TKS Talks - Saturday January 23, 2021 - Amy Smidutz - The Future of Engineering at Netflix
Hey everyone, I am so excited to be here. That video was amazing stuff. I can't believe someone is doing that. When I learned about TKS, I was instantly excited. The idea that kids could have access to a program like this at such a young age is really incredible. Thank you. As Nadeem said, I am the Director of Delivery Engineering at Netflix. I grew up in a very small town called Rockingham in Vermont.
If you're not really familiar with the US, it's in the Northeast. I have a big family. My mom has three siblings and my dad has four siblings. We all live within twenty miles of each other. I spent a lot of time with my cousins.
Since I was in the middle of that pack, I was exposed to a lot of things, including One of those things was video games. My cousins and I would spend hours fighting over who could go next. When I was in middleschool, I loved taking things apart. I always asked my mom if I can have broken electronics. I was very curious about how things worked When I was in seventh grade, the school bought computers through the library. I noticed the librarian was having trouble so I asked if I could help. I had no idea what I was doing. I just tried a bunch of things until it worked.
She thought I might have a propensity for technology. I was invited to go to a summer camp at vermont tech. For one week I stayed in a dorm with 12 girls who all got to pick classes we wanted to take. I chose one where I got to build a sound machine and it was the first time I got to put something together instead of taking it apart. And the other class I got to take was a class where I got to learn how to use CAD. It helped me with my jobs out of highschool.
I loved learning alongside people who were as curious as I was Even though learning about technology that week was amazing, the real lesson was there was just a ton of people out there like me who were into technology and engineering. School was always really hard for me. I get bored easily and I found the repetitive nature to be extremely difficult to keep my attention. And highschool made it so much worse because it felt like the classes were very mechanical. Just going to do a couple sound tests before we continue on with All right here we go. My parents helped me get my first computer. They didn't have a lot of money
but they realized this was really important to me. I had an a knack for technology. That had come up several times so far. They thought it was really important that I pursued that interest. Pretty soon after that, I discovered the internet. I didn't even know what this was. This was a new thing.
At the time, if you tried to explain what the internet was, it was very difficult to get a sense of that. I once again begged my parents and once again, they finally relented. I was able to get access to the internet for the first time. Through the internet I started meeting people who built websites, other girls who played video games. I started building my own websites and learning a lot more about how computers work. Since high school was hard for me, I was having a really. hard time finding focus and motivation. I ended up joining a program that allowed me to do guided self study with other students that struggled with the normal school structure.
The woman who ran the program quickly realized I was bright and helped me combine two years of school into one and I was able to graduate a year early. After I graduated high school, I got a temporary job at this great company called Chroma Technology that makes filters for microscopes, telescopes and other things that need lenses. It was a three month temp job but I ended up working there for nine months. I met a mechanical engineer. He was impressed with my curiosity and experience with CAD so he started teaching me to build things with metal.
In that job, I ended up helping him build the machine that automated the job I had. Even though my job was coming to an end, I was thrilled to have learned so much, and it sparked interest in being able to automate manual jobs. To this day automation is still part of the work that I do. And I'm still in love with it. I never lost my love of building things.
Now I mostly focus on wood but many of the lessons I learned from my time at Chroma still apply to my projects today This is a cargo van that I converted into a camper van. I like building things with my hands since my worklife is mostly about interfacing with a computer screen. It feels good to solve problems in the 3D space. After Chroma, I didn't find many exciting opportunities in the area that I lived. I decided I wanted to try my hand at college so I could hopefully open more doors for me.
I was really nervous about this because school had been so difficult for me. I felt like it was a risk that I might not be successful at. I went out and found a software development College in Arizona called University of Advancing Technology. It seemed a lot more hands on development and more focused on things I was interested in.
They had a focus on game development and all of that sounded perfect for me. I loved the idea of combining games with my love of technology and becoming someone who creates games. So across the country I went. My partner and I took off
with barely enough money to pay for our first month of rent. It turned out that I loved school. And this is a brand new experience for me and as much as I loved it, we were really struggling, we barely had enough money to eat and pay rent and we were racking up school debt. Luckily I found a post on my school's website looking for jobs that were easy to maintain while in school Someone brought up a call center job at GoDaddy. They had jobs that paid well.
