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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Aaron Blohowiak from Netflix on Mistakes and Discoveries While Cultivating Ownership

Aaron Blohowiak from Netflix on Mistakes and Discoveries While Cultivating Ownership

In this podcast recorded at QCon San Francisco 2019, Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Aaron Blohowiak of Netflix about using a framework for delegation to encourage ownership and engagement among team members.

Key Takeaways

  • There is often a mismatch in expectations when looking to delegate ownership and responsibility in teams
  • A framework for delegation moves it away from being uncertain and unclear towards explicit clarity
  • The level of ownership that is delegated is situation and context dependent
  • Being explicit about when the level of delegation changes is vitally important for getting the results that you want and for the emotional wellbeing of the people that you're delegating to
  • When you hire really smart people,  set very good context and you give them the information they need, they will make great decisions


00:21 Shane Hastie: Good day folks, this is Shane hasty for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. I'm at QCon San Francisco 2019, and I'm sitting down with Aaron Blohowiak. Aaron, welcome. You gave a really interesting talk at the conference on mistakes and discoveries while cultivating ownership. But before we get into that, would you mind introducing yourself for the audience, please?

00:43 Aaron Blohowiak: Sure. Thanks so much for having me on. I am an engineering manager at Netflix. I've been at Netflix almost four years, and before that was a software engineer and independent contractor for the better part of a decade, or more than a decade, at various startups throughout the Bay Area. I joined Netflix as a senior software engineer and role changed into management a few years ago, and that has been a totally new job and a series of learnings for me and I am really grateful for the patience of the folks on my team, and I thought that if I'm struggling with some of these things, perhaps I could share these stories. I happen to work in the infrastructure operations side of things, and there we have a real culture of sharing our... Sometimes they're called war stories, but just the stories of things that went wrong or were surprises in order to have other people maybe know what to look out for, for themselves. I wanted to be part of that tradition, contribute to the corpus of knowledge in any small way that I could.

01:43 Shane Hastie: Tell us a little bit about the talk.

01:45 Defining a Framework for Delegation

01:45 Aaron Blohowiak: Through trying to create this culture of ownership and help people get to the level of independence that we expect for them at Netflix, I've found that there were frequently mismatches between my expectation, the expectation of the person that was trying to delegate responsibility to. So in the talk, I explore this framework that we ended up creating that described different levels of ownership, which took it from something that was implicit and hard to talk about, hard to reason about, and made it explicit and a first-class domain entity in our system of interaction, if you will. So instead of trying to more crudely navigate, "So how much of this do you want to oversee," or look over my shoulder kind of thing, instead of we could say, "Okay, we think that we're going to be at this particular level for this particular reason." And we can have a discussion about it apart from the actual act of delegation itself.

02:42 Shane Hastie: Let's explore just the one word in there. Ownership. What does that mean in a management relationship?

02:50 A Spectrum of Levels of Ownership

02:50 Aaron Blohowiak: Totally. So I think that there is a spectrum here of ownership that's not really binary, and that spectrum, the highest level of ownership is where someone thinks about the future of the particular area or part of the code base or service that the team provides, and they understand how, as the larger context evolves, their particular aspect will fit into that evolving context, and also understanding how they want to change both what they are owning and how that will influence the things around them. So that's the highest level of ownership, where they're being super, not just proactive, but thinking about the long term and figure how things should be.

03:29 Aaron Blohowiak: Approaching this from the other ends, with no ownership, basically the zeroth level is demonstration or the leaders doing the delegation, which could be a manager or senior IC on the team, anything like that, is going to be demonstrating this is what quality looks like. And there the other person in the relationship is really responsible for asking really great questions, trying to learn the reasons why we're doing things, not just, "Oh, this is the way that things have been done." That doesn't create engaged people who can help shape the future. But what you really want to do is explain why we're doing things. And if you are the person who is in the learning role in this teaching or learning role, you're really responsible trying to get at why, because for those of us who have been somewhere for a long time, we're kind of like the fish in water where we don't even realize all of the things that we've forgotten even.

04:16 Aaron Blohowiak: So that the next level past demonstration is oversight, where you're going to do the work and I or some other senior person on the team is going to pre-approve it basically and give you lots of detailed feedback. And this is where you're just starting to get into being generative yourself rather than a pure learning mode. And we tend to spend very little time at that demonstration level and even a small amount of time at this what we would call oversight level. There's one thing that we always want to maintain being an oversight, which is really code contributions, but that's a peer relationship where people send pull requests and rely on pull requests comments, and people shift back and forth of are they the person who is providing that oversight and the person who's submitting the work, and that goes to show that the level of ownership that you're at is situation dependent and context dependent.

