How Airbnb Tech Fosters a Culture of Learning

Tamera Scholz
Sep 30 · 8 min read

Leveraging technical learning and development to enable engineers to do their best work.

Authors: Hanna Dooley, Jennifer Rice, Tamera Scholz

Introduction

The Airbnb TechED team believes each individual’s success is critical to the health of our technical teams. This fundamental belief in the power of human potential drives us to bring high quality, relevant educational content to our technical teams to meet both their needs and the needs of Airbnb. We work with our technical leaders and subject matter experts (SMEs) to build and deliver unique, interactive, multimodal learning experiences at scale.

We have three principles for approaching technical learning:

  • Embrace the adventure

At Airbnb, one of our core values is Embrace the Adventure which from a behavioral perspective, means being curious, asking for help, and demonstrating an ability to grow. Another core value is to Be a Host, which in the context of enabling our technical team’s best work, means not only sharing knowledge, but doing so sustainably. Relying on institutional knowledge of more tenured team members is not inclusive, accessible, or sustainable; whereas systematically encapsulating and disseminating the right knowledge can enable more positive outcomes. On TechED, we build educational programs that provide opportunities for our technical teams to embody these values while also reinforcing the direction set by our Airbnb Tech Priorities.

How We Started

Prior to 2017, technical education was driven by a few invested individuals working outside of their core responsibilities to ensure new hires were onboarded effectively. As an early start-up this approach worked, but it was not sustainable as Airbnb grew. Thus, the TechED team was formed. Much of the initial effort at the time focused on building onboarding programs. More recently, TechED has expanded its focus to develop a shared understanding of technical quality and best practices across our community and deliver them through a variety of programs which reinforce technical mastery and quality throughout individual’s careers, regardless of tenure or role.

Importance of Organizational Support

The TechED team’s core values are closely tied to the mission of our company. We rely primarily on employees to Be a Host and share their technical knowledge through varying levels of commitment. We have team members contribute by developing technical curriculum — anything from codelabs to lectures. In cases where (pre-covid) an in-person lecture is preferred, we rely on SMEs to present the material. We also offer more informal means of sharing knowledge through serving as a “new hire buddy”, hosting a summer intern, or being the onboarding host for an entire cohort of new hires. This volunteer based strategy is only successful if people are motivated to participate. To incentivize participation, knowledge sharing is built into the tech career ladder competencies. Both ICs and managers are expected to share what they know, and help when they can through the opportunities offered. Participants are recognized for these efforts during the performance review cycle.

Our Programs

Knowledge must be shared in systematic and clearly defined ways. We do this though the following TechED programs:

  • Tech Bootcamp: an onboarding program ensuring all new hires successfully integrate into our global tech community and are prepared to approach their first code contributions

Content Creation and Governance

The TechED team, in partnership with SMEs, leverages the Addie Model. This instructional systems design framework illustrates the flow through which all new training materials are built: analysis > design > development > implementation > evaluation. Our TechED Program Managers work closely with SMEs to embed sound learning methodology into each course during the early stages. This includes clearly stating and reinforcing learning objectives, promoting participant engagement with the material, and enforcing best practices for delivering content. Throughout design and development, TechED relies on curriculum advisory groups for each program to consult and course correct. Comprised of senior ICs and/or managers, these groups are responsible for sharing insights that influence our program roadmaps and amplifying opportunities for involvement across Airbnb’s technical teams.

While TechED programs benefit from the support of the organization and its incentive structure, we are accountable for supporting our organization in areas of need. One program that demonstrates how TechED responds to urgent organizational needs is the Code Like a Mobile Engineer program. In 2019, a substantial number of daily active hosts were using their mobile devices to visit Airbnb. As this continued to increase, so did the demand for new features. With only around 100 mobile engineers across our product teams, there was more work than we had engineers. To accelerate mobile development, we designed and launched Code Like a Mobile Engineer. This full-time, 12-day program utilizes our model of combining lectures, codelabs, buddy support, and a capstone project to quickly train mobile engineers. Since this program’s inception, we have seen 360+ merged PRs to our mobile codebase from 30 participants and have had one engineer move into a full-time native engineering role.

