Why I Quit a $450k Engineering Job at Netflix
Playing it safe is the riskiest choice of all
I thought I was going to stay at Netflix forever. Top of market pay. Freedom and responsibility. Unlimited PTO. What more could you ask for?
So when I quit Netflix in May 2021, everyone thought I was crazy. My parents objected first. Coming from cultural revolution China where they barely had enough food to eat, they thought I was throwing away all the hard work they went through to come to America.
“Just keep your head down and do the work!” they said.
“Don’t be ungrateful for what you have!” they said.
None of my friends could believe it either.
“But the free food!”
“Just rest and vest bro!”
The only argument I heard against quitting that made me slightly pause was from my mentor at Netflix. He said I shouldn’t quit without another job lined up, because “I’d give up the leverage I had with my high salary at Netflix.”
That made me pause for all of 3 days, but I quit anyways. Now 8 months later, I am 100% certain this was the right decision.
In this article, I discuss the 3 factors that helped me understand the real cost of golden handcuffs, and why even a half-million dollar salary a year couldn’t get me to stay at a job I no longer enjoyed.
A Failed Role Transition
With offices shutting down in March 2020, all the best parts of work — the socializing, the coworkers, the perks — disappeared.
And all you were left with was the work itself. So if you didn’t like the work, and that was all you had, COVID magnified this fact 10x more.
And I wasn’t enjoying the work. But it wasn’t always this way.
I worked at Netflix for almost 4 years as a Senior Software Engineer in growth. At the beginning I felt like I was getting paid handsomely to learn. And up to around the 1.5 year mark, I loved it. Netflix’s culture was so different than the more secretive culture I experienced before at Amazon. The memos for every product decision were available for all employees to read. It was like getting paid to do an MBA.
But towards the latter half of my time, the engineering work started to feel like copy-paste.
Need to spin up a new microservice?
Copy paste an old one, change the business logic, and you’re done.
New A/B test?
Copy paste the old one, change a few of the test variations, and you’re done.
New email test?
Copy paste the old one and — I think you get it.
I felt like there was no doubt that engineering could execute for Netflix, but I felt the better question was whether a particular project was a good use of engineering resources at all. So I wanted to transition into Product Management where I could lead these efforts. I spent 2 years going in a circle around the company, networking non-stop, talking to every organization, and applying for every role I could find.
I submitted proposals on what my priorities would be as a PM when I applied to every org: customer service, developer productivity, studios, partnerships, and notifications. I suggested creating a role on my own team to help manage the growing infrastructure. I also suggested that other PM’s could delegate more of their work to me so they can free up their time and grow their org. All of these proposals ultimately didn’t pan out.
Looking back, I realized my mistake. I thought if I just tried harder, I would eventually get the job. But now I realized that sometimes things are out of your control because of a structural issue. Netflix doesn’t have a process in place to support horizontal role changes like this; I have never seen an engineer successfully transition to product management here.
They offered me more opportunities to partner with product management to develop product skills, which I was grateful for. But partnering is not the same as having the role itself. Ultimately you can’t just read a book about swimming and expect to learn how to swim. You have to jump in the water.
Waning motivation, waning performance
Towards the end of my failed PM job search, I felt the high salary was an increasingly bad deal. Before I was earning and learning. Now I was only earning.
My team’s goals and my interests also started to diverge. My team was moving more towards a more engineering focused direction involving a platform migration. But my interests were veering more towards entrepreneurship and product management. The engineering work I was assigned would never be applicable to any other future work I did.
It started to feel like I was making a previous career mistake again — staying in a job that wasn’t a great fit longer than I should have. This mistake is more costly than people think. If you stay an extra two years at a job that you wanted to leave, and did that over 5 jobs in your lifetime, you just wasted 10 years of your life working jobs you didn’t want to do. I felt like I was wasting time.
My motivation waned, and my performance waned with it. I became less engaged in meetings, minimized doing any work that wasn’t directly relevant to developing product management skills, and dragged my feet on communication. The only motivation at the end was just trying to not get fired. It was just kind of sad to feel like I had reached a point where I was aiming for such a low bar, and struggling to even cross that.
Unfortunately, my manager started to notice. In a heated performance review that lasted over 2 hours, he told me that I needed to 1) be more engaged in this migration and 2) be more communicative. In his words, I had to improve in these areas “if I wished to remain on the team.”
Reassessing life priorities during COVID-19
The pandemic was a wake-up call.
Watching millions of people die from COVID made me realize that tomorrow is not guaranteed. You could die from COVID before any of your dreams are ever realized. And the longer you put off a dream, the greater the risk that it never happens. So if there is anything you want, you have to go for it right now.
No more next time. Now is the time.
I realized what the real cost to golden handcuffs was. The cost is your youth, your time, and your life. People don’t accurately judge these costs, because a salary is a hard number, whereas the value of your youth is more intangible. But just because something is hard to measure doesn’t make it any less valuable than something countable like money. It’s hard to measure the value of a brand, mental health, or love, but we know it matters.
Seeing all these people die from COVID made me scared that one day my tombstone would read:
“Here lies Michael. He spent his life doing work he never wanted to do. Then he got COVID and died. Rest in peace.”
The longer I stayed in a job I didn’t enjoy, the greater the chance that this WOULD be my tombstone. I knew I had to take action now — I could not keep kicking the hard career questions down the road. I had to quit.
I saw the bad performance review and the threat of getting fired as a way out. But I wanted to get a severance package first without getting fired.
So I proposed to my manager in a 1:1 a few weeks after that we discuss a “preemptive severance package”.
I said something along the lines of: “My performance is declining because my motivation is declining. I don’t see my motivation improving because the team’s goals are diverging further from my career goals. What if we just discussed a preemptive severance package out of Netflix now rather than drag this on? That way Netflix saves money, you can find a better fit for the team sooner, and I can go do what I want. A win-win situation for everyone.”
After he discussed this with HR, I had a final meeting with him and HR where they agreed to preemptively terminate me, and I got my final severance package out. Golden handcuffs — begone.
Life after Netflix
I thought my life would be over after leaving corporate, but it has been the exact opposite. I was worried that I’d have no social life, but I’ve actually met even more people after quitting — other creators, entrepreneurs, and builders.
I saw my mental health improve as the anxiety I developed from worrying if I missed another email or slack message disappeared.
I now feel this deep calmness inside of me, an unshakeable belief that everything will be OK, even if any future success is not guaranteed right now. As I type this on a Sunday night, I have no problem working on weekends if it’s work that benefits me. There is no better incentive than knowing that I capture all the value of my own work.
And by working only on things that energize me, it might ironically unlock potential earnings even greater than I was making before.
It’s been 8 months since I quit in May 2021. I took a bit of a break for the rest of 2021. I lived in NYC for a few months, took a road trip through Utah and Arizona, and generally just enjoyed life.
I’ve decided to commit fully to working for myself. Although I’m just starting, and don’t have any real dependable streams of income, I’m going to trust the process that if I’m working on the things that energize me, good things will happen.
I truly believe now that playing it safe is the riskiest choice of all. When you play it safe, you are just as exposed to all the dangers, except you have no chance of the upside. As Helen Keller once said:
Want more career advice?
I’m Michael, an ex-Netflix eng lead, turned entrepreneur. I quit my job at Netflix 6 months ago to work for myself. I write about web3, career advice, and startups.
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Love the article
Well done. It's nice to see such high salaries being paid. I am a retired MIT EE who bounced around the field, working for a few years then taking a year or more without working, then going back to work. I do not regret leaving any of my workplaces. The more engineers that refuse to put up with BS the less we'll have to deal with. Thank you for your part.