Technology companies compete fiercely to hire the very best people in the field. Google paid its UK staff £160,000 on average in 2015, while Facebook’s equivalent figure was £210,000. Free food, gyms and even assistance with accommodation are standard fixtures at the top companies.
Good coverage and rankings in ‘happiest place to work’ lists also helps. This is what first piqued the interest in Expedia.
The travel booking firm was ranked best place to work in the UK by Glassdoor for the second year in a row in 2017. It claims its tech-savvy, experimental, non-hierarchical approach is core to its success.
“We're a tech company in the travel business, not a travel company in the tech business,” Clint Hayashi, EMEA head of communications, tells Techworld.
Expedia’s HQ is in Bellevue, Washington in the US but it has 1,300 staff in the UK in its impressive office near Angel (we can confirm firsthand: see below). Of its 20,000 staff globally, 5,500 work in product and technology roles – over a quarter of the total.
The company was founded as a division of Microsoft in 1996 then spun off as an independent business in 1999. Expedia struggled after the dot-com bubble but underwent a major overhaul about seven years ago and shifted to its current tech-first philosophy. President Aman Bhutani, who previously led engineering, has been crucial to this shift, according to Hayashi.
So why is Expedia rated so highly by its tech staff? Let's start at the beginning: recruitment.
The company’s philosophy is that they like to hire internally and develop their own employees, says chief people officer Nikki Krishnamurthy.
Expedia places a lot of emphasis on values such as diversity, and these are set out during the interviewing process. “They have really helped us articulate who we are,” she adds. Expedia has been working on ensuring job specifications are “gender neutral” too.
“There are two main areas. We look for people who have the right technical qualifications. But more important is the way they work. Are they collaborative, curious, comfortable working with continuous change and in dynamic environments?” says Scott Crawford, VP of e-commerce.
There is an emphasis on building teams that can work well together, learn from each other and have complementary skills, he explains. Candidates have interviews with someone in every department across Expedia, as they’ll need to work with people beyond their team.
Expedia has very flexible working arrangements and management styles, so it isn't right for everyone, Krishnamurthy admits.
"It does mean we lack structure. If you like structure, you'll struggle here. But if you are someone who wants to be empowered to make their own choices, this is perfect for you," she says.
“If you look at who we are competing with, it often is tech and e-commerce. Because of our location in Seattle we see a lot from Amazon and Google, Microsoft as well of course, plus other travel and hotel companies. It’s a diverse base,” adds Krishnamurthy.
Ensuring it hires and promotes a diverse pool of candidates is "hugely important" to the company.
"It's a big issue and we are actively working on it. Both training staff on awareness and unconscious bias, but also trying to design the system to accommodate different needs. We have men and women working on it and there's a lot of positive energy around it," she adds.
That gives us a feel for how Expedia goes about hiring and promoting staff. But once you’re in, what is it like to work there?
“You think of Expedia as a global, two decades old company, but our tech teams are small so they feel like lots of little startups. Projects are broken down so work gets done faster and we’re able to move quickly,” says Hayashi.
Crawford manages people in the UK, Singapore, Japan and the US, although he says where possible he tries to bring the team together to socialise regularly.
Flexibility is a crucial component to Expedia’s culture, Crawford explains. People may have to do early or late calls, but they can take time off to accommodate that. “If you have an 8am call, you can take your child to work, come into the office late, or work from home, whatever you need,” he says.
This leads Crawford onto the next vital component: trust. Specifically, trust that you can manage your own time to get your work done.
“There is a lot of trust placed in you and the team to have an acceptable work/life balance. They really encourage that here,” he says.
Flexibility and trust are values that extend beyond the superficial topics of when and where you work into how you work too, according to Crawford.
“It’s important people feel empowered to take the time they need to spend with families, or on exercise or hobbies, and they don’t feel guilty for doing so. We have a very open approach and culture from that perspective. We really just focus on output” he adds.
“Previously we had software releases four times a year. Now we have continuous A/B testing. That philosophy goes across the whole business. It isn’t hierarchical, even top people can be challenged. And you aren’t punished for failure,” he explains.
“The other part within the tech teams is there is so much flexibility. Any technology is allowed, any language or system,” he adds.
The office environment
Expedia's office in Angel is quite something to behold. It's a maze of rooms: open plan offices, kitchens, dining areas, individual pods and areas for meetings.
The entrance is full of photos from people's holidays. The meeting rooms have kitsch themes ranging from 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Moulin Rouge' to what appears to be 'the British royal family'. There is an enormous roof terrace with lots of seating and a BBQ area.
"The physical space really matters to us, so quite a lot of thinking goes into it," Krishnamurthy says.
Expedia isn't fully signed up to the modern 'open plan' philosophy however.
"We're definitely on the individual office space end of this. Some benefit from an open plan office's energy and collaboration, but some find it hard to concentrate and need quiet. So we have tried to create an environment for them too," she says.
It's for this reason that Expedia has a rule that people can work from home whenever they want to, unless they physically need to be in the office, she adds.
"I've been here for seven years and we've totally reinvented ourselves. Back then we wanted people with a travel background. Now it's all about people who understand tech," Krishnamurthy says.
She adds: "It's also all about letting employees make their own choices. We listen to them and their feedback, especially when we are getting it wrong. And that is a great reflection of who we are as a company."