The competition for technical talent in Kendall Square just got a little stiffer. Kayak, the online travel-search company, has recently moved into the neighborhood, and chief technology officer Giorgos Zacharia is spearheading an effort to build out the new office.
Zacharia (pictured) leads a team of about 300 people spread out among four offices worldwide. The latest one, where he’s now based, is adjacent to the Galleria Mall in Cambridge, MA. Kayak began moving into the two-floor space in January and now has 90 employees there—with room for 200 total. (The space was formerly occupied by Jumptap, which was acquired by Millennial Media in 2013.)
Kayak currently has 55 open positions for engineers, data scientists, and user-interface designers across its offices. In Cambridge, it will compete with other big companies that have been expanding their local presence, including Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple. But Zacharia says startups are another major source of competition.
Zacharia is a startup guy himself, but he came from an academic background at MIT. He studied math and computer science as an undergrad, got a master’s degree at the Media Lab, and did research in computer science, machine learning, and data mining for his PhD. After he founded a startup called Open Ratings and a hedge fund management firm, Kayak co-founder and CTO Paul English hired him to build up data science at the company. That was 2008.
He moved up the ranks, becoming chief product officer before taking over for English as CTO at the beginning of 2014, following the company’s acquisition by Priceline. (English now leads Blade, a consumer-tech startup space in Boston.) Zacharia says he was mostly focused on technical work before Kayak, but he’s since learned a lot about hiring, running teams, and “cultural cohesion”—in other words, dealing with management challenges.
Which brings us back to his number-one problem these days: hiring. And more specifically, hiring the right people. It’s a familiar refrain if you talk to anyone in the tech industry; the landscape has gotten more competitive in the past couple of years. But Zacharia shed more light on what Kayak looks for in its employees.
They have to be self-motivated, and the company culture is “process-averse,” he says. “If someone needs a lot of guidance, it’s not going to work out.” Like a lot of bigger companies, Kayak runs projects with small teams and tries to operate like a startup when it comes to product development. Zacharia says “meeting-phobia” is a selling point, but admits that with remote offices, regular video conferences are necessary.
So how does Kayak find the right talent these days? “You still cannot beat personal networks,” he says. The company has had success recruiting from schools like MIT, Tufts, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he says. Kayak has an internship program and is hosting its first hackathon in Cambridge on April 25.
In interviews with job candidates, Zacharia says he tries to gauge “how they describe their work and how they were able to play with the team.” That’s in addition to assessing their coding skills and collaborative problem-solving abilities.
His one-sentence pitch to jobseekers: “Solving hard problems is fun, and we have a superb team.”
Kayak’s focus in terms of new products and features includes cross-device shopping, package shopping for international users (flights plus hotels, say), and context-aware mobile apps, Zacharia says—think a virtual travel assistant that can do things like automatically check you in for a flight or direct you to a nearby hotel.
Does he ever miss academic research? “Not at all,” he says. “There’s nothing like testing your ideas with a few million people the next day.”
Kayak was founded in 2004, raised more than $200 million in venture funding, went public in 2012, and was promptly snapped up by Priceline (NASDAQ: PCLN) for $1.8 billion. The company seems to operate pretty autonomously from its new owner. Kayak is headquartered in Connecticut and has Boston-area offices in Cambridge and Concord, MA, as well as engineering offices in Berlin and Lithuania.