Expedia, the online travel giant, has gained the technological ability to build new and cool things more quickly. But there’s a tight labor market for engineers who can do the hard work needed to make the most of today’s new tools.
That was a central message of Tony Donohoe, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Expedia, who was interviewed on stage at the inaugural Skift Tech Forum in Silicon Valley in June. Donohoe has since left Expedia.
Donohoe discussed how the online travel conglomerate is delving deeper into data science. He said the Bellevue, Wash.-based business needs to hire more data scientists and engineers at its offices worldwide who are comfortable with leveraging the opportunities presented by machine learning and artificial intelligence.
“If you think about a piece of code and how it’s normally constructed, an engineer will typically sit and read the requirements and more or less code out every combination of what needs to happen,” said Donohoe.
“With data science, you could picture replacing the code by asking a question and the question is based on the underlying data,” said Donohoe. “So now you’re either retooling your engineers or hiring a different set of people to go do that. And that is a shift happening in the entire industry.”
Expedia is already using data science and automation for its search engine marketing, such as by optimizing the bids it places on particular keywords in auctions to buy ads atop Google’s search results.
“We look at all the demand signals and supply signals and keywords from companies like Google, and bring all that together, and you essentially optimize the bids [in auctions],” said Donohoe.
Another area where Expedia will apply data science is for offering more relevant suggestions to people researching trips. “When it comes to personalization in travel, we haven’t even begun,” Donohoe said.
Soaring on the Cloud
This past winter Expedia began a corporate-wide move from data centers it owns to the cloud-based computing systems of Amazon Web Services (AWS). It began to migrate several databases from Microsoft SQL Server and Oracle to Amazon Aurora, too.
Skift Executive Editor and Co-Founder Dennis Schaal pointed out that, in recent years, the company had several tech migration problems, such as when it moved Orbitz over to its platform after an acquisition. Schaal asked Donohoe why he is confident that the moves to the cloud will go well.
Donohoe acknowledged some past problems, but he said the company had reached a new point of flexibility and adaptability.
As an example, he cited a story from last spring, when the company found that part of its old network was in trouble and that the team wasn’t sure how to fix it. The team worried that if the servers went down, they wouldn’t come back up again.
“In the old world, that could have meant a multiday outage,” Donohoe said. “In the new world, we just moved all the traffic into AWS and I was literally being at home over the weekend watching the screen as the traffic moved into AWS up to 100 percent.”
“The team rebuilt a portion of the servers, and then we moved the traffic back,” said Donohoe. “We didn’t have that capability years ago.”
Donohue recounted the well-known list of benefits of moving to the cloud, such as lower cost and greater speed.
“To some degree, it’s easier to go fast and build product [in the cloud era],” said Donohoe. “But in another way, it’s harder. Because you have to [build a team that has] the expertise that goes way up and down the [technology] stack. You’re competing against the teams [at other companies] that maybe are larger or that can provide a hundred different projects that those engineers can work on.”
“So you have to have the whole package in order to attract the talent, retain the talent, and do what is needed for everyone,” Donohoe said.
“Engineers have far more leverage to do everything end-to-end,” he added. But engineers with that skill set “are still not easy to hire,” he added.
In a twist, Donohoe was hired away from Expedia after having spent seven years as a central engineering leader at the company. Since Skift Tech Forum, he has become chief technology officer of Social Finance, a San Francisco-based online lender. Expedia hasn’t named a new chief technology officer yet. This interview still highlights the broad trend of Expedia’s approach to technology.
You can watch the entire interview above, or consider reading more coverage of Skift Tech Forum.
At Skift Tech Forum in Silicon Valley, travel tech executives gathered for a day of inspiration, information, and conversation.