How I found my job as VP Product at Netflix after a two-year sabbatical
In late 2004 after a two-year break, I began a job search. My time-off left me “rusty” and companies were wary about whether I was ready to work again. I started my job search reluctantly.
Job-hunting is both time-consuming and inefficient. From my past, I remembered the frustration of applying for jobs and never getting a response as well as the debilitating series of “NOs” you got once you began interviewing. As a past hiring manager, I remembered posting a job, then the painstaking work of sifting through 200 applications to candidates who were qualified for the role. I️ also recalled dedicating 1–2 days/week to “smiling and dialing” for additional candidates. It’s a frustrating process on both sides of the equation.
Below, I outline my approach to finding that next great job, or, more precisely, establishing and extending your network in ways that your next opportunity will discover you. The three keys to success are:
1.) Figure Out What You Seek
2.) Make the Job Come to You, and
3.) Be Realistic About Timing
My approach and the story of my job search follow.
1.) Determine What You Seek
Half the battle in job-hunting is figuring out what you seek. Few people spend enough time identifying their passion, purpose and ideal role in a company.
I started by creating a list of companies that interested me then searched for themes within the list to help identify my interests. The following groups of ideas jumped out at me: entertainment, education and productivity/creativity software. I also noticed that almost all of the companies were both consumer and internet-focused. And although it is not apparent today, many of the companies were startups with a proof-of-concept that were ready to scale. At the time, I believed this stage was my “sweet spot.”
Here is the list of companies I created in 2004, organized by theme:
- Pearson Education
- Second Life
I also spent time with many of my peers, friends, and mentors. There were a few memorable conversations that helped focus my search:
- After beginning my career in marketing, I had transitioned into product. I loved product and eventually grew into VP Product roles at multiple consumer tech companies. At the time, I thought the next step in my career was to become CEO. I️ had office hours with Irv Grousbeck, a fellow Amherst College alumni and entrepreneurship professor at Stanford Business School. Halfway through our conversation, he said, “Gib, can I tell you something you may not like?” He continued, “I think you’re too nice to be a startup CEO.” The feedback resonated with me — I thought of myself as too thoughtful and deliberate to be a startup CEO. Irv gave me license NOT to take this next step and to focus instead on finding another VP Product role.
- I also met Ron Hoge, another Amherst College alumni. His advice: “Gib, you’ve talked in the past about building an industry. But it takes twenty years to build a company that has that much impact, and you keep joining early stage startups, scaling them, then selling them to larger companies.” He continued, “What if you join an established company you believe is good and help to make it great?” This advice stuck with me, and I began to look at companies that were more mature than the early stage startups I had joined in the past.
Based on these conversations, two months into my search I could describe what I was looking for: a VP Product role at an emerging, high-growth consumer internet company focused on entertainment, education, or productivity. The target felt “just right” in a Goldilocks kind of way. The description gave me sufficient focus but was also broad enough to include opportunities I might not have considered at the start of my search.
2.) Make The Job Come to You
It’s tough to let go of the “apply and see what happens” mindset learned from our early academic careers. Finding the right school was simple: we applied to lots of schools then chose among those that said “yes.”
In job-hunting, this mindset causes frustration. You apply for a job, get no response, then hear lots of “NOs” when you finally land an interview. And unlike school applications, few of the job opportunities pop up at the same time — it’s hard to line up choices in parallel. For all these reasons, finding a great job requires both a different mindset and approach.
In my job search, I focused not on finding and applying for jobs, but on continually extending my network to set up an active perimeter where I received alerts when high potential roles triggered my network. Instead of applying for jobs, I pushed myself to set up two high-quality conversations each day. In doing this, I made the search an optimization problem. Each week I would sit down and think about all the people I needed to meet in the next few weeks, then begin the outreach to schedule meetings with them.
It didn’t happen right away, but I eventually achieved the two conversations a day pace. This effort helped extend my network to get the word out about what I was looking for, but my meetings with folks like Irv and Ron also gave me meaningful insight into best-fit roles for me.
When I started, I began by creating lists of people I thought would be helpful. These people included:
- Recruiters (especially recruiters within VC firms)
- Venture Capitalists
- Individuals within companies on my target company list
- Experienced leaders who know and care about me (mentors like Irv and Ron).
- Other individuals (usually connected to me via college or grad school) who I felt had great judgment about product, people, and business.
- Peers from my past companies, and
- VPs of Product at other companies
I reached out to dozens of folks on my growing list of contacts to set up meetings. I began with the ‘friendlies,” then slowly advanced to connections I didn’t know. When I met, I’d learn more about their career, their company, their industry and where they thought I might find potential roles. At the end of each conversation, I’d reiterate the focus of my search then ask for the names of 2–3 folks they thought I should meet to expand my network further.
I became efficient at email correspondence and scheduling. Unlike the inefficient process of applying for jobs, I maintained focus and pace that felt mostly within my control. I began to enjoy meeting and learning from new people in my network, and each conversation provided insight into potential future roles.
Over time, I discovered more and more job opportunities before they became public. And through these many conversations, I developed insight into companies and roles and could communicate my passion for them. From time to time I applied for jobs, but I️ maintained low expectations and always made an effort to connect with the hiring manager through my growing network.
3.) Be Realistic About Timing
In some of my past job searches, I was impatient and became easily frustrated. The result was settling for roles that weren’t a great fit. This time, I remained patient and outlined what I thought was a realistic timeframe for a VP-level role: 4–8 months to find a job that excited me. Based on past searches, I knew it would take time to figure out what I wanted and for the right role to open up to me.
