The following article is based on my experience as a manager of software development at Booking.com during 2020

2020 was a challenging year for all of us and I’m sure none of us are sorry to be seeing its tail-end. It was also a year of success, for those who were able to overcome the significant obstacles posed and maximise on the opportunities that did present themselves.

If nothing else, it was a year of lessons: of accelerated learning during an intense year; an opportunity to gain several years’ worth of experience during a relatively much shorter time.

We owe it to ourselves to reflect on and jot down some memorable lessons that will set us in good stead as we settle-in to the expected long-tail recovery.

1. Be part of the recovery

If business is not going well, it is a mistake to go-with-the-flow and passively hold the course, without carefully reconsidering you and your team’s position. In particular, your (and every) team’s efforts should be directed at least partially towards modifying the product or business as needed ASAP.

For example, in my organisation at Booking, we implemented the ‘health and hygiene’ functionality which allows partners to showcase their safety measures to customers on the main checkout funnel, which has become one of partners’ most popular programs at Booking.

A key principle here is to be keenly aware of and completely aligned to your company’s main objectives: work on the main thing, and not the side thing. For example, my department’s focus is on the core customer journey and driving growth in accommodations; therefore I worked to ensure that virtually all my teams and projects are reinforcing these objectives (and strongly challenging otherwise), in order to best position my organisation to weather a downturn.

Indeed several external teams pivoted temporarily of their own accord away from their original topics and towards topics owned in my area, which was generally successful both for my organisation, our ability as a company to deliver a consistent product across platforms, and for the external teams who seemed to enjoy the ability to pick a topic and add a massive impact in a limited time.

2. Invest during the downturn

In any business, a downturn is a good time to retrospect, streamline and double-down on what is working. With the relentless hypergrowth having temporarily abated, a wealth of engineering capacity became available which could be used to dramatically improve the company’s overall technical foundations by: improving the efficiencies of (or deprecating) existing systems for cost-reduction; introducing modern technology for cheaper product development; and specific, prioritised efforts to reduce technical debt. There was a mix of long- and short-term projects.

For example, my organisation and I played a key role in planning and executing on the first stages of a long-term technology modernisation project, which will reduce costs in the long-term. At the same time, specific, prioritised technical improvements were made on the back-end systems to greatly reduce costs immediately.

3. Empathy and communication

Each and every person had immense challenges to overcome during this unforgiving year: whether it’s working from a small, shared apartment; taking care of young children when schools and daycare were closed; needing to visit relatives in need; or being unable to visit friends and family; not to mention the likelihood that many of us contracted COVID-19 during this year, in addition to the ergonomic challenges posed by our makeshift work-from-home offices. These myriad issues cannot but have had a real effect on everyone’s performance. They may even have led to feelings of guilt, where people feel badly about needing to work adjusted hours to care for their families, for example. In almost all cases, a healthy dose of empathy and flexibility on behalf of management were all that were needed.

4. Reward top performers

When faced with challenging circumstances, some people will rise far above reasonable expectations to deliver more than what was thought possible. Such people are responsible for most business success in any organisation. Even in times of crisis, such people need to be acknowledged, rewarded and given opportunities to grow even further.

In my team at Booking, many people demonstrated extraordinary resilience and delivered beyond expectations in spite of the environment. Frankly, these people can work wherever they like. Therefore it is paramount to give them the recognition they deserve and reward them appropriately. For example, within my team, we have several shining examples of individuals ready for the next levels in their careers, where this challenging backdrop has formed their ideal proving ground.

5. Celebrate wins (and failures)

Nothing brings people together during difficult times like celebration, and there is so much to celebrate.

It is absolutely critical to continue celebrating wins large and small, in order for the people to experience a sense of progress, achievement and momentum.

It provides a natural moment of bonding as well as reflection. And failures can be celebrated every bit as much as successes. We would regularly host afternoon talks where teams talked about their biggest learnings or ‘a-ha’ moments, which are some of the most informative and entertaining sessions that were held.

Closing

As this infamous year draws to an end, I want to remind us all to take excellent care of ourselves and especially each other. Let’s all get some much-needed rest over this holiday season, and return refreshed, ready and hungry for a strong recovery in 2021, building on all of the hard work and preparation that we have put into place this year.

Ronen Agranat is a manager of software development at Booking.com in Amsterdam, where he leads an organisation of ~25 people, at the core of the customer funnel. Do you want to help us help everyone experience the world? We are always looking for exceptional talent