Ari Balogh, CTO at Airbnb, shares how striving towards excellence has served us well in a time of uncertainty. If you’ve ever been part of a startup, you understand the importance of speed. Sometimes it feels like nothing else matters, since getting your products to market quickly can determine whether you survive. When Airbnb was […]
Ari Balogh, CTO at Airbnb, shares how striving towards excellence has served us well in a time of uncertainty.
If you’ve ever been part of a startup, you understand the importance of speed. Sometimes it feels like nothing else matters, since getting your products to market quickly can determine whether you survive. When Airbnb was an emerging company with a radical new vision for travel, we often had to prioritize speed in making tough engineering tradeoffs.
These decisions paid off, and Airbnb grew into a platform that supports millions of Hosts and Guests globally. Now, in addition to delivering fast, our success depends on providing an experience of exceptional quality that considers every detail for a diverse community that spans virtually every country. With this in mind, two years ago our tech organization took a holistic look at what we’d built and where to make changes. To prioritize excellence, we committed to creating an environment that enables people to do their best work and nurtures a mindset of quality — a Commitment to Craft.
Nobody could have predicted what came next. COVID-19 changed the world and impacted travel in unprecedented ways. With our Commitment to Craft already in place, we were better prepared for these challenges. In turn, we’ve developed an even deeper appreciation for quality and efficiency across our technology organization.
Commitment to Craft consists of several principles. First, it’s about systems built on sound technical foundations that enable easy adaptation and innovation, while ensuring quality. Second, it’s about enabling the people behind the work. To build on these foundations, it takes great talent combined with an environment that fosters creativity and collaboration, with clear accountability for deliverables. People then need the right tools and, importantly, time to do excellent work. Third, it’s about setting measurable goals: problems are clearly defined, and the individual teams create their plans.
A critical outcome is that these elements combine to create so much of the magic in our products. When people feel their craft is supported, their personal touches of excellence come through to bring true delight for our Hosts and Guests.
Change takes time. We cascaded goals to every engineer and data scientist (together we call them technologists) so everyone was part of the transformation. We started small, identifying a few concrete areas of improvement around site reliability, performance and developer tooling. These investments laid a foundation for quality and, over time, transformed how people work.
Commitment to Craft led to many important outcomes across Airbnb, including improving our page performance, investing in our data quality, using our compute resources more efficiently, and improving our development practices, including testing.
Faster websites lead to happier users. But while we were focused on product innovation and adding more and more features, our pages became significantly slower. One of our Commitment to Craft goals was to reduce page load times. To set a specific target, we decided that “page performance score” — a composite score of user-centric metrics measuring the time it takes for a page to load and feel responsive — was a key measure.
To enable craft, we built a set of tools to measure fine-grained latencies across many page components. At the same time, our performance experts wrote a “how-to” guide on improving load times. With these resources, individuals across the entire org took ownership of improving the performance of their pages. The improvements were exceptional — we’ll share details in an upcoming blog post.
We were progressing well on our Commitment to Craft goals when the world changed overnight. COVID-19 hit in early 2020 and Airbnb lost 80% of its business in eight weeks.
Prior to COVID, one of the elements of the Commitment to Craft program is what we called Performance Efficiency: delivering a reliable, performant experience in a cost-efficient manner. To support this, we started to build tools and techniques to help teams understand and optimize their cost of serving. With COVID, we doubled-down on these tools and techniques — and the use of these tools to improve efficiency and resource utilization. The result was a dramatic reduction in operating costs that helped us weather the storm.
Today, Commitment to Craft is more than a set of projects — it’s a philosophy that people have rallied around. We’re starting to see teams across tech choose to prioritize craft simply because it’s “how we do things here.”
I’ve never been more proud of the work our teams are doing. We still have much to do, but we’re confident that this philosophy will help us navigate the future and keep us focused on what matters. Our goal is to achieve “agility with stability” — have the development agility of a startup combined with the product quality expected of a company of our scale. To get there, we’ll continue investing in the people behind the craft.
If a culture of craft resonates with you, you might be a great fit for Airbnb. We’re currently hiring for a variety of technical roles, so check out our career page for more information.