Next in CBR’s Tech=Icon series is a passionate advocate for inclusion in the technology industry, leading various initiatives around gender diversity and continuously promoting opportunities for women leaders to grow and excel throughout her organisation. Speaking to CBR’s Ellie Burns, Gillian Tans, CEO of Booking.com, talks about risk-taking, the fear of failure and being driven by curiosity.
EB: Why did you choose a career in tech?
GT: I actually didn’t start out with a plan to work in the tech sector. In the beginning, I took every opportunity I could to study abroad, moving to the U.S. when I graduated to take a job at Hershey Entertainment. It was there that I was able to prove myself as someone hard-working, creative and not afraid to take risks, all of which I then brought back to the Netherlands, working in marketing and sales for the Golden Tulip Hotel Group and the Intercontinental Hotel Group. It was at this time that the internet was beginning to take off, and I could see very early on that it had immense potential to disrupt the hotel industry and global tourism at large.
When I had the opportunity to join Booking.com – at that time barely even an established company with only a handful of employees – I knew it would be new and far different from my roles to date. But the opportunity to help shape how the digital world could influence travel was too exciting to ignore.
EB: What were the main challenges you faced at the start of your career and how did you overcome them?
GT: One of the key challenges for me at the start of my career was learning to adapt quickly to the rapid pace of change in the digital world. E-commerce was still in its very early days when I joined Booking.com in 2002, which meant that there were no established ways of running a digital business that you could draw upon. This was a big challenge but it was also a very exciting opportunity for us.
With the rapid rate at which technology is evolving and reshaping consumer expectations, business leaders need to have an insatiable desire to explore new opportunities, otherwise they run the risk of being left behind. For me, the way to adapt to this environment was to ask probing questions, push boundaries and not be afraid to fail. The most important thing is to learn from your mistakes and to use them to fuel deeper insights and understandings of your product or brand and the challenges you’re trying to solve.
EB: Tell us about your current role. What motivates you? What has been the driving force behind your career strategy?
GT: I have always been driven by curiosity and trying to learn from every experience. I am not afraid to take risks and I am not afraid to fail. This is the driving force of my career strategy and also one of the core values of our business. In a diverse and data-driven environment like the one we foster at Booking.com, there are fantastic opportunities for anyone with great ideas to test them and potentially have a profound impact on their professional growth and the business.
What motivates me is continuing to achieve big milestones and driving company growth, but also some of the smaller things… like hearing a B&B owner in southern Italy talk about how she might not have a business without Booking.com as a partner. That is what keeps me and our team of over 15,000 people going every day.
EB: What have been your most significant achievements in the IT industry in the past year?
GT: We’ve had a very successful year as a business as we’ve continued to expand our global presence and enhance our offering for customers. We are continuously looking to improve the customer experience through the use of technology and this year we’ve made significant advancements in this area.
For example, beyond connecting customers with a great place to stay, we are increasingly focused on enabling people to enjoy the best a given destination has to offer all from one QR code on their smartphone with no need to plan ahead, buy tickets in advance, or carry around local currency. After the initial launch of our Booking Experiences product in Amsterdam, Paris, London, Dubai and Rome last year, we’ve expanded this offering to several more cities to help our customers create powerful travel experiences through our platform.
Right now, we’re also actively exploring various applications of artificial intelligence and machine learning to enhance the customer experience on our website and mobile apps. This includes everything from how we interpret search queries to automatically tagging photos uploaded by travellers. This year, we also acquired the Israeli AI start-up Evature and opened a R&D centre in Tel Aviv to further boost our AI capabilities in natural language processing and chat bot technologies. We’re experimenting with the best way to incorporate these technologies into our website and 24/7 customer service experience.
EB: What is your proudest achievement to date?
GT: I’m very proud of what we have achieved as a company and having led our business throughout the transition from a small start-up based in the Netherlands to one of the largest ecommerce players in the world.
I’m also proud that we’ve done this while preserving our entrepreneurial culture. We are a diverse, fast-moving company that relies on data to guide us in every aspect of what we do – from product design to customer service to marketing and beyond. Booking.com has been so successful because we’ve been thinking and building on an international level from day one and putting our customers at the centre of everything we do. Our teams innovate at speed worldwide, focusing on incremental innovation throughout every layer and department within the organisation that happens around the clock on a daily basis. Our diverse employee base also helps create a culture that naturally lends itself to localisation and customisation. This allows us to scale all over the world in a way that’s hyper relevant to our customers and property partners.
And last but not least I’m very proud of the launch of our Women in Tech programme earlier this year, which aims to recognise and empower the inspiring women in technology who are driving innovation and disruption every day, and also encourage and make it easier for more women to enter the tech industry. At Booking.com, we strongly believe that gender diversity is key to building a workforce that fosters innovation, collaboration and creativity and we are committed to this cause both inside and outside the walls of our organisation.
EB: What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your career?
GT: The biggest lesson that I have learned in my career is not to be afraid of failure. At Booking.com, we celebrate failures as opportunities to learn and grow. We’re a company ruled by data, not opinion. We don’t believe in telling consumers what they want or relying on an employee’s ‘gut instinct.’ Instead, we deploy technology in different formats, and experiment continuously. Every little change is tested and measured to see what people like best. If you’ve got a great idea—you’re empowered to test it at Booking.com and that creates a stimulating, diverse and high-performing work environment. That hunger to continue learning and evolve our approach to produce the best possible experience for our customers and partners is something we cultivate throughout every level of the organisation.
EB: What would be your top tip for women looking to start a career in IT?
GT: I would encourage women to believe in themselves and not to be afraid of being leaders. While it’s not always easy, I would say that it is incredibly rewarding to be a female working at a technology company, and as the CEO of a large tech organisation, I sincerely believe we’re going to see more and more women running companies in all industries in the very near future. Even though I don’t have the stereotypical background for a tech CEO, I’ve never let the fact that I don’t write code prevent me from being an effective leader in technology.
There are so many different career paths for female leaders to pursue in tech organisations and as a woman working in the industry, encouraging more women to think about careers in tech is something that is near and dear to my heart. We’re already seeing more and more women show up at the top of some of the world’s largest and most successful companies—a trend I hope and believe will continue over the coming years.
EB: How would you encourage more women into the IT sector?
GT: Women are under-represented in the tech industry and one of the ways we can encourage more highly skilled women to join and excel in the sector is to support them and become mentors for them. We recently ran a mentoring programme for women at the 2017 Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, and it was a huge success.
We also recently launched the Technology Playmaker Awards, an initiative designed to celebrate, recognize and encourage women at all stages of their career who are disrupting businesses, industries and communities through the use of technology. We’ve also partnered with Oxford University in the UK and Deft University of Technology in the Netherlands to sponsor bright women interested in pursuing further education and a career in technology.
Inside the walls of Booking.com, we are running a number of initiatives to support talented women to achieve their fullest potential the same way we would support men.
EB: How do you think businesses should approach diversity and inclusion?
GT: Every business has a responsibility to continue the discussion openly about diversity, and make improvements within their own organisations – from trainings and discussion forums to gender-equal HR policies and benefits packages that are tailored to women and encourage them to advance their careers, as well as recruiting initiatives to promote diversity. Technology companies need more women in tech roles, but they also need more women across other critical functions like marketing and finance. Diversity extends beyond functional silos and it’s important to change the negative perceptions of a male-dominated workplace that exist in the tech industry as a whole, to foster a diverse and inclusive work culture. Diversity of all kinds has been core to Booking.com’s culture since the company was founded 20 years ago and our workforce is truly global, with 150 different nationalities and more than half of our employees being women.