It takes a certain robust appetite for a challenge to take on a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) role at one of the world’s largest travel groups, amid a sweeping industry-wide crisis. Few sectors were hit as hard by the pandemic as travel was and few travel groups are quite as huge as Expedia. One of the world’s largest online travel companies and a huge data provider too – it boasts 70+ trillion data points from across 200 travel sites – it was forced to cut over 3,000 jobs at the height of lockdown, as flights stayed grounded, hotel rooms resolutely empty and cocktails languished undrunk in otherwise alluring bars on perfectly empty beaches.
For Rathi Murthy however – appointed Expedia Group CTO in May 2021, reporting directly to the group’s CEO Peter Kern – the opportunity to join the group came at an exciting time. Firstly, there was the sheer scale of pent up demand for travel: “It is massive, unheard of” she tells The Stack. (Industry crisis or no, Expedia reported a huge US$8.6 billion in revenues in 2021 as it began to bounce back from the pandemic.)
“I’m pretty sure people are tired of staying at home with their family. I keep joking with my husband, that my promise to be-with-you-through-no-matter-what has been tested through COVID. So we’re all waiting for a chance to travel” she adds. The experienced engineer, who has held CIO/CTO roles at Gap Inc. and American Express as well as engineering director positions at eBay and Yahoo! says another attraction was “a massive opportunity to lead and drive large-scale transformation” with backing from the top. (As CEO Peter Kern put it in May 2022: “We spent the last two years reimagining our potential and decided it was time for a much-needed change…”)
At the heart of that transformation is a bold drive by the company to build out a streamlined, modular platform that will allow anyone to plug in to its services via API and whitelabel components of its travel offering with ease. Think of a surf shop that also wants to sell holidays, with its own brand on the front end, Murthy tells The Stack, or a TikTok influencer who wants to be able to offer luxury hotel accommodation to their followers.
(Whilst the company launched this vision, dubbing it Expedia Open World, in May 2022, it is not live yet. The company — which expects to make modular building components available under a pick-and-choose marketplace spanning everything from payments to hotel room bookings; fraud detection to car hire — continues to build out the harmonised toolkits and APIs it needs to make this possible and has been hiring widely; poaching Rajesh Naidu as Chief Architect from Starbucks, Sachin Singh as Senior VP, Search and Supply, from Amazon and Archana Arunkumar, Senior VP, Platform as a Product, from Workday among others and has thousands of IT roles open ranging from data scientist to developer positions, via finops, infrastructure and beyond.)
A sprawling enterprise, first founded in 1996, Expedia Group comprises scores of brands spanning Expedia itself, Hotels.com, Orbitz, Travelocity, Hotwire, Wotif, ebookers, CheapTickets, Expedia Group Media Solutions – an advertising platform targeting travellers which holds over 300 petabytes of exclusive first-party traveller intent and booking data – and many others. Like most organisations that have expanded aggressively through acquisitions, pronounced silos emerged as it grew and in recent years Expedia has been working hard to simplify and standardise the IT plumbing underpinning so much of its platform.
Recent examples of the work behind the scenes to build out harmonised building blocks that can underpin this vision include efforts to deliver a cross-group ecommerce checkout product flexible enough to serve all of its brands, partners, third-party merchants, and developers. (This was an effort that product manager Rohan Sebastian noted in a recent blog was no mean feat: “Travel ecommerce might be the most complicated form of ecommerce because of how complex travel supply can be – buying a flight, vacation rental, or hotel room is far more intricate than buying a pair of socks or a bag of marshmallows. [Over the years] walls around each brand and product line became higher and higher as teams optimized for their individual use cases…”)
Cloud, Kubernetes, Apache Ignite…
Expedia has long-offered enterprise partners an API that has been used by airlines, travel agencies and consumer and loyalty brands among others to underpin hotel booking services. So what’s different about Expedia Open World? “A lot of this has been customised and configurable for specific, large partners to run their businesses,” Expedia CTO Rathi Murthy says: “Now with Open World, we’re taking this large model and breaking it up into small building blocks of capabilities. So we can offer this purpose-built platform to anyone: large enterprises, engineers, partners, suppliers; give them exactly what they need to run and grow their business.
