By Terence Repelente
One of Business Insider’s “43 Most Powerful Female Engineers of 2017,” Anne Aaron, discovered her true love for programming when she was doing homework for a programming class back in college. Vividly, she remembered how ecstatic she was that day, “I remember telling some friends in freshman year, ‘When I got home from the debut party, I worked on that program on polynomial equations,’ and I was shocked that they thought it was funny and they were not as into it as I was,” she said during an exclusive interview with the Manila Bulletin. “Later on, I took my first digital image processing class and it was even better. You write computer programs and get to see nice images of what you did.” Since then, programming never left her, and she grew even more in love with it.
Anne is originally from Manila, now based in the US. She holds B.S. degrees in Physics and Computer Engineering from Ateneo de Manila University and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University. During her Ph.D. studies at Stanford University, she was a member of the Image, Video and Multimedia Systems Laboratory. Her research was one of the pioneering works in the sub-field of distributed video coding.
“I’ve always been drawn to science and math. I remember being so excited about answering arithmetic workbooks, and I was only four at the time! When I attended Philippine Science High School (Pisay), I loved physics, chemistry, geometry, algebra, even the early computer science classes,” she said. “There was this external push to go into medicine because I was good at science, but I just couldn’t stand seeing blood! So, I decided to double major in physics and computer engineering at Ateneo.” But when she graduated college, she wasn’t exactly sure what path to take—the young Anne, armed with Atenean quality education, with a bright future, just wanted to learn and see the world.
“I took my chances and applied to a bunch of the best engineering universities, and ended up taking my PhD in Stanford,” she said. “One of the biggest challenges I faced was completing my PhD, but it was self-inflicted. At some point I completed my first thesis draft and defense but did not have my final approved thesis, then decided to start a job (for money and stability in my US immigration status). It was really difficult to complete that last step in my PhD while balancing a job and later on pregnancy and a baby. But, I finally managed to do it, and my very supportive (and insistent) husband had a big role to play.”
After all the hard work and struggle, Anne is now the director of video algorithms at Netflix, the world’s leading subscription service for watching different TV series and films on multiple platforms, she leads the team responsible for video analysis, processing, and encoding in the Netflix cloud-based media pipeline. Her team is tasked with generating the best quality video streams for more than 117 millions Netflix members worldwide.
“I was a very early Netflix subscriber—way back when the company was still shipping DVDs. I got a job offer from there in 2009, but declined it and joined a different company. In 2011, the same hiring manager heard that I was on the lookout for a new job. And now I’m here,” she said.
Anne leads a team tasked to write software that encodes video to the best quality possible. “We always aim to improve, so we also conduct cutting–edge research on that front. Every day, I get to solve technical challenges with some of the most brilliant people in Silicon Valley, while also sharing joy with people through entertainment, like when my brother randomly texts me, saying, ‘I just watched Bright, when are you doing a sequel?’”
Anne also represents Netflix in international standardization groups working on technologies related to video and image coding.
“My responsibilities include hiring and managing software engineers and research scientists, strategic decision-making on software architecture and research, project management, and cross-team coordination,” she said “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.” And indeed, we should thank Anne and her team for out smooth binge watching sessions of our Netflix favorites—Bojack Horseman, Easy, Orange is the New Black¸ Black Mirror, and so much more.
“Put simply, my team makes sure that anything you’re watching on Netflix looks good. So even if you’re watching on a phone with poor bandwidth, we want you to enjoy the story, not be distracted by bad video quality.”
According to Anne, at Netflix, they value freedom and responsibility. “While employees are given the freedom to make decisions, we are also given the responsibility to do the right thing in every aspect of the job,” she said. “It can be as simple as how we manage time. It’s flexible enough that no one counts how many hours you’re at the office, but you have to be excellent at your job. We also have a strong culture of feedback that allows us to discuss these issues openly and candidly, so much so that I’m comfortable asking tough questions, even to our CEO or chief of product.”
For Anne, the most challenging part of her job is the people management, like resolving conflicts within her team or finding a team member. “Computer, bytes, and pixels are predictable. People aren’t,” she said. “At Netflix, we practice being ‘highly aligned, loosely coupled.’ This means that we have an overall goal for the business but projects are not centralized. This means that I have to over-communicate with other teams at Netflix and over-communicate context to my own team, so that they have enough information to make decisions independently. Some projects can touch many teams and so this can be challenging at times.”
Anne and her team dedicate their time to never-ending work. Their pursuit is and will always be to “bring Netflix members joy,” she said. “We’re continuously working on bringing the video bitrate down and making the picture quality better.”
One recent focus of their work is all about delivering quality video for members with unreliable networks or fixed data caps. Anne even joked that when she presented about the topic, she ends her slide with a photo of her mom watching Netflix in their farm using a cellular hotspot.
Above all the success, Anne still sees herself home in the future—as in helping the nation where she was born the way she knows how. “I hope to find ways to help out in the Philippines. My dad and brother are social entrepreneurs who help farmers in Laguna,” she said. “I want to help encourage more minorities in the tech field.” Anne also looks to get more involved with the computer engineering industry in the Philippines as she has done most of his work abroad. But for young Filipinos, aspiring to take the same path as her, Anne gives no codes or scripts to success, she only wants them to harness three things—curiosity, determination, and success. “You will surely make it!”