Beyond two conversations/day, I did a few things to improve the odds of finding a job. I learned to give “tiny updates” every 4–6 weeks to my expanding network. While my network wanted to be helpful, there’s a substantial “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon, so it’s important to remind folks what you seek. There are many pretenses for these reminders — “Here’s an interesting article you might like,” or “Congratulations on last quarter’s results” or similar tactics. The important communication was the reminder that, “I️ am looking for a VP Product role in a high-growth consumer internet company focused on entertainment, education or productivity.”
Managing the process of extending my network, with its two conversations/day and “tiny updates” was complicated. At the time, I relied on a spreadsheet to track my emails and noted whether folks had responded, as well as the date of my last “tiny update.” Most of my correspondence was individual “cut and paste” emails that I lightly personalized. As I extended beyond “friendlies,” I took a more aggressive approach, saying to myself, “you don’t get what you don’t ask for.” In most cases, I needed to send 2–3 times emails before getting a response. Employers require “grit,” and I viewed the job-hunt as a test of persistence.
There was one aspect of my search that helped me to stay patient: I carved out time each day to do the things I enjoyed. My list of “take care of yourself” activities at the time: learn to surf/snowboard, tutor kids at the local school, and train to become a competitive triathlete. An hour or two each day for these activities helped even out the inevitable highs and lows of the search. The result: I presented myself as a more confident candidate despite the fact that I had been on the sidelines for two years.
There were a few memorable conversations during my job search that helped me fine-tune the specific companies and roles that best fit my skills and experience:
- I interviewed for a VP Product Role at Planet Out. I had the e-commerce experience they were looking for, and I appreciated their efforts to build a more diverse, inclusive society, but it became apparent to both of us that I couldn’t generate passion for the role. In hindsight, pursuing this opportunity feels a bit random, but the search is full of these seemingly random vectors — it takes discipline to stay focused.
- I met Geoff Ralston who was Chief Product Officer at Yahoo! at the time. In talking with him, it was evident that he was searching for a more technically-oriented product leader. (I’m an English major.) At the end of the hour, he said, “We need someone who is stronger technically than you.” It was a helpful articulation of poor fit.
After five months of searching, Gracia Huntington, a Netflix recruiter, pinged an acquaintance of mine and indicated Netflix was looking for a new VP of Product. This friend remembered my “tiny update” and forwarded the job specification to me, then introduced me to Gracia. Netflix had just begun their search — the previous VP of Product had left a few months before — and the interview process proceeded with pace. Netflix did backchannel checks, and members of my network played back a common message: “The role is perfect for Gib.” My peers also described the pace and diligence of my job search, convincing Netflix that I was ready to work again.
Fresh from my “You are not technical enough” conversation with Geoff Ralston, I spent lots of time trying to determine what Netflix wanted and finally asked, “I just want to make sure you understand that I will be the only English major in the building.” The response from Neil Hunt, the Chief Product Officer at Netflix: “I think that’s good, we’re looking for someone different for this role.”
From my perspective, the job fit the bill. Netflix was a good company, filled with bright people knowledgeable about creating both consumer and shareholder value and there was a vision that once the company got big on DVDs, they would invent a new worldwide streaming industry. Although Netflix had less than two million members at the time, there were many clues that the company would someday become great. I had used the DVD-by-mail service for years, loved it, and so did many of my Silicon Valley peers. There were a lot of 7 a.m. meetings between Neil and me, but I eventually got an offer and joined the company. It took me six months to find the job.
I recognize that my job search was unusual. On the downside, I was rusty from a two-year break, but on the upside, I had substantial VP Product experience with startups, I could dedicate myself to a full-time job search, my wife had a high-paying job, and we had saved enough money not to worry about paying the mortgage. This financial cushion allowed me to be patient.
But I do think the following tips are relevant for anyone, at any stage in their career:
- Spend the time required to identify and articulate what you seek. Be specific, so your network thinks of you when they hear about an opportunity. Then remind folks of your desired role every 4–6 weeks so that when recruiters contact them, they’ll refer you.
- Focus less on applying for jobs, and more on having two high-quality conversations/day. (If you are employed while seeking your next gig, you can reduce this goal to 2–4 conversations/week.)
- In building towards two meetings/day, focus on building connections with VCs, recruiters, entrepreneurs, peers with similar jobs, and contacts on your target list of companies. Take advantage of loose ties (neighbors, alumni, past colleagues, and acquaintances via shared activities) to continually extend your network.
- Set a realistic timeline. While it may be 4–8 months for a VP role, it’s likely 3–6 months for a Director role, 2–4 months for a Manager role, and 1–2 months for an entry-level position.
- Take care of yourself! Engage in activities you enjoy to help maintain your patience and confidence.
These job-hunting techniques gave me a degree of control as I faced the inevitable peaks and valleys of my job hunt. And in the end, they helped Netflix to find me. I hope they will help your next great job to discover you.
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My Other Product Management Articles on Medium:
- Netflix’s Customer Obsession
- How to Run a Quarterly Product Strategy Meeting
- Branding for Builders
- Hacking Your Product Management Career
- Leaders Lead
- What Your Next Head of Product Looks Like
- Six Tips for Making Wicked Hard Decisions
Many thanks for editing help from John McMahon, Ashita Achuthan, Heidi Bian and Florian Fischetti. John Russell provided both graphic and editing assistance, too.