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This Former Netflix Employee Has a Plan to Make the Tech Industry More Diverse

This Former Netflix Employee Has a Plan to Make the Tech Industry More Diverse main image

You only need to look around a computer science lecture theatre to see the lack of diversity within the technology industry. Women, low income and underrepresented backgrounds are often dissuaded from a career in this area or side-lined when it comes to available opportunities.

In light of this, Dr Neil Hunt, Former Chief Product Officer at Netflix has worked with Durham University to create ‘The Hunt Program’ in Computer Science.

Hunt became the first ever Chief Product Officer of Netflix in 1999 and is largely credited for the development of this personalized user experience, which is now synonymous with the Netflix brand. Now, he’s donating US$3.5m to his alma mater.

Hunt’s donation will play a huge part in expanding the university’s Women in Technology program, tackling the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles in the tech sector, and also establish new scholarships to support students from low income and underrepresented backgrounds.

This investment will hopefully ensure talented prospective students, regardless of background, can access Durham’s technology degree programs.

New programs

The donation will be of key importance in launching the department’s first Careers & Internships program for computer science students, leveraging the university’s global networks to give students access to transformative career opportunities in the tech sector.

Hunt is also a founding member of Durham’s Computer Science External Advisory Board. In his role – looking to shape the future of computer science at Durham – he will bring together other senior tech leaders to direct the department, as well as launch innovative programs like the AMI Women in Technology Scholarships, named for inspirational young tech leader Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE.

Imafidon, a fellow advisory board member and CEO of Stemettes said: “The issue of diversity in tech is systemic, and universities can play a huge part in modelling inclusive cultures and practices for schools and industry to follow.

“Underrepresentation is about attraction and pipeline, but also retention. I’m pleased to see Durham taking a proactive approach and prioritising inclusivity and am proud to be part of the University’s AMI Women in Technology program, which we will be able to expand significantly with Neil’s generous support.”

We caught up with Hunt to find out a little more about the reasons for his donation:

Why did you decide you wanted to invest this money in Durham University?

Durham was a very special place for me. The connections I made while studying there were instrumental in my career, and I feel very proud to be able to pay it forward by trying to set the scene for others to experience their own version of success and fulfilment.

How important will the Hunt Program be to the university, tackling inequalities present in the technology industry?

Recruiting, especially for senior positions, is very competitive. If society shuts out half its talent from wanting or being able to study STEM subjects, it’s a tragedy, which compounds as the tech environment further rejects women and minorities. Women make up just 15 percent of computer science graduates - a figure that continues to fall - and this cries out for correction.  

I hope that encouraging women and minorities and other disadvantaged individuals to get a toehold in STEM, they help us begin to change the world for better.

What was your role at Netflix? How did your input benefit the company?

I was involved in Netflix from the very early days. My first task was to build the technology behind the first subscription programs, and to begin to explore and deploy personalization to help customers choose what to watch.

As Chief Product Officer, my team built and ran all the technology, including the website, apps, smart-TV and streaming device SDKs, video ingestion, compression, and delivery including the content delivery servers (CDNs), and all the internal tooling, including building our own studio management applications.

I was also proud of being a leader in accessibility (subtitles and descriptive audio) in streaming video, as well as helping to create a platform that could take the best of local culture from different world regions and make it accessible and available to the whole world. The opportunity to enjoy content from other cultures promotes understanding and makes the world a smaller place.

As a member of the leadership team, I also had important roles in strategy, and culture development - the Netflix culture is widely discussed, and variations are now adopted by many other companies.

What are your personal motivations behind donating to diversity in tech? Why does this need tackling? 

I have been fortunate to work at companies that have been more supportive than many of women and minorities, and I have had the opportunity to see the great benefits from women and minorities participating or leading teams, and sadly have seen negative and destructive outcomes from tolerating intolerance or bias.

In studying and discussing how to improve our own record and performance, it became clear to me that the problem begins early - at high school and university - which is why I have been motivated to try to make a difference there.

I hope my gift will inspire others – in industry and in education – to cultivate future generations of innovation and leadership from all walks of life. 

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Written by Niamh Ollerton

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