Netflix is a major player in the entertainment industry, and their streaming video service is available nearly worldwide on smart TVs, game consoles, mobile phones, and more. But how do they provide such a consistent visual experience to millions of customers? It's thanks to people like Netflix's senior UI engineer, Rich Smith. As a member of the marketing tech team, he focuses on the web app experience. Rich explained his process behind designing at Netflix, and talked about what drew him to work there after moving out to the Bay Area. Rich also shared a tale about his journey from design to software engineering, mentioned what first got him interested in tech, and talked about his mentoring and volunteer work with /dev/color. Rich's story is proof that even when you're stuck, something as simple as a change in perspective can help empower you to move forward. Next week: episode 300!
Netflix is a major player in the entertainment industry, and their streaming video service is available nearly worldwide on smart TVs, game consoles, mobile phones, and more. But how do they provide such a consistent visual experience to millions of customers? It's thanks to people like Netflix's senior UI engineer, Rich Smith. As a member of the marketing tech team, he focuses on the web app experience.
Rich explained his process behind designing at Netflix, and talked about what drew him to work there after moving out to the Bay Area. Rich also shared a tale about his journey from design to software engineering, mentioned what first got him interested in tech, and talked about his mentoring and volunteer work with /dev/color. Rich's story is proof that even when you're stuck, something as simple as a change in perspective can help empower you to move forward.
Next week: episode 300!
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Maurice Cherry: All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.
Rich Smith: My name is Rich Smith. I am a UI engineer, a senior UI engineer at Netflix, and I work currently on a team that builds apps for our marketing team. So it's internal facing apps and the apps are essentially to help the marketing team scale their efforts with regards to trailer creation and localization around the world.
Maurice Cherry: I was just about to ask you what that team is sort of comprised of, because I know a few years ago, Netflix had really expanded to make sure that they were available in every country. So I feel like the marketing tech team probably has a pretty big lift at Netflix.
Rich Smith: Yeah. So it matters a lot to us for all of our customers to find content on the service that they enjoy and thatt they can identify with. And so to that end, our marketing team kind of exists in little pockets all over the world and many of our offices globally, there are marketing team members within them, so that they can have a better understanding of the culture of that region, and of the countries that we're in so that we can better serve our customers.
Maurice Cherry: Okay. And so with the work that you do as a UI engineer, is it just on the mobile apps, is it on the web apps? Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Rich Smith: Sure. So the current focus of my team is exclusively web apps. I think the only mobile apps that we really have on the internal side would probably be for our studio partners. But beyond that, the other major mobile team that exists is for our external facing product, the main Netflix product that everyone knows about.
Maurice Cherry: Now you've worked at a few other companies out in the Bay area. From what I could tell from my research, you've worked at Omni, you worked at Recurly, worked at a few others. What drew you to Netflix?
Rich Smith: That's a good question. So after working at those companies that you mentioned, which were much, much smaller startups, the largest of them being only around 50 employees, I just decided that I wanted a change of pace, and I wanted something that I wasn't able to find at a startup myself in the several years that I've worked at them. And part of that was better pay, part of that was better work life balance, just because depending on the stage of the startup, as an engineer, sometimes you have to work really hard, which I've done and I've been burned out a few times and I wanted to work at a company that had a more mature culture, somewhere that kind of had its identity figured out and wasn't worried about finding product market fit, but instead was focused more on growth and entering into a new phase of maturity for the company.
Rich Smith: And originally Netflix honestly wasn't even on my radar because it's an hour south of San Francisco, and I live inside of San Francisco. And the timing of everything really just worked out. I was mentoring a friend of mine, told him that I was tired of the startup life. He said, "well, I got a guy at Netflix. Give me your resume. I'll shop it around for you." I sent it to him not thinking anything of it, continued on my own path of interviewing around, had two offers, one of which was from Amazon as a software engineer. And next thing I know, while I was in the midst of those interviewing rounds, I get an email out of the blue from a Netflix hiring manager telling me that they had a position, they heard great things about me and they wanted to talk to me and see if I was interested.
Rich Smith: Up until that point, like I mentioned, I wasn't thinking about working anywhere outside of San Francisco because I didn't want to have to commute that far, but I decided that getting an extra job offer wouldn't hurt. So I said, "you know what? Sure, I'll, I'll talk to you guys. Let's, do the interview and we'll see how it goes." And the more I read about Netflix's culture, the more I started to realize that this was the place that I belonged all along, and that even more so than the offers I already had on the table, I would've really, really loved the opportunity to work here. Just felt very in line with my values as a person. So long story short, went through the interview process and they made me an offer and I took it on the spot.
Maurice Cherry: Talk to me more about this mature culture. I'm interested to hear about that.
Rich Smith: Well, so some, I think, facets of the culture are a little controversial, such as the fact that we only hire senior level folks. Now we have made exceptions in the past, but it really depends on the rarity of the role and honestly how great the person is for it. But generally we only look for people that have three to five years experience and we like to pay those folks at top of market. And then when we bring you in, we believe in giving you full transparency. So there aren't a lot of roadblocks and there's not a lot of bureaucracy in order for you to get access to certain information and things like that. And we believe in this concept of freedom and responsibility, and so we'd rather give you business context, give you all the information you need and trust you to do the right thing.
