IT Life: Making Hotels.com More Agile
Agile development has changed the world at Hotels.com, says VP of technology Stuart Silberg
Stuart Silberg is vice president of technology at Hotels.com, the hotel booking arm of the Expedia travel empire, which was started by Microsoft – and his great enthusiasm is Agile development.
Hotels.com can book rooms in more than 150,000 hotels around the world, and Silberg has about 250 staff to develop all the features the site needs. Perhaps surprisingly, the company and his army of technologists, is based in Angel, London. Hotels.com has offices in Seattle, Eastern Europe and India, but Stuart is moving developer posts back to the UK – he has reduced reliance on offshore development by 50 percent, while increasing efficiency by 25 percent.
Back from the Bay Area
How has your IT Life gone so far?
Over 20 years ago, I started at a big bank in England. After about eight years I moved to California, did consulting for a while, then took a permanent position with a dotcom – which lasted till the dotcom crash.
Afterwards, I worked for a massive national retailer, but they went back to the midwest, and I decided to stay in the Bay Area. I got a job at a massive medical centre there, with a national chain of hospitals and clinics, for a good four or five years, doing lots of work with electronics and medical records.
Then, I signed up with a real estate dotcom, and in 2010 the guy who hired me invited me back to London for Hotels.com as a contractor. I went permanent after a year’s consulting.
What has been the favourite project in your work so far?
My current work at Hotels.com! Throughout my career, I have asked two simple questions: do I add value? And do I feel valued? These days, I can whole-heartedly answer yes to both questions.
We had a bit of a blank slate to start with, and I was given the latitude to get things tuned and fixed. It is a dream tech job from my point of view.
Hotels.com used to have multiple platforms, and before I joined, there was this big project to consolidate them. There was no feature development for a while. The last couple of years have been about paying off some technical debt and addressing quality, productivity and predictability in everything we do.
The big misconception about Agile development is that it is just a SDLC (system development life cycle). You have to get the whole company thinking this way.
The change to Agile was not a sudden switch; it’s a slider. But one pivotal moment was when we did Scrum training, and the product guys and tech guys were on the same page.
What Agile solves is time to market. If you have an idea, thrash it around, build it, test it, test it, test it again, deploy it, and then fix it, it takes six months. You can’t have that kind of time to market!
You have to get the product guys thinking in small chunks. Deliver features that people want and can be out there quickly – and stay relevant. The product guys get what they ask for instead of getting diverted along the way.
The planning process has to be agile too – and that allows you to change direction fairly easily and cheaply on the way. Even the financial process is more agile. Since it has started to go into other departments, everyone is thinking more flexibly, and that has really moved us a lot faster.
We are now getting things out of the door pretty much every two weeks. I could list things I want us to improve, but people are getting better and better at it.
One of the worst things about innovation is when you try and force it. The innovation team goes into an ivory tower and comes back with whacky ideas. That’s the worst way to do it. We give people time off the books to play with innovation work.
What tech were you involved with ten years ago?
I was working on Java web technology back then, with a national retailer in America. They had just rolled out a Web PC system to retailers on the floor. If tailed miserably, because shop floor people saw it as a threat to their productivity. It taught me a lot about people versus process.
What tech do you expect to be using in ten years’ time?
A pacemaker and blood pressure regulator!
Seriously, the cloud is going to be massive. On the train on an iPad, you will be flicking to hotels you want to stay at. When you get to the office, you use your desktop and laptop, and you email your wife. You book it on your iPhone, or she books it on the home PC.
Sswapping devices is a hurdle right now, but apps will work seamlessly across devices, run on multiple devices at the same time, and the software will always know the context of where you are.
Who’s your tech villain?
Jack Dorsey of Twitter. I know way too many people who engage their mouth before their brain, and giving them a tool to do that is a nightmare!
What’s your favourite technology ever made?
The Atari 2600. That device changed my world and opened my mind to what was coming and what was possible. The opportunities and possibilities were enormous. It was a real game changer.
Which technology do you use most?
My iPhone is always with me. I prefer the Blackberry for email, but I have got accustomed to the iPhone, and regrettably I use it the most.
What is your budget outlook going forward?
Our budget is pretty healthy for tech. We have been allowed to grow very healthily and I get everything I need to keep growing and pushing the boundaries.
Apart from your own, which company do you admire most and why?
Netflix. They do tech really well, and they adapt tech to move the business forward. They are totally into the cloud – they throw themselves into these things. I admire their culture – for instance Chaos Monkey which is about to go open source.
What’s the greatest challenge for an IT company/department today?
Relevance. The market is changing fast. The big search engines are getting into trouble, and things are getting interesting. You can spend a lot of time chasing your tail and trying to defend yourself – but the most important thing is trying to stay relevant, to keep your customers engaged, and keep them coming back to you.
You have to support the right platforms too.
We spent a long time consolidating and centralising the industry, and now we have taken a step back. We have BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad, Windows Phone 8 and Android. Deploying is almost old-school. When I develop new features, I have to develop five or six times, so time to market slips back.
I don’t think anyone has come up with a good solution, but we are consolidating our iOS apps, and doing more touch input. Very shortly, touch interfaces will outstrip the classic PC. When we get that feature out there, it will be quicker and easier to port over.
To Cloud or not to Cloud?
Cloud gives great advantages for a company like ours. If you are an enterprise with an ERP system at the back end, you don’t have to do it. It’s not mandatory, but for us it is a good idea.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
Much to my parents’ horror, I wanted to drive a roadsweeping truck. I still like to see those things, but driving one? Sadly, it was not to be.
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