My Airbnb story

How to ignore your degree and not know any better

Harrison Shoff
Non fiction


You run out of money fast.

That was the first thing I learned after I graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering. I focused on embedded systems, bigger legos with wires and lights.

My senior project from 2010. It was an rubics cube made with RGBa LEDs and accelerometers on the inside.

There was over $1,000 in my bank account. The most I had ever squirreled away. Every dollar saved would buy me more time after I graduated. All I wanted was time.

I was working as a research student at the Sensors, Energy, and Automation Lab at UW, designing visuals for technical projects that ranged from flexible sensor arrays for prostheses to absorption cooling microchips. There were a lot of late nights, but I had enough for two months of rent in my tiny U-district studio apartment and I was free to figure it all out.

When the money was gone, I hadn’t heard back from the entry level EE positions I applied for.

Moving back in with your parents doesn’t feel good.

That was the second thing I learned. I got a job parking cars at a hotel downtown. After I was offered the job, the manager asked me to bring in a razor so I could shave on my lunch break because he didn’t like my 5 o’clock shadow.

It was easy money. The wage was minimum but the tips were wonderful. You learn a lot about people when you’re trying to convince them to give you some cash. You learn to look them in the eye. To smile. To quickly joke and earnestly hope they have a great night. You have seconds to make a connection with a person.

After work I would head back to the room I grew up in and sit at the desk I studied math in. Then I would stare at the computer screen I applied to colleges with and all I could do was wonder what was next.

Momentum is important when you find yourself stuck.

A couple clicks of the mouse and I stumbled on an old folder that contained some of the first websites I had coded in high school. index.html and styles.css, my old friends. The thing I did when I stayed up late with the computer and made things.

Back then I thought I was going to be a designer. I spent most nights staring at photoshop and hitting ctrl+z a lot. I picked up html and css because I wanted to share the work I was doing. I wanted a portfolio. That was what the cool kids were doing.

So much had changed. Why is everything JavaScript? I had to catch up.

I started to recreate the cool things I saw. Slideshows. Search bars. Tabs. Rounded corners. I wasn’t a big fan of tutorials. I mostly just right clicked > view source… and made it up as I went.

There was no failure. No deadlines. Just better than the day before. Invisible progress.

What are these guys doing that I’m not?

I was looking for something to read on a plane and picked up Inc. Magazine’s top 30 under 30 issue. It was filled with smiling young people with big ideas. Flipping through the pages you get that mixed feeling of excitement and despair. You think, “the possibilities!”. Which is quickly followed by, “the chances…”

There was one company that stuck. Three guys that did something I had never heard of. Two of the guys were designers! I had never heard of designers starting a tech company.

I had to work with these guys. I felt like I was missing out on something important.

Being unimpressed with your own resume is a funny thing.

There was nothing there that showed I could make websites. I changed the fonts. I rewrote sentences. I bought thick paper. I wrote objectives. Mashing together big words I had never used before. Putting yourself on paper is a dreadful thing.

I had to show them what I could do. Something they could move their mouse over.

The first part was easy. I made a folder called Airbnb and added a new file called index.html.

I was going to redesign the Airbnb homepage.

The email said they wanted to talk to me on the phone.

I remember laughing when I hung up the phone. The last 20-minutes were spent talking with Airbnb’s first and only front-end engineer, Chris Collins. We talked about internet things.

I had bombed it of course, but I got to the phone call. A new personal best. More invisible progress. It was a great way to spend my one day off from the valet gig.

I was downstairs when I heard the phone ring again. I was getting some water and trying to figure out how to tell the pops the search wasn’t over.

It had to be the valet place calling me to come in. Maybe if I didn’t answer it they would just call someone else? But maybe it was my Dad calling to see how it went? I had to answer it.

Hey this is Joe Gebbia calling from Airbnb!

The excitement and energy in his voice was staggering. It filled the room. Through a phone.

I was confused.

He was saying that Chris just told him that the interview went well. Then he asked if I could could come down to San Francisco and interview in person.

me: “Sure, when should I come down?”

joe: “How about tonight?”

me: “tonight?”

So I hopped on a plane. The next day was going to be filled with 9-hours of interviews with everyone in the company.

I felt silly in a suit.

I opened the door at 9:00am with a tucked in dress shirt and saw all of the faces I recognized from the jobs page wearing t-shirts and smiles.

It was exactly where I wanted to be.

My friends didn’t believe me. Companies don’t do that in Seattle. These things take time. There’s a process.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I got hired really quickly. I thought that was just how companies in San Francisco did things. They move fast. It made sense.

Then a year later I was reading through the latest article about Airbnb and my brain broke when I read:

Airbnb’s fastest hire was a front-end developer who redesigned the entire homepage of The developer emailed a link to his design, along with detailed explanation of why he wanted to work for the company. The link quickly made its way through the entire company.

Two hours after receipt, Gebbia phoned that developer. By that night, the prospect was on a plane to San Francisco, and by the next day everyone had agreed to bring him on board.

- How to land a job at Airbnb

I had never heard that part of the story.

But that’s my story.