Rich Smith: And so because they're senior level folks and because we're paid at the top of market, we don't have to worry about a lot of the other little things with regards to our life. We have unlimited time off. We're allowed to really self manage and self direct and we're just sort of encouraged to add value wherever we see value needs to be added, so to speak. And when you have a bunch of people that are sort of at the top of their game, who know what they're doing, who've kind of been around the block and who are ready to do good work and primed to do that, it actually just unlocks a lot of, I think velocity in a lot of different ways.
Rich Smith: And so it really feels mature even in a sense of a lot of the conversations we have, and the way we go about building product, and I've been in a lot of different places in my time. I've worked at big banks, I've worked in Big Pharma, but because folks here are mostly focused on doing great work, you don't find that people are out to get your job or they're out to sabotage you or they're trying to play games behind your back or anything like that. And it's actually really amazing how much lighter you feel coming into work everyday in that kind of environment.
Maurice Cherry: Hmm. You got me with the lighter part. For some reason I was just thinking of that Tony Morrison quote about people flying. I don't remember it off the top of my head, but no, I can understand that feeling of knowing that you have this very competent team that can get work done. There's less sort of hand holding and everything. You know you have a mission, you know what the goal is and you work towards that.
Rich Smith: Right.
Maurice Cherry: Now for designers, how does that look? Because I'm curious with, you working on the UI team, I'm sure there's a very robust, tech team around everything that happens with delivery and such with Netflix marketing and stuff. What does it look like for designers at Netflix?
Rich Smith: That's a great question. I'm not a hundred percent sure. I know that designers also have an equal amount of freedom. I would imagine they have a lot more impact and control over things, because designers are often working closer to the customer or closer to the stake holder of whatever it is we're building. And so they've really got to understand the needs of who will be using the apps that we're building. And they also work closely with our product management partners, to understand exactly what features need to be built, how it should work, what the UX is around that.
Rich Smith: And so all of the designers that I've worked with here so far, they just understand products in a different way and they quickly, quickly can ramp up on things and they're usually very, very open and communicative, very iterative; feedback loop is usually wide open. They always make themselves available. Some will hop into the code base and make little tweaks here and there if they decide to change colors an stuff. And we're just all really given lots of freedom, and so it's kind of interesting seeing what the different roles here look like with the type of, with the breadth of freedom that Netflix affords us.
Maurice Cherry: Now, aside from I guess, just regular Netflix viewing, I think a lot of our audience also knows about Netflix through some of the initiatives that they put together, I know they reach out to the black community; they have strong black lead, they've got podcasts that go along with that and everything, do those kinds of initiatives play into the work that you do in any sort of way?
Rich Smith: Unfortunately, I am pretty far removed from that. So those initiatives are led through our Los Angeles office and I work out of our Los Gatos office. It is still a part of the marketing team, but that is a different piece of the marketing team that I actually do not or have not had the opportunity to work with. I I wish I could be a little closer to that, but honestly no, the work that I do is a little further removed from that.
Maurice Cherry: Okay. How do you approach a new project at Netflix? You don't have to tell me like if it's any proprietary tools or stuff, but I'm just curious, given the, the huge scope and visibility of the work, how do you approach a new project?
Rich Smith: So typically you'll have ... depending on how quickly we want to get the project off the ground, we'll just start to borrow people from different teams. So we try to find teams that maybe have a more mature app or a more mature product or a little lighter of a roadmap, and then we'll say, "hey, can we borrow your designer for a couple of months? Hey, can we borrow two of your engineers for a few months?" And then, they'll have a manager on the team, and then they'll start just gathering information and talking to stakeholders, doing a lot of research, because we're very data-driven in of our decisions. And then once we feel like we have a pretty good idea of what needs to be built, we just begin executing on that. And then in the meantime we're starting to hire, to grow the team, and we're starting to figure out where this team sort of will fit in the bigger, in the bigger structure of the business.
Rich Smith: Because sometimes it might start off as sort of a splinter cell team off to the side, just kind of working quickly, almost like a mini startup, rapidly iterating and kind of ideating. And then once they kind of have a more mature app or once they kind of settle on what MVP looks like and where within the business that makes the most sense to slot them, then that's when reorgs can tend to happen.
Rich Smith: But that's usually how it goes. And I think that's how a lot of companies do it as well, where you'll just spin off as a team on the side, get that product off the ground and then once it starts to gain a little traction, then you kind of fold it into the rest of the business.
Maurice Cherry: So it sounds like there's a lot of that kind of cross team collaboration then.
Rich Smith: Absolutely. Yeah. We wouldn't be able to do our work without it because, even for an app like iBuild, I'm on the marketing side, but you know, we need to have access to all the titles that are on the service, all the employees that work in the business and access to other data stores throughout the business. And so that also requires talking to other teams. If there is an API that I need access to that isn't exposed, I need to talk to those engineers to get it on their roadmap, and work with them to try to do my work alongside them and parallel to them.
Rich Smith: So there's a lot of cross functional things going on, and to that end, everyone is really approachable and really easy to talk to. And there's a lot, we have a very, very, very active slack community where people just will hit you up out of the blue and say, "Hey, I'm working on this. I saw that you're the point of contact. Can you help me out? Can you point me in the right direction? Can you give me some tips?" You know? And it's really good to see that type of collaboration across the board.
Maurice Cherry: Nice. Nice. What would you say has been the biggest challenge that you've had since working at Netflix?