05:07 Aaron Blohowiak: Beyond that we have referred to as observation. So instead of pre-approving something, we're going to have some monitoring of what's going on and then provide high-level readjustments or realignments. And that allows people to really be putting forward their ideas, they have a very long runway, and that is the state that we try to get to very quickly. Those first three are really in this sort of approval seeking kind of realm, and as we want to move people to the next levels, which are all much more about independence. So after observation, we have independent execution, and that's where I or someone else can say, "That's where we want to go." And the person would say, "Okay, I got it." And we can trust that if they run into any stumbling blocks, they aren't sure about some piece of information or context that's important to what they're doing, they'll ask, and that is a level that many organizations are happy with senior engineers achieving, where there's a high degree of autonomy, high degree of trust, a high degree, certainly, of mastery of those skills.

06:11 Aaron Blohowiak: Like I had mentioned at the beginning of talking about this model, the highest level that we have is really that vision level, where beyond being independent and executing towards a goal, you're helping shape what that goal is. So these levels, again, just to summarize. Demonstration. I'll do it, ask good questions. Oversight. You'll do it, show it to me before you send it or submit it or whatever. Observation. I'll monitor this from afar and give high level guidance and feedback. Independent execution. Go for it, you got this. There'll be some random check-ins just so I know what's going on. And vision, which is you should be telling me what we're doing. And that model has helped us to navigate some fun situations where little did we know we had a mismatch in which level we thought that we were at and which level we should be at.

06:55 Shane Hastie: So there's an explicit conversation about what level is appropriate for the task, or is it for the person?

07:02 Is Delegation for the Task or the Person?

07:02 Aaron Blohowiak: Oh, that's a great question. I've learned to have explicit conversations. I didn't start out that way. But the kinds of conversations we have around this are going to be explicit whenever there's a level change, or as people are onboarding, there's an explanation of the different levels. There's a series of expectations. So after three months, we expect you to be mostly in that demonstrate oversight mode with the goal that you're on our on-call rotation. After six months, we expect you to be executing independently against one of the quarterly goals that the team had previously agreed was important. Then in the first year, you should be helping shape the team vision. And that's the general ramp-up for my team, at least, for how we expect people to climb this levels of ownership.

07:45 Aaron Blohowiak: So that is for the general where we expect you to operate as an engineer. Within each relationship and within each project, though, there are different times to modulate what the correct level of ownership is. So I can share you a story if you'd like.

07:58 Shane Hastie: Please do.

07:59 Telling a Story – “don’t you trust me?”

07:59 Aaron Blohowiak: There was one person on my team whose name is Archie. Name changed to protect the innocent, and I really do think that he's innocent and he was super senior, been at the company a while, totally kicking butt. And I put forward the idea for a really big project that was going to change the way that production operations worked for dozens of teams scoping across a few hundred microservices. So pretty impactful project. And wrote the proposal, worked with stakeholders, put the proposal through a large decision-making forum, and ultimately the proposal was approved. So awesome, right? Totally kicking butt at that vision level. And after this was approved, the next step that Archie had that he proposed was to go and have a series of meetings with different stakeholders again, but this time with trying to dig deep on a particular approach that was going to be taken towards building the solution for the goal that was proposed in this proposal.

08:54 Aaron Blohowiak: And I was super excited about that. Super happy for how everything was going. I had a couple of things I wanted. One, I wanted to understand for myself, what are the customers really looking for here? Sometimes just hearing it from their mouth is a little bit different than hearing from it second hand, even though I fully believe that Archie was going to represent them well, it was nothing quite the same as having it raw. And the second thing was, this is the end of this kind of arc of Archie transitioning into a new role. So I wanted to be there to just make sure that things were happening as amazingly as I thought they would and so I could speak intelligently about this new capacity that Archie was filling. So I asked Archie, "Hey, can you add me as optional to those stakeholder meetings?"

09:37 Aaron Blohowiak: And he replied to me and he said, "Why? Don't you trust me?" And that, I'm sorry, a little choked up. That hit me pretty hard. So as a leader, there's no clearer sign that perhaps you're not doing a great job than to have someone to ask you, "Don't you trust me?" And I wish I could say that at the time I understood from his point of view, what I was asking. From my point of view, "Everything's amazing. You're awesome. I want to see what's going on so I can justify giving you a compensation increases commensurate with your new scope of impact." I didn't set that that up, of course. I was just so excited. I was like, "Hey, can I be a part of that?" A little bit of FOMO kicking in.

