Creating a Culture Where All Voices are Included
Shweta Saraf, Director of Platform Engineering, Netflix
I connected with Shweta Saraf, Director of Platform Engineering at Netflix in what is considered traditional these days, online through mutual friends. Shweta has worked in a variety of cultures at companies like Cisco, Equinix (formerly Packet), and Digital Ocean. We talked about helping leaders understand their impact on culture, how to ensure people feel heard, how she builds trust, and how she approaches a new team. I know you’ll find Shweta as insightful as I did.
Can you share a quick introduction?
I'm a leader in technology. I’ve been doing this for almost two decades. In my current role, I lead the Platform Networking teams that powers the largest streaming network on the earth - Netflix. My teams are responsible for building various components of the network, like the cloud gateway, the cloud engineering components, network as service platform and service mesh.
What was your journey to leadership?
The journey started with the classic girl in Mumbai having this American dream of fulfilling higher education and wanting to do something which would change the world, have a big impact, always being driven by that impact and ability to help people and serve people. So that brought me to the US and I went to school at USC and did my master's in computer networking. After I graduated, Cisco was the place to be if you wanted to do anything networking. I ended up doing an internship over there, and then a bunch of technical roles.
I realized that I could code all my life, but I'm really good at solving problems and helping people. There came a point where I had to decide: am I going to be a tech lead and continue doing that, or am I going to take up engineering management as a full-time role? Because a career is like a pendulum. There's no right or wrong way. But for me, it was important to be very self-aware and understand the feedback I was getting. So after spending a few years writing code, and building products, I quickly understood this is my superpower and then I was able to lead a team. That's how it all started back in Cisco.
Oh wow. That's great. A challenge that every leader faces is guiding culture. I'd love to hear your thoughts on why culture is so important and why it's something you think about a lot.
There's a lot of talk about culture. When you ask me to describe culture, it's like the air we breathe. It's not a thing that you can put your finger on but you feel it. You get energized by it or you can get demotivated by it if it is not a good culture. My mission has been to build the best environment where people can do their best work. If I do that, then I feel like that's the magic that unlocks the power of the team when they are totally empowered and they have a clear goal and they have the support to go achieve all these unsurmountable achievements that delight the customer. .
I thrive on understanding what's the true potential of an individual and multiplying that at the team level, at the organizational level. How do you unlock that by empowering them, by making sure everybody understands there's one common goal behind which everyone is united. Everybody has a role to play and as a leader or a peer to remove obstacles, to be cheering for you, and to unlock that true potential that you can bring to the work and enjoy the work while you do it.
This is also important because when you practice radical candor, you have to start with building trust and truly caring about people. You have to be really good at having direct conversations and holding people accountable because if I'm doing everything to create the best environment for you, then there is no excuse. I expect the best out of you as well. Another part to consider is
Inclusion, equity, and access. This is a very well kind of a communicated topic with a lot of opinions, but I do think that there is a difference between talking about it and practicing it.
In one of the last jobs I had at a big data center company, there was a time when more than 50% of my leadership were women leaders and people from minority backgrounds. That didn't happen by chance. It took a lot of hard work, but it was also based on the philosophy of creating opportunities for everyone. I’m still going with the person who is the right person for the job based on their merit and their performance and their contribution to the team. It's a very hard balance to strike, but I was very proud of the work that we did together we also had a lot of people from non-traditional backgrounds, people who worked at a grocery store, people who had experience kind doing wine tastings, and all in their previous lives, but then they took the initiative to go build a tech career for themselves.
I have to be a good judge of seeing the potential. Can I bet on this person? Sometimes the bets don't pan out, but as a leader, you still have to take the risk. You have to bet on people and give them an opportunity and that environment. Doing that is also a part of the culture. It’s not just what you’re doing as a leader but how people experience it.
Did you realize how much culture would be so important or how much a part of the job and the energy you would spend on it? Or did that surprise you?
Yeah, I think the first year of your management is full of surprises. So obviously I had some idea, but I didn't realize that as I grew in my career, how much energy this culture part would take. I'm very results-driven, and customer-focused, but with years of experience, that part got easier. I understood the business, I understood the technology, I had a great team, and I knew how to hire people.
Culture always poses challenges because it's a living organism. It's not one-and-done. New challenges come up.
How do you go about shaping culture? How much are you guiding it versus letting it happen?
