How Netflix Hacks: Behind the Scenes at the Streaming Giant’s Hack Day (EXCLUSIVE)

Netflix hack day
Courtesy of Long Nguyen /Netflix

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys, and girls, children of all ages!” yelled Netflix senior software engineer Alex Wolfe from the stage in front of about 300 of his colleagues on a recent Friday afternoon.

Holding court at the Kabuki Theater in the company’s swanky new Los Gatos offices, Wolfe was dressed up as a steampunk circus barker, complete with vintage aviator glasses and a beard to match the look. Donning a similar outfit was Netflix senior performance engineer Guy Cirino, who sat at a table equipped with a 1920s AT&T telegraph. Long-short short-long short-long-short, Cirino hammered away in morse code, until letters began appearing on a custom-built old-timey Netflix app on the overhead screen behind him, spelling out “Narcos.”

A version of this story first appeared in the August 29, 2017 issue of Variety.

“Thank you for taking us forward into the future with technology,” joked Netflix VP of product innovation Michael Spiegelman.

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The spectacle was part of Netflix’s most recent hack day, a regular celebration of fun and ingenuity for the company’s product and engineering teams. During these hack days, self-selected teams compete against each other to build all kinds of apps and hacks, ranging from the downright crazy to the mundane and practical. There are really only two rules for the event: The result has to be in some way related to Netflix, and it has to be built within 24 hours. Other than that, almost anything goes — even hooking up a hundred-year-old telegraph, which perhaps once was use to send messages of life and death across the country, to a PlayStation 4.

A scene from Netflix’s hack day. Photo courtesy of Netflix

The company has been hosting about a dozen of these events over the past nine years behind closed doors. This August, Netflix invited Variety as the first-ever media organization to visit one of its hack days at its headquarters in Santa Clara County, Calif.

Most of the hack day happened in the Netflix cafeteria, with teams huddling over laptops to work on their projects, while a few actually had brought power tools to put the finishing touches on their hardware hacks. Some groups were hiding in corners or conference rooms to shoot rough video presentations, often resulting in shaky cell phone video. “We are not looking for polish,” quipped UX prototyper and hack day committee member JC Ehle.

Another scene from Netflix’s hack day. Photo courtesy of Netflix

That was more than evident when the hack day participants showed off their projects in two-minute presentations to fellow employees later that day. “Remember, you are voting for the hack, not the acting,” Spiegelman reminded the audience as a duo of engineers awkwardly stumbled through the lines of their dramatized presentation.

But while Netflix developers may not be able to star in the company’s originals any time soon, many of them did pull off amazing technical feats in just a few hours. This included a Netflix vending machine, which could be used to top up Netflix accounts with cash in public places, an app that used image recognition to identify weapons and nudity in videos as a way to add better content moderation for kids and their parents, and a pretty ingenious audio book version of the Netflix app that let users listen to shows and movies with the help of closed caption narration.

Another hack, dubbed Spookyflix, promised to bring “fright and delight” to the Netflix app by animating the faces of key Netflix show characters. The result was an eerie experience that had Luke Cage and Pablo Escobar seemingly look at users of the app, complete with spooky eye movements. A hack called Subtitle Reactions parsed closed captions to figure what was going on in any given movie or TV show episode, and then added animated Gifs from Giphy and more for a very Snapchat-like take on Netflix streaming.

There were also a few pretty outlandish hacks, including an odd robot that was supposed to take care of infants while parents could binge away, and an “ultra-low-quality” streaming app that translated videos into text animations. And then there was “Watch it on Netflix,” a plugin for the popular Chrome browser that would alert users if a movie mentioned anywhere on the web was also available on Netflix. The team behind it got rousing applause when it demonstrated the feature with the help of Amazon.com’s video selection.

Suffice to say, Netflix customers won’t be able to use any of these hacks any time soon, or possibly ever. But that’s not really the point, said hack day committee member and Netflix VP of engineering Daniel Jacobson. “It’s not about innovation for the product.” Instead, the objective of the hack day is to help with team building, and giving people a way work on something completely different once in a while. “At least twice a year, I get to code for a day,” said Mike McGarr, whose job as engineering manager doesn’t offer him many chances to do hands-on programming. That’s the same with many other employees, who look forward to hack days for months. “People get totally jazzed up,” Jacobson said.

That’s not to say that nothing useful ever comes out of Netflix’s hack day. For instance, the company owes its internal conference room scheduling system to a hack day project. This time around, participants build a private Craigslist-like website for Netflix employees, and connected a bug-tracking tool to the popular collaboration platform Slack. “We are not going for awards, we are actually trying to make a useful tool,” explained engineering manager Karen Casella.

Speaking of which: Eight of the teams took away an actual trophy from the hack day after being selected by audience voting. One of them went to the Teleflix team, which was already busy brainstorming about possible outlandish exploits for future hack days. Said Cirino, with a conspiratory smirk on his face: “There is no Netflix car, ever.” Added team member Alex Wolfe: “Expect a Netflix car.”