Rich Smith: I think in the beginning, my biggest challenge was finding my voice. We all have imposter syndrome, when we find ourselves in situations where we're not a hundred percent sure if we're supposed to be there, we don't really know where we fit in or how people view us. And about two or three months after I joined, we were going through a feedback cycle, and all the feedback that I got from the team at that time told me that I needed to speak up more in meetings, that I needed to ask more questions, that I needed to trust my ideas more, because I did have great ideas but they wanted to hear more from me.
Rich Smith: And I think a part of that was just trying to wrap my head around all of the lingo that they were throwing around and understand the product and what they were trying to build. And even just try to get to know the people right before I just start jumping in, with an objecting with my opinions. But I think that was really the hardest part for me was just trusting myself, trusting my ideas. Especially just because of how I viewed Netflix from the outside and how lean we are as a company. I mean there's only around 5,500 employees worldwide, and given the size of the business and the market cap that we have and the amount of growth that we've had, you would expect us to have tens of thousands of people here. And so to have so few people globally, but to have them accomplish so much, you really feel like you're in the midst of incredible talent, and when you find yourself here somehow, sometimes it's easy to kind of doubt that.
Rich Smith: And so that was, that was really it for me was just kind of getting over that hump. Now I feel very comfortable and I'm very vocal in meetings and I'll push back on things that don't make sense to me and I'll toss out ideas if I think it sounds good. Just getting to that point I think took at least six to eight months for me.
Maurice Cherry: I want to pause a little bit on comfort. I want to explore that just a little bit more, because I think certainly for whatever marginalized group you are, if you're a black person, whatever, a person of color, whenever your sexual identity is, gender identity, et Cetera, it can take time when you're like joining a new company or something, to really settle into comfort. And I feel like a lot of tech companies and design focused companies as well, have really been trying to play up this notion of making sure that you bring 100% of yourself to work. You know what I mean?
Rich Smith: Yes.
Maurice Cherry: Things like making sure you show up and you're, you're you, but it still takes a while to attain that level of comfort. Like I've been at my current job now here at Glitch for a little over a year and a half and I think I just started to settle into comfort six months ago.
Rich Smith: Yeah. Sometimes it can take a while.
Maurice Cherry: It can take a while because it's not only you just feeling comfortable with your co-workers, but then depending on how the company is, the company is changing, roles are changing, leadership is changing, and those are all things that you have to take time to sort of acclimate yourself to, along with just the regular time to get onboarded and learn tools and learn systems and processes and everything. That journey to comfort is something that I think is a, it is different for everybody, but I'm glad that you're at that point now. I'm glad I'm at that point now too at Glitch, where you can feel like you can bring yourself to work and really be who you are there.
Rich Smith: Yeah, thank you. And I'm happy for you as well. I think for me it was always a little harder at startups just because they are a lot smaller, right? And as businesses grow and you hire more people, those new people, that culture changes over time, especially if it hasn't really been fleshed out from the beginning. And here at Netflix, once I joined the folks that are in the Black ERG group, employee resource group here, we call the Black at Netflix, they reached out to me and brought me into the fold asap. I mean week one, they were like, "hey, we see you. We're out here. We do lunch every Thursday. We have our monthly meetings, we talk about this and that. This is the impact we want to bring to the business. Come and join us and be a part of us. Welcome to Netflix."
Rich Smith: And to be brought in like that, to feel that warm embrace, by the Black at Netflix employees, it felt so good. And I never had that before. I never had just people of color in this quantity. I'm out here just making a difference, you know? And we're in all levels of the business, we're in all locations. And for me I think it helped make me feel comfortable a little faster, just because I knew that if something happened in the news or something crazy was going on and I was having a down day, I can still come to work and bring my whole self here. But I would have a group of people that I can go to who understood it, who I can talk to about that, in the context of work too. And it makes a big difference. I guess on days like that it almost feels like group therapy, you know?
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. But I wonder if that's something that also comes along with that mature culture that you said, like the fact that you've got so many senior level people there, You have the velocity I would imagine, not just in product but also in culture,
Rich Smith: Right. Yes. And that's something upholding our culture or I would say not upholding it, but improving our culture constantly, is something that even our CEO talks about very regularly. And I think with company culture, it's super important that it is top down. Because it's hard to start a grassroots effort to change things, but it's easy when it's the big boss saying, "well this is the way it's supposed to be. Managers, directors, VPs, do what you need to do to make sure that this happens." When it's top down in that way, it makes it a lot easier. And so because they give us the latitude and the freedom to operate in the way we want, this is one of those things that come out of that. So yeah, it's great. Honestly.
Maurice Cherry: Nice. So you've been out in The Bay now for what? About 10 years I think?
Rich Smith: Actually about two weeks ago, I hit my six year mark.
Maurice Cherry: Oh, six year. Okay. All right. I was just doing my research, and I noticed that you had done a little bit of work for another guest that we've had on the show, Damian Madray from Honey.
Rich Smith: Oh yeah.
Maurice Cherry: Well what was that experience like?
Rich Smith: Wow. So that actually did happen probably around ...
Rich Smith: So that actually did happen, probably around, I would say about maybe seven or eight years ago. And that was still when I was just building out my portfolio. So just to kind of rewind, went to school for criminal justice, dropped out after two years, decided that I was more into computers. Taught myself how to build websites, started going on Craigslist looking for clients and things like that. And let's see, so my wife at the time, who's now my ex wife, she and Damien started working together, I think they were doing a Podcast together.
