As a pioneer of the online travel industry, Expedia thrives or fails based on its use of technology. So, seven years ago, when the firm was looking for someone to help it transition from C++ to Java, it turned to software developer Elizabeth Eastaugh.
Eastaugh, now director of technology at Expedia and a nominee in the Tech Hero category at the V3 Technology Awards 2015, was working at estate agents Savills when the call came. Seen the properties rotating on the screens outside estate agent branches? That was Eastaugh's work as a developer at Savills.
It was not only Eastaugh's interactive signage skills that caught the eye of Expedia. She has had a long and varied relationship with technology, dating back to her school days.
"I wanted to be a code breaker or a robotocist when I was at school. I was really interested in sci tech from a really young age, it's what I always wanted to do," she explains.
"I was always in the computer room and always playing with technology. When I was at school, there was only one computer for the whole year so it wasn't really an environment where there were all these options open to you."
Due to this lack of choice around computing courses, Eastaugh ended up choosing traditional A-levels: business studies, geography and sociology.
"I actually did a year of those and then one of my teachers suggested I did a computing A-level. I had to leave my school, start my A-levels again and redo them at Chelmsford College," she says.
"When I told people I'm going to do a computer science A-level, people said you should probably have a backup plan in case computers don't go anywhere. This was the advent of the internet."
But Eastaugh persevered, opting to study computer science and artificial intelligence at Essex University, where she was fortunate to meet an inspirational teacher.
"Their robotics lab was set up by a student of Alan Turing, Dr Hu. He did all the robotic fish at the London Aquarium and the robot world cup," she explains.
But robotics back then was far different from the advanced artificial intelligence we're getting used to now.
"AI didn't really exist at the time, it was really theoretical. We did a lot of natural language processing (NLP)," she remembers.
"The crossover between wanting to be a code-breaker and NLP makes a lot of sense. With NLP you're getting a computer to understand the difference between 'did you see my duck' - quack quack - and 'did you see my duck' - as in crouch down - but in terms of programming that in, you're thinking about language.
"If you're trying to break a code, you know that if you found the letter Q chances are it'll be followed by the letter U, you can do those tricks with every language. Coding of natural language is coming into the code-breaking aspect, which I found really interesting."
Eastaugh did not get to pursue code-breaking as a day job, having decided against the MI5 spy path, she quips. Instead she ended up with a job at insurance company Capita, working on integration projects for financial services companies, before moving to a dot-com in a similar role, building everything from an automated waste management system to a fashion website.
Eastaugh relished the dot-com world for allowing her to do lots of different roles, but it had the downside of "crazy hours" and not much of a work/life balance.
Fast forward to estate agents Savills, which Eastaugh says became a bit "rinse and repeat" without new challenges. And just at the opportune moment, the call came from Expedia.
"I wasn't really expecting that much but when I turned up I realised this was the place for me."
Eastaugh quickly moved up the ranks from developer to lead, then a manager, then a director. She now manages three teams at Expedia: offer services, Crazy Glue and checkout.
Offer services is aimed at putting the right offers in front of people, so if a customer has booked city breaks in the past, they don't get spammed with ideas for beach holidays. After the self-explanatory checkout process, Crazy Glue understands what the customer has just bought and serves up add-ons, whether that is discounted ground transport, an activity or tickets.
"I look to make sure we're all driving in the right technical direction across all those different channels and pipelines, and that we're delivering on time and budget. So it's about execution and technical excellence," Eastaugh says.
"I'm also looking at how do we build our employees up, run training sessions internally, and retain and delight our talents. Attrition is something I'm really focused on. Also looking to bring new talent into Expedia, from more diverse avenues."
Expedia runs tech weeks around the globe via its internal college once a quarter or every half year to ensure current staff are developed. For a full day, everyone who works for the tech sector goes along for hackathons, and the firm also has coaching sessions and mentoring to boost staff retention.
Despite Eastaugh's role as director being far removed from her past as a full-time developer, she still makes time to get her hands dirty.
"I now manage managers, who manage the teams. But I do get to do some coding. I don't like to say, go do this, go do that. I want to be able to understand what people are telling me, so I go off and code. If there's a new system or platform or language, I'll go and sit and play with it for a couple of hours. I'll even go into our code base and go and play around," she explains.
"Otherwise you get to be a manager who doesn't know anything, and that's not what I want to be."
Expedia has two teams running its in-house technology, IOTA and a supporting ops team.
"At the moment they're doing a great job with traffic and route management. They're constantly looking at where the traffic is coming in from, whether it's bot traffic or people traffic, legal traffic, if it's being scraped or malicious traffic. They work to keep legitimate traffic alive and cut anything off if it starts to swarm our servers," says Eastaugh.
So what technology is helping keep Expedia online and ahead of its competitors? Despite its position as a major web business, Expedia has decided not to fully embrace the cloud computing revolution.
"Not everything is hosted in the cloud. It will depend on what we're doing," Eastaugh explains. "A lot of our content and UI is hosted in the cloud because we need that to be pretty fast. But anything super secure for PCI Compliance, we really make sure it's on our servers and completely ring-fenced. Anything to do with your booking, credit card details - that's not going anywhere near the cloud at this point in time."
But Eastaugh denies that this risk-averse approach is due to security issues around cloud computing.
"I'm not saying that. I'm just saying we're not there yet, to migrate all of our stuff," she says. "I'm looking at a project at the moment to look at how we'd migrate more of our data to the cloud. But we need to do it in a really secure and structured way, because we're not going to have any downtime and we're not going to have any failure at all. We're going to take our time over it.
"Some companies don't worry about fraud, and there are different types of fraud. People do try to get to our data from time to time, but we're really really vigilant, we've thwarted every attempt."
While Expedia is taking a cautious, measured approach to the cloud, it has no such concerns over big data technologies.
"Every single thing we build at Expedia, every single thing we do, we have so much analytics around it that we're able to test and learn every small feature to try and work out a strategy going forwards. We build the smallest minimum viable product, we have all the data around it to analyse to see whether the feature is a winner and we keep navigating through the winners and losers," she explains.
"That's how we're using big data in one aspect. The other aspect is for things like offer services and Crazy Glue, we want it to become more relevant the more you use and interact with the site. It should get smarter with every use."
Expedia uses some third-party big data tools, but builds and runs much of the software itself. "Booking data is kept internally. There is some degree of click-stream data that's collected by third-party companies. We're looking at that, it's very industry-standard. But anything that's private, we don't share that and we want to keep that safe."
The Internet of Things (IoT) also offers a potential new revenue stream for travel companies like Expedia. If travellers have arrived at their destination, location-based technology will be able to trigger offers around ground transport or Disney tickets, for example.
Eastaugh notes, "We already have a smartwatch application. The challenge we have is that those applications need data and so it tends to work if you're a US traveller, and potentially if you're an EU traveller with a contract phone. But if you don't have any data when you're on holiday, it limits what you can do. So we are looking into it, offering products based on your geo-location."
As with everything Eastaugh does though, Expedia will not be rushing into IoT.
"We're doing it in a controlled and measured fashion. If you're looking at business travellers, you want it to be as easy as possible, so making the whole experience for that person may make the most sense, but not for everyone."
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