Big Interview: The exciting challenge of travel tech is helping Expedia win the war for talent

Big Interview: The exciting challenge of travel tech is helping Expedia win the war for talent

CTO and president Expedia Services, Rathi Murthy, spoke to Lee Hayhurst about the war for digital and tech talent and how the OTA believes the exciting challenge of building a new global travel platform is helping it attract a more diverse workforce of experts from other sectors 

Global travel giant Expedia is emerging from the COVID crisis with a renewed focus on building a modern travel technology platform for travellers from across the planet.

And this challenge to create technology that transforms the lives of people as they return to travel is helping the OTA recruit an increasingly diverse talent pool, according to its CTO.

Rathi Murthy, who arrived at Expedia in June 2021 with a wealth of experience in the media, fashion and retail, believes travel compares well when it comes to the technology it is building.

“We’re at such an exciting point in time at Expedia building the largest platform for travel,” she said. 

“There’s such pent-up demand, it’s an exciting time for all technologists who have a passion to solve challenging problems in a place that’s growing and having a huge impact on people.

“That’s enabling us to attract super-strong talent from many big brands. People can make an impact, work with people they respect and work on sexy tech. We have all that right now.”

Recent hires into Murthy’s team reflect this and her own diverse background, both as a woman in the tech industry and as someone who grew up and was educated in India.

These include: 

  • Sachin Singh, senior vice president, search and supply – Singh joined Expedia after 13 years at Amazon, where he worked on technology, machine learning, product management, and business operations solutions to improve the experience for shoppers and sellers across dozens of countries and languages.
  • Reena Patil, senior vice president, partner product – Patil joined Expedia from Google as a customer-focused product and engineering leader with expertise in digital transformation, cybersecurity, building scalable platforms and monetisation of consumer products.
  • Archana Arunkumar, senior vice president, platform as a product – Arunkumar joined Expedia from Workday having worked to scale platforms for high growth, strengthening the foundation of SaaS [Software-as-a-Service] organisations and developing new market opportunities. 
  • Rajesh Naidu, chief architect - Naidu joined Expedia from Starbucks bringing extensive experience delivering scalable, resilient, and flexible state-of-the art digital platforms for a variety of industries including tech, retail, and food and beverage. 
  • Doug Powell, vice president, design practice management – Powell joined Expedia Group from tech giant IBM and is an award-winning designer, lecturer, commentator and thought leader on design issues with more than 30 years of experience in a wide range of design disciplines. 
  • Arun Dutta, vice president, India managing director – Prior to Expedia Dutta worked for Victoria’s Secret where he led a global technology organisation through a technology transformation that achieved market leadership, improved time to market, created efficiencies, and leapfrogged technology-driven innovation to offer improved customer experience.

Murthy said Expedia is benefitting from a network effect as it hires influential people from other big brand in sectors that are competing for talent with travel.

And she stressed how vital it is that the diversity of Expedia’s customer base is reflected by the people in her team and in the wider business.

“We have been able to attract people we have known from our past, and those people have a huge following. That’s been a huge factor in bringing people onboard quickly.

“Diversity and inclusion has been a big piece for us and we have been fortunate to bring a lot of diverse talent from many companies into all parts of our organisation.

“We are focussed both on bringing in the best candidate and making sure we have a diverse panel of interviewers and a diverse pipeline.

“For me diversity’s not just about race and gender, it’s about those ideas you bring to work. 

“A study in the Harvard Business Review in 2015 found 76% on senior executives believe a more diverse workforce really improves the top line of a company.

“That’s an essential element for us to succeed. Even in technology, I have a strong opinion that when you represent your customers in-house you build the right kind of products.

“Our customers are global and diverse, so we need a diverse workforce. You need to be able to think through all the different constructs to bring the right products to market.”

Being a women of Indian origin, Murthy finds herself keen to act as a role model for two cohorts which are gaining in influence in terms of the talent they are providing firms.

Murthy grew up in Bangalore before moving to San Francisco to do her Masters in computer engineering having studied electrical engineering in India.

As a woman she was in a minority in her class but with the support of mentors said she “found her voice” in a male-dominated world. 

“During my career I have had a lot of sponsors and mentors, some female, some male, who encouraged me to find that confidence even if I was the only woman round the table.

“Today that’s my role. I spend a lot of time meeting with your women really pushing them to dream big, teaching young girls in schools that science is fun.

“We need more women coming in at all levels. It is slowly changing. Women leaders are coming together in many firms with a real focus on bringing more people in and mentoring.

“I think the last two years of COVID has had a huge impact on the workload of women and we need to refocus on supporting them back into the workforce.”

Murthy said it “makes her heart proud” to see ethnically diverse leaders coming through to take senior roles in many companies.

She said she comes from a generation that left home to study abroad, whereas now much of today’s talent stays at home taking advantage of improved education systems.

Although travel may not traditionally be able to compete with some of the bigger paying areas of business, like fintech, for the best tech talent Murthy says money is not everything. 

“At the end of the day everyone is coin-operated to some extent, but that is not what wakes you up and bring you to work on a daily basis.

“People want to contribute and to make a big impact. And they want to work for people that want to work for, build their resume and further their career.

“People do not love a job, they love a manager so when you have a culture that fosters innovation, that respects people who have a passion for what they are doing, you have a culture that keeps them engaged and coming into work.”

Murthy said with Expedia going through such a largescale transformation there’s a balance between managing the firm’s “tech debt” and legacy while modernising and innovating 

“People need to do both,” she said, “and you reward both equally. Then people feel that all work is valuable and all work has a true impact on the end goal.

“Motivation is not just about the work you do, it’s how much clarity you have, does the vision make sense, is it something that resonates with you?

“As a leader it’s my job to communicate with teams, get their voices heard so they feel they are part of that, and enabling them to do exciting work is all important.”

Murthy added: “The war for tech talent is real. Everyone is looking for skills whether is data science, security, UX, or design.

“These are all areas everybody is fishing in the same talent pool for. As a global company with a global footprint we capitalise on different locations for skills and distributed strength.

“But while we have a hybrid work strategy we truly believe that coming together creates that innovation and speed that matters to us, and builds connections which are lost when you never meet each other.

“It’s a tremendously exciting time for travel and for Expedia. It’s that perfect marriage of building a largescale platform for very large volumes of traffic with extraordinarily exciting tech to bring personalised experiences to our consumers and partners. 

“It’s a tangible customer experience. Sometimes you have to imagine what the impact of technology is, but this is a tangible travel experience we can all relate to.”