My Journey to Airbnb — Lucius DiPhillips

Airbnb’s CIO on sponsorship, belonging, and the power of human connection

Lucius DiPhillips is the Chief Information Officer (CIO) at Airbnb. He has over 20 years of experience that spans Product Development, Information Technology, Customer Service, Financial Services, Payments, eCommerce, and Trust & Safety. He has a Degree in Management Information Systems from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and serves as the executive sponsor for several diversity and belonging groups and initiatives across the company. Through his sponsorship, Lucius has been instrumental in helping to improve the ways in which Airbnb attracts and retains diverse technical talent.

Breaking barriers and growing from adversity

I grew up in Upstate New York, in a small town called Hudson Falls. I was raised by a single-parent mom, and I’m an only child. Growing up, we struggled financially, and I helped out wherever I could. From delivering papers as a ten-year-old to waiting tables as a high-schooler, I always had something to balance. That’s helped me as a leader to this day: balance and having that hard work ethic, and seeing my mom’s struggle as a single mom.

I’m multiracial: my mom is white and my dad has Black heritage. At an early age, I became acutely aware that I was different, and sometimes I didn’t feel like I belonged — because of how I looked, because I didn’t have both parents in the picture, and because we didn’t have a lot financially. Rather than letting my differences hold me back, I immersed myself in many things, from playing sports to the school choir and musicals. I wanted to get to know a lot of different people and ultimately go beyond the superficial labels and barriers between us.

That has become part of how I lead to this day, and how I build teams. It’s very much about connecting with people beyond what you might see on the surface, and really trying to find common ground. It was a skill that came from a dark place early on in my career, that has now become a skill that helps me be a coach, mentor, and sponsor, who invests in others and leads them to develop in their own careers.

A career path shaped by curiosity, connections, and conversations

I first got interested in tech in the 90s, as a student curious about this new thing called the internet. While my career started in traditional IT, I later got into product development and software development for end-users. Normally, those are two different profiles, but I’m more of a hybrid with a broad understanding of all facets of tech. I love technology, but I also love operations, leadership, and people. I have an appreciation for how we make sure that we connect what’s happening with tech to real customers, real people at the end of the day.

Making and maintaining many different personal connections with mentors and colleagues has led to a variety of opportunities in my career, and eventually brought me to Airbnb. I first came to Airbnb leading our Payments technology organization. Airbnb has a structured framework for career conversations that involves assessing your dream job, your story, your strengths, and what you want to do better, and from there identifying career development opportunities. This process led to my current role as the first CIO at Airbnb.

I feel like I have the best job as a CIO. I feel like I work for the best company in the world at Airbnb. That’s why I’m still glowing and here, going on four years later. And to me, this is just the beginning.

Diversity and belonging in tech

I am the co-sponsor of the Tech Diversity Council, a group of senior technical leaders at Airbnb tasked with amplifying and advocating for diversity-related projects and initiatives across our Tech org. It’s one of the most important roles that I have to play, if not the most important. And we’ve created the Council because we still have a long way to go in terms of representation across tech and across Airbnb. To me, the best way to get involved is to give my time and push ideas and vision into action that creates impact.

There isn’t just one initiative to talk about here, but rather many parallel efforts that span from wide-scale to personal. In addition to the Tech Diversity Council, we have a hyperfocus on Black in Tech as a group, and we have the Black Sponsorship Program, developed and led by Airbnb’s Black Employee Resource Group, Black@. I lead a monthly series for anyone who’s in technology that self-identifies as Black, who optionally wants to come together, to have a safe place to share, to contribute.

At Airbnb, we’ve always prided ourselves in standing for what we believe in unapologetically. With the Black Lives Matter movement and the George Floyd protests, I felt like we had the support to speak up about what we were feeling and the experiences we were having. The Black@ group created a guide on how to be an ally, and we hosted many conversations about what it means to be Black in America. To me, that was the most important thing we could have been doing in that moment of time, and we continue doing it.

Redesigning our hiring process

I’m proud of Airbnb, because most companies don’t even talk about where they hope they go. They don’t share representation numbers. We not only share them, we say we can do better, and we’re going to do better, and here’s how and when.

One of the things we’ve done is go back to the drawing board to redesign our hiring process. Having a love of operations, data, and driving process improvements, I approached our hiring process like a product. Step by step, we looked at the data and asked “Is there a disproportionate drop-off here for certain demographics? What can we do differently?”

We realized that engineers are very unique — not just in their gender and ethnicity and work experience, but in how they’re most comfortable interviewing. So we decided to give candidates more flexibility: they might choose either to do a take-home coding test or show us some open source work they’re proud of. We also got more managers involved at the ground level to support our diversity and inclusion candidates and help them feel seen, understood, and connected to their future team. Engaging more of our diverse engineers early on in the hiring process had a huge impact.

Starting from my time with the Payments organization, I recognized the urgency of the moment and the stakes at play for underrepresented candidates and pushed the recruiting team to put changes into action rather than waiting or holding back. I call it breaking some glass — you need to break some glass every once in a while to challenge the status quo.

A human-centric way to lead

If you focus on belonging and engagement, and you make it a priority, then you can create a better environment for your team. When traumatic things happen, it’s important to educate others so they can be allies, as well as creating a safe space for people to share. As part of our wellness programs, we host “listening sessions.” I’ve hosted them with my leadership team, for Black@, for what was happening with the Afghan refugee situation, or when the COVID-19 pandemic was spiking in India.

I’m also passionate about demystifying the fact that work-life balance is a real thing you can actually conquer. It’s a pet peeve of mine that we talk about work-life balance. My balance is very different than any one of yours individually. So let’s talk about flexibility, and having empathy for each other’s unique needs and situations.

I care about being transparent and available, and part of the way I do that is by offering an office hours slot twice a day that anyone can sign up for at any time. We actually took that idea and scaled it with something called coffee chats. Anyone in our organization can sign up to have a coffee chat with someone else. You don’t know who it’s going to be until you show up. And that’s what I loved about my office hour slots, being able to ask, “What’s your story? How long have you been here? What’s one personal thing you’re thinking about?” At heart I want to connect with people. I want to demonstrate a human-centric way to lead.