History major helped Netflix launch streaming

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • Greg Orzell ’05

Liberal arts foundation served Greg Orzell ’05 well as he rose up the tech industry’s ranks.

Every time you watch Netflix, you’re experiencing Greg Orzell’s work.

Immediately after graduating from Willamette University in 2005, Orzell landed a low-level job — the “mail room of IT,” as he refers to it — at the popular DVD-rental company.

In 2007, he worked with a small team that launched streaming at Netflix. Now millions of people use his work every day.

Graduates don’t always make a career leap like this, but an important skill he learned at Willamette helped him climb the ranks: fast, critical thinking.

Uncommon educational path

Orzell immersed himself in technology at an early age.

In middle school he built a computer from scratch and in 1998 he started writing code. At Willamette, he took every computer science class offered, formed a bond with Associate Professor of Computer Science Fritz Ruehr and tutored other students.

During summers, he held a series of jobs — a small business in his native Alameda, California, a public policy nonprofit in Sacramento and a startup in Tigard — all of which related to software or administrative systems work.

Along the way, Orzell enjoyed the intellectual freedom he found at Willamette. He zigzagged across academic disciplines taking classes in Russian literature, humanities and politics. By his senior year, he’d accrued enough credits to earn a history major and nearly two minors.

He said, “I found the back-and-forth discussion style crucial to being able to explore ideas, and it’s the way I happen to learn best.”

When he heard Netflix was hiring an IT engineer, he applied. The job was entry level and the shift meant working four 10-hour days until midnight, but he’d just finished college and it sounded great, he said.

Rising up through the ranks

At the time, he was the youngest person working in Netflix’s tech department. Once he proved himself, he worked with the small team that launched streaming and oversaw how content is moved around and stored. The company continued to give him greater responsibilities and managerial roles.

He eventually created the fundamental architecture and design of the company’s cloud storage and its connection to the iPhone app. One of his contributions — a tool called Chaos Monkey that tested their system’s tolerance for failure while providing the same quality of service — was revelatory at the time. He met a lot of resistance from developers at first, but the company was open to new ideas. Years of learning in small, interactive environments like Willamette’s served his career well, he said.

“The work was challenging and at times stressful, but also very rewarding with a lot of great opportunities to learn and be creative,” he said. “I won’t be surprised if that ends up being the highlight of my career.”

Connections open doors

Seven years at Netflix and Orzell’s connections opened doors.

Through a colleague at Google, Orzell snagged a six-month gig with HBO’s “Silicon Valley” to review scripts for plot feasibility. He attended the Season 2 premiere and after-party as payment. Then he became director of engineering at analytics company Keen IO, joined Germany-based consulting company Crispy Mountain and found his current role at GitHub, a web-based code hosting service. He still lives in Germany and develops the the site’s internal infrastructure.

Although his history major did not directly lead to his technology career, the classes he’d taken at Willamette — fundamentals such as data structures, programming languages, functional programming — did. He said his major mattered less than his ability to be flexible.

He said, “College gets you your first job, your first job gets you your second job.”   

The next step in his career will likely be outside of the tech industry and possibly back in the classroom, he said. He sees himself in education or working at a nonprofit.

He said, “I have become less about traditional career steps and more about working on things that make the world a better place.”

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