I think it's a factor in the environment that you are in. In my first job, I was not in the minority. I could find people from my country everywhere. It was a huge company, Cisco, as I said. That was my first introduction to what a workplace culture looks like. We formed this woman in science and engineering ERG, which was a grassroots thing, and we used to run it like a non-profit startup. I was the founder. That's when I learned how everybody's experiences and culture are so different and that is shaped by the perspective they have as they grew up and are brought into their adult life.
Another shift was when I moved to Digital Ocean. Suddenly I was in the minority because it was a New York-based startup. Everybody was in hoodies and shorts. I showed up for an interview in a suit thinking, okay, I'm interviewing for a New York-based job, I need to be in a suit. It was hilarious.
Digital Ocean was a positive culture shock because it opened up my mind. I understood that diversity is not just gender-based. There are different dimensions. How do you build empathy for people that you may not have any background in? How do you learn but also not be disrespectful?
Then there's the element of proactive versus reactive. When you are not the minority, I feel like you can afford to be a bit reactive because people are in general heading in the right direction. When you are the minority, I think you do carry that weight on your shoulder because sometimes people just don't know. It's not like they have bad intentions or anything, but they're just used to working in that way. I experienced that when I was one of the few women leaders. I had to do a lot of proactive education. It took a lot of energy. Luckily for me, Digital Ocean was one of the most amazing places where they listened and were curious.
When you want to make room for all voices, it means that as a leader are going to spend some of your social capital to advocate and say hard things.
It won’t stick every time, right? I think that's also a litmus test of do you want to be in an organization where people want to change and they admit they may not know everything and everybody learns from each other, or are you in a culture where that is treated as, oh, this person is more ambitious, or this person is not in the right path or whatever, and it's suppressed. And luckily all the places I've worked in, I feel like I've seen more good than bad situations.
What's hard about creating the kind of culture you want on the team?
The company obviously has values and principles. So the place I start understanding what the company values are. Is there a value that we want to add on top of it? I sat down with the team to describe what good behavior looks like and what bad behavior looks like when you’re not sticking to those values. Sometimes people need a translation guide.
At offsites or when a new leader comes in, I make sure we do a pulse check. I want people to buy in and be committed to them versus it being pushed down on them. So I ask, do we all still represent these values? For example, I saw that as the makeup of the team changed, some values became more prominent. There were some values that people thought, okay, we are doing a good job of it, but this is one thing where we are not doing it. That kind of dialogue was energizing.
Also, the greatest work of my life is empowering people and finding their potential. For leaders, that means how do you create a multiplying effect? It’s not about you being the smartest person in the room. Are you comfortable hiring people who are smarter than you? Are you comfortable empowering them and then seeing the magic happen?
So I've spent a lot of time teaching my teams how to be a multiplier, how to get out of people's way because as managers, you don't have a degree for this, or people kind of land into the job accidentally. So I think that has been very eye-opening for my teams where they start to realize the aha moments or the light bulb goes off and they're like, "Oh, yes, I'm a manager and I'm jumping in, replying for my team every single time without waiting for four hours or whatever, and that's robbing the opportunity for somebody on my team to be the leader or take up more responsibility. I'm always covering them." So things like that. But I mean, I've developed some material with examples, and I think putting that into practice has been really beautiful for the teams I've worked with.
When it comes to culture, leaders have an outsize impact. If we don't recognize that, then we can change or warp the culture. It sounds like you teach your folks how to have more awareness of the impact they're having on the culture.
Yeah, yeah. It's not one size fits all. Every manager may have a different challenge. So also acknowledging what stage they are in. One technique I use is I’m always available and approachable. I don't try to create a barrier where people think, oh, you can't talk to her because she's the leader of the org or something. I do a lot of Zoom “hallway” conversations with people on my team.
I think that's very important when you're leading leaders, directors, senior directors, and managers of managers to respect what the individual brings to the table and respect their unique style. But also, build enough alignment that you all are marching in the same direction.
You have to make yourself available just to listen. The art of active listening goes a long way in having an impact, but also not taking up all the room. Once the leader says, "This is a good idea," people just feel like, "Oh, I have to nod and fall in line." There would be very few people who would actually say, "No, I don't think it's a good idea." And I honestly think that if everybody thinks it's a good idea, then it's a bad idea.
I love that. I want to follow up on one thing you said about jumping in. I think it's natural for us to jump in. Was that something that you had to teach yourself not to do, or something you were pretty okay at?
