When you need a place to stay while travelling, hotels seem practically quaint in the context of current online markets like Airbnb. Airbnb has quickly become the de facto standard for short term apartment and room rentals, both for renting out and finding a roof to put over your head on vacation.
Founded in 2008 by Nathan Blecharczyk, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, Airbnb has grown at an impressive rate; their market now includes 34,000 cities in 190 countries, and apparently over 600 castles, if you’re feeling a bit medieval. Managing that sort of rapid growth is no easy feat, of course, and as CTO, Nathan has been tasked with solving complex technical problems while helping to run the business. We spoke with Nathan to learn more about his job and how he works.
Location: San Francisco
Current Gig: Co-founder and CTO, Airbnb
One word that best describes how you work: Firehose
Current mobile device: iPhone 6
Current computer: 15-inch MacBook Pro Retina
First of all, can you tell us a little about your role at Airbnb as CTO?
My responsibilities as CTO have evolved quite a bit. Originally it meant that I wrote code. Later it meant that I was focused on hiring the team and scoping and reviewing how we build the product. Now there are enough engineering leaders that I work with, so I don’t have any direct technical responsibilities. I stay more directly involved on the areas of the business and technical infrastructure that are some of the more complex technical problems that we work on, such as payments and trust and safety. I also apply the same structured, problem-solving mindset across the the activities of the entire company. For example, how do we create a system of transparency and accountability across all the teams at Airbnb.
What apps, software, and tools can’t you live without?
- Postmates – I don’t have a lot of time to cook. When I want to eat at home, I often use Postmates to deliver food from my favourite restaurants.
- Kwikset Electronic Home Locks – Whether it’s my Airbnb guest, house cleaner, or someone else, electronic locks make it easy to manage access to my house while I’m away at the office or travelling.
- Trek Madone road bicycle – I don’t drive; whenever possible I ride my bicycle to the office and gym. It’s actually faster during traffic to bicycle and physical exercise is a great way to start/finish the day.
- Vivino – Vivino is a wine app which allows you to take a picture of the label on a bottle, and it will pull up all the information about it, including price. I receive a lot of wine as gifts and this let’s me remember who gave me what and also make sure that I save the best bottles for special occasions.
You really rent out to Airbnb guests yourself? Do you tell your guests who you are?
Yes, I’m a very active Airbnb host. I’ve accepted over 40 reservations during the last five months. During the high-season I was completely booked. No, I do not tell the guests who I am. I want to experience hosting no differently than our many hosts. Once my guest was a reporter who had previously met me and so she recognised me. She was quite surprised 🙂
What’s your workspace setup like?
My wife and I recently had our first child. My daughter comes into the office twice per week for a couple hours while my wife does errands. By having a standing desk I can let her sleep in front of me (which appears to be her happy place) and rock her while working.
Here’s the baby sling; it’s great because it’s easy to put on. Some of the other brands are a bit like a puzzle.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
I try to fill my calendar in reverse, from the end-of-day to earlier; I try to reserve the morning for doing “real work.” I find I can focus more in the morning whereas it’s harder to get focused after having been bombarded by meetings, so I try to save meetings for later in the day.
What’s “real work” for you?
My “real-work” can be quite varied. Most often times it involves reviewing proposed projects or solutions and providing thoughtful feedback. Airbnb has scaled incredibly fast, so much of my job is looking at overall company structure, organisation, and helping to keep consistent culture and values as we grow.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
My to-dos are split among my calendar, my email, and a simple notepad where I maintain my short-list of things that I need to keep top-of-mind. For more in-depth notes, I put those into Evernote.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadgets can’t you live without and why?
My Bose noise-cancelling headphones are a must at the office and when travelling. They keep me from getting distracted by my surroundings.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?
Around the house I try not to waste a minute. While making coffee (here’s the coffee maker I use) or breakfast I’ll also be watering the plants and opening packages. I try to make a little bit of progress everyday in-between my other tasks so that I can avoid allocating larger, more valuable chunks of time later.
What do you listen to while you work?
Silence or Top 40 or electronic dance music, depending on how caffeinated I’m feeling.
What are you currently reading?
As a leadership team we read relevant books together from time-to-time. We are currently reading Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. The downside of having too many good opportunities is that it can be hard to stay focused.
The Information is a subscription (online) publication that caters to leaders in the technology industry. They publish one article per day that is very thoughtful and relevant so I find reading it worthwhile.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I am an introvert in the sense that I often find being in groups tiring and I like to recharge on my own. That being said, you’ll find me very engaged when discussing most topics relating to the business.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I certainly can stay up very late but I strive to go to bed early and wake up early. I usually wake up between 6am and 7am every day. A few days per week I’ll squeeze in time at the gym before work. On the other days I’ll get an early start before the chaos of the day begins 🙂
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
You can do whatever you put your mind to. – Dad
Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
At Airbnb we like to say that every six month your job changes, even if there is no formal role change. This is the nature of a fast-growing company. This is true for the founders as well. This year I’ve reduced my role in directly running the day-to-day aspects of various teams and the time-consuming requirements that come with that, and instead have focused my time on more strategic tasks, such as putting together the 2015 plan and a framework for creating transparency and accountability throughout the organisation. Much of what we will be doing is borrowed from the OKR methodology (used by Google and many others), as well as many of the suggestions from the book The Advantage.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
We’ve asked a handful of heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Every week we’ll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips and tricks that keep them going. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.