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Chinese airport riots and why caution kills: Alistair Hann Interviewed

Alistair Hann, Skyscanner CTO on riots in Chinese airports, Android v iOS, and the next big thing in travel tech

Known by some in Skyscanner as ‘The Doctor’, Chief Technology Officer Alistair Hann cuts a smart appearance with his monogrammed shirts. For a ‘techie’, Hann is surprisingly un-geeky when it comes to gadgets, preferring to spend his hours learning languages rather than playing with the latest tech-toys. An adventurous traveller and lover of Asia, Hann recognises the challenges that all large web businesses face when trying to scale across many markets, but believes that being bold is the key to success.

Do you think technology is bettering or worsening human interaction?

Technology makes human interaction far better. For example, the existence of email, Skype, What’s App and other instant messaging tools, combined with people being almost permanently connected to the internet mean that we are able to communicate to almost anyone, anytime, anywhere. That brings people a lot closer together.

I have friends and family all over the world but we’ll have video Skype calls or instant messaging chats running a lot of the time – which allows us to keep in touch much better than would have been possible 15 years ago.

The downside is the constant distraction that this technology provides. You’ll get a group of people sitting in the pub, all on their smart phones, rather than speaking to the people in the same room as them. But that’s more about the etiquette of using the technology, rather than the technology itself.

You have a doctorate in biomedical engineering, an area quite remote from web technology – how did you get into Zoombu (the company you co-founded with Rachel Evatt, now Skyscanner Product Director) which was acquired by Skyscanner in 2011?

I was involved in creating software for medical equipment, so it’s not such a jump. The shift was going from highly regulated medical software to the web environment where you can do what you like. I had the software engineering skills to build the site, I just had to learn the new technologies in order to build it on the web. Zoombu was always a good product idea with a clear business model.

What are the technological challenges that large web companies like Skyscanner face in the next five years?

People tend to focus on obvious issues such as scaling websites, but these are old problems. They are still challenges of course, but I think that some of the most interesting technology challenges come from the diversity of languages, devices and platforms that people are engaging with web businesses on.

Traditionally, compared to bricks and mortar businesses, operating online is cheap, but if people are accessing your product through 50 different devices in 50 different languages, the economies of the web-scale are reduced. The more you have to specialise for different platforms, the more expensive it can become.

The challenge is designing interfaces that work across the board, and also solving the tactical problems – how do you test software in such an environment, and how much do you trade off the gains of customization with the costs of doing that for each platform?

Such diversity does bring exciting new opportunities, as you can tailor your technical offerings for new devices such as smart watches and google glass – making the most of what those platforms have to offer, to create really useful products that people will want to use.

Are you a gadget geek?

I’m a late adopter. I know many people who buy the very latest phone or gadget as soon as it comes out. I like these people to find all the bugs for me. I’m happy to wait for those to be straightened out, and then I’ll buy a later version.

I love the toys that I do have though – at home I have an HD projector for watching movies and surround sound with 5 foot tall speakers that I built, but none of that is ground breaking tech. I also got a Raspberry Pi for Christmas so I have been enjoying playing around with that.

Which is better: Android or iOS, and why?

I’m a massive Android advocate – it’s open source and much more configurable. It’s much easier to access and integrate with other things. I’ve got an Android phone in my pocket, it charges off a USB cable, and if I plug that into anyone’s laptop it will mount as a disk drive. Quite a contrast to the Apple walled garden.

Android can be used for an incredible diversity of devices. In China there are many tiny companies producing mobile phones now, because they can adapt the Android system to what they require and there is the range of chips available to build custom phones. iOS and Apple just don’t allow that.

What are your favourite apps?

Apart from the Skyscanner app – I don’t use that many. I use a sat nav app called co-pilot for getting around – I download all the maps before I travel somewhere – and I use ViewRanger (a sort of ‘sat nav for walkers’) when I’m hiking. Apart from that, I just use all the normal ones – Whats App, BBC News, Facebook etc. Anki is cool for learning languages and other things.

What are your predictions for the next big thing in travel tech?

The biggest changes are going to be in the world of distribution of prices and inventory. In flights we’ve had the GDS for 50 years, but companies like Skyscanner have the ability to distribute that information better. It’s going to be all about opening up the distribution of data, not just for flights, but for hotels and other travel products.

