There is a mathematical concept called a random walk, which is essentially a path that is generated via a sequence of (seemingly) random steps. Those steps can be generated in any number of ways (e.g., by flipping a coin, observing changes in the stock market, or using a computer-generated sequence of random numbers), and there are numerous ways to adapt this concept to different applications (e.g., computer science, physics, finance, economics, and more). My (seemingly) random walk to Netflix looks a little something like this:
Why is my walk only seemingly random? These steps may appear to be random, but what I now realize is that there are some common themes in my experience that align well with core components of Netflix culture. For instance, I am passionate about using data and models to inform decision-making, whether the application is in aerospace, healthcare, or entertainment. I really enjoy building relationships and collaborating with others. I also enjoy bringing analytics and modeling into new spaces for which these practices are relatively new, such as in healthcare and entertainment. Lastly, I’m a learner and an educator, so I love learning new things and helping others learn as well.
The next observation is also a newly gained perspective. I have recently been reading the book Algorithms to Live By, written by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. In the second chapter of the book, the authors describe how the algorithmic tradeoff between exploration and exploitation plays out in real life. Exploration means to seek out new options so that you can learn more about the possibilities, whereas exploitation means to focus on the best option(s) that you have discovered thus far. They provide examples of this tradeoff within the context of how one evaluates which restaurants to visit or which candidate to hire. A lot of my experiences before coming to Netflix were part of my exploration phase, which I now realize is totally OK. I believe this exploration is what is needed to find what truly brings joy, and also eliminate things that do not. And now, I have entered the exploitation phase of my career, where I am fully committed to bringing data science into interdisciplinary spaces.
OK, I know, it’s time to wrap this up.
Let me conclude by sharing a quick story about the unexpected benefits of hiring an infectious disease modeler to help accelerate the use of analytics in studio production. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the first known case of COVID-19 was identified in December 2019, which was less than 6 months after my first day at Netflix. By March 2020 — less than 9 months into my tenure — cases of the virus were prevalent across the U.S. and the nation was beginning to shut down.
At studios across Hollywood, production was halted while executives and frontline workers alike scrambled to learn what they could about the virus and the risks associated with restarting production. Given my background, I emailed the vice president of my group (who hired me), and offered to help in any way that I could. He forwarded my email directly to our CFO , which initiated a series of events that included the establishment of a medical advisory board , development of a simulation model and risk-scoring framework to help support decisions regarding our safe return to production , close collaboration with a truly amazing set of individuals and teams across the company, and even a feature article in The Hollywood Reporter. Most of this work continues to this day, as we hopefully approach better times ahead. I never could have imagined such a sequence of events when I first arrived in Los Angeles.
So for those of you out there who feel like you’re on a (seemingly) random walk…YOU ARE NOT ALONE! Many of us have to do the exploration before we find something that we’re willing to exploit over the long-term, and that process does not always follow the linear trajectory that we imagine when we are taking the first steps away from our origins. Try to find the common themes and skills that you have developed across your diverse experiences, and craft that story for potential employers.
And to the potential employers out there, TAKE SOME RISKS! Think more deeply about what the ‘non-traditional’ candidate may bring to your organization. You never know, some circumstances may arise for which those (seemingly) less-relevant skills and experiences may become more useful than you imagined. By doing so, you’ll be facilitating exploration as an organization, and learning about how to build teams that are truly innovative. So together, employers and employees alike, let’s take our (seemingly) random walks, and explore the possibilities until we find those pockets in space where we can exploit the opportunities and accomplish our greatest goals.