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CIO interview: Elizabeth Eastaugh, director of technology at Expedia

Elizabeth Eastaugh is on a mission to add diversity to the software engineering community

Elizabeth Eastaugh says people who think engineers all look the same and have the same backgrounds are wide of the mark, but at the same time it is one of her life aims to make the software engineering community more diverse.

Eastaugh left the world of financial services software development to join Expedia in 2007 and has grown within the online travel group to her current role, in which she heads teams of engineers working on core customer-facing applications.

It all began for Eastaugh in the days when entire school populations shared one computer. “In the early days, I started mucking around with things like BBC Basic when there was one computer for the whole school,” she says. “I read a lot of Asimov and wanted to be a roboticist and then, when I heard about Bletchley Park, I wanted to be a codebreaker.”

But given the limited demand for codebreakers and roboticists at the time, she went to university to study computer science, with a bit of AI thrown in for good measure. After graduating, her first job was in the financial services sector, working with the middleware that helps banks' systems communicate with those of other banks. 

“Making systems talk to each other when they didn’t really want to was quite exciting,” she says.

Eastaugh remained in the financial sector for a while, but then found it “became a bit staid and I wanted to be on the cutting edge of technology”. She points out that regulatory requirements make it difficult for finance firms to harness new technology.

She started to look around, and stumbled upon Expedia. “Although it was not in my top 10, I was really rather impressed when I came to talk to the company,” she says.

At the time, Expedia's entire offering was built on an old C++ platform. “What they wanted was someone to come in, build a new Java platform and migrate to it bit by bit,” says Eastaugh. “So I came in as a web developer, having not done much web development before.”

As director of technology, she is in charge of the development of two core applications and runs development teams in India, Hungary, the US and the UK.

"Every line of business has its own quirks and challenges, and we had to work with the different businesses, which was fun and educational"

Elizabeth Eastaugh, Expedia

The main application Eastaugh is charged with is Checkout, which is basically the cash register of the Expedia branded websites. The other major system she handles is Global Offer Services, which uses business intelligence to understand the customer and can personalise their experience with relevant offers based on usage factors.

Eastaugh's biggest project at Expedia so far has involved the Checkout applications and shook up Expedia’s software development rule book. The five-year project has seen the company migrate different business lines, one at a time, from a single C++ based system to a Java platform with different versions for different business lines. “It used to be one big onion for all the Expedia brands,” she observes.

The project has been challenging and interesting because the team made a break from the past in its methods, says Eastaugh. “What was great is we got to innovate and we went from the old-fashioned way of developing software, with everything lumped together into one big deliverable with releases every four months, to a service-orientated architecture built on a new platform using Java.

“Every line of business has its own quirks and challenges, and we had to work with the different businesses, which was fun and educational.” 

The original migration is now finished and Eastaugh says the team is now attempting to innovate further to make Checkout even better.

The team uses the concept of “fail fast” to guide it, she says. “We try to find really small hypotheses and then turn them into test and learn.

“We test a hypothesis [on small groups of customers]. If it fails, we get rid of it and start a new one. But if it succeeds in helping our customers make transactions, we will roll it out.”

Eastaugh’s second biggest baby is Global Offer Services, which analyses users to ensure the company makes relevant offers to customers at the right time. Her team is currently integrating it to search engine marketing channels across Expedia.com. 

The technology has also been put behind email campaigns to ensure relevant content goes to the right customers. She describes it as software that different parts of the business can use when they need to improve customer understanding.

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Other software developments include a platform that enables customers to use multiple devices for the same booking by remembering them so they don’t have to start from scratch, and a system known as Scratchpad that can alert relevant customers of opportunities, such as a price reduction for flights on a certain route.

Beyond her role in driving development, Eastaugh has strong views on increasing diversity in IT teams. She says too many people stereotype software engineers, and that managing a team of developers in different parts of the world has strengthened her belief that diversity helps development.

“I am trying to build really diverse teams,” she says. “I have been very lucky to have people from across the world contribute and I have found that having people from different backgrounds, culture and gender means you get different ideas. By keeping diversity levels up, we are innovating in a much more successful way.

“I am pushing to try to bring diversity, or the conversation of diversity, to graduates and people in industry. I want to bring different people in to solve things in different ways.”

Such a strategy will help Expedia design the customer-facing systems of tomorrow, says Eastaugh.

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It would have been nice to hear some examples of how diversity has helped improve performance, or what kind of diversity she means. Also, I'm really interested in how that c++ to java conversion went exactly - how they staged the releases, was it a ground-up rewrite or a strangler pattern, and what the lessons learned were. Sounds like there's room for a follow-up article?
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Anyone who has been working in 'Silicon Valley' or similar areas will realise that diversity in the software engineering space has existed for years. This article would be more interesting if specific examples were provided as to how diversity actually helped deliver the projects mentioned. I would imagine it's probably not that much different than what goes on now in every other tech company.
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