Rich Smith: And at one point, he decided that he wanted to create this website called Honey, which was for designers to leave reviews on each other's designs, and kind of help each other improve in that way. And he needed a Splash page for it, and because I was looking for new work to do to build my portfolio, he asked me to do it. And so that was kind of how that went. He got me the designs and I think I turned around that webpage in about two or three days. I got it done pretty fast.
Maurice Cherry: Wow.
Rich Smith: Yeah. And it was an interesting time for me, because I still hadn't had a chance to work professionally alongside other developers, it was really just me. And so I was just doing my best work and just kind of chugging along. But it wasn't until I really got a chance to move to San Francisco, probably about a year after I worked with Damien, that I got to really kind of see where I ranked, how I stood, and I think that's when I really started to earn my stripes. And as you can imagine, that was another time of imposter syndrome for me in a big way.
Maurice Cherry: So how did you sort of go from doing kind of landing page sign, I guess, into software engineering? How did that career path go?
Rich Smith: So the first job that I got when I moved to San Francisco was for a design agency. And up until that point, it was very, very appealing to me because I also kind of had a design background. Actually, so in high school, I started designing wallpapers and album covers for friends, and I would do T-shirts and things like that, that I would sell on eBay. And then that passion evolved into wanting to understand how to code and build websites. And so in my head over time, I got it in my head that I wanted to start my own design agency. But then when I realized how much additional work, especially on the administrative side that went into it, I was a little turned off from it. And so instead, I would rather just find a place where I can kind of just do the work.
Rich Smith: The first one was I worked as a prototype developer at LG, when they were working on their webOS Smart TV platform. And I was actually, suffice it to say, I kind of faked it until I made it, you know?
Maurice Cherry: Okay.
Maurice Cherry: So it sounds like, I guess in a way, I mean I'm thinking even back to when you were sort of designing these T-shirts. It sounds like design and tech in some way, was kind of always around you.
Rich Smith: Yeah. Even, I think my first exposure to a computer, I was probably in second or third grade, I don't know. And we had a Windows 3.1 Machine at home. And my step dad would give me a stack of business cards, and he would say, "Hey, I want you to take all these business cards, and enter it into the computer." And there was some built in contacts app or something, and I can remember, that was the first time I really spent any time on the computer. And he taught me how to play Solitaire and he taught me how to play Mine Sweeper which most people don't even really know how to play.
Rich Smith: But it's a great game, I highly recommend it. And ever since then, I fell in love with technology. And it wasn't until eighth grade, that I had my first exposure to actually, the power of being able to build a webpage, because I had a friend who built a website to review video games. It blew up, he got all of the gaming publishers to send him free versions of every single game, and accessory, and console that came out, before it came out.
Maurice Cherry: Wow.
Rich Smith: So-
Maurice Cherry: What year was this?
Rich Smith: This was 2001.
Maurice Cherry: Oh my god.
Rich Smith: Yeah, this was 2001, I was 13 and I was jealous, let me tell you.
Maurice Cherry: I'm not going to say how old I was, but okay. No, but go ahead, go ahead, go ahead.
Rich Smith: I was jealous. And all I could think was, "Whoa, so you just wrote some code, built this website, and now you're getting all these video games for free?" And I cared more about getting the free games than I did about building a website. But to me, it just showed me wow, that this is a powerful thing. This in incredible. You took something that was in your head, and you made it into a tangible thing, and now you're reaping actual live benefits from that.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Rich Smith: And it just honestly blew my mind. So I had it in my head since that point, that this was something that I wanted to do. And I didn't actually get a chance to start doing that full time, just because of limited resources at home and stuff like that, and a lot of responsibility at home. It wasn't until college, that I finally said, "You know what? I'm going to teach myself how to start building these websites now." Yeah. So those were interesting times.
Maurice Cherry: Wow. I can only imagine back then because I'm just thinking now, about how ... If we're talking about video games, everybody has a YouTube channel or something, where they're trying to stream games or they get free, advance copies of games. That's so funny that game companies were that ... I'm wondering what the website was now. What website was that? Do you remember?
Rich Smith: Oh, it was called PGNX dot net, and I don't know, I think he just made up those letters, I don't think they actually stood for anything.
Maurice Cherry: Okay.
Rich Smith: Yeah, he just kind of made it up. And also, this was back during a time when online forums were still a big deal.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, that's true. That's true. [crosstalk 00:25:22]
Rich Smith: So the site also had a forum on it too, and so he had a really active community on there which a bunch of our friends were on. But he would bring the games to school, and sell them to us for 20 bucks, in the plastic.
Maurice Cherry: What?
Rich Smith: Brand new. Yeah, because he didn't play them. So what he would do is he would find the review for that game on five different websites, and then summarize it.
Maurice Cherry: Get out. Are you serious?
Rich Smith: And then-
Maurice Cherry: He crowdsourced the review, basically.
Rich Smith: Yeah. Yes.
Maurice Cherry: Wow.
Rich Smith: And then he was just raking in the money, man. It was incredible. This dude, so now he's a VP at Bank of America in their headquarters in Charlotte, but-
Maurice Cherry: I mean, if you learn how to scam that early, I see why you would go into banking. But no, go ahead. Go ahead.
Rich Smith: Yeah, right? Yeah, it was of no surprise to me. He's a good dude though, he's a good dude. But yeah, so I was jealous about that. And actually, so it kind of influenced me in another way too. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, we got these Graphing calculators for class, and we had Chemistry, and Algebra Two, and stuff like that. And in those classes, there's a lot of formulas you have to memorize. And one of my friends had programs on his calculator, and I checked mine, and I had nothing.