10:17 Aaron Blohowiak: So there are two main times that I find myself lacking that empathy for other people. One is when I'm super excited about something. I just assume other people are going to be excited too. And two is when I feel righteous, and we'll talk about that maybe some other time. So the thing with Archie at this point was he was operating consistently at that vision level, we would check in very high level, like strategy kinds of conversations, not so much the tactics. So for me to ask him to downshift to observation or in his mind what was oversight to be actually part of those meetings was a clear sign of a lack of trust that maybe he had done something wrong, that maybe I thought he wasn't ready to operate at this new thing. Like I said, from my perspective, it was more like, "This is new." I wanted to hear for myself what the stakeholders are doing. I have an obligation as a leader and as a manager to observe the people doing the work from time to time and to know for myself what our customers think.

11:16 The Importance of Being Explicit about Why when Changing the Level of Delegation

11:16 Aaron Blohowiak: So if those were my reasons for wanting to change the level of ownership that we had, at least in the beginning of this new phase, and without having that explicit conversation upfront with just making the ask, it was up to him to imagine what my reasonings were. And that's not a great position to put someone in. If you've ever tried to put toothpaste back in the tube, emotions are kind of like that sometimes. So then there's a series of hard work on my end to rebuild that relationship, rebuild that trust. Even though I told him, "Look, I want to do this, and one of the main reasons is so I can speak eloquently when I'm making the case for a compensation increase." He heard that, he smiled, and then the overwhelming anger and fear had returned. People, even when they receive new information, can't change their emotions at a time when you shouldn't expect them to. So this is one example of how I realized that being explicit about when that level changes is super important for getting the results that you want and for the emotional wellbeing of the people that you're delegating to.

12:16 Shane Hastie: That's an example of a bit of a slip along the pathway. You got a counter story?

12:25 A Story of Delegation Done Well

12:25 Aaron Blohowiak: Sure. There's another person on my team who's awesome. Her name is Lily and she's fantastic. She joined the team and one of the things that our team does is we evacuate regions. So, we run in three different regions for high availability purposes, and we can run any two of the three. So every two weeks or so, we run a planned evacuation of one of our regions. So Lily had joined the team and she was responsible for running one of these evacuations. We put everybody through that in their first two weeks on the team. And afterwards we send an email out that gives a report of what happened. So I told her, this is where the Google Drive is for all of the different previous memos. It has a template in there, please match the style and tone of the message. She did that and she ran it by me to say, "Hey, does this look right?" So we were operating at that oversight level. And I was like, "Yeah, this is awesome." So she sent it out.

13:19 Aaron Blohowiak: The next time that we had this activity, she again sent it to me and I was looking for her to try and take more ownership, so I just replied with an emoji, the thumbs up emoji. And I thought that this was going to let her know that maybe I wasn't taking the oversight as seriously anymore, and that she could back off and take on that next level. Well, she kept on sending that to me because instead of having me encourage her to back off from seeking that approval, I was in fact reinforcing that I wanted to give my thumbs up shaped rubber stamp. And at one point we just had to have an explicit conversation. I was like, "Look, you're amazing, you're doing this very well. I don't need or want to pre-approve these messages." And she was like, "Great, thanks for letting me know."

14:01 Aaron Blohowiak: So she also had no desire to seek my approval, but she has a very high sense of propriety, and since I had asked like, "Hey, can I look over this before you send it" for the first one, she thought that was just going to be our standard operating procedure. So setting that larger goal for everyone, ultimately I want you to get to vision in whatever it is that you're doing, would then be the right context for her to choose at her pace when she thinks we should be escalating up those levels of ownership. So in the next big thing that she took on, which was a relatively new project of load testing entire regions, which was a project that someone else had recently started, she had created plans, asked a lot of questions of the person who kicked off the project, and that was all appropriately operating at that oversight or observation level. The load test went amazingly well. Like I said, she's awesome.

14:47 Aaron Blohowiak: And then afterwards I wanted to make sure to not repeat my mistake, so we had a chat. I was like, "That was great. This is yours now. I expect you to tell me what we should be doing with it." And that was just about all that I said to her to let her know that you got this. So she set up a series of stakeholder meetings. She gathered all of their different feature requests. She came up with a principled approach to understand which features belonged in this and then laid out a roadmap for the next year. And that is totally executing at that vision level. So that's one case where I happened to get things right.