Building Flexible and High Impact Onboarding Programs

The COVID-19 pandemic created enormous challenges and opportunities for all learning organizations. For the TechED team, one of the more urgent shifts was pivoting our in-person, 2.5-week Tech Bootcamp onboarding program to be consumed virtually. While meeting the virtual needs of our new hires, we also took the opportunity to incorporate prior program feedback implementing a hybrid of both synchronous learning (lectures) and asynchronous learning (past recordings, codelabs, etc.).

In early 2021, TechED expanded the program from two general tracks (Engineering and Data Science) to five function-specific tracks (Backend, Frontend, Native, Data Engineering, and Data Science). With the help of SMEs from these critical functions, TechED developed flows for each track that equip new hires with highly relevant training. Through the ongoing retrospectives, we found that new hires appreciated the balance and autonomy that comes with consuming both live lectures and recordings.

The TechEd team also supports onboarding people new to a management role with our Tech Manager Bootcamp. In partnership with our HR and Central Learning teams we offer a holistic training journey over the course of a tech manager’s tenure. The Tech Manager Bootcamp program is offered quarterly, and the goal is to onboard new tech managers to the fundamentals of effective team and people development at Airbnb. It is offered alongside complementary programs developed by our cross-functional partners. The success of these complementary programs is gauged through shared objectives and key results.

Continuing Education

The TechED team strives to enable Engineers and Data Scientists to continuously grow in their careers, regardless of tenure or role. To this effect, the TechED team has several offerings.

For frequent, informational knowledge exchanges, we host a one-hour, bi-weekly webinar called Food on Nerds (FON). Started in 2015 as a grassroots lunch-hour tech talk with pizza and snacks, Food on Nerds is now the primary way for technical teams to broadly share their work with their peers. FON offers all engineers and data scientists the opportunity to amplify their work within our internal tech community, build their personal brand at Airbnb, and, in some cases, test drive their presentation for an external audience. Talks are recorded and available at any time through our internal AirTV channel.

These Food on Nerds tech talks fuel our ongoing EngU program. EngU, our more formal continuing education program for engineers, is a catalog of courses available to engineers to further their technical growth. This is one of the main levers through which TechED is able to disseminate critical training on tech priorities. These sessions are hosted live on a regular basis, with recordings available to employees on demand.

Lastly, unlike TechED’s other programs, which are built specifically for a technical audience, DataU is an educational program available to all Airbnb employees. We have intro level courses designed to empower every employee to make data-informed decisions. The advanced courses are tailored to more experienced users in modeling and experimentation. The continued learning doesn’t stop there. We also offer access to O’Reilly Safari Online and LinkedIn Learning to augment any additional topics of interest for our tech community.

Measuring Our Impact

Our goal is to ensure essential information moves quickly and efficiently into the heads of those who need it. We maintain a dashboard to measure both engagement with our programs from participants as well as contributions from SMEs. These reports are used by both managers and ICs to inform performance reviews. We share monthly, team-wide impact reports with tech leaders, as well as more granular impact reports with stakeholders for each individual course. Agility is more important than polished presentations, however. It’s most important to ensure our tech community has the information and knowledge needed to do their job.

Conclusion

In May of 2020, Airbnb felt the turbulence of the pandemic first hand. As a response to this, we refocused our roadmap on the core business of home rentals. While we have been pleasantly surprised by the rebound of our business in the later months of the pandemic, we remember the challenges that came with losing a significant portion of our workforce. People are our biggest asset at Airbnb, and on TechED, we strive to keep people growing and learning. Since the onset of the pandemic, over 50% of our tech community has engaged with one or more TechED offerings, and with strong organizational support and core values that prioritize community participation, we remain excited to continue bringing unique and engaging learning experiences to the Airbnb tech community.

Acknowledgements

The Airbnb TechED team depends on the knowledge and expertise of our technical community. We would like to thank all who have contributed to our programs, dedicated time to being a buddy, developed new courses, and delivered meaningful content. We would like to express our gratitude for those past employees who worked with Airbnb TechED and paved the way for our success.

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This work, and many other exciting initiatives, are always happening at Airbnb. If you want to join us, check out our career page.

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