How Culture Impacts Technology Choice: A Review of Netflix’s Use of Microservices

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I recently had the opportunity to read the book “No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention” by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer of Netflix, and it dawned on me that while this book wasn’t at all focused on Netflix’s technology, the global company-wide culture had a significant impact on its technology choices. This revolution was made possible by an equally radical and formerly unheard of approach to a company culture that not only influenced how we build technology today but also thinks about company culture on a global scale.

Needless to say, Netflix’s technology choices went on to influence the way the entire industry thinks about architecture built for massive scale. In this post, I’d like to take a look at how Netflix’s culture was the backbone that enabled its bleeding edge technology decisions — and specifically microservices. I’ll posit that if not for Netflix’s unique approach to company culture, their technology choices would not have been possible either, and ultimately neither would their success.

Netflix’s 6 Principles of Building Culture AND Great Technology

So how does this all come together? In their book Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer outline the core cultural principles that made their success possible, I’d like to compare these side by side with the cultural practices that enable engineering organizations to successfully deploy and maintain microservices architecture — which wasn’t actually the premise behind the book, but it certainly got me thinking about the places that engineering and culture intersect.

1. Principle One: Build Up Talent Density

Netflix did not compromise on talent when it came to hiring. It hired the best possible people for each position, which was the foundation to their success. This is true by orders of magnitude when it comes to microservices architecture. Microservices require a great capacity for learning, as the people maintaining the architecture will continuously encounter new challenges and problems they’ve never confronted before.

While some companies have some pretty great engineers, Netflix has world-class engineers. This made it possible for Netflix to overcome challenges that many other engineers likely wouldn’t have had the capacity to work through as pioneers of complex architecture.

2. Second Principle: Begin Removing Controls

Netflix’s radical approach to culture can be seen in the most basic of company guidelines from expenses through vacation approvals, employee trust was built-in to the culture as a foundational principle. That said, this was only made possible by having the right infrastructure in place to support this culture as well. We’ll get into that later.

This cultural practice is one of the core factors that can influence the success of managing microservices architecture at companies that are not Netflix.

3. Third Principle: Maximize Candor Using Feedback Circles

Many times the decision to move to microservices is a top-down decision. What oftentimes happens is that the decision-makers don’t really have any concept of the complexity of the task at hand — breaking up their architecture into smaller and smaller pieces. On the flip side, those who need to execute on the top-down decision don’t have the agency to influence the process.

At Netflix, they were required to raise a flag and communicate problems when they surfaced, whereas other companies often do not enable a culture of such candor.

4. Fourth Principle: Build Supporting Infrastructure

To be successful, you need to know that as a first step you’ll be spending a lot of time in building supporting tools for your developers and DevOps teams to enable them to be productive in this transformation.

5. Fifth Principle: Celebrate Success and Sunshine Failures

I think the industry as a whole learned the importance of celebrating successes, and today nearly every organization that prides itself on its company culture has some way of demonstrating appreciation for good work. However, on the flip side, one thing that companies can still learn from Netflix is their approach to failures.

At Netflix failures are not brushed under the rug, they are analyzed, to be able to learn from each experience in order for the organization to grow and evolve, and not make the same mistakes twice.

6. Sixth Principle: Leading with Context, not Control

With monolithic architecture, it is very easy to have control, as there is only one service and everyone for the most part understands what is happening in their domain and aligns themselves to the practices in place.

With microservices, it is impossible to micromanage and therefore you have to provide the general vision and direction and trust that your teams will align to these shared goals. Netflix understood how to do this really well, and this instilled a bottom-up joint purpose that fueled much of their success.

What We Have Learned

So basically to wrap it up, microservices has proven to be a very powerful architecture to power modern, complex business, but you need to remember that to achieve success with technical architecture, it is no less important to “engineer your culture” (yet another great Netflix mantra).

Great culture without modern engineering and architecture practices results in frustration in the inability to move at the desired velocity and deliver services as rapidly as engineers would like. Advanced architecture without the culture sets you up for failure, as you will not be able to capitalize on the benefits of microservices. So if you put in the effort to craft a truly great culture from the ground up, this will be foundational in enabling your people to thrive.

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