I got a job center in the call center helping people use GoDaddy products. Even though I was just in the call center, it was fun to be helping people with technical support issues. I soon became pretty good at it. I was promoted to the support team and the job was infinitely better in terms of environment.
Because there was no commission, it paid a lot worse. The real benefit was that it gave a lot more opportunities for my career path. Many people were able to get promoted out of the call centre and into the engineering centre which would be a dream for me. Unfortunately, it was a first shift job, which means I would have to stop going to school.
I didn't want to leave school but the idea of having a stable income doing something I loved that had a future. It was too exciting to pass up. I felt terrible leaving school, for many years I was really ashamed I didn't finish It did end up turning out to be a good choice. I was able to do a ton of jobs which fed my curiosity. Almost all of my jobs there had a few things in common. One was the focus on automation. And the other was solving problems.
GoDaddy wasn't just a job. I found so many people that I formed deep friendships with that I still have today. I also met people who helped me learn and find my path. I was driven and curious but I was incredibly green. It took a ton of work to figure out these jobs that people kept giving me chances to do.
The first number of years, there were a number of people who gave me a shot or took the time to teach me. Finding these people and accepting their help would be considered one of my greatest accomplishments. Dropping out of college was probably the most difficult decision I've had to make. At the time it felt like I was doing something wrong but now it's just a part of my unique path It wasn't good or bad. It was just different than what I expected. After nearly a decade in Arizona, I once again wanted to experience new things. I moved to Seattle Washington which is completely the opposite of Arizona.
Pheonix is a desert. In Seattle it basically rains most of the year. It was really hard to leave. I had a lot of friendships and was attached
to the company and the relationships I had made there. It was also scary to go to a new city and a new company alone. But it felt like I had done all I could at Go Daddy. and in Arizona This was really the right next step in my path.
So I got a job at Amazon as an Automation engineer. I loved the scale of company and the kind of challenge. At scale means that we're dealing with hundreds of thousands of computers at work. We're dealing with tons of traffic. It's a lot harder to imagine how to build things
in that kind of environment. I met a technical program manager who taught me how to manage projects and and other people to work together to solve really difficult problems Up until then I had been mostly focused on learning my technical skillset These new skills would be the foundation of my career going forward. I made great friends at Amazon. I also learned that I loved to mountain bike.
I was lucky enough to have friends to show me the ropes For years I had been singularly focused on my career and I was starting to get tired by that pace. By pouring some of my energy into something else I felt that my focus and energy for work had returned It was a great lesson for me about balance. You need to let your mind work in the background sometimes. It was a great way for me to accomplish that. After Amazon I spent a few years at a startup called Moz. I was still focused on platform and infrastructure but I had a great manager who mentored me into management.
It turned out I loved it. I also found a niche that I enjoyed which was focused on reliability Once again, I wanted to try something new. I got a job at Netflix and I moved to San Francisco At Netflix I continued to learn how to make systems more reliable.
And my teams build tools for other engineers Our job is to make their lives easier so they can focus on bringing the best possible experience to our customers. I'm incredibly in love with my job. I work with amazing people and I learn so much every day. I have a ton of passion for what I do and at many times in my career I've been shocked I get paid to do such fun work.
I have a few pieces of advice for you all. Find your people You don't know when you're meeting someone that can change your life forever. Just because we're in a born certain place, culture or family, doesn't mean that there aren't other people out there who will impact you just as much or more. Let your curiosity guide you. Curiosity involves constant learning and passion. I've found that it's much more important to focus on what you're interested in and become the best you can in that area than it is to focus on the outcome that you're trying to get to.
I'm not terribly risk adverse. I have a thirst for trying new things. I like going to new places. So I tell everyone lean in to adventure. Take those risks. The opportunities that you're looking for will come to you. Over the years I realized that while computers are fascinating, people are even more fascinating.
In order to do your best work, you really need to understand what's going on with the people you work with and where they're coming from. Work is hard and it's filled with emotion. The earlier you can learn to empathize and improve relationships, the easier it will be to get your best work done. Thank you for letting me tell my story. I'm excited to answer questions from Nadeem and all of you.