Rich Smith: And I was like, "Hey, how'd you get those?" And he was like, "I don't know. When they gave me the calculator, they were already on there." So I said, "Let me borrow it, take this home, and I'm going to figure out how to copy the programs over to my calculator." And the only way I was able to do that was literally, by digging through the calculator menus, and figuring out how ... Actually replicating the code. And by that evening, I understood how to actually write my own programs on the calculator, just by replicating the ones that existed.
Maurice Cherry: Wow.
Rich Smith: So from that point, I thought, "Hey, I don't need to remember the Quadratic Formula, I can just write a program that calculates it for me. I'll just enter A, B, and C and then it just spits out the number." Right?
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Yeah.
Rich Smith: So that was what I did. So I started even just going through the chapters in my Algebra book and in my Chemistry book, and I would just plug in all of the different formulas and right programs for them. So when my teachers found out, my Chemistry teacher says, "Well I mean, clearly you understand the material if you're writing programs for them. So sure, yeah, you can use it on tests and exams and whatever you want. That was when my friends paid attention. And so I started to sell those programs to everyone for $2 a piece.
Maurice Cherry: Wow.
Rich Smith: And I had a monopoly on it, because no one else could replicate them. And because at the time, in order to transfer data between calculators, you needed a special cable to do it.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Yeah, wow.
Rich Smith: So yeah, so it was ... I kind of always had I guess, an enterprising mind if you think about it. I was always trying to figure out a way to teach myself something or to use my skills to kind of further myself. So it's kind of fun to tell those stories.
Maurice Cherry: I mean, now that I think back on it, I mean I remember I had a Graphing calculator. This was in, oh god, this was '90 ... I'm trying to remember what year it was I started using Graphing calculators. It might have been '95 or '96 or something. Maybe something like that, TI-83 I think might have been out at that time.
Rich Smith: Yes. Yes, that's the one, yep.
Maurice Cherry: And I mean, I remember playing Bomber Man on there. I remember playing, I think Super Mario Brothers. I want to say the Super Mario Brothers or Doom, one of the two. Maybe Doom we could play on the Graphing calculator. And I mean, this was also at a time when you had Game Boys and Game Gears and stuff, but you couldn't bring that into class, but you could certainly bring your calculator into class and play games, and the teacher is none the wiser. Unless you're sitting in history class, like why are you on a calculator?
Rich Smith: Exactly.
Maurice Cherry: And they're like, "Oh, you're in here playing a video game or something." That is very enterprising, wow. You can't get away with that now, though. I mean-
Rich Smith: No. No, because I think-
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, smartphones exist now.
Rich Smith: Right. Yeah, I mean, you can just Google it now, but Google didn't exist then.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. That's true.
Rich Smith: It was definitely a good experience, but I don't know. It was one of the many things I did, because I was also selling the T-shirts and that took me all the way into college. And then I started to sell the websites, once I started knowing how to do that. And then once I really started working full time, I kind of killed off the side projects. But I think after Netflix, my next step would probably be just going into business for myself, maybe giving my own shot at a start up.
Maurice Cherry: Okay.
Rich Smith: Not 100% sure what that would be yet, but I have something in the works right now. We'll see kind of what it evolves into.
Maurice Cherry: What do you think helps fuel these ambitions that you have? I mean, it sounds like you've always had a knack for having a side hustle or some kind of enterprising nature. Where does that come from?
Rich Smith: I think, always just wanting to put myself in a better position. Always just wanting to set myself up. I've always wanted to retire early, and I've always wanted to just be free enough to kind of spend my time the way I want to do it, and to make enough money that I don't really have to worry about where it comes from. And growing up, I didn't have a ton of resources. I grew up comfortable enough, I had what I needed, but I was always jealous of my friends who I thought, were much better off than I were. And for a long time, that was a big motivator for me, was that I wanted to be able to provide for myself. And then I wanted to be able to get married and start a family, and be able to provide for them as well. And beyond that, I've always just been highly ambitious.
Rich Smith: In elementary school, I used to get in trouble for daydreaming. And I would always just stare out of the window, and just daydream about all of the amazing things that I would hope to do someday. And that's just kind of always how I've been, I'm a very lofty kind of thinker. I'm very ambitious, I'm very high level, and I always like to see the best in people and the best in products, and I always look for the potential of what things can be, or what happens if we 10X or 100X this idea. This is cool, but what happens if we can do this on a global scale, right? And so that's just naturally how my mind works. And so, and I get bored kind of easily.
Rich Smith: If I'm not engaged, if I'm not challenged, if I'm not interested in what it is that I'm doing, then my mind wanders and I look for the next thing. Not to say that I don't follow through on the things that I commit to, but it's that if it doesn't evolve enough to keep me engaged enough, then I'm going to want to look for something else to challenge me, or something else to learn. And that's just, I think, what kind of drives it.
Maurice Cherry: Who are some of your influences? Who are some of the people that have helped you out along the way, throughout your journey?
Rich Smith: So one of my former bosses actually, was a pretty big influence on me because she was one of those people where she led with kind of tough love. It was like, "Oh yeah, I know things are bad for you. I know that things are kind of hard for you, but you still better get to work on time. You still better do this, you still need to just suck it up. This is life. Things aren't always going to go your way." And so I think she was a pretty big factor in my life, and she's someone who, I worked with her back in probably 2009, and her and I still keep in touch. I mean, we just spoke on the phone two days ago. So she was definitely someone. One of my uncles, as a kid, I always just saw how well he did.
