As an engineering leader with 15+ years of industry experience, I am currently head of engineering for the Marketing Technology Platform at Airbnb. Our goal is to build world-class technology systems and tools that power the unique blend of performance and brand marketing strategies at Airbnb.
In this post, I’d like to share why fostering talent from the Connect program helps me achieve this vision for my teams. Furthermore, I will share from my experience — with Connect and other apprenticeship programs — what good support looks like. Programs like this don’t happen in a vacuum, they require engineering leaders and contributors from around the company to step up and help make them successful.
I was born and raised in Kenya and moved to the US to pursue higher education and opportunities in the technology industry. I have seen first hand what education can do to further someone’s life. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to the same type of education or encouragement towards STEM careers due to various reasons, many of which arise from the biases and inequity that continue to affect our society.
I never considered myself a minority until I moved to the US. Unfortunately, academic excellence does not always equate to career opportunities or growth for underrepresented talent. Underrepresented groups normally have to work much harder for the same opportunities. I have made it a personal goal, to help in my own small way, to level the playing field for as many people as possible. I do this through helping with programs that provide access to education to kids from underrepresented backgrounds, mentorship programs, and career prep programs.
At Airbnb, we have a mission to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere. One of the ways we achieve this is through programs like Connect that enable individuals from non-traditional technical backgrounds to get a chance at a career at Airbnb. Good talent is very hard to get, especially those from underrepresented groups, if we stick to traditional recruiting and hiring methods. To increase representation and strive to achieve a workforce that is reflective of the diversity of Airbnb’s community, we need to find the best talent wherever they might be. It is only by creating teams that adequately reflect the diversity of our community that we can possibly achieve a best-in-class product and growth of Airbnb’s businesses.
I have had the privilege to be involved with career prep programs at Microsoft (Microsoft Leap Apprenticeship), Uber (Hidden Genius), and Airbnb (Connect) and have witnessed their success firsthand as a mentor and as a manager.
The remainder of this post will focus on my role, as an engineering leader, in the Connect program at Airbnb and what it means to offer my support both at the program level and directly to apprentices. The following summarizes my role before the apprentices joined my teams, during the team placement period, and after the initial cohort wrapped up.
Before Apprentices Arrived
- Volunteering to Host Apprentices: Having seen the impact of such programs at former workplaces, I was quick to advocate for my Marketing Technology Engineering teams to be involved with the first Connect cohort. Furthermore, Airbnb has a core value we refer to as “Be a Host” — care for others and make them feel like they belong; encourage others to participate to their fullest; listen, communicate openly, and set clear expectations. I saw this as an opportunity to embody this value as an engineering organization, so I welcomed two apprentice engineers to my teams. I introduced the program to all team members and asked for their help to welcome the new apprentices. Doing this in 2020 was definitely challenging, as everyone was remote, so we had to get creative.
- Selecting Team Buddies: This is an extremely important part of the program. Assigning the right buddy to each apprentice is key to their success, as buddies play an overwhelmingly pivotal role providing technical guidance and coaching. I identified seasoned senior engineers on my team who were looking for opportunities to develop their technical leadership skills.
- Scoping a Project: Apprentice engineers would be joining the team for only a handful of months and during that time would work on a project, with guidance from their team buddy. I worked with buddies and managers to identify a project with the right scope and complexity. Providing the opportunity to learn and develop, while still delivering on some business impact, is a delicate balance. And on top of that, I wanted to find something they could be proud of and excited about — ideally a small feature that ends up in production.
- Contributing to the Career Framework: Engineering rubrics are a great tool for managing development and performance of engineers by setting clear growth and development expectations. With Connect’s goals of expanding access to engineering roles at Airbnb, we added a new level specifically for talent from the Connect program. I worked with the talent team and other engineering managers and leaders to contribute to updating our engineering development framework with clear guidelines on expectations for the new level across all engineering traits.
During the Team Placement
- Defining Success: From the beginning, I set clear expectations and goals with the apprentice engineers, their managers, and their team buddies. This covered the task and project plan for their time on our team, the evaluation criteria, milestones, and what success looks like. I was completely transparent with everyone involved, that the program would be a learning experience, and though apprentices may require significant guidance at times, we would be evaluating them on their ability to learn and grow.
- Holding Weekly Check-ins: I conducted skip 1–1s with the apprentice engineers to provide coaching, gauge progress, give and get feedback, and check-in with them more generally on work and life. In 2020, it was especially important to be intentional with 1–1s as they offered an opportunity for connection that all of us were yearning for while working remotely.
- Providing a Midpoint Review: I worked with managers and buddies to provide midpoint feedback to the apprentices on what was going well as well as areas for continued development. We also calibrated across all the 10 apprentices engineers in the first cohort to make sure they were having consistent experiences. Our primary goal was to make sure the apprentice engineers were successful. By providing transparency and continuous feedback, we aimed for no surprises — give apprentices the information they need to grow and develop their skills.
- Evaluating Final Performance: After the two-month team placement, the apprentice engineers received a performance evaluation done by their team buddies and managers. Based on how they had performed and grown during their time on the team, they would have a chance to convert to full-time software engineers and start their career journey with Airbnb. Both apprentice engineers in our teams performed extremely well, and we were thrilled to offer them full-time positions at the end of the program.
After the Connect Program
- Fully Integrating into the Team: After starting as full-time software engineers, I worked with their managers to create personalized career development plans for them so we could continue to support their growth as software engineers. We started the engineers with frontend development with a plan to grow them into full stack engineers. They both continued to thrive and received glowing performance reviews EOY 2020. When engineers are starting out, I always advise them to go for breadth — explore various skills like frontend, backend, native, and data engineering so that they can be exposed to many options. Then, later in their careers, they will be in a better position to identify what they would like to specialize in.
- Supporting Growth of the Connect Program: From the start of my participation with the Connect program, I saw an opportunity to leverage my previous experiences with apprenticeships and contribute to shaping the future of the program. I continue to be a trusted thought partner working closely with the Connect team to provide feedback and insight that will continue to improve the program.
I am proud to say that the Connect program was successful and all 10 apprentice engineers in the first cohort received full time offers and placement in various teams at Airbnb. This was a win-win in so many aspects. The team buddies benefited by growing their technical leadership and mentoring skills; this is expected of our senior engineers. The teams were able to get new team members that were equal contributing members and enable them to further their roadmaps. And most importantly, Airbnb gained 10 new amazing engineers that enabled Airbnb to make forward progress on the company’s mission of belonging!