Career Conversations: Zach Schendel ’01
St. Olaf College alumnus Zach Schendel ’01 is currently working as the Director of UX Research at Netflix as part of the Consumer Insights team.
As part of the Career Conversations series, which highlights the paths Oles take after college, he sat down for a conversation with Piper Center for Vocation and Career Associate Director of Alumni Career Services Jenele Grassle.
Zach, to get things started, what is your favorite memory from your time on the Hill?
Definitely going on nine tours with the St. Olaf orchestra and band all over the country and the world. Of course I got to play some amazing music (Mahler!), but for me it was all about the lifelong friendships. There’s something about sleeping on the floor of a bus, wearing the same tuxedo for two weeks, and staying overnight with host families in Slovakia or Wales or St. Louis or Billings where you are broken down to who you are at your core. It’s in those moments that some of my most treasured friendships were formed.
As the Director of UX Research at Netflix, the world’s leading Internet entertainment service, you play a vital role in product innovation. Tell us about your employer and current role. What are you working on?
I am on the Consumer Insights team at Netflix within Product Innovation. Much of the innovation at Netflix, in one way or another, is born from a desire to help and to delight our users. My team works directly with global Netflix members of all ages using qualitative (e.g., focus groups) and quantitative (e.g., surveys) research methods to uncover pain points or unmet needs that can inspire new product experiences or innovations.
For my team, everyone in the world offers another opportunity to create a better user experience. As an example, our users helped the business prioritize the creation of the downloading feature on Netflix, when we saw how popular downloading and offline viewing were outside of the U.S. When we saw the volume of engagement with the “what’s new on Netflix” articles published externally each month, our users helped inspire a “coming soon” section on mobile where members can ask for their own personal reminders about content launches.
Your path to Netflix is fascinating! What personal or career experiences did you have before your current role that led you to where you are today?
One of the most interesting bits about my journey, at least to me, is how I have tried not to limit my curiosity. Inspired by my Music Theory, Sensation & Perception, and Psychophysiology courses at St. Olaf, I began researching the similarities between music and speech in graduate school, particularly how errors in performance or memory for either stimulus can be very similar. That led me to working with a chef to optimize the taste of heart-healthy meals. Next, I worked in personal care, focusing not only on how products feel and smell on the skin but also on the visible impacts they can have on aging. And finally, I have worked on immersive and entertaining visual user interfaces.
I knew next to nothing about skin biology, bioactives, heart health, prototyping, or beautiful design going into these roles. But the strong through-thread across all of these topics is a passion for research, particularly the harmony between art and science. (Spoken like a true music and psychology double major!)
How much has your career area changed since you got into the field? What are the biggest differences?
Netflix has shifted from a tech company to a hybrid of an entertainment and tech company as we create more and more original content. We just launched Netflix around the world in 2016, and so working to create a global product, global original content, and (for my team) global research has changed everything we do. Most recently, we’ve started to build our own studio! Nothing is the same today as it was when I first started, and that’s part of what makes the job so exciting. Success at Netflix, as with any fast-moving, business-like technology, requires a high level of curiosity and adaptation!
When you think about trends in your field, what keeps you awake at night?
The big trend in my industry is fragmentation — many of the major industry players are creating their own streaming services. This is great for consumer choice, and I will likely subscribe to some of them as well, but that fracturing environment creates complications for TV and movie lovers. There were around three channels when I was born, and now there are already hundreds on cable alone. Trying to sort through additional devices, subscriptions, content, licensing, and partnerships will add an entirely new level of complexity. It’s all very exciting but a complete unknown.
What gives you hope in your field?
In tech, it can be very informative to explore behavioral metrics (“big data”) — for example, the number of people who watched Netflix on a laptop device in the last month, or the volume of misspellings in search fields. These metrics can uncover pain points that lead to product innovations. Although the data is relatively quick to come by and globally representative, it’s important not to rely overly on metrics in isolation. I still see a strong and consistent need for companies to combine behavioral data with real face-to-face connection with users. Knowing that something happened is useful, but exploring directly with users how it happened or why it happened opens up even greater opportunities for innovation. I am very hopeful that these direct connections with users will never be fully replaced by automation or data.
You have done some very interesting work. What are you most proud of?
I manage a team of amazing researchers now. There is literally nothing that makes me prouder than seeing someone on the team flourish — particularly when they execute a smart, innovative, succinctly-communicated, and impactful research project that changes the course of the business. I might mentor the team, or help make some tough calls here and there, but by and large I have the privilege of watching the team develop into a high-functioning group of world class researchers.
What do you wish you could tell your 22-year old self?
First, get a haircut. Then, know that you deserve to be happy and successful, but that how that happiness and success might manifest itself is likely outside of your control. Coincidence, fate, divine intervention, or whatever you want to call it is infinitely more powerful than any plan will ever be. Just go with life. It’s not always going to work out, but you might be surprised by what happens.
If you’d like to read more stories from our Career Conversations series, check out our Alumni Career Services program.