how did you proceed?

Not everything we pursue is initiated by data – we might not have it initially. The key is to come up with a plan to test and get the data before investing more.

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