Forging a path to a technical role at Airbnb
Many Airbnbers know Elizabeth for her role as a community builder and leader -Global Co-Lead for the Genders Marginalized in Tech (GemTech) resource group at Airbnb, and the host of amazing events like our company-wide Dog President Election. What people might not know is that Elizabeth has been on an incredible journey since joining Airbnb in 2017. She started as a customer support specialist, spent years developing a deep technical skillset, and is now a systems engineer on the BizTech team.
Elizabeth discovered software engineering relatively later in her career. Her first bachelor’s degree was in Conflict Resolution. When the Portland office offered an internal Intro to Web to Development class, Elizabeth signed up, thinking some basic knowledge about the internet would come in handy for her role. Instead, this class launched her on a path to getting a second bachelor’s degree in computer science (while continuing to work full-time at Airbnb!).
This is Elizabeth’s story, in her own words:
Joining Airbnb as a customer support specialist
Before Airbnb, I was a community organizer, leading and scaling youth development programs, and also a bike mechanic. I had a lot of great experience in the nonprofit world and in the teaching world, but I was ready for a new chapter. A friend sent me a job posting for a customer support role at Airbnb. I’d been an Airbnb Guest and Host in the past, so I recognized my personal and professional experience would be helpful to the community.
Right away, I was impressed with the experience the company was trying to craft for the interviewees and who they were trying to hire for. But I never could have imagined the journey that was in store for me at Airbnb.
The Lunch and Learn class that changed everything
In 2018, engineers at our Portland office hosted an eight-week Intro to Web Development class as a “Lunch and Learn” series. In the Customer Support org, you could use a certain number of hours per quarter for learning and development, so I applied to use those hours to take this class. I looked at it as kind of like a CPR class: Essential knowledge to have for my job, but hopefully I’d never have to use it.
I think maybe within the first hour of that class — setting up a Hello World, and learning the basics of HTTP — I was like, what? This is how the internet is put together? I don’t need any special qualifications, and I can just make a website?
That class unlocked new parts of my brain. It showed me that engineering isn’t something people are born knowing. Instead, it’s like running a marathon, or diagnosing a bike. There’s a skill set you can build on with a lot of practice, and beyond that skill set there are theories and techniques, processes and tools.
Making the transition to a technical role
At Airbnb I focused on applying the computer science concepts I was learning. In Customer Support, that meant working closely with the engineering team on debugging issues. Then I moved over to the Trust team, which handles account security and content integrity. To do threat detection and analysis, I was writing queries in SQL, reviewing logs, and gaining technical analyst experience. I also got to work with the CSIRT team and our InfoSec group, which was really exciting and interesting.
Along the way I was constantly asking questions and knocking on doors. I heard things like, you need a degree, you need an internship, you need to do X, Y, and Z to get into a technical role. But I’ve seen that people want to work together on finding a solution when what you’re asking for is a great idea. And it’s a great idea for someone who worked in customer support, learning the 360 degree journey of our host and guests, to become an engineer and help solve our technical problems.
I never stopped exploring what was possible, and I ended up meeting engineering leaders who said, let’s make that happen. It’s been amazing to have the support of people at Airbnb who understand what I’m trying to do. And this summer I transitioned to engineering full-time.
The first 90 days as an engineer
I wake up in the morning and I turn off the alarm and I’m like: I’m an engineer! Every part of it is super stimulating. I own something that I’m building, and I get to have experts collaborate with me on it and give me feedback. It’s a creative development cycle that never ends, that keeps improving.
The role I have now is really unique — I’m rotating through all the subteams within corporate infrastructure, so I can get the full spectrum of the kind of technical challenges we face. My first project was unlike anything I’ve done in school: I was learning about Terraform and developing in a cloud computing environment using Golang; we apply configurations at scale and design with resource optimization and automation in mind. I’d also never had anybody look at my code and give me feedback. Anytime I receive feedback it’s a gift, I even have a Google Form on my profile specifically for people to provide anonymous (or not!) feedback. Code reviews are awesome! And it’s been amazing to work with an architect on the plan for my project and learn how our internal systems all fit together.
It’s better than I ever could have expected. It’s way surpassed any of my ideas of “What does an engineer do?” And the fact that I had a vastly different life experience and area of expertise really gives me a new lens that I can apply in combination with my technical skill set.
When I started out on this journey I didn’t have any friends who were interested in computers. So I founded a Women in Engineering group at the Portland office, which eventually developed into a new group, GemTech, that is inclusive of all underrepresented genders in technical roles and their allies. It’s been so important for me to have this community to connect, ask questions, and share my experience.
For example, I remember I failed a midterm for my first computer science class, and I thought I was never going to make it as an engineer — until I talked to people and learned that this is a really normal experience. I want to share that you don’t have to be great at something to get started. And life still continues — you may need to take a break, or a term off, which is what I did to take care of my mom during the pandemic. But if you have the curiosity, inspiration and the willingness to do it, you can always keep growing.
Interested in working with Elizabeth at Airbnb? Check out these roles: