Jolly Old Saint Nick may see you when you’re sleeping and know when you’re awake, but he’s not the only one with intel about your bedtime habits. Netflix knows why you’re awake—whether you’re staying up too late to finish the new Stranger Things season or doing a full re-watch of Breaking Bad. And it’s the job of Ed Hunter ’79 to make sure that your TV-viewing binges go as smoothly as possible.
As the director of performance and operating systems engineering at Netflix, Hunter says his goal is to keep users happy and prevent at all costs the red spinning wheel—that dreaded circle in the center of a black screen that appears when the show or movie you’re trying to watch is loading. “We want the experience to be as seamless as possible, from the time you come to us until the time you’re done watching whatever it is you want to watch,” says Hunter, and to optimize viewing, he says the company is constantly tracking all sorts of user data.
One effective way to gauge whether things are running smoothly is by tracking the frequency with which people press Play—an incredibly consistent number, he says. “It’s so consistent that we can use changes in that rate to quickly signal problems with the system.” Hunter explains how a sudden drop in play frequency could alert his team to a system issue, such as, say, PlayStation 4—one of the devices you can stream Netflix from—not loading. It could also indicate a major world event, as was the case on August 21, 2017, when a sharp decline from the norm over a four-hour period coincided with a total solar eclipse.
Hunter says that working at Netflix, where he’s been for the last three years, is an interesting hybrid of working in a research lab and an innovative tech company. Best of all, he says, it harnesses a passion that grew out of his time at MIT: entertainment and the arts. Hunter was on the MIT Lecture Series Committee, was a projectionist and projector director, served as president of the MIT Musical Theater Guild, and worked with MIT Drama Shop, MIT Shakespeare Ensemble, and MIT Community Players.
“I love working for an entertainment company and being a part of the zeitgeist, in terms of the content we produce. There’s a set of impactful projects we’ve done, like the recent documentary When They See Us, about the Central Park Five, that started a set of conversations. Making a Murderer was another that had this big impact.”
Hunter is no stranger to participation in new cultural movements. His first job out of MIT was working on networking infrastructure at Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN)—the MIT spinoff that played a major role in inventing the internet by helping to build its precursor, ARPANET. After BBN, Hunter earned his master’s degree in computer science at Berkeley before working at Sun Microsystems, where he finished as the chief of staff to the CTO, and then at Juniper Networks as a director of software.
Over the years, he has maintained a strong connection to MIT, Hunter says—giving back to MIT each year since graduation and volunteering as a two-time reunion gift chair and as class secretary. From his time at MIT his biggest takeaway, he said, was to “keep trying new things. There’s a fascinating world out there, and you never know where the journey will take you.”