“That’s the huge shift where we’re really building an open platform that can serve anybody…”
The company made a huge “all in” move to AWS starting around 2018 — before Expedia Group CTO Rathi Murthy’s time: “We have about 90 per cent of our footprint on the cloud at this point” she says, “so we’re pretty deeply engaged on the cloud ecosystem. As we continue to modernise and leverage different parts of that structure. We are leveraging the cloud for pretty much our infrastructure, our data and all of our applications. We are already leveraging Kubernetes for a lot of our orchestration, I think [the challenge now is] continuing to drive consistency as we bring our services together [and] continue to build out microservices in the cloud. So the big lift is done, building those microservices and making them independently deployable is really where we are…”
(The company is not shy about its technology stack with engineers, developers and other contributing to a regularly updated technology blog which has recently covered, among other examples, setting up a dedicated cluster of Apache Ignite server nodes on the cloud to power the caching layer for flights — “flights data is very dynamic since the availability of flight seats and pricing information could potentially change every minute (or even every second), the cached information could therefore go stale pretty quickly. Moreover, for any route, there can be thousands of possible flight combinations meaning the data size is huge. For instance, it’s common to see up to 10k unique flight combinations for return travel between New York to Miami on any given date” — or how its Kubernetes clusters use GitOps/FluxCD to manage Expedia’s infrastructure and applications…)
So what are proving the key challenges in delivering this “Open World” vision, The Stack asks?
“It is a massive transformation at a massive scale,” the group’s CTO says, “Expedia as a company serves a really large amount of traffic and large number of partners, so at some level one of the challenges is that you’re changing the tires while the plane is flying. There’s a constant trade-off we’re making in terms of prioritising; to make sure we’re delivering the highest impact to our customers in an iterative fashion… modernising under the hood without impacting our customers. That is a technology challenge that we constantly are working through; bringing the company [along] and streamlining all the teams to deliver this value in a cohesive manner. It’s not just that we are modernising Expedia. But we’re trying to really drive digital value across the travel industry. And when we work, we have to connect well and effectively with our partner ecosystems, and many of the ecosystems are also dealing with a hybrid structure with some legacy and some modern, so to be able to deal with this hybrid nature of the travel ecosystem effectively communicate data effectively across that ecosystem, and work together to make the traveller winners; it’s a complex piece of work!
Rathi Murthy has led some major transformation efforts before and was clearly hired with the understanding that she has some unusual capabilities to make this in-flight kind of digital transformation work.
What’s her technique when she lands? The Expedia Group CTO thinks for a second then answers in one, fluid, four-minute-long response that deserves close reflection for any digital leader eyeing a significant challenge.
“Whenever I approach a large scale transformation, I think about things and across three pillars, there’s always the people, the process and the technology. You have to look at all three at the same time.
“The first thing is do you have the right people? Do you have the right leaders? Do you have the right organisational structure that can take you to the finish line? The second is can you identify all of the friction points that are slowing you down — and do you have the right governance structures to make sure that we can stay consistent in our delivery across the board? Do you have a strategy and a vision, and is that well understood at all levels of the organisation? [Then] Do I have the architectural governance; the design footprint; do I have the tools to make sure that every layer of that organisation can make fast decisions based upon the strategy, without everything going up the chain. [You have to] remove roadblocks, enables the wheels to move much faster
“And then there’s a core technology, which I refer to as ‘placemats’, which we create through product lines. ‘Here’s a product line; here are all the capabilities on this product line; here are all the services that deliver this particular capability; these are the teams supporting that capability; and here are the tech metrics that we’re going to be focused on to make sure this capability is successful or not.’ This is my standard playbook that I look at and say, How much levers do I need to tweak in any of these pillars? How much legacy can I manage? How much new can I manage based upon the metrics and the performance of that particular pillar? (Not all pillars operate at the same cadence, they have to be fine-tuned based upon the need, the customer impact and their state where they are in their journey.) So my approach is get your fundamentals right: There’s no compromising on infrastructure, security, identity. You need to build with an API-first approach… So fundamentals is table stakes. The second is I always follow an iterative approach: Test out everything, you learn a lot, whether it is the people the process, the technology, the metrics, you learn a lot that you can iterate on, and change your levers while you build out the next follow-up. So it’s a fail fast, and roll quickly in an iterative manner [approach].
“And I would say the third piece is to really build accountability.
“That placemat is truly to make sure we have clear accountability across each product line. When you know what you own all the way from building it to running it in production, you get the best outcomes.”
Those looking to take Expedia Open World for a spin and start offering holidays, flights, car rental or any other component of what the travel group offers via their own platform will need to wait a little longer for Open World to go-live: “We are designing it,” she says, “so anyone, whether you’re a developer or a supplier, or a partner can access it in a consistent way. We’re also building sandbox environments so we can test this out with partners and learn from that experience of how easy is it to integrate into their ecosystem. So we spending a lot of time to make it simple. [Right now we are staying] focused on growing our talent pool, retaining our talent and maintaining a diverse workforce” she notes (Expedia has announced plans for 50 per cent of all roles at all levels to be occupied by women by 2025), adding “I’m having the most fun I’ve had in my career. It’s just the most exciting time. That’s not just that you’re working on the sexy stuff that I have talked about, but it’s a really nice group of people and amazing culture, an amazing leadership team. And I think that’s really what people are looking for.
“They’re looking to work at a place that is fun, working on products bring joy to everyone and for me as a technologist — and I think this is true for all technologists — you want to work on a transformation in which technology is the hero in the story. And we have that opportunity.”