Working like in Silicon Valley

Holidaymakers are doing extensive online research prior to booking trips According to a study conducted by the GfK market research institute on behalf of TUI Deutschland and Google, they visit an average of 25 websites before booking. Customers will choose providers who offer valid and clearly arranged information as well as a simple booking process and good service. As of late, the technology of the HolidayCheck platform, which continued to grow alongside the portal since it was founded in 1999, had not offered the required flexibility to optimally satisfy customer demands. That is why a complete redesign of the IT platform was initiated.


It used to be a Big Lump


Generally, an Internet platform consists of three parts: the front end, the middle tier and the back end. The front end is the part of the platform closest to the user, for example, the user interface with the data entry templates. With various applications, the so-called middle tier constitutes the interface between the front end and back end. At HolidayCheck, for example, this is where you can find the functions that allow the booking of hotels or the finding of accommodation and destinations. The data related to these functions is saved in the back end. In addition, HolidayCheck also has a Back Office. It includes the administrative applications, such as the so-called Master Data Management, through which HolidayCheck maintains the master data of the hotels, or the Customer Service application, which is being used by the travel experts of the HolidayCheck Travel Centre. "We used to consolidate these various system layers into one big lump. As a result, the redevelopment of the website was very slow because different teams could not work on the overall system independently," explains HolidayCheck COO Timo Salzsieder, who is responsible for the product and technology of the ratings and bookings portal.


The Modularisation of the Platform


"That's why we started to modularise the entire platform. In other words, we cut that big lump into individual slices to ensure that parallel work could be conducted on the different modules. We also replaced the entire architecture. Previously, we used more of a traditional technology approach. Now we are working with state-of-the-art technologies like Java, Scala or Node.js, which primarily makes our developers happy", says Timo Salzsieder.
The upgrade began with the modularisation of the middle tier. Over the past year and a half, it was divided into various services that are in use at all times for a certain percentage of site visits. "Our peak season is at the beginning of the year as many holidaymakers use our early bird specials. During that time, we want to make as few changes to the site as possible. Toward the end of the first quarter of 2016, however, the new technology will go live across the entire system", Timo Salzsieder explains. The new modular service structure now allows the different HolidayCheck teams to work at the same time. Within a few minutes, they can activate new functions on the site – multiple times per day.


Simple Optimisation


The flexibility provided by the new technology also means that the website can now be optimised more efficiently with so-called A/B Tests. During these tests, different groups of users are shown different versions of the website and their reactions are recorded. "In the front end, we are using a new technology that allows us to replace website elements very quickly. Previously, simply sliding a button from left to right on the site or switching on a live ticker in order to keep our users up to date on special events used to be a lot of work. Today, it's just a matter of minutes", says Timo Salzsieder.


The Teams


However, when upgrading the platform, it is not only the technology that is important but also the frictionless teamwork of the smart people that have to work with it. The developers of the HolidayCheck platform work in individual teams. Each team consists of a scrum master, a product owner, an engineering manager, an interaction designer and a visual designer as well as multiple developers and a so-called DevOps. The product owner assumes the role of the client. In other words, he is the one specifying the technical requirements and manages their implementation with regard to functionality, usability, performance and quality. Together with the developers, the engineering manager is responsible for the technical development of the product. The interface designer designs the user interface, the visual designer is responsible for the graphic implementation and the DevOps develops and is responsible for the technical operation. The teams are working according to the so-called scrum methodology. That means that the team develops in two-week cycles, which are also referred to as "sprints". The cycle begins with the so-called "grooming", which is a review of the team's existing assignments, and it concludes with the so-called retro, which is a validation of the results at the end of the sprint. The scrum master manages the scrum process and creates the conditions that are required for the team to work without interruption.
"Until recently, the members of the teams were still spread out across our locations in Bottighofen in Switzerland, Poznan in Poland and Munich. That resulted in communication problems. "In order to make the teams more effective, we carried out a reorganisation and established so-called co-located teams. That means that a complete team is in the same location. For example, until now, we only had engineering and a scrum master in Poland. At that location, we are now hiring designers and a product owner in order to form a complete team there", says Timo Salzsieder. In addition, the operations staff were previously not integrated into the team structures. Instead, a development was handed over to the operations personnel after it was completed. Thanks to the DevOps, a team now has end-to-end responsibility. "Our team structures now follow the best practices and we are following the same processes that are also used at Google and Facebook.", says Timo Salzsieder.


Of Dragons and Drinking Coffee


Each of HolidayCheck's 15 development teams, which consist of members from a total of 11 countries, is responsible for specific tasks. For example, the 9-person "Dragon" team in Munich takes care of the homepage of holidaycheck.de. The "Coffee" team in Bottighofen at Lake Constance, on the other hand, works on the optimisation of the booking process. "Our work begins with a list of travel offers and affects all of the website's e-commerce applications, for example the shopping cart function as well as the entry of address and payment information by the user. In the past year, we particularly worked on displaying the travel offers more clearly and on the additional functions associated with the so-called upselling of better room and board categories, which increase the average shopping cart", explains Denise Köhler, product owner of Team Coffee.
Other teams, such as the Search Monkeys, Content Freaks, Los Nativos or the All-Inclusive Team deal with the website's search functions, the collection of ratings, optimised hotel displays, the apps or the new user functions. The partially flashy names were created in an internal competition with the result that each group now owns coffee mugs with their team name and logo.


Much More to Come


Following the successful upgrade of the web platform, the modularisation of the Back Office will be initiated next year. Nineteen different modules are planned here. "The upgrade of the Back Office is a complex and long-term project. As one of the first modules, we will start with the customer service application over the course of the year", says Timo Salzsieder. In addition to the modularisation of the Back Office, the HolidayCheck developers also have a few innovative subjects on their to-do list, for example the so-called hotel fingerprint. That is a function that graphically displays a summary of all of the ratings of a hotel to the user. It uses state-of-the-art technologies and algorithms from the field of language research. "With our new platform, we are able to respond much better to the needs of our users. The website is now a living organism that continues to develop constantly. This means that, in the future, our users will see new, helpful functions more often, but we can also remove them again straight away if they don't like them", says Timo Salzsieder.