CTO Sessions: Rathi Murthy, Expedia Group

What type of CTO are you? “I’m a firm believer that a CTO is responsible for creating the right culture for the technology organisation.”

Headshot of Rathi Murthy, CTO & President of Expedia Services at Expedia Group
Expedia Group

Name: Rathi Murthy

Company: Expedia Group

Job title: Chief Technology Officer and President of Expedia Product & Technology

Date started current role: May 2021

Location: San Francisco

Rathi Murthy is CTO and President of Expedia Product and Technology, which includes data and artificial intelligence, e-commerce, payments, and customer experience. In this role, she focuses on evolving the company's technical strategy and underlying platform. She most recently served as CTO for Verizon Media, and previous to that Gap, Inc.

What was your first job? I moved from India to California in the late ‘80s to study for a master’s degree in computer engineering at Santa Clara University. When I graduated, I had a number of offers to consider and took a software engineering role at a company called Informix, which has since been acquired by IBM.  

The work was tough but rewarding and I soon took the role of QA lead which gave me an early taste for leading teams and opened many doors for me. It was an exciting time to be in Silicon Valley as the industry was waking up to the potential of the internet.

Did you always want to work in IT? My family background has a rich heritage in construction. Many of my close relatives are civil engineers and builders so I was also interested in building things but seeing computing in action inspired me to pursue this in the digital realm rather than with bricks and stones.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? After I left high school, I studied for an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering at Bangalore University. From there I moved to the Bay Area to undertake the MS Computer Engineering course at Santa Clara University. The move to California really opened me up to new ideas and experiences and I haven’t looked back since.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I have enjoyed a varied career and have worked as a technologist in many different industries. I started off working for vendors like Sun Microsystems which gave me a great primer in building great products and solving problems. Since then, I’ve spent a large part of my career at consumer facing organisations like WebMD, Yahoo, eBay, Gap, American Express and Verizon – each of these roles offered something different and contributed to my personal growth and development.

One thing they have all had in common is they are great brands with products people love. I’ve learned a great deal about the way humans want to access services and our responsibility as technologists to improve this experience.  

What type of CTO are you? I’m a firm believer that a CTO is responsible for creating the right culture for the technology organisation. Firstly, I am extremely customer focused and have been, since the early stages of my career – working for consumer facing businesses taught me the importance of delighting the customer. I invest a large amount of energy into developing relationships and empowering my team, it’s important that they’re highly motivated team players, who move quickly in a choreographed way to win. I'm also a huge proponent of the Tesla approach of continuous small releases as that helps us build products in an iterative manner, testing and learning from our travellers, partners, developers as we go.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Right now, I’m really excited about the progress being made with big data, machine learning, AI and how this is fueling innovation in the app space. It is allowing us to develop some groundbreaking new products at Expedia Group which could change the face of the traveler's experience.

An important part of being a technologist is getting to work with the latest developments – it keeps us hungry and stops us getting bored. It's vital that we take a longer-term view of what’s up and coming in the industry. That way, if you need to implement something, you're already well versed in it and can stay a step ahead.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? As a CTO, an important part of the role is to explore the potential of all new technologies. I encourage the engineers in my team to take time out to experiment with emerging technology, to see where the opportunities are or what we can learn to improve our current products.

As a technologist, we should feel connected to things that may not be exactly relevant today. Not every new technology will change the world and it’s natural for people say something is overhyped if there aren’t compelling use cases for it already. Proving value takes time and unless industry invests the necessary resources to really understand these new technologies, some may never reach their potential. 

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? When I joined Expedia Group two years ago, I knew there was an incredible opportunity to grow and expand our technology footprint. We have been working hard to rearchitect our underlying technology platform, to improve how our business runs, and start finding new ways for others to use our technology.

