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The following is a review on the amount of writing a Netflix Software Engineer puts in a on-call week.

https://alexanderell.is/posts/writing-swe/


The other day, I was thinking about less-obvious skills that I find helpful for working as a software engineer. Some skills are obvious, like understanding technical topics, learning new things, and thinking like a computer, but there’s a separate class of unobvious skills that an outsider may not immediately think of when they imagine a career in software.1

Empathy and communication are the main ones that come to mind.2 3

The other day, I was thinking through what communication looks like for my day job. Much of it is talking with other people, be it occasional on-site hallway conversations, 1:1s, meetings, or presentations. A great deal of it is also in writing, especially as I work from home. I have a general feeling that I do a lot of writing, but as an experiment, I thought it would be interesting to look at all of the writing I did in a given week.

Quick caveat that I’m also pretty biased towards writing. I like to write, so I write more, so I get a lot of practice writing, so I get better at the process, so it’s easier for me to write, and I end up liking it more. You can see where I’m going with this.

A day in the life

For a little context on my work, I currently work as a software engineer on the Cloud Gateway team at Netflix. Our team runs the big proxies at the front door — we write services that are like automated switchboard operators, routing your browser’s request for www.netflix.com to the right place. We have a few different proxies, and I’m roughly the tech lead for one of them. My time is split between current work (both as an individual contributor and project lead), forward looking work, partnerships, mentorship, security, incidents, and on-call.

Alongside my regular day job work, I was also on call this last week4, which entails answering support questions (our team’s immediate users are internal teams), responding to incidents, and keeping an eye on general software health for our services. This led to a little more writing than usual, as you’ll see.

cat_typing.gif

In the last week, I wrote:

Zero emails

I actually don’t write many emails for work, as most of our async communication is around Slack. This last week, I wrote exactly 0.

A few dozen lines of code

This was a pretty light coding week, mostly because 1) I was on call and 2) I’m currently working on one of those “investigate for a week, then fix with a few lines of code” problems.5 This writing included the code, tests, comments, and PR descriptions, as well as comments I left in PR reviews.

A handful of Jira tickets

We loosely track our work items in Jira, and I added a few, mostly summarizing a few future work items. I also provided updates on existing tickets. Not much to write home about here.

A feedback form for the new grad on our team

I’m the mentor for a new grad that joined our team in August, and this week I had to submit a feedback form for their first three months and the new grad program as a whole. This was pretty straightforward, as we’ve had plenty of feedback conversations and much of it was top of mind already.

A couple of investigation & debugging docs

I’m a huge fan of taking notes while debugging. They help me be methodical about my investigations and capture context with what I’ve seen, my train of thought, and what I intend to try next (and why). Though they’re mostly for myself, I find it’s also helpful for sharing that context with others. I especially like showing the thought process for folks who are newer to the kind of deep debugging that we do, just to show one of the ways to dive into a gnarly problem.

This week I wrote ~15 Google doc pages of investigation notes, with the caveat that these included many diagrams that padded my page count. I also usually use the pageless format, since I have lots of images that would otherwise lead to weird blank space. These docs are a lot of things like “Here’s what I’m seeing. My current hypothesis is X for these reasons — what about if we try Y? How does Z work?”. As I mentioned before, my main work this week was spent mostly focused on one gnarly problem in an area I wasn’t previously super familiar with, leading to a lot of investigation.

As part of this, I also put together a few diagrams summarizing the system’s architecture, mostly for my own knowledge. This is tangentially writing — it’s more like writing a name in a box, then putting it in the right place and drawing arrows to its neighbors.

For more on this, see Julia Evans’ masterful zine on debugging.

A few technical docs

I find design documents extremely helpful for thinking through a hard problem and sharing context and ideas with others. I find that if I can’t clearly explain a problem and my solution, I don’t really understand it. Again, this is probably my bias towards writing, but I find it relatively easy to knock out a doc, and the benefit for me greatly outweighs the cost.

There are many kinds of technical docs. This week, I wrote the following:

These added up to ~15 Google doc pages or so total, with some diagrams in there as well.6

In this category, I’d also include comments on docs, both for documents I’ve reviewed and comments I’ve responded to on my own docs. It’s a little hard to quantify these, but I’d say in the low tens, ranging from one-liners to paragraphs.

397 Slack messages

Ahh, so this is where my time this week went. We have a Slack-heavy culture, but 400 still seems a lot. The breakdown was as follows:

Key takeaways

The biggest takeaway is that my split keyboard was a very worthwhile investment.

Other than that, I don’t think there are any, really, other than the fact that I do a lot of thinking and typing. This is just an interesting experiment to see how much writing I actually do in a given week. This week was weighted pretty heavily towards Slack (due to the on-call support) and investigation docs, but it’s not out of the ordinary.

I find writing immensely helpful, and I’ll always recommend it for thinking through a problem and sharing your thoughts with others. If you find yourself wanting to get better at writing, I would absolutely encourage you to do so. Read a book on it, write more, and edit more.

But do get an ergonomic keyboard setup.


  1. It’s like explaining to my mom that even though I write code, I still talk with other humans quite a bit! ↩︎

  2. I’m also of the opinion that the most important part of communication is empathy, but that’s a post for another day. ↩︎

  3. Also maybe stubbornness? But not stubbornness like “I’m right and I have to be right and I won’t listen to you”, but more “I’ve spent two days digging into this slowly making progress and I’m not going to give up” ↩︎

  4. I’m also on call through the rest of the weekend. Please watch Netflix responsibly. ↩︎

  5. Again, stubbornness! ↩︎

  6. This is now motivating me to push for being paid by the page, both the writing and the on-call. ↩︎

#reads #alexa ellis #review #netflix #software engineer