Rich Smith: And he went to school to become an accountant, and he got a job right out of college working for Ernst & Young, which is one of the big three accounting firms. And he kind of rose the ranks quickly and he drove a nice car. And just as a kid, seeing that, I was like, "Wow, this is my uncle." And I was so proud and I can see myself in him. And that vision kind of drove me for a long time as well. And then beyond that, I'm the kind of person where I take little bits from everyone, from everything that I see. And so I kind of just draw inspiration from everywhere, to be honest with you.
Rich Smith: There's beyond those few people, and a couple other people over the years, I can't really say that there's the biggest ... There's a single person that's made the biggest impact on me or anything like that, because I'm constantly always talking to people, and trying to understand people, and asking lots of questions. And I'm naturally inquisitive and I always draw, even just to become the man that I am today, I've drawn little bits of people's personalities that I've liked over the years, and kind of just made it a part of me, right? And I think that has always been very beneficial for me.
Maurice Cherry: Now speaking of influences, I want to talk to you about [dev/color 00:33:43]. Can you kind of tell our audience a little bit about what it is and how you first got involved with them?
Rich Smith: Yeah. So [dev/color 00:33:50] is a non profit organization, whose mission is to help turn black software engineers into industry leaders, right? And the way they do that, is by helping us hold each other accountable for our career goals, and enabling us to help each other to achieve them. And so briefly, the way that works is they ... So when you sign up, you kind of fill up a little bit of a profile and among that, you're choosing what your career track is. And the four tracks that we have to choose from are entrepreneur, influencer, senior individual contributor, or engineering management.
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Rich Smith: Right? And based on the track that you put yourself in and based on how much experience you have, they will algorithmically break us up into squads. And the way the squads work is based on actual research done about peer mentorship groups. And they break us up into groups of between six to 10 people, and for any squad that has females in it, they try to make sure that it's at least 50% female. That way you don't have those squads where it's just the one girl, and she doesn't kind of feel like can't quite identify with most people or just to kind of help counterbalance any sort of inequities that could arise from that.
Rich Smith: And with your squad, you meet once a month, and you essentially are reviewing what your goals are, the progress that you've made since last month in achieving them. And you essentially talk to your squad mates about things that you might be struggling with, or any challenges you may be facing, or any questions that you may have, to try to take your career to the next level. Right now, [dev/color 00:35:29] exists in Seattle, Atlanta, New York, and in the Bay Area. Bay Area is where it was born. I think we're in our fifth year now, and our biggest goal right now is to hit 500 members. So and I think we're somewhere around four, between three and 400 at this point. For me, [dev/color 00:35:50] has, I've been in it for four years, and it has been incredible because, just like how I mentioned about the black employee resource group at Netflix, and how amazing it felt to have those people to identify with that work.
Rich Smith: ... amazing it felt to have those people to identify with at work. Outside of work, Dev/color was really that group for me as well, especially here in the Bay Area, because the amount of black professionals that you come across are pretty, pretty, scarce.
Rich Smith: So, I don't know what the culture is like in Atlanta, you know? But out here, you see a black person, you nod.
Maurice Cherry: Oh, it's pretty black out here. [crosstalk 00:36:19].
Maurice Cherry: It's Atlanta. It's basically [inaudible 00:36:22] with traffic. But, yeah.
Rich Smith: Yeah, but I mean, if you walk down the street, you see another black person, I don't know if it's common to give them the nod out there, as it is here.
Maurice Cherry: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Rich Smith: Okay, okay, all right. So that culture is strong here, when I walk with my wife, she kind of looks because she'll notice because me and whoever else I'm walking past, we go out of way to make sure we get seen. [laughter].
Rich Smith: But Dev/color has been great in meeting up with those folks and being involved in that community and there is also very huge thriving slack community as well and there have been all sorts of opportunities to speak at conferences and to just have happy hours and get to know other members or to partner on projects with people, or there's the wealth of information shared within a community, I think is bar none and even just being a member of that, I been fortunate enough to have some really, unique opportunities over the years too so.
Rich Smith: If that's in your city, anyone whose listening, I highly recommend you to check it out. Dev/color.org, fill out a application and I really hope to sometime get a chance to chat with you or meet you.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, I've heard nothing but great things about Dev/color and I think what has been the most interesting thing for me is to see how it's really grown and scaled over the years, because organizations like that tend to break down particularity when it comes to merging out into chapters because it's one thing if it starts in one city, and you kind of able to shape and control how the community there is but then once it breaks out into other cities, that's a whole different thing because you're not physically there.
Rich Smith: Right.
Maurice Cherry: You wonder if, the same culture is going to be upheld, is it going to be the same experience for those people. I have done volunteer work for a number of years for AIGA and I always tell people that AIGA is only as strong as it's weakest chapter, because the experiences can differ greatly between say the New York chapter than the Atlanta chapter, from the L.A. chapter, it can be just a totally different kind of thing, so to see Dev/color, really growing, thrive as it as, and now its branched out into multiple locations and it's really been inspiring for me to see that happen and the fact that you are giving opportunities to people and giving back to the community in that way. It's a really powerful thing to see.
