How Skyscanner aims to keep its culture despite massive growth

If you’ve ever worked at a startup, you know that if rapid expansion doesn’t destroy the company, it’ll probably find time to dilute the culture, dampen the speed and damage the agility. So as Skyscanner grew from a fresh-faced startup to a billion-dollar company, it had to actively work to stay nimble and retain the values that brought it success in the first place.

Now the travel giant has more than a thousand employees and 100 million customers. Instead of turning into a corporate machine, it’s managed to maintain its traveller-focused culture at scale.

It sounds like a cliché but that’s exactly what Skyscanner CTO George Goodyer is trying to avoid. “I don’t want to use buzzwords,” he says. But it’s hard not to, considering the company has managed to do exactly what all the startup self-help books advise: fail fast, promote autonomy, stay agile.

When it comes to culture, one of the buzzwords Goodyer couldn’t get away from was “blameless”; there aren’t really any good synonyms. “We’re not about putting someone on a pedestal and pelting them with tomatoes,” he says, “we want to extract the learnings from any failure.”

The team at Skyscanner has spent years figuring out how to turn mistakes into learning opportunities. “We try to celebrate it as a positive rather than as a punitive thing,” says Goodyer. “We continue to evolve our approach as its far from perfect but the goal is that we don’t repeat mistakes. And as we grow, we need to consider how do we connect shared learnings from one team to hundreds of engineers that are globally distributed?”

An example of failing forward was the learnings introduced after experiencing a major site outage. The root cause was related to our code deployment strategy and associated tooling. At first glance, that’s a mistake, an error, it shouldn’t have happened. That said even though the problem was encountered by one team, it was a symptom of a broader reaching flaw that would impact all of our travelers. This learning allowed us to take proactive preventative actions, future proofing the experiences for our customers.

“In that case we’ve ended up with a more robust system by learning from getting it wrong,” says Goodyer. Now they can deploy at a higher volume, at a lower risk and on a larger scale. Skyscanner has heavily invested in planning, designing and running its system, but hiccups are unavoidable – it’s the way it dealt with those hiccups that shows the real strength of the company. They’ve had a few incidents, sure, but “they’ve been responsible for some of the greatest advancements we have ever made,” says Goodyer.

“This only works because Skyscanner’s culture includes an insatiable hunger to learn, to find ways to improve, as individuals, in our approaches or in the way we deliver our software services. We strive to show up as better versions of ourselves, every week. This is supported by the way we organize ourselves; how do we ensure that Skyscanner’s engineers are as agile as possible,” he adds. They work off a system designed around the ‘Squads and Tribes’ model, which was built to facilitate flexibility, ownership, collaboration and speed.

Squads are small teams, focused on one particular part of the company’s digital infrastructure – the app design, for example, or security on the site. They’re made up of six to eight engineers, plus a line manager and, depending on the subject the squad deals with, there may also be designer, a data scientist or someone from the commercial team. Put five to ten of these squads together, and you’ve got a tribe.

“It’s obviously a risk that the bigger you get, the slower you become,” says Goodyer, explaining that Skyscanner has avoided that by giving its employees autonomy. “We’ve had to evolve to find a way to avoid chaos, while also making sure we don’t calibrate it so strongly that it becomes a dictatorship.” Right now, that means every squad is responsible for building and running everything they develop.

While each squad needs to understand the overall company strategy, and align with the squads around them, when it comes to their objectives, they are autonomous in terms of how they solve them. “We care about the outcomes and teams volunteer the appropriate progress indicators to help us all understand trajectory, and we try to stay away from the details. We align on the what and when, teams need to figure out the how” says Goodyer. There’s no place for micro-managing – and no time. That’s the point: fewer check-ins and sign-offs means quicker progression, even if the engineers take a little time to experiment along the way.

Once a roadblock is identified, it’s removed. “It’s part of our general ethos, we want to reduce dependencies as much as possible and increase responsibility.” says Goodyer.

While collaborating between teams remains important, teams can make decisions without worrying about corporate processes, everything runs faster. “You remove some of the friction that you see in more traditional organisations,” says Goodyer. This brings us back to blame again.

When a mistake is made in a squad-less company, you’re often confronted with a lot of finger pointing: “It’s not that person’s fault, it’s this person’s fault, no actually it’s that person over there’s fault.” In a culture like Skyscanner’s, where everyone has high accountability and ownership, the squads own the problem because they own the service. If something goes wrong, they fix it. The mindset has to be, how do we prevent the same mistake repeating and impacting our travelers. If something delivers huge value and scales massively, everyone celebrates their success.

“That’s why we put so much emphasis on hiring,” says Goodyer. “We want to hire people with a high sense of accountability, give them as much context as we can. Because generally smart people with the right information will make good decisions.”

It sounds like the ideal work environment for ambitious engineers. The company is still growing rapidly and as Skyscanner transitions from its teenage years into adulthood, it’s looking to bolster its engineering team. That’s why it’s looking to hire a substantial number of engineers in London this year.

“It’s key for us that we have people who thrive on autonomy but also understand the accountability that comes with that,” says George. Any engineers out there: that’s a good little hint for when you’re filling out your application.

Find out more by visiting skyscanner.net/jobs/engineering

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