My Journey to Airbnb — Rachel Zhao

My Journey to Airbnb — Rachel Zhao From an uncertain software engineering student to Head of Search Engineering. If there’s one thing travel teaches us, it’s that the journey is just as important as the destination. With this in mind, we’re launching a new series of blog posts to bring you the personal stories of our amazing Airfam! […]

My Journey to Airbnb — Rachel Zhao

From an uncertain software engineering student to Head of Search Engineering.

If there’s one thing travel teaches us, it’s that the journey is just as important as the destination. With this in mind, we’re launching a new series of blog posts to bring you the personal stories of our amazing Airfam! How did they initially connect with their passion, what brought them to Airbnb, and what’s fueling them every day?

We could think of no one better to kick off this series than Rachel Zhao, the head of engineering for our Search product group, which contributed to the set of incredible features this year to respond to the changing world of travel. In addition to major initiatives in search and mobile, Rachel’s team is expanding to our new Atlanta hub, which goes hand-in-hand with her personal passion to improve representation in tech. As an immigrant and a woman, Rachel knows the importance of community building and how hard and intimidating it can be to find your place in an engineering career path. Read on for Rachel’s own words on seeing code as a way to communicate, working at the crossroads of UX and data, the tech talent in Atlanta, and more.

From Beijing to Waterloo

I grew up in Beijing and then went to Canada to study engineering at the University of Waterloo. It felt like my classmates all knew that they wanted to do computer science from a very early age. On the other hand, I was a complete newbie. Growing up, I’d been more interested in the arts and communication media professions. But my family decided to immigrate to Canada, and as I knew very little English, I needed to find a major that was more practical for me. It was very random — I just Googled for the top schools and programs in Canada. And that’s how I got into software engineering.

It was really stressful because it seemed like everyone knew how to program already. I struggled a lot in the first years and felt so behind compared to everyone in the class (learning English and Java at the same time was rough!). But I quickly realized that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. While I was weaker in computer science, I was stronger in other subjects. I could offer help on calculus and physics thanks to my advanced high school curriculum, and in return they would share their programming experience. I was lucky that I had classmates who supported each other, and that got me through the years of uncertainty.

Finding my niche in software engineering

As a visual person, the typical perception of programming (dark screen with green text, “Matrix”-style) was daunting to me. However, things changed when I took an introduction to user interface class. It made me realize that a big part of software engineering is to create a way to communicate effectively. I could bring my interest in art and media into my career path as an engineer by working on user experience.

Through many internships during the undergrad years, I also learned that when writing code, making it functional is not the only goal — we’re writing for other developers, current and future, who share the same codebase. They need to understand what you’re trying to achieve and your code needs to be maintainable. It’s not just about the algorithms, but also about organization and communication. And those skills you have as a person also apply to engineering.

Discovering my place and my people at Airbnb

Throughout my career, I’ve found that I’m motivated to solve user problems: working with research to understand the needs, and prioritizing work that brings value to customers. Therefore the opportunity to come to Airbnb and lead the search group was very exciting to me. Teams in this org are responsible for a crucial path of a guest’s journey: helping people discover and onboard to Airbnb (SEO), showcasing what Airbnb has to offer (Storefronts), capturing what guests are looking for (Search Input) and finding the best matches for them (Search Feed).

The space we work on is both a product surface and a platform. It’s also the crossroad of user experience and data. As a result, we get to work on many different types of projects, from new user facing features, systems that power product pages, platforms that enhance developer productivity, to work that enhances product experience such as performance improvements… The possibilities are endless.

Not only is this area a great fit for my passions, but Airbnb is a product that I’ve admired for a long time (ever since discovering the platform as a host back in 2012, when I literally had guests staying on an air mattress in my flat in San Francisco!). One thing I love about Airbnb as a product is that it’s really good at storytelling. You land on the homepage and you see there’s a narrative here, rather than a lot of components.

“I think that how you deal with a crisis — how you deal with the lows of a company — shows more character of the company than the highs, when everything is going smoothly.”

What really confirmed my desire to join was seeing how Airbnb handled the challenges of 2020. While seeing layoffs happening all over the tech industry during the pandemic, I was impressed by Airbnb’s response. The communication was very clear from leadership, and the company was generous and considerate in helping people find and land their next job and get through this period financially. There was also a widely-shared blog post by Brian which I felt set the bar for how to communicate with empathy and compassion while making a difficult decision.

I think that how you deal with a crisis — how you deal with the lows of a company — shows more character of the company than the highs, when everything is going smoothly. I felt like how Airbnb handled things was a really good sign of the company’s culture and the leadership. And that’s what ultimately inspired me to join the team.

Expanding our team in Atlanta

I put a lot of value on community building, inclusive communication, and representation. When there’s a lack of diversity at the table, we don’t get to hear different perspectives, and those perspectives are not considered in decision making. That could lead to biased technical decisions, or a product direction with many blindspots.

That’s why I’m so excited about the team we’re starting in Atlanta. It’s a very important tech hub. Atlanta has great schools and great talent. And the office there will help us operate in a way that’s less Silicon Valley-centric. I think it’s very important to bring different ways of thinking into the company and strengthen the culture instead of simply fitting in the culture.

I’m also feeling confident that we’ve built up the “muscle” of working remotely and learned how to make everyone feel supported over that past year and half. We’re making sure to integrate new engineers in Atlanta with our existing teams first, so they can learn how Airbnb works, what our tech stack is like, and so on — we’re being very careful about how we equip everyone with that domain knowledge so they’re set up for success.

At Airbnb, we have a healthy engineering culture of collaboration and knowledge sharing. People are willing to help each other out. We’re here to build products with a mission that everyone can belong anywhere, and there are so many ways to contribute to a team where everyone is sharing their strengths.

Our team is dedicated to perfecting our new features that help travelers to embrace more flexibility in date and destination, as well as improving core functionalities all over the onboarding and search flow. On the platform side, we continue to invest in mobile, to scale and evolve our tech stack and set a new standard for app development. We’re hiring in Atlanta, the Bay Area, and a number of other locations and we’d love to hear from you!

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My Journey to Airbnb — Rachel Zhao was originally published in The Airbnb Tech Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Source: Airbnb