15:25 Explicitly Give Permission to Climb to Higher Levels of Delegation

15:25 Aaron Blohowiak: But my main takeaway from that was not only be explicit, but also there's a huge portion of the population that is going to be approval seeking until they get permission to really run with things. So that was really great to learn. And since I said that higher order context, that the goal is to always get to vision, Lily has been very careful to make it clear, "Hey, this next thing, I'm just going to go ahead and run with that. Does that make sense with you?" So there's a little bit of like oversight about the level of ownership, which is great, because that, I think is... Either oversight or observation is appropriate because this is a regulatory mechanism for how we think about the delegation at any given time.

16:05 Shane Hastie: From both the individual, the organization, and the manager, all three, what are the benefits? What does this give you?

16:15 The Benefits from the Explicit Delegation Process

16:15 Aaron Blohowiak: Well, we really believe in freedom and responsibility. So we want people to be as free to choose the best decisions as possible, because the people close to the work have the most information. So, the more that we can retain margin of manoeuvrability for people who are doing the work to make great decisions, the better decisions we can come to. So I have six people on my team right now, the director that I report to has somewhere in the order of 60 people report to him, and his VP hundreds of people. So, if management were involved in lots of decisions, well they would make fewer of them and they'd be of worse quality because there's nowhere near enough time to transfer all of the appropriate information. So instead the approach that we take is we try to set very good context and that if you hire really smart people and you give them the information they need, they will make great decisions and better decisions than anyone in the management chain would.

17:11 Aaron Blohowiak: So management serves to make sure that the right people have the right information at the right time, to think about the process of how information flows, and to provide realignment over time. If people's different ideas of what the future should be don't match up to each other then we need to bring them together and say, "Hey, you have similar contexts. You have different ideas about how things should be, but they're incompatible. We want to all be rowing in the same direction on this ship together." And as a manager, having people that are coming to you with a vision and saying, "This is the way that things should be," really lets you scale. And it lets you fulfil all the different responsibilities that we expect of managers at Netflix, which included a lot of sourcing, recruiting, technical vision and strategy, where that means not putting forward that vision strategy yourself, but understanding what it is for your team and communicating that to stakeholders and also the product and project sides of things.

18:03 Aaron Blohowiak: So the way that you can do all of those things and run an ever expanding team is by having scale. And the more independent the people that report to you are, the more scale that you can have. So at Netflix we do hire very senior people so we have that expectation that everyone's going to achieve the vision level, and not just in software engineering roles, but in all of the roles for our full-time employees. Many organizations don't take that same approach. And there I think the similar framework is still useful, because you're going to want to navigate what that appropriate level is.

18:34 Aaron Blohowiak: So when I was bright of eye and bushy of tail, and much earlier in my career, I was mistaken in what the appropriate level of ownership was for myself. I would frequently think I should be visioneering and sometimes would run off in directions without talking with anyone else about it, which was a real mistake. So at that point, if I had had this explicit conversation with my manager, I would understand more fully where my personal development was and how I fit in to the way that things unfold.

19:05 Shane Hastie: Advice for young players, somebody moving into a management role or somebody wanting to move into a management role. How do I make this real?

19:16 Advice for New Managers

19:16 Aaron Blohowiak: Well, I think that if you're thinking about moving into a management role, you should think very long and hard about why you're making that move. It is a very different job from being an engineer, a senior engineer, even a principal engineer. The team lead manager thing is this halfway kind of role. As a manager or even a senior IC, as someone who's going to be responsible for translating business context into technical actions and actually doing the work, you will scale yourself through delegation. So this whole framework for how levels of ownership is a way to navigate how full that delegation of responsibility is.

19:58 Aaron Blohowiak: And what I would suggest is making this explicit, talking about the different levels and you can use your own names, you can cut the pie however you want, but just talking explicitly about how much autonomy and productivity you expect will make sure that people are operating in a way that is compatible with what you want them to. Because most people, if they understand what is expected of them, will try to work towards that. But if you have these mismatches in expectations, that's where unnecessary pain creeps in. So just be real explicit about what you expect.

20:31 Shane Hastie: Aaron, if people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

20:34 Aaron Blohowiak: I am @AaronBlohowiak on Twitter. There are a couple of different Aaron Blohowiaks on Twitter, surprisingly. I'm the one that talks about distributed systems, technical leadership, and Real Housewives hot takes, not the one who tweets about hockey. But more directly, please feel free to reach out to me. I'm, and I share that email so hopefully, people will use it. I'm always looking forward to connecting with people who want to talk about this kind of stuff.

21:01 Shane Hastie: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us.

21:03 Aaron Blohowiak: Oh, thank you so much. It's a real pleasure.


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