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Leadership in Tech: Andrew Phillips on Embracing Change and Driving Innovation

June 27, 2024

Join us for an insightful Q&A with Andrew Phillips, CTO of Skyscanner, as he delves into the future of technology and its impact on product development, marketing, and the tech world. Andrew shares his thoughts on the biggest upcoming tech trends, the challenges facing leaders, the ethical implications of AI, and the evolving landscape of remote work. With 14 years at Skyscanner, Andrew offers a wealth of knowledge and practical advice for anyone navigating the rapidly changing tech industry.

What new technology do you believe will have the biggest impact on the product development, marketing or tech world in the next 12 to 24 months?

Not a single technology itself, but the concept of “platform engineering” as a whole, which, while not new, has really gained pace of late. The aim is to enhance the developer experience and accelerate the delivery of value to customers. We’ve seen developer portals (IDPs), new tooling around deployment, simplification of even the most complex bits of networking control, all of which free up peoples time to work on ever more impactful challenges.

Reflecting on your experience, what major challenges do you anticipate product/growth/tech will face in the coming years? How do you think leaders should be preparing themselves and their teams to tackle these challenges?:

The ability to recruit the very best talent will increasingly hinge on not just the job, but the organisation and its values – and those businesses that don’t work hard to show real commitment to social impact will struggle. At our global induction sessions, I’m increasingly asked questions on inclusivity and diversity, on sustainability, on employee networks, on accommodating neurodiversity. This is only a good thing, but it means that leaders need to work hard to differentiate their organisation from others on these topics in order to attract the best talent. These values and perspectives need baked into the business – and they need funded and supported to thrive. Leaders play a key role in doing so. For Skyscanner’s part, we include sessions on DEI, Accessibility, our charity giving approach and sustainability in that same global induction – because to us, these values and focuses are just as important a part of our business as our revenue funnels. They represent bodies of work that have budgets and teams to deliver against them – they’re not just lip service. Reflective of that, we’re proud to benchmark higher than many of our competitors when it comes to retention and engagement of our people, and I have no doubt these are some of the reasons why.

Considering recent advancements in AI, what are your thoughts on the ethical implications? From your perspective, what are the critical ethical challenges that need to be addressed as AI becomes more widespread?

The biggest ethical challenge around AI is the risk of bias and discrimination in its outputs. Human review of outputs will continue to be key.
More widely, there’s a real challenge in the fact that we’re unlikely to see comprehensive AI legislation across geographies for some time. And even when it does come, different governments may well take varying views. Organisations therefore need to take the bull by the horns and ensure that they’re holding themselves accountable rather than just waiting for legislative or regulatory guidance. Skyscanner has internal guidelines around the use of artificial intelligence, and while we use AI for the likes of research, some language translation and content generation, we take a very cautious approach when it comes to providing any data input to GenAI (Generative AI). We don’t use GenAI when it comes to any personal, traveller or sensitive data, unless our Legal team has done a comprehensive assessment.

Finally, though less worrying, there’s a real risk that organisations get overly excited with the possibilities of AI, shipping technology for technology’s sake, rather than really identifying where it can drive tangible benefit.

In your opinion, what is the next big opportunity for tech innovation that you feel is currently being overlooked or isn’t receiving enough attention?

A phenomenon I’ve watched with interest over the past few years is the use of niche vendors for ‘point solutions’. They’re helpful to a degree, but people tend not to factor in the time cost associated with management of these solutions. I think we’ll instead see a swing to more strategic partnership relationships, where there’s an acceptance of functionality gaps and where investment goes into freeing up the time management related to such vendors. What we all do with this time, and how quickly we capitalise on this is anyone’s guess…

From your own experience, how do you see the continuing evolution of remote work and its technologies impacting your own work-life balance?

