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Coder grrrl: Being female and Filipino didn't stop engineer Anne Aaron from breaking the tech glass ceiling. Art by Neal P. Corpus

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Maine Manalansan (The Philippine Star) - March 16, 2018 - 12:00am

Netflix video algorithms director Anne Aaron is changing the technology game, one show at a time.

MANILA, Philippines — Anyone who has ever tinkered with their Friendster and Multiply CSS and HTML codes would look up to Anne Aaron with admiration. Named as one of Business Insider’s most powerful female engineers of 2017, Anne is the video algorithms director at Netflix. It basically means the quality of our viewing pleasure is sort of in her hands. She deals with developing new technology with her team of engineers and scientists to make sure that we view our favorite shows like Stranger Things or Bojack Horseman in the best quality possible even if you have bad internet connection. (Proof No. 1 that she’s a true hero for us Filipinos with Third World internet.)

It may seem simple in theory, but these tasks require tight algorithms and a whole lot of science, which is something that Anne was interested in early on. Studying at the Philippine Science High School catered to her interest in physics, chemistry, geometry, calculus and basically all the other subjects students typically loathe. It seems like the technology path was always where she was headed.

“At that time, if you were good at science, becoming a doctor was the obvious choice. It’s a noble profession, but I get so queasy seeing my own blood,” Anne shares in our email interview. In college, she decided to double major in physics and computer engineering at the Ateneo de Manila University. And then after that, she earned a PhD in electrical engineering at Stanford. No big deal. (Yes, big deal.)

With her amazing track record and accomplishments, one might think that her road to the top is without challenges. But Anne, being female and Filipino, powered through. Now, she’s inspiring a lot of young Filipinas to pursue a career in tech and any other career typically dominated by men. We had a chat via email about what it’s like working at Netflix, being a female engineer and leader, and how she’s changing the game, one show at a time.

YOUNG STAR: Can you take us through a day in your life at Netflix?

Anne Aaron: I hire and manage software engineers and research scientists. I take on strategic decision-making on software architecture and research, project management and cross-team coordination. So a typical day means a lot of face-to-face discussions and brainstorming with smart engineers, and reviewing data and information to make sure we make the right technical decisions.

But I’m not always in the office! I also represent Netflix in international standardization groups working on video and image coding technologies, so I do get to travel and speak with other companies. That part is always exciting for me.

The world of technology is dominated by men. What do you hope to change in the industry as a female leader?

I think the first step is to encourage diversity and it can happen when we create a culture of inclusion and support each other. Both men and women in the industry have that responsibility.  I’ve been very lucky to have had strong male allies who recognized my abilities and helped advocate for me and my work. For instance, my PhD professor, Bernd Girod, heavily promoted my research. David Ronca — my manager at Netflix for the last seven years — speaks highly of me to others in the company and has given me numerous opportunities to grow.

Sometimes, I meet some new folks for the first time at cross-company meetings. Even then, I see a hint of surprise when they hear that I’m the team leader. I hope to see that element of surprise go away.

Did you face any challenges in your career? How did you deal with them?

There was a time when I interviewed for an engineering job at a big tech company. They told me that I didn’t get the job, but offered a project manager position instead. Even after completing engineering grad school at Stanford, apparently I was still not technical enough for them.

In general, I deal with challenges simply with determination and the mindset that “yes, it can be solved,” with enough information and the right people.  In my current job, when there are challenging decisions to be made, it is always good to step back and think, “Is this what’s good for Netflix and our members?”

Where do you think media consumption is headed?

There is a lot of short-form media consumption today, especially with young people. But I think long-form content, like shows and movies that we have on Netflix, will always have a wide overreaching appeal. Humans love connecting with characters, with each other, through stories. With shows and movies, which enable more complicated stories and characters, I think the connection and engagement is deeper.

Do you have a favorite show?

I have so many favorites, but over the last few months, I’ve really come to love The Crown and One Day at a Time. Now that I think about it, they both have very strong female characters!

I love The Crown’s detailed production values, but what really drew me to the show is the human drama interwoven with real historic events. That’s very interesting to me. For One Day at a Time, it’s a genuinely hilarious comedy but, at the same time, it discusses serious topics like racism, depression, LGBT rights, immigration and the clash of cultures that comes with it… and so on. I’m a working mom from a minority group and an immigrant, so I relate to this show a lot more.

ANNE AARON FRIENDSTER MULTIPLY
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