KAYAK CTO Giorgos Zacharia: “Success in the future is reserved for companies that bring their products and services to the devices and platforms where users are spending the most time”

Success in the future is reserved for companies that bring their products and services to the devices and platforms where users are spending the most time, and leverage machine learning to provide smarter, more personalized results for even more complex actions. Airport wait times are an example of an intricate problem that might only be solved by machine learning coming to mobile.

Research shows that voice search continues to grow on a daily basis. We will continue to see more integrations for advanced actions and functionalities, like the ability to complete transactions for hotels hands-free. In 2017, we were the first travel company to offer this via Alexa and continue to lead the category with our advances in search.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Giorgos Zacharia, he serves as Chief Technology Officer of KAYAK and served as its Chief Scientist since February 2009. Zacharia has extensive experience in machine learning and data mining and is also a Co-founder of three machine learning-driven startups, Open Ratings, Inc., Stocknomics Ltd., and Emporics Capital Management LLC. He received a Ph.D. in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and holds a master of science from the MIT Media Laboratory, where he was a Telecom Italia Fellow in the Software Agents Group, a Bachelor of Science in mathematics and a Bachelor of Science in computer science with a minor in Economics from MIT.

Thank you so much for joining us Giorgos! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I am a math nerd with five medals in International Math and Physics Olympiads, who got excited by machine learning startups and ended up in travel technology almost by accident. I came to MIT to study Mathematics and Computer Science. I did my master’s research in applied AI for eCommerce marketplaces at the MIT Media Lab in the late 1990s, and ended up founding Open Ratings as Chief Scientist and CTO based on that research. My role at KAYAK was a great next step because I could use my machine learning background to solve travel problems, which was and still is a fun challenge.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

How I joined KAYAK is an interesting story. After selling Open Ratings to Dun & Bradstreet, I focused on finishing my MIT Ph.D. and started two machine learning-driven hedge funds. In 2008, one of my former engineers introduced me to the co-founder/CTO of KAYAK, Paul English, because KAYAK had a machine learning problem they were trying to tackle for a few months. Norwest Airlines prices kept showing up on KAYAK inaccurately, and KAYAK was looking for an intelligent solution to correct them. I explained how I would use machine learning to address the challenge and I also pitched an idea that today is among our most popular features — Hacker Fares — the idea of combining tickets from different airlines (vs. a single ticket for the same trip) to save travelers time and money. Paul offered me a job as Chief Scientist right then and there.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

As a global tech company, we have maintained a start-up culture — enabling employees from all over the world with varying backgrounds, interests and experiences, to work together to make an impact in a fast-paced, dynamic environment. We welcome ideas from all areas of the company. Just last year, following an employee SWAT week, a team of KAYAK employees leveraged augmented reality to help travelers recognize whether or not their luggage would fit in the overhead bins. The tool is now a permanent feature on the KAYAK mobile app.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?

Maintain a good work-life balance. At KAYAK, we believe employees are more productive when they’re happy and have fulfilling lives outside of the office. We actively encourage people to take time off to travel. While work-family balance can be difficult to achieve, we encourage our teams by offering flexible schedules and supporting them to prioritize being present for family time.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Paul English has been instrumental in helping me optimize my hiring criteria. Prior to meeting and working with him, I made hiring decisions primarily based on intellectual and technical skills, as well as overall entrepreneurial intensity.

Paul focuses on hiring “people accelerators” — team members who make their colleagues even more productive through their personalities and their own diverse intellectual curiosity and experiences.

Now, I combine both priorities in my hiring and team crafting approach, and that helps build high performing, collaborative, and overall more fun teams to be around.

Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?

Our goal is to make travel planning easier on the platforms where people are spending time. One way we’re doing that is through investing in AI innovation Since 2016, we’ve laid the groundwork for voice by introducing the ability to search for flights, hotels, and cars, to explore destinations they can go to within a budget, and to track flights — all using just your voice. Today, KAYAK is available on Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple TV, Slack and Facebook Messenger.

AR is another area we have been exploring with the introduction of our AR bag measurement tool last September which leverages augmented reality to let travelers know whether or not their carry-on luggage, will fit in the overhead bins.

We’re also exploring the vacation and home rentals space. Earlier this month, we introduced KAYAK Premium — select accommodations and experiences that are well-reviewed, offering thoughtful and modern design, unique amenities and perks. In the future, our app will help personalize, connect and automate the KAYAK Premium experience, including seamless check-in and check-out, saved room preferences, recommended dining and delivery options, and amenity selection.

Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?

We see a new category of accommodations emerging — rooms that have the consistency of a hotel with the advantages of a rental, KAYAK Premium is our first move into this space. We want to make accommodations — and ultimately all travel experiences — that are well-reviewed, and offer thoughtful and modern design elements and amenities that travelers prefer, easier to find by curating and badging them as Premium.

Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to travel?

Success in the future is reserved for companies that bring their products and services to the devices and platforms where users are spending the most time, and leverage machine learning to provide smarter, more personalized results for even more complex actions. Airport wait times are an example of an intricate problem that might only be solved by machine learning coming to mobile.

Research shows that voice search continues to grow on a daily basis. We will continue to see more integrations for advanced actions and functionalities, like the ability to complete transactions for hotels hands-free. In 2017, we were the first travel company to offer this via Alexa and continue to lead the category with our advances in search.

You are a “travel insider.” How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience?”

A perfect vacation is a super active one, with family or friends with children of similar ages as mine. I’m from Cyprus and my wife is from Bulgaria, so we always make it a point to visit one of the two countries every summer. I love combining cultural experiences with relaxing beach time. We typically spend half our time visiting archaeological sites or immersing ourselves in cultural tourism. The last few years, we’ve scheduled stopovers to other European countries — it’s a great way to get in some additional sightseeing without breaking the bank.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would start a movement to eliminate the major barriers associated with travel. Travel enhances human connection, open-mindedness and understanding — if more people were able to travel and experience the world, I think we would see a lot of positive change.


KAYAK CTO Giorgos Zacharia: “Success in the future is reserved for companies that bring their… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.