Since 1923, Disney has seen and experienced one of the longest evolutions of media consumption in history. From physical attendance at movie palaces and theaters to at-home viewing with VHS and DVDs, Disney has always been ahead of the curve in providing their consumers with the most accessible way to view content, especially most recently with the innovation of Disney+ and Disney Streaming. What’s more, Disney recently reported 196 million subscriptions across its entire direct-to-consumer portfolio.
“Disney Streaming has expanded globally in a very short time — it’s been really mind-bending to see,” said Horane Henry, a senior manager of technical project management. “We built out a global service in just over two years that other companies have taken many more years to get to.”
The question is twofold: How did they do it, and what’s coming next? At Disney Streaming — the business unit that manages the operations of streaming services including Disney+, Hulu, ESPN+ and Star+ — the challenge of balancing programming, technology, company culture and the expectations of a renowned international brand are a source of passion and motivation for many employees.
“I love working at Disney Streaming because I believe this company is one of the iconic and recognizable worldwide brands,” Henry said. “I also get to work with really smart engineering teams, and be a part of the engineering and architectural discussions for services that power Disney+.”
To learn more about the projects, culture and the future at Disney Streaming, Built In NYC sat down with Henry and Director of Program Management Jenn Yee for an extended interview. From etiquette during Zoom meetings to the tools that can be incorporated from every project launch, these two leaders shared their insight about how Disney Streaming is making global expansion a rapid success — and why the work to get there is so engaging.
Nice to meet you, Jenn. What do you love about working at The Walt Disney Company?
For me, it’s the people. I get the privilege to work with brilliant, charismatic and hardworking people who are always willing to help solve problems. This past year, we successfully navigated through the professional and personal challenges brought on by Covid-19, which gave each of us an opportunity to think outside the box. Together, we learned how to lead with empathy and still deliver on business goals.
What’s the most interesting thing you or your team has done since you’ve joined?
It would definitely be building Disney+. My team has launched multiple products prior to Disney+. With every project launch, we were able to learn something that we applied to Disney+. For example, when we built ESPN+, we created a marketing-focused team that developed marketing landing pages to promote pay-per-view events. Eventually, we partnered with another engineering team that helped develop an internal tool to automate this process. This experience helped us when we had to quickly stand up pages to promote Disney+ during key promotional periods or at large tent pole events like D23, the largest Disney fan event in the world.
Talk about the challenges of building and expanding a streaming service used by over 129 million people.
Tech companies always struggle with the same challenges: How do you prioritize the ambition of a product vs. what can be shipped in the time we’re given to create it? Project management is about finding the balance between delivering on business goals and allowing the time and space for innovation that makes a product like Disney+ stand out from the field and succeed because of its merits, not just its name.
One of the most important things you can do as a leader is to listen.”
What would you say is the most important thing you can do here as a leader?
My team comprises intelligent and highly capable people. The best way to lead this group is to engage in participative leadership. I seek input from my team and collaborate before making business decisions. We surface problems and together we author solutions.
One of the most important things you can do as a leader is to listen. Some would say that you should listen with your eyes and ears. When you’re in person and face to face, you should take note of their body language. That said, now that we’re in a mostly Zoom-meeting world, listening becomes a challenge. Most people are waiting for the right moment to unmute their audio to share their opinion. If they don’t unmute fast enough, they’ll have to wait. As a leader, we should strive to give everyone a voice. The goal should be everyone unmuted, listening to one another and having a fruitful discussion.
Tell us about the overall culture at Disney Streaming. How do the teams collaborate and receive support? Do employees have opportunities to grow?
There is a strong mentoring culture here at Disney Streaming. Everyone, regardless of level, is willing to share their time to build up one another. Because of this openness to mentoring people across different job families, there is an opportunity to explore and learn.
What is the key to success for a streaming service in the year 2022?
Over the next year we will continue to grow our catalog of content from Disney+, Hulu, ESPN+ and Star+. As a streaming service, our job is to elevate this content by delivering the best in class experience across all platforms.
Horane, what do you love about working at The Walt Disney Company, both overall and in your current position?
In my current position, the thing I love the most is that I work directly on services that power parts of Disney+ and I get to brag about it to my family.
What’s the most interesting thing you or your team has built since you’ve joined?
This is a hard one but I’ll go with the most recent thing that comes to mind. My team was very involved in bringing the IMAX Enhanced feature to Disney+. A lot of people think IMAX is a screen size and don’t quite understand that it’s an aspect ratio. On the day IMAX Enhanced was launched on Disney+, a friend of mine just so happened to be by my house and I geeked out just showing him the new feature and explaining the difference between the regular version of the content vs. the IMAX expanded aspect ratio version.
The thing I love the most is that I work directly on services that power parts of Disney+ and I get to brag about it to my family.”
Why is this product interesting from the point of view of your discipline?
As senior manager of technical project management, working here is interesting because I get to work with really smart engineering teams as well as learn so much about the streaming industry.
Talk about the global expansion of Disney Streaming from a software engineering perspective. What are the specific goals?
Our services and software had to grow globally and be distributed throughout all this expansion. I think one of the goals that our teams have at the forefront of their minds is maximum uptime with our services combined with the ability to scale quickly and easily.
Tell us about the tech team’s culture.
The tech team here is very collaborative in problem-solving. People make time to have in-depth conversations around design approaches and technologies that are used to solve problems. Folks are also quick to find solutions to the problems. There is also a culture of sharing openly when problems occur: Seeking out the root cause and remediation behind the issues.
Team members also get the opportunity to move across the stack and explore new teams if they are interested in doing so. There are hackathons across the company yearly where folks get a chance to meet new people from across the company and work on cool projects that they get to present to executives. There are also various ERGs that cater to the diverse employee population here. Overall, collaboration is woven into the fabric of our company culture.
If you’re a talented technologist, why should you want to work here?
You’ll get to be a part of a team that is working on a streaming service that combines the best in class content as well as groundbreaking technological advances in the streaming industry. You’ll also get to learn from some of the industry experts who work here.