Why Netflix Doesn’t Stick to Agile

Netflix

It can seem like everyone in software is making the big shift to agile in order to improve both speed and quality, but the rapid methodology isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Even if a forward-thinking company like Netflix needs a heavy dose of collaboration and velocity to meet customer demand, that doesn’t mean agile is ideal.

In the case of Netflix, how the company is structured and how they hire engineers makes the prospect of agile less appealing than you might imagine. The streaming service makes use of over a third of the bits on the Internet at peak, but shockingly, Netflix is against the idea of having process.

They need a certain level of dynamism to keep pace with what’s being asked of them, so they emphasize freedom and responsibility, spurn budgets, and only hire senior engineers. Very little of that is the agile way, but according to Casey Rosenthal, the engineering manager for the traffic team and chaos team at Netflix, it’s a winning formula for their unique situation.

“There's no mechanism for us to even evaluate whether everyone is following agile, let alone recommending or enforcing that on engineering teams,” Rosenthal explained to StickyMinds. “It's a lot easier to think of Netflix as eighty small engineering teams, than one large engineering team."

“We don't have a chief architect. We don't have a VP of engineering who oversees all of our engineering teams. That infrastructure just doesn't exist here. There's nobody who can say, ‘Oh well, we think we're going to see a benefit from agile, so everyone will use agile now.’"

That doesn’t mean you won’t find shreds of agile throughout the massive company. As Rosenthal points out, some teams might actually be strict to many agile principles. Others might think going that route runs counter to what needs to be done on a daily basis.

Agile exists in pockets at Netflix, but as a whole, enforcing the methodology at scale is both unwieldy and counterintuitive to the structure of the individual teams.

“I'd say generally, Netflix moves very quickly, and most teams that I've seen iterate in production very regularly, so the principle that the best measure of success is working software, I think is definitely something that I see a lot of,” he continued. “We certainly don't explicitly adhere to agile.”

No matter how important the introduction, growth, and evolution of agile has been to software, it’s important to remember that not all teams (or business models) fit the agile mold. More often than not, it’s best to let individual teams decide what gels with their skill sets.

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