There’s also mobile; how do we start taking advantage of what you can do on mobile that you can’t do on other devices, using real time messaging and geo-location etc.

Hailo is a good example; a mobile-only travel business. It knows someone’s location, communicates, and can take payment – they’ve got the product in their pocket. I like to think there will also be a lot of progress in real time translation of spoken and written language.

I like the idea that I could go to China, and could wear Google Glasses, or similar, and I could look at the characters on the menu and it would do a real-time translation on a heads-up display. Creating new travel products through new technologies is fantastically exciting.

There’s a balance between experimentation/agility, and stability/reliability in the production stack. Where should Skyscanner be in the spectrum?

Caution will kill us. I’d always like to see us taking risks, perhaps making a few mistakes along the way, in order to proceed quickly and succeed in experimentation. Mark Logan, Skyscanner’s COO recently spoke about taking risks, and it’s just a matter of what impact taking that risk could have.

We need to ensure we have the mechanics within the company to make sure that happens. The challenges are how we get our tests and trials in front of our users without jeopardising the user experience.

What makes Skyscanner a great place to work for software engineers?

Impact. Skyscanner is a product used by hundreds of millions of people, so you have the chance to get your code in front of a country’s worth of users, and genuinely improve their experience. The technical challenges we face are fantastic: there are the complexities in search, the scale and volume of data we deal with, and the work we are doing with natural language processing, machine learning, and semantic search.

Is there one place in the world you keep going back to?

I love Asia. My most recent trip was to China, Singapore, and Japan, and I absolutely loved it. It’s a fascinating place. I love the food, the different cultures, and the climate in many Asian countries. If I’m planning a break, Asia is always the first place I think of if it’s for longer than a week.

You were once party to an airport riot in China – what happened?

In 2005 I was trying to fly from Beijing to Shenzen and our flight kept getting delayed. After several hours, a small protest riot broke out. All the Chinese passengers started banging their fists on the airline desks, so the staff all fled. Then everyone got worried that the airport would try and throw us out, so the disgruntled passengers barricaded us all into the terminal by dragging all the metal chairs across the doors.

There were about ten other westerners who hot footed it out of there, but I really wanted to get my flight, so I stayed around. I didn’t feel threatened, as their anger was directed towards the airline and airport. There was a lot of shouting and chanting, and eventually, at around four in the morning and after more than 6 hours of waiting, we got our flight!

Why is recruiting engineers difficult?

It’s hard to find good people wherever you are. That’s what’s going to constrain the growth of any business – as Packard said “No company can grow revenues consistently faster than its ability to get enough of the right people to implement that growth and still become a great company”.

The situation in computer science is particularly bad as there’s a shortage of people compared to the amount of jobs out there. Even worse, the number of graduates in computer science and related degrees is going down – so the problem is going to get worse.

In our day to day lives, almost everything we do has been touched by computer science – so it’s an incredibly important area. But ironically, despite the fact that programming is more essential today than ever before, and despite that fact that there are more jobs in this industry than ever before, fewer people are interested in programming.

Here at Skyscanner we have some plans about how we’re going to change that. More about that later. If you want to guarantee yourself employment for life – learn how to program!

You have an interest in learning languages. Does being able to speak different languages help in the learning of software languages and programming?

I’m fluent in German, have a good level of French and Spanish, and a basic level of Mandarin. I think it’s really important to learn as much of a language as you can before you visit somewhere as it gives you a real insight into the culture of a country, and of course helps you interact with the locals. (See more: 7 Secrets of Learning a Language Fast).

But no, I don’t think having an interest in speaking a language makes you any better at programming languages- unfortunately!

What are you working on right now?

I’m responsible for architecture and labs at Skyscanner so I’m lucky to get to work right across the spectrum. In labs we test and prototype new ideas to improve the experience for our users and create new products – current projects include faster and more flexible search, new user interfaces, and making our flight data archives queryable in real time.

The architecture team has several responsibilities – designing new systems, curating our platform, governance, and training. It’s an interesting mix of defining how we build new travel search products, and making sure we have a fast, resilient platform that continues to perform as the volume of searches and data we process keeps doubling.