Talking Travel Tech – Nigel Shrieves, head of technology at Dealchecker
Dealchecker is one of those businesses that seems to get on with things under the radar.
It garnered attention a few years back when the deals site, originally founded by Alex Saint and Troy Collins (Secret Escapes) was acquired by EasyVoyage in 2011 alongside TravelJungle and FSI Travel.
Head of technology Nigel Shrieves has steered the company through the acquisition and since in his 10-year tenure at the company.
Continuing our series of exclusive interviews with the people at the coalface of technology and distribution in travel brands, we talk to Shrieves about the nuts and bolts of his role.
1. Briefly, what do you do?
I’m responsible for a development team of six – together we look after the entire tech environment at dealchecker.
That’s everything from innovation and development to maintenance of our various web applications from server to client.
2. Where does your role sit within your corporate structure? How much C-Suite buy-in do you need to implement projects? Does your role give you autonomy? How do you work with other departments?
I am responsible for all things tech, but the company operates a very flat structure where all departments will discuss ideas and requirements.
As a team we are given complete freedom to use the technologies we see fit to meet the requirements we are given.
Our responsibility is to make sure any new technologies we use are going to be of a commercial benefit. We work in a very fast and dynamic environment where priorities can and do change daily – it is our job to implement processes that best handle this.
When a tech requirement has been identified tickets are created and prioritized for us to work through. Bigger projects will be broken down into subtasks.
We do agile development here so the emphasis is always to get something delivered that can then be refactored when stats or AB testing determine what needs to be changed.
3. Briefly tell us how you got to where you are today, professionally.
Late starter tech wise – left school at 16 and discovered computing in my mid-twenties and went back to college at 28 to do a computer science degree. Graduated when internet was taking off and worked through the early technologies like perl, php and then onto java.
4. What is the most difficult initiative or strategy you’ve had to implement, and why?
Due, probably, to the huge amount of open source resources, articles on the web and the introduction of micro-services I can’t think of a particular implementation that has caused us a real problem.
Without a doubt our biggest heartache is functional testing. We have integrations for hundreds of partners who are reliant on traffic from dealchecker. Functional testing is a must because if something goes live which breaks then we really need to know about it – and before our partners tell us the traffic isn’t coming through.
We do continuous integration and release to live anywhere between two and 10 times a day and have a full set of unit and integration tests that run automatically on our build server and pass.
However, before we do a full release for a major code change we still need to run our suite of functional tests manually as they never all pass first time due to the complexity of the client side which uses ajax, adverts served by ad servers, google ads, carousels, pop ups etc.
We initially used Selenium but started to use Geb. That has improved things considerably but we have still not got them running automatically and all passing – this is an ongoing quest!
5. What are your top goals for your team?
To do what we do well, for the people within the team to develop their skills and enjoy coming into work.
6. What’s your pitch for why top talent should work for your team instead of somewhere else?
We offer a fun, challenging and dynamic environment using the latest technology and allow people as much responsibility as they want and can handle, not restricted by how long they have been here.
All implementation and technology choices are open for discussion and if mistakes are made we don’t run around shouting at each other we learn from them and move on.
We do full stack here so developers will get a full knowledge of web development from the server to the client.
Every developer has a hack day every fortnight where they can spend the day exploring a new technology or implement a code fix of their choice.
7. What is your ultimate vision in terms of travel tech/distribution? Where does your company, or maybe the industry as a whole, need to go?
As a company our aim is to provide best travel deals available to all devices.
From a tech point of view the travel industry needs standards. We have them with IATA codes for airports but for destinations, hotels, ferries etc we don’t and a big part of our work is continually mapping our clients codes to ours. A universal set of codes adopted by all travel companies would be a big help.
8. What sector outside of travel do you think travel has the most to learn from, and why? (in types of technology used, priorities, best practices, etc.)
I think we can all learn from each other. There is so much information out there all with differing opinions of how things should be done. The hard bit is filtering out the bits that best suit your environment and to then try them out.
9. Most under-appreciated function performed by you or your department?
The need to keep up to date and understand the constant stream of new technologies and ideas. Not a week goes by without one of our tech team saying ‘we should really try out this new technology/idea/concept/process’.
10. Is there any tech product/trend/platform that you think you caught early?
Apache Solr – started using this in 2008 having initially used raw lucene – super fast full text searching – we store millions of flight and holiday deals that can be searched and retrieved in milliseconds.
Spring Boot – started using in 2014 – Great for quick development of web apps and micro services.
Angular 2 – currently looking into using this for our client side – initial feedback is very encouraging.
11. Is there any tech product/trend/platform which you overlooked or underestimated?
12. When hiring, do you have a preference for people who have worked in travel before or who are new to the business?
Don’t care – as long as they are passionate about what they do.
13. What single innovation/development/process has changed your business in the most in the past 10 years?
Java/Spring/MVC – coming from PHP and perl and discovering a language, toolset and pattern that was actually built for the development of web sites.
Automated testing – to be able to run a set of tests to confirm the functionality of your system – back in the day we used to test manually with test scripts.
Convention over Configuration – brilliant! Just confused why it took us so long to get to such a simple concept.
14. What steps do you take to drive innovation in your group?
We have a completely up-to-date stack using the latest versions of all technologies and are constantly introducing new tech ideas and concepts.
This ensures the personal development of all team members and also makes us an attractive company to work for.
On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being “I dread getting out of bed every day”, 10 being “I wish there were 25 hours in the day because it’s so awesome and I love it”), how difficult is your day-to-day job?
9.5 – My jobs a touch – I work with really good people and the latest technology.
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