“You can bootstrap the next billion-dollar business from your laptop”
As the Engineering Director at Trivago could you explain a bit about your career journey and how you got into a career in tech?
Pascal Cremer (PC): The funny thing is that I only wrote my first real lines of code in my twenties. I always wanted to join the computer science classes in high school, but the capacity was so extremely limited that I was always on the waiting list. After school, I studied Scientific Programming in Aachen, which included both mathematics and computer science. All my life I was fascinated by mathematics, but programming quickly became my number one passion.
After graduation, I started my career as a software developer in a small full-stack agency near my home town. It was a fascinating time because it felt like I was beginning from scratch. After four years, I got the opportunity to lead my own team to work on new projects for our most important international client. My team and I were lucky enough to have had the freedom to explore new technologies and frameworks, and we slowly but surely learned how to properly automate our testing setup and deployments.
In 2015, I decided it was time to move on and joined Chefkoch, the leading cooking and recipe sharing platform for the DACH markets with over 22M unique visits per month. Back in 2015, Chefkoch was in the process of migrating their PHP monolith to a microservice-based architecture running on Kubernetes, which was right up my alley. That was the time where I really took a deep dive into DevOps topics, primarily working on CI/CD, infrastructure automation and monitoring. This was also the time, where I got my first real experience with AWS. At that time Amazon was about to launch the Echo in Germany and was looking for partnerships with several German companies (including Chefkoch) to develop skills for their Alexa Skill Store. To this day, this is still one of the projects I’m most proud of because we were able to ship a skill made from scratch, running on AWS infrastructure, within only four weeks.
Although I was lucky to work with some of the most skilled people I’ve ever met, I couldn’t really identify myself with the direction the Chefkoch product was heading to. I accepted an offer from Trivago to lead the team that was responsible for the images on the Trivago website and our mobile apps. For the next two years we migrated most of our services from on-prem to data pipelines on AWS, the team grew from 3 engineers to more than 15 talents. We extended our scope to also introduce AI and Deep Learning for image classification and quality prediction to provide an even more personalised visual experience on Trivago. Earlier this year, we consolidated all content related teams into a new department (or “domain”, as we call it), and I stepped into the role of an Engineering Director.
I’m still leading my own team of engineers, but I’m also leading a small team of Engineering Leads, who themselves have their own engineering teams.
In recent years, have you found there is a skills gap within technical talent?
How do you think businesses can best keep top technical talent engaged?
PC: One of our core values at Trivago is called ‘Entrepreneurial Passion’, which basically means that our talents should have the mindset of a business owner. For me personally, it all comes down to empowerment. If you want to keep your talent engaged, put them front end centre. Encourage them to make their own decisions (even if they are wrong) by explaining them ‘the why’ instead of just telling them ‘the what’. Most importantly, if you want innovation, give them the freedom to try and fail, without pointing fingers.
And, instead of blindly throwing bonuses or stock options at them, rather invest in their professional development—not only to make them feel valued and appreciated, but also to give your business a competitive advantage by making it more flexible in the market.
What advice would you give to those starting out their careers in engineering?
PC: Start with one fundamental technology or programming language and really nail it, instead of spreading yourself too thin too early. My first programming language, for example, was C. Getting into the basics of C is easy enough, but this language will kick your butt if you don’t understand mere fundamentals like variable storage, memory management, or pointer arithmetic. The first weeks and months were pretty rough, but after I really got it, learning new languages became more or less straight forward.
Also, for every two or three books about technology or programming, try to make it a habit to read at least one book about soft skills like empathy, communication, or work ethics. One of my recommendations here is Mike Monteiro’s “Ruined by Design”, which teaches you the importance of ethical responsibility while practicing your craft, no matter if you design a user interface, a database, or your next algorithm.
What are some of the benefits and challenges of a career in tech and/or engineering?
PC: Probably the biggest benefit – and something that still blows my mind after all these year – is that you can bootstrap the next billion-dollar business right there from your laptop. And besides from overall job safety, working in tech and/or engineering can be very fulfilling, because, no matter if you create an app, a service, or another piece of soft- or hardware that will enrich the life of just one or a few million people, it will give you a feeling of instant gratification.
As for the opposite, you probably want me to say how challenging it is to keep up with technology—but I already told you how nearly impossible that is, so please go easy on yourselves. I see the biggest challenge as being aware (and keeping the awareness) of the huge responsibilities that come with our craft. I’ve witnessed companies shutting down, because their engineers were rather chasing after the next hip technology that they could brag about at their next user group meeting, instead of solving actual problems and focusing on what brings value to the business or product.
What does DevOps mean to you?
DevOps for me is first and foremost a set of principles and a certain way of thinking. It is about enabling teams and/or groups of engineers to take ownership of not only parts but the whole service lifecycle. If you want, you can draw many parallels to the agile manifesto, because DevOps encourages collaboration, and avoids extensive documentation through automation and configuration management. Tools like Docker, Kubernetes, Ansible, Prometheus, or Jenkins are literally just that: Tools to use in the commission of these principles.
Throughout your time working in tech, what is the biggest change you have seen in the industry?
PC: For me personally, the biggest change was that tech evolved from commodity to core business. Take Tesla for example, who is not an automaker, but rather a computer vision company. The same stands true for Trivago, the company I work for. Although we’re closely connected to the travel and hospitality sector, we are very much a tech company that uses software and smart algorithms to help our users find their ideal hotel or vacation rental.
This shift becomes even more obvious when you look at the German market. Many traditional German companies have ignored tech for far too long and thus missed out on digitisation. As a result, a number of aggressively funded corporate start-ups have sprung up to prevent the disruption by more modern independent tech companies.
How do you think the role of tech teams in businesses has changed over recent years?
PC: Interestingly, we’ve moved away from having pure tech teams in favor of cross-functional teams. For our frontend teams, you have engineers working together with UX designers and user researchers, and in more backend or data-oriented teams, the setup is usually to have backend or data engineers working together with (technical) project managers.
Before our quarterly plannings we encourage the whole team to brainstorm ideas, so everyone‘s involved in the ideation process, and thus has a far better sense of ownership. So yes, I definitely think that tech has become a way more equal partner for the business than in recent years.
Finally, what do you believe are the consequences businesses will face if they don’t attempt to transform in line with new technologies and digital capabilities?
PC: As mentioned above, we can already observe some of those consequences in Germany. Businesses that won’t adapt are the perfect pitch for tech start-ups that can act more agile and customer-focused: „What if I could manage all my insurances in one app?“, „What if I could do all my banking online?“, „What if I didn’t have to do groceries after a long day of work?“ etc.
Sadly, some businesses think that it’s enough to just hire a bunch of „tech dudes“ and the problem will solve itself, without even thinking about a tech strategy, culture, or leadership to keep your talent engaged and also to retain them. And by the way—this is what still baffles me when I’m reading through postings on job websites—tech culture is not about the expensive laptop, kicker or ping pong tables, all-night hackathons, or the free beers after work. It is about creating an environment that enables innovation and independent decision making. It is about promoting diversity and inclusion to spark new ideas and bring in different kinds of views. And it is about encouraging a healthy work-life balance based on trust that works for everyone, including families and single parents.