Pragmatism and Empathy: Vision and Future of Tech

Lisa Shissler Smith is a dynamic leader who brings over 20 years of experience in technology, sustainability and advocacy for diversity and inclusion to her role as an Engineering Manager at Netflix. Her multifaceted expertise and commitment to promoting female leadership make Lisa a driving force for positive change in the industry.

In this interview episode, we talked about Lisa’s unique career journey and her perspective on leadership in the tech industry. Lisa highlighted the importance of balancing pragmatism and empathy, fostering a learning mindset.

She also shared her experiences managing a globally distributed team during the COVID-19 pandemic, emphasizing proactive support and creating a safe environment for employees.

Watch the full interview episode here.

An image Lisa Shissler Smith, Engineering Manager at Netflix

Lisa Shissler Smith

Engineering Manager at Netflix

Lisa, could you describe your career journey? What experiences shaped your path to your current role at Netflix?

I embrace my unconventional career path as a unique asset rather than a drawback. A diverse background has given me a distinct empathy and insight in my work. It provides a deeper understanding of the users we cater to and offers a variety of viewpoints – a laser focus on a single subject can cause you to overlook nuances.

Each job I’ve held propelled me to the next level by giving me useful insights in my next role. Being a librarian was the mismatch between my personality and the role. This, combined with my inherent fascination with technology, led me to explore spaces where I was often the only woman in engineering.

This experience motivated me to support Women Who Code, assisting individuals in career switches or those interested in exploring alternative paths beyond their initial choices.

What helps you define development strategies and effectively manage projects throughout their lifecycle?

It’s interesting you mention ‘lifecycle’ because just recently I transitioned to a new team called “Technology Lifecycle Innovation”. Our primary mission is to evaluate the internal products and processes used at Netflix, particularly those related to streaming, ensuring they are sustainable and sound from an engineering perspective.

We aim to either invest in and strengthen these tools or retire those that no longer serve their purpose. The industry tends to struggle with tech debt, viewing it as a burden rather than an opportunity for innovation. We’re determined to change this mindset and establish operational guidelines for recognizing when a tool has outlived its usefulness and how to retire it safely while considering the next steps for improvement.

At Netflix, known for innovation, we’re also excited to push the envelope in this area.

How can an effective tech leader nurture and encourage innovation among their teams within the organization?

At Netflix, we value freedom and responsibility. While you have the freedom to innovate in any direction, the responsibility comes into play when considering the implications of your work. This includes how it can improve other teams’ resilience, observability, error tolerance, and user experience.

Pragmatism prevents us from applying a one-size-fits-all approach to problem-solving. Just because we can do something doesn’t always mean we should. Taking a moment to consider the long-term implications and planning can save time and effort.

The industry tends to struggle with tech debt, viewing it as a burden rather than an opportunity for innovation.

While working at Zapier, you managed distributed teams located globally. Can you share some communication practices you’ve found effective in managing remote teams?

While having a globally distributed team had its advantages, such as the flexibility to work across time zones and create a continuous cycle of work, it also was challenging to coordinate meetings and foster team bonding. As a manager, the focus was on removing operational obstacles, providing the necessary resources, and creating an environment where each team member could excel without unnecessary distractions.

It was essential to convey that individuals can work at their own pace and according to their preferences, acknowledging the unique pressures brought about by the pandemic. Flexibility was paramount, enabling team members to work when they felt most productive while maintaining the necessary support structures and systems to ensure success.

Lisa, thanks for your time, insights, and unwavering dedication to empowering women in tech – your contributions are truly inspiring.