I manage a global team, with engineers in the UK, Barcelona and Shenzhen. That means every meeting we have as a whole engineering function is over Zoom. This was also the case pre-pandemic. As we were used to our teams not being co-located, it wasn’t the hardest of pivots to go from working in an office to remote, and now, to hybrid working. On a personal level, it allows me fantastic flexibility. I really value the in-person connections of being in the office for the majority of my week and encourage my team to build those connections also. On those days I’m in the office, I leave early to pick up my sons from nursery. I will likely log in later on that evening, or I may have started my day earlier with calls in an APAC-friendly time. And that’s ok – because I have that choice, and that flexibility is ‘in my gift’ as it were, it works really well for me.

Can you share a bold prediction about how you think technology and sustainability will intersect in the next ten years?

We’ll increasingly see technology providing innovative solutions to climate change. One example I can think of is Vaulted Deep, which Skyscanner has supported via our partners Watershed. Vaulted is a company that injects carbon-rich organic waste deep underground for permanent storage. When carbon-rich waste (eg from manure, foods, agriculture, biosolids) burns or decomposes, CO₂ is normally released back into the atmosphere. Vaulted’s technology prevents that from happening by turning that waste into a carbon-rich slurry and then injecting into deep disposal wells for permanent geologic storage. They measure how much carbon is removed by weighing the carbon in the biomass, and measure every emission associated from transportation or energy usage. It’s a fascinating area and that’s just one example.

If you could implement changes to the way people work based on your own routines and practices, what specific adjustments would you make to improve productivity or well-being?

That’s a great question. I’ll loop back to my answer on remote working and work-life balance – that, where possible, find the flexibility that works for you. As an example, I struggle to context switch from meeting to meeting, so I tend to ensure I’ve some time between meetings to recalibrate. I am also really open about my routine;my calendar is open so anyone can view what I’m doing, and that includes personal commitments. So, for better or worse, everyone knows I have a gym slot in my diary before any meetings and the working day begins (I’ll admit, that doesn’t always happen!), they know when I’m nipping off to collect the kids etc.

Equally, if I know I’ve a full on, draining day with no breaks (as is scheduled the day after I wrote this), my EA will block out the afternoon the next day for focus time – or, as it happens this week, I’m taking the afternoon following it to attend my eldest’s nursery graduation. Understand what is important to you and what allows you to recharge and be at your best, then bake those practices into your diary and day. And as a leader, get comfortable being transparent about those commitments, and encourage your teams to consider what will allow them balance too.

Reflecting on your own journey in your field, what is one piece of advice you would give to someone who is just starting out?

As you grow in your role, be bold and curious. Seek out opportunities to rotate across teams, move around your organisation. This will allow you to demonstrate to your manager that you’re able to operate in different environments. The combination of challenge and the deep knowledge you’ll gain from it will help you become a more strategic leader.

About:

Andrew Phillips, CTO, Skyscanner

Andrew has been part of the Skyscanner family for almost 15 years, starting as a graduate and progressing to take on numerous senior leadership roles within the engineering discipline. As Chief Technology Officer, he now leads the Skyscanner engineering teams throughout the world and is a huge advocate of growing next-generation leaders from within the company, as well as championing Skyscanner’s unique culture.

Andrew Phillips‘ Turing Fest talk: Scale Hard or Go Home: 14 Years of Mistakes and Learnings on the Journey to CTO

“Skyscanner’s Chief Technology Officer Andrew Phillips joined the Scottish unicorn fresh out of uni, turning down a glamorous role at GCHQ in favour of a scrappy start up that started as an idea sketched out on a pub beermat. It was a big gamble – and one that paid off. Fast forward 14 years and that business has grown to be a global leader with over 110m monthly users across the world…and Andrew has gone from the most junior coder in the building to leading a team of over 700 engineers across Europe and Asia.

What does it take to make that shift? For Andrew, the constants have been learnings, mistakes, and, of course, change. Come along to hear how to scale your team from 20 engineers, to 100 engineers, and then again to 500. As a leader, how do you shift your mindset and approach as your organisation accelerates – and how do you ensure you’re continuing to adapt and be of value to your team? For anyone who is looking to understand how to grow and develop in their current role, how to scare themselves, how to stretch and how to embrace failure, this talk is for you”

View the 2024 agenda here.

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