We recently launched Expedia Group Open World which will make it possible for anyone to thrive in the travel market with a suite of solutions tailored to their needs, all powered by our immense AI and machine learning capabilities. Everyone will be able to take advantage of our technology and supply inventory. Partners will be able to pick and choose exactly what works for them – leaning into what we do best so they can focus on what they do best. As the platform matures, it will become a place where developers, data scientists, marketers, entrepreneurs, and others can create new ways to encourage and enable people to travel.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? Travel is a very mature industry but it’s highly fragmented in nature which means the whole sector is ripe for transformation. Expedia Group has operated across the breadth of it for over 25 years, working with multiple partners who want to supply the travel market or want to offer travel incentives to their customers to drive loyalty for their brand, and everything in between. What we’ve come to realise is that if we make things great for the traveler, we make it great for our partners and our brands. So, we’re focused on the traveller experience, knowing if we deliver better traveler outcomes instead of the lowest price option, make sure our marketplace rewards those who do the same, and open up our platform so partners can focus on what they do best while leaning into what we do best, then we all win.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? We’re doing all we can to help travellers feel confident to travel again and some of the recent products we launched support this. Price tracking and predictions is a product that tracks flight prices based on traveller searches, sends notifications on important changes, and predicts the best time to buy, giving travellers confidence that they’re booking at the right time. Similarly, Smart shopping is a product that reads through millions of hotel rate descriptions to pull out and organise the attributes and benefits of each room rate, making it easier for travellers to compare and choose between hotels.

We’re also helping partners capture more demand having all gone through a few challenging years. We're redesigning our marketplace to put guest experience at its core with sort and visibility no longer dictated by just price and availability. As I mentioned earlier, we’re rearchitecting our technology platform to Open World so the building blocks of online travel will be available for anyone to pick and choose from, helping everyone in or wanting to be in the travel business to be more successful.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? The key to aligning IT with business objectives requires a clear roadmap of where the business wants to get to and a commitment from everyone involved to stay the course. Businesses can change rapidly and too often IT projects are paused or changed before they can deliver value.

It’s important to have defined business metrics and demonstrate clearly how technology is moving the needle. The team responsible for delivery should also be set up in the right way – they will be accountable for delivering business outcomes, so durability is essential.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Technology is the backbone of Expedia Group, so our tech strategy is very closely aligned with our product strategy. The biggest challenge has been moving from multiple tech stacks to one tech stack. We're changing the tires while the plane is flying so there is a constant trade off in terms of making sure we’re delivering the highest impact to our customers in an iterative fashion, while we keep modernising under the hood in a way that doesn’t impact our customers.

What makes an effective tech strategy? For me, the starting point of any strategy or plan is always across three pillars: the people, the process, and the technology. First of all, you need the right team with the right skills and the right structure – without this you will never get to the finish line. Secondly, you need to ask if you are using the right methodologies or if the governance structures risk creating friction or blockages. Finally, ask if you are using the right tools or building the right products.

Most importantly, you need to ensure clarity of vision and an end goal with real impact – that everyone involved, including the wider organisation, understands what we are working to achieve. It needs to resonate with everyone so that they are invested in its success. Engaged teams who feel listened to are highly motivated and are more likely to feel excited about the strategy.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? The most successful CTOs will be the ones that embrace diversity from across the board - not just race and gender, orientation or socio-economic background, but also in ways of thinking. It’s an essential element in building the right kind of products for a customer base that is becoming increasingly global and diverse.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Right now, I’m having the most fun that I’ve had at any point in my career. I’m combining my two great passions – technology and travel. Knowing that I’m directly contributing to improving the experience of many other likeminded travelers brings me great satisfaction.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I’m proud of my career journey to date – every mistake I’ve made along the way has contributed to the learning experience, so I am not sure I would change anything.

What are you reading now? Right now, I’m re-reading The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim. It’s an old favourite that I often return to as it is always an incredible refresher. It gives an unrivalled overview on how taking a systems-thinking approach can rapidly accelerate team productivity.

Most people don't know that I… teach yoga and meditation in my spare time!

In my spare time, I like to…Travel. We try to visit a different country every year - the magic of travel is experiencing different cultures and ways of life.

Ask me to do anything but… be in close proximity to reptiles – I’m mortally afraid of them!