My Journey to Airbnb — Kamini Dandapani

Kamini Dandapani, VP of Engineering at Airbnb, leads the Infrastructure Engineering organization, which is in many ways the backbone of the company: responsible for powering the systems that keep Airbnb running smoothly and help new products reach millions of people. With a passion for how platforms can support and sustain the business and product, Kamini developed her considerate and welcoming leadership style at eBay and LinkedIn before joining Airbnb two years ago. In addition to her Infra role, she champions diversity and belonging in the workplace and is co-sponsor for Airbnb’s tech diversity council, which aims to create the most diverse and inclusive community in the tech industry.

Want to hear Kamini and other Infrastructure team members talk about some of the team’s latest projects? Check out the “Powering Our Platform” Airbnb Tech Talk from March 2022. You’ll hear about some of the major initiatives we’re working on in next-generation service mesh, observability, feature engineering, and scalable storage.

From Chennai to Chicago

Growing up in India, I was the youngest of three girls. Despite facing skepticism and criticism from others around them, my parents invested heavily in our education and gave us a very strong footing, without which I don’t think I would be where I am today.

I started familiarizing myself with the engineering world, and found that I immensely enjoyed it. I did my undergrad in electronics and communication, and with my dad’s encouragement — he camped out overnight in the line in front of the US Consulate to get a visa — I came to the US to pursue my master’s in computer science.

In Chicago, I had to adjust to a lot of new experiences (including the winter cold!). In India, I never did anything alone, but here I had to do everything independently, from managing my finances to driving a car. After I graduated, I felt very fortunate to get a job in Silicon Valley, and I’ve stayed here ever since.

Leading at the intersection of platform and product

Effective infrastructure can’t be built in a vacuum. Rather, it requires close partnerships with our product engineers to support both our product and overall business strategies. My professional sweet spot is where the platform architecture meets the end-user experience — plus scale!

In my engineering career, I worked at eBay for 12 years and grew into a director position, leading international expansion. After that, I was at LinkedIn for six years, leading infrastructure and tools for the consumer app, and that’s where I learned how to operate and develop a platform at scale. When Airbnb got in touch with me, I wasn’t looking for a change. But with every conversation that I had, there was something truly magical about the place — from the leadership, to the inclusivity, to the company’s mission — and I am so grateful that I made the leap.

What excited me most was bringing dozens of years of operating at scale to Airbnb. And one key component to operating at scale is working effectively and smoothly cross-functionally, and building close relationships with our product teams and key partners across the business. I’ve seen some truly incredible teamwork within my own team, and across all of Airbnb.

Building the tech backbone of Airbnb

Most of the technical foundation that powers Airbnb comes from the Infrastructure organization. The impact that this group has is so wide and profound.

The Infrastructure organization has several key pillars:

  • Search Infrastructure, which powers the backend systems for our guest search experience
  • Data Platform, for storing, processing and managing all the data that powers every user experience
  • Developer Platform, which helps make Airbnb engineers’ lives friction-free by building tools, services and environments to help them develop, build, test and deploy their code
  • Cloud Infrastructure, which delivers and operates the cloud environment that powers Airbnb
  • Reliability Engineering, which remedies and prevents site performance issues through tooling and automation

Within each of these areas, we have many long-term, multi-year projects, all part of what we’re calling Tech Stack 2.0: an evolution and modernization of our technology. Some sample initiatives include flexible search for guests and UDS, our pioneering next-generation storage system.

My identity: female, South Asian, immigrant

People often point out that I’m unique for being a female leader in tech. But in reality, there are three important aspects of my identity: yes, I’m a woman, but I’m also South Asian and an immigrant. All of these have shaped who I am today.

I grew up in a very different culture. We were discouraged from challenging the status quo, and for my parents and grandparents, the idea was that if you work extremely hard, recognition will follow. That’s not the way it works here: it sometimes seems like you need to have an opinion and advocate for yourself in order to be taken seriously.

In many ways, I think being different is an advantage as a leader. While I encourage everyone on the team to make sure their voice is being heard, I also believe in being your natural self. That’s how I’ve been able to build trust with my teams, by letting them see the real me. My philosophy is that no one can be an expert in everything. What you’ll see is varying degrees in people — and I want to fully support that diversity of thought and experience, because a team that’s well-rounded is more effective.

Bringing people along

When joining Airbnb, I asked to have the dedicated time and agency to do work around diversity and gender parity. I’m now the co-sponsor for the Tech Diversity Council alongside Lucius DiPhillips (CIO), where we advocate for diversity-related projects around the Tech org. I’m also one of the advisors for our Asians@ employee resource group.

There’s something special about these employee resource groups here at Airbnb that I haven’t seen before. It’s a very small close-knit group, and we can relate to our similar upbringing and cultural norms. We genuinely look out for each other and amplify our Asian@ colleagues’ voices.

There’s a saying that “if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.” Whether it’s sharing context about our work, being vulnerable about my mistakes, or building a diverse organization, I very much believe in bringing people along. I couldn’t be at a better place than here at Airbnb, where our company’s mission is for anyone to belong anywhere.