Paul English nurtures innovation to keep Kayak on course

Paul English, co-founder and chief technology officer of the travel website Kayak.com, talks about leadership, employee feedback — and the fundamental importance of keeping meetings small.

Did you have the entrepreneurial itch early on?

I always wanted to just try new things, and I think it was probably in my DNA or something. As a kid, I would see something I didn't like, and I wanted to make it better. We had a phone in my house that was a one-line dial phone, and I had to get a second phone line for my computer. So I rewired the phone to handle two lines. I was really proud of that phone.

And what about your high school years?

I had lots of side interests, but I wasn't very interested in studying in high school. My grades were pretty much all D's, and I didn't apply to college. The only reason I went to college was that my parents found out I could go to state school for free because of my SAT scores.

Once you launched your career, what were some leadership lessons you learned?

The most important thing I learned is something I'm still actually working on, which is how to be really blunt with feedback. It's the most difficult thing for a manager to do. But I worked hard at it, because when managers were blunt with me, it hurt a little bit, but I'm very grateful to those few managers who helped me.

I developed this technique over the years. When I gave people their performance reviews, I would literally take a crinkled envelope, and I'd write five words on it. I'd say to them, "Let's say I left this company, and five years from now I was sitting in a bar and someone said, 'Hey, what's that guy like?' What I would tell them is what I'm going to tell you. And there are two or three words that are positive, and there are two or three words that are really negative." I would give examples and I would give them the piece of paper, so I had no written record of what we had talked about. One guy in particular emailed me 10 years later, and claimed that he still carries that piece of paper around. That really reinforced for me the idea that the best way you can help someone is to be on their side and to be honest with them.

You were a co-founder of Kayak nine years ago. What's unusual about the culture?

We're a little bit reckless in our decisionmaking — not with the business, but the point is that we try things. We give even junior people scary amounts of power to come up with ideas and implement them. We had an intern last summer who, on his very first day at Kayak, came up with an idea, wrote the code and released it. It may or may not have been successful, but it almost doesn't matter, because it showed that we value speed, and we value testing ideas, not talking about them.

It's all about fast iteration. . . . We cut out all the middle layers and you let the designers talk to the customers.

What else?

We're known for having very small meetings, usually three people. There's a little clicker for counting people that hangs on the main conference room door. The reason it's there is to send a message to people that I care about this issue. If there's a bunch of people in the room, I'll stick my head in and say, "It takes 10 of you to decide this? There aren't three of you smart enough to do this?"

I just hate design by consensus. No innovation happens with 10 people in a room.

How do you hire?

You always have to be recruiting. When I meet somebody who's amazing, I'll often say to them, "Who's the smartest person you've ever met?" My team might be sick of me asking the question, because I'll keep asking. Finally, after the third or fourth time, they'll say, "You know, there was this person."

Then the two criteria I really look for are productivity — which is about speed and judgment and drive — and the second one is fun. A lot of companies have the no-jerks rule. But I have the "no neutrals" rule.

Can you explain that?

We want to be a hyper-productive company and we want to make it fun, and I make a commitment to people that in 20 years they'll look back and say this was the most fun job they had. If you surround them with people who are annoying or just kind of neutral, it's going to make the job a drag. And you don't ever want to hurt someone's creative energy.

Certainly, annoying people will hurt them, and so will people who are just boring. They're nice, but they don't ever provoke the creative person in a fun way. That diminishes their productivity.

Paul English nurtures innovation to keep Kayak on course 07/26/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 5:31pm]

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