Rich Smith: Yeah, I agree with that and to your point, the staff who make sure that Dev/color actually runs smoothly, they go to great lengths to make sure that the culture permeates through our other chapters as well and I know that they travel to the other cities quite often and all the events that they host here for us, they make sure that all the other chapters get the same events, the same hack days, the same summer socials, the same annual kick off.
Rich Smith: They fly members out and if they ever catch wind of any Bay Area member or Seattle member in a different city where a chapter exists, they'll throw you into that chapter slack channel and say, hey this person's in town, y'all should link up, y'all should talk, y'all should do something, y'all should connect this is what this is for. You know tap into the network, take advantage of it.
Maurice Cherry: No, that's great and from what I recall Dev/color started as a offline group first, before it went on line.
Rich Smith: Yeah, yes.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, I wonder if that's probably why its been so successful is because you are able to forge that in person connection first, before then trying to like spread it out, so it's like one to many in a way.
Rich Smith: Yeah and the in-person part is actually paramount to the success of Dev/color and we have pretty strict guidelines with respect to how squad meetings are run and so we kind of review them every single meeting, just so that it's fresh in everyone's mind.
Rich Smith: I actually meet with my squad last night, I had them come over my house but one of the things is, we have a confidentiality pledge that we sort of do, where anything that is said in the room, is supposed to stay in the room, and so anything that anyone shares with you, that's in your squad, you keep it between the squad because that trust is important to our growth.
Rich Smith: If we don't have psychological safety within that group, then we will want to hold back, we'll second guess things that we share and then if that happens, that bond is broken and then that person is not getting the same value out of it, that I might. You know it's one of the big things, it's also very, very time bound and very regimented in a sense that we want to respect everyone's time, while we're meeting we always plan out the next meeting, so there's no excuses as to why anyone would miss it and the structure of it, I think, really helps us, to scale it because since its all written down and adhered to for the last couple of years here, it makes it easier to start to replicate that in other places.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, it's funny I just got asked recently, this article may come out, by the time this episode airs, but I was recently asked to contribute or to say some words to an article about a lot of these design directories that pop up, that are women who draw, blacks who design, [inaudible 00:41:42] who design, etcetera.
Rich Smith: Right.
Maurice Cherry: And I was asked if these are making an impact in terms of helping out diversity in the design industry and I was like no, they're not. And I wasn't saying that to be a hater or anything.
Rich Smith: Right.
Maurice Cherry: But I'm saying it because, a lot of times what ends up happening with these kinds of things, and it's part of the reason why I didn't really go that direction with your vision path, is that these can end up just looking like a museum in a way.
Maurice Cherry: Like it just ends up being a source of inspiration, it doesn't end up being utilized as a resource or when it's been put together, its not been put together in a way that lets these people that are part of this directory, actually get jobs or have a seat at the table, or make the measurable impact [crosstalk 00:42:31].
Rich Smith: Good point.
Maurice Cherry: In the industry besides just being listed on a website with dozens of other people under a cool URL and I was hesitant when I said that but I'm like it's kinda true, because yes it's great to have all these people in one place that you can see and be like, oh you know, you look at it in February, it warms the cockles of your heart, oh that so good, but then are you getting work from that?
Maurice Cherry: Is it helping you in your job, is it helping you get more clients like how is it really shifting the industry, aside from just being a name on a website and so like what Dev/color does in terms of having had that in-person connection first and then having all these events and things it builds and fosters a sense of community, that just, from what you're saying, it branches out. It branches out further than just that group, in terms of opportunities and things like that.
Rich Smith: Absolutely and during our annual kick off in the beginning of the year what they have us do is, we will go into a room with our squad and then we'll do what we call a journey line which is, you pick eight of the most pivotal moments of your life and they can be highs and lows or however you want to represent it and then we'll rate each of them on a post-it note and then we essentially draw a line with those post-it notes and then walk the rest of our squad, through those moments of our lives.
Rich Smith: And by the time you're finished with it, you feel like you really know every one, because they're picking the eight most important impactful things for them, that has shaped them to who they are today, and it's a great way to break the ice, and it's a great way to start building that trust and I feel like in order for any group to truly be successful you have to be able to get to know each other on that level, you have to be able to break down those walls.
Rich Smith: It's great to work together professionally but I feel like the people who work best together are ones that understand each other's cultures, they don't have to be friends necessarily, but they have to at least go through the effort to get to know the folks that they work with. And in my experience the teams that are able to accomplish that the ones that are able to work better together and are a lot more productive.
Maurice Cherry: So what is it, that you're most excited about at the moment?
Rich Smith: That's a good question. I'll just say music in general.
Maurice Cherry: Okay.
Rich Smith: Music is very near and dear to me. I never had the opportunity to learn an instrument or anything but I would love to actually learn how to start producing music. I'm also hacking on a side project that is music focused as well. I want to help artists get paid more.
Maurice Cherry: Okay.
Rich Smith: So I'm just gonna leave it at that, it's pretty general but I'm a very musical person I always have music playing and I went to Coachella this year, I've gone to music festivals in the past years, I go to concerts all the time [laugher] just really, really for me steeped in music.
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-.
Rich Smith: So I will say that's something that excites me right now, just off the top of my head.
Maurice Cherry: Well now I have to ask, like what are you listening to?
Rich Smith: Mesago, Childish Gambino, Logic. I listen to a lot of Low Fire stuff too. There's this DJ who I love DJ Complexion based out of London and he does this show called The Future Beats Show and it's really mellow, but melodic kind of music. Its like RMB mixed with EDM, if you can imagine that. Very soulful type of stuff.
