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Presentation: Am I a Brilliant Jerk?

Track: The Whole Engineer

Location: Ballroom BC

Day of week: Tuesday

Slides: Download Slides

Level: Beginner

Persona: Architect, Chaos/Resiliency/SRE, CTO/CIO/Leadership, Data Engineering, Data Scientist, Developer, Developer, .NET, Developer, JVM, DevOps Engineer, Front-end Developer, General Software, ML Engineer, Mobile Developer, Security Professional, Technical Engineering Manager, UX Designer

What You’ll Learn

  • Why brilliant jerks are devastating to teams.
  • How to tell if you’re a brilliant jerk.


Netflix’s culture memo famously says, “On a dream team, there are no brilliant jerks. The cost to teamwork is just too high.” Well, what is a brilliant jerk? If the cost to teamwork is high, what are some examples of the cost?

This presentation will focus on the jerk part of “brilliant jerk” and leave the brilliant calculation for another talk. We will spend a majority of the time on Emotional Intelligence and why it matters in developing and operating software systems effectively. Opinions and perspective will be drawn from my experience as an engineer and then manager at Netflix. I’ll provide my answers for the first two questions: what is and why you can’t afford to have a brilliant jerk. I’ll also provide criteria I’ve used to self-assess and answer the most important question: “Am I a brilliant jerk?”


What is the focus of your work?


I manage a team called playback API. When the customer sits down in front of their Netflix device and presses the play button, what they see and hear on the screen is our responsibility.


What is your motivation for this talk?


When I joined Netflix seven years ago, I read the culture deck, the point about brilliant jerks really stood out to me. At the time, I had an intuition of what I thought the phrase meant, I had worked with people you might describe as challenging. But, I didn't fully appreciate the wisdom behind the statement.

Throughout my time at Netflix, first as an engineer then as a manager, I’ve built up an appreciation for why “no brilliant jerks” is so important to our culture. The motivation for my talk is to share my experience with others, so they can fully appreciate the wisdom.


Who should come to your talk?


Anyone who works on a software team and wants to improve their culture. Or if you think you have a brilliant jerk on your team or have a secret notion that you may be a brilliant jerk yourself.


What can people take away from this talk?


I’m not just presenting an argument for why you don't want a brilliant jerk on the team, but I’m also going to talk through what to do if you have one or if you are one. People can change, we can rehab brilliant jerks.


What keeps you up at night?


On the playback API one of the things that we've been considering is moving from a stateless to a stateful architecture. The motivation for us to move in that direction is to achieve sublinear scale. But, moving in that direction is not an easy trade off. Stateless systems tend to be simple versus stateful systems which tend to be more complex. Managing state is a hard problem. Moreover, we've built up best practices and lessons learned for stateless, we're going to be throwing away a lot of these if we transition to stateful.

Speaker: Justin Becker

Engineering Manager @Netflix

Justin Becker is an Engineering Manager for the Playback API team at Netflix. He has worked at Netflix for 7 years, the first 5 years as an Engineer. His focus is building scalable, high availability, services running in a cloud environment.

Find Justin Becker at

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