Initially yes. I'm a very eager, type-A A who wants to solve problems. I would jump in without even asking, am I giving my team a chance or dropping the opportunity from them?
I also worked for a few leaders who were very much like that. At one point I was honing in on that practice, thinking this is how you have to be because I saw them being very hands-on.
There are three things I want to say about this. First, as a leader, you want to be able to zoom in and zoom out. I had to teach myself that. There are occasions when you do have to fix the problem. You need to be hands-on and dive in. You need to know where to find the answer, and where the pointer to that answer is. There’s a second part.
I always tell my teams, "Respond, not react," because people who do jump in impulsively can be very reactive, and sometimes being reactive doesn't yield the best result.
How do you deal with someone who's like that on the team when you are trying to avoid it? So then I'm like, "Take a deep breath, acknowledge their request, but you don't have to rush and respond with the solution." I had to teach this to a lot of people. Early on, I think it was the process of unlearning.
As I said, I've worked for a few leaders who were very much like this. I had to realize that as a leader, my impact is by multiplying my teams and I need to be more strategic, I need to give them space and not jump in or resist that urge. Then there was this active phase of self-awareness and unlearning where I had to guide myself. But also I had to tell a few of my team members that if they see me doing that, do me a favor. Just drop me a note. Because that would allow people who are not very vocal to also feel comfortable speaking up and not feel like they're picked on.
That's so good. Was there a time when you felt something happened and trust was broken in the company? And if so, how did you go about recovering it?
Honestly, many times, right? One of my leader friends talks about wartime leadership and peacetime leadership. Are you in a situation where things are going well and you are kind of building, building, building? Or are you in a situation where you are transforming something?
Especially when you work in a very big company that has been around for 30-plus years, there is a lot of transformation that happens. I took a new role. The team was not new but I was the new leader. I was hyper-focused on translating the work my team is doing in a way where it generates customer value and is something leadership can get behind or the stakeholders can understand. I hypothesized that it was missing.
I also started doing a listening tour where my commitment was to talk to each person on my team. I thought, even if it takes me three months, I'm going to do that. I asked them questions. As a new leader, what do I need to know? What is one thing which is going well? What is one thing that's not going well?
As you get into senior leadership, it's all about pattern matching. You don't want to react to everybody's comments. Everybody has some emotions or feelings or they're new to the company, and they have a different outlook. I had to get good at recognizing the top two or three things that are pain points for this team.
And then actually going and solving them, reporting against them, and showing actual results. You automatically build trust because the team is like, “Okay, this person is not here to build an empire or do all those things, but she's here to help us. She's listening, she's responding to what we have to say.”
I think that goes a long way in terms of when you are new to the org or new to the team. What can you do to build that trust very quickly or undo the damage? There were some difficult conversations and I'm like, ‘Yes, I understand this happened in the past, I was not here, but I still think me and my team will take responsibility to address any lingering issues. But I appreciate it if you can move forward and not live in the past. So this is my commitment to you.”
Agreed. I know we're busy as leaders. It’s easy to overlook what seems like a small thing of talking with people 1:1, listening to them, and making a personal connection.
Right, right. That's very important because it builds trust. And one of the aha moments was the team saying, “I love how approachable you are.” That's something they never had before. This should be normal. You should expect it, right? It's not like you should be prevented from talking to anybody in the company. The other part was you truly get the pulse right because I try to keep the hierarchy as flat as possible, but then when you do have leaders reporting to you, you want them to solve the problems. But then you do have a way of checking the pulse on the ground without getting into their domain or team and micromanaging. So that's very important.
What advice might you give to other leaders about how to shape and maintain culture?
I feel like there is an easy path and there is a right path. Again, all this is subjective based on your situation and what kind of leader you are. I would say, especially if you're a new leader, do not go the easy route. Pick your battles. When you do, stick to the hard work that is needed to achieve the right outcome, because, in the beginning, you might not feel like you're doing much or succeeding, but that's what will differentiate you if you are someone who is going to be in the long game and deliver results which are transformative. Because as a leader, you don't get the instant gratification of committing code anymore and saying, okay, I fixed a problem.
You need to be okay with the fact that the impact of work will be seen three months down the line or six months down the line, one year down the line, based on how senior you are. So be okay with that fact and keep at it, even if initially it feels like it's full of challenges or hurdles. This is you create a legacy.
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