Maurice Cherry: Okay.
Rich Smith: I listen to that every week, when he puts out a new episode. So big shout to him, anybody into that kind of music I highly recommend you go check him out.
Maurice Cherry: So it's like Low Fie beats to steady [crosstalk 00:46:03].
Rich Smith: Kind of. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Maurice Cherry: Or something like that.[laughter].
Rich Smith: [laughter].
Maurice Cherry: Okay, no, I'll check it out, it's so funny how that has come up like super recently as like a genre of music. It feels like it came out of nowhere in a way.
Maurice Cherry: I think designers particularly have always been very keen on music and having playlists, but this whole like low-fire, I don't know it felt like it just came out of nowhere, it rolled in like the fog and now it's the thing, so I'm not mad at it though. I'm not mad at it.
Rich Smith: No, me neither. It's probably my favorite type of music and I think just the fact that I listen to music a lot while I work and I know many designers do as well, just to kind of help you get into the zone, was a big impetuous, for me even wanting to try build a music focused app in the first place, but I definitely I hope to share more details about that you know later, sometime in the next couple of months but for right now I'm working with two friends of mine and we're going to see if we can make a little splash because you know the streaming music scene right now is super crowded.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. When you look back at your career what do you wish you would've known when you first started?
Rich Smith: What do I wish I would've known. That's a good question.
Rich Smith: I wish I kind of would have realized it sometimes hard to remember that people are people, and when we look at people that have titles we want to look at them, as something other than human, right, your parents you hold in a certain regard until you kind of realize, oh they're just people too, you know your managers you kind of hold to a higher standard because they're in charge of people, right. The president you hold to the highest standard because he's running the country, right and so [crosstalk 00:47:48].
Maurice Cherry: In theory, but [crosstalk 00:47:49].
Rich Smith: Sure.
Maurice Cherry: No. Yeah, yeah well sure yeah.
Rich Smith: But beyond the title, there's still just a person behind these things and I find that I've been in lots of situations where I was frustrated by the decisions these people made that made my life more difficult and it's easy to demonize someone when they don't do the things you want them to do, right. Or they don't say the things you want them to say or treat you in the way, you want them to treat you.
Rich Smith: But I think if had kind of recognized that sooner and if had realized that you know what, anyone with a good idea can raise money and start a business but it doesn't make them a great CEO, it doesn't make them a great manager necessarily, right, doesn't make them a great leader.
Rich Smith: It just means that someone thought that they had the potential to 10x their investment and because I didn't spend enough time understanding myself and what I wanted to get out of work, I instead chased cool ideas in the beginning of my career also because I undervalued my skill as an engineer and so I felt more humble than honored to have these opportunities whereas, they I think for a lot of the companies that I worked for, I feel like they got a lot more value out of me, than I got out of them. Lets just say that.
Rich Smith: I always wound up in these situations where I ended up being frustrated but it was totally avoidable if I had spent the time to really understand myself and what I needed out of work instead of just chasing idea.
Rich Smith: So I think for me, it's just something around just recognizing that people are people but then also taking the time to not undervalue yourself and then know what you want to get out of these situations before you find yourself in it.
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So what's next for you? What do you want to accomplish, let say in the next five years or so?
Rich Smith: Next five years, I want to let's see, start having kids, I want to start my own business, I want to have released music because by then, I think I would've probably learnt a bit more.
Rich Smith: Just recently came back from a trip to Japan and I would love to travel there more often with my wife and so I want to start committing to learning Japanese, so it's a little easier to get around there and I think high level that's it for me, that's kind of how I see the next couple of years going, and then hopefully getting that much closer to financial independence.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Okay, well just to kind of wrap things up here Rich, where can our audience find more about you and about your work online?
Rich Smith: So you can find me on Twitter @richcsmith and you can find me on LinkedIn you can search for me, richsmith@netflix or something like that, you should be able to pull me up. I was on Insta but I actually deleted it recently [laughter].
Maurice Cherry: Okay.
Rich Smith: Just because you know Facebook and just not wanting to really be a part of their ecosystem at all.
Maurice Cherry: Fair, fair.
Rich Smith: A lot of people forget Instagram is a part of that so it's like if you hit on Facebook, you gotta WhatsApp as a part of it, Instagram as part of it. Don't make exceptions.
Maurice Cherry: You gotta commit all the way.
Rich Smith: Yeah, yeah, yeah [laughter].
Maurice Cherry: I hear you [laughter].
Rich Smith: So Twitter and LinkedIn is really where you can find me.
Maurice Cherry: All right, cool, well Rich Smith I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, I mean aside from just sharing your story about how you first got the spark for tech and the work that you're with Dev/color, with Netflix, I think it's really important to show that community, I think has been a big part of your success, like being able to have people in your corner that you can talk to when things are going rough or something like that, whether it's at work or whether it's just in general, having that has been, what I think, is been a big key to your success and so I'm glad you're able to talk about that and share that on the show, so thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.
Rich Smith: Hey you know what Maurice, man I really appreciate you for having me and just giving me the opportunity and the space to talk about these things. I hope that whoever's listening to this, hopefully there's something you can take away from it and I'd love to hear from you. Don't hesitate to reach out. Shoot me a tweet, connect with me on LinkedIn. I'd love to chat and maybe see how I can help out with anything. I appreciate it, thank you for your time Maurice, I appreciate it.