They Call the Technologist Behind Airbnb “Joebot”

But Joe Zadeh (PhD ’10) is very much human—and he strives to ensure the home-sharing service has a highly personal touch.

By Maureen Harmon

Photo by Eric Millette

On the outskirts of Austin, Texas, sits a lovely little apartment over a garage. A spiral staircase leads to a wooden deck that looks out over the neighborhood, complete with comfortable seating, cacti, even an antique dresser. Through the windows, guests can see a beat-up old bus in the neighbor’s yard. Anywhere else, that bus might look like it should be hauled off to the nearest junkyard. But here, with the cacti and antique dresser and the artistic touch, it looks just right. It is Austin, after all—Texas’ capital city that boasts the slogan: “Keep Austin weird.” A local family rents the studio loft out through Airbnb, an online haven for hosts hoping to make a little cash by renting out their own homes and guests looking for unique housing while traveling. 

But Airbnb offers something more, something you can’t get at the Holiday Inn—a feel for a destination, the culture and ethos of a city or neighborhood through the eyes of its residents.

Airbnb—the whole idea of it, with homegrown hoteliers all over the world—made sense to Joe Zadeh, vice president of product for the company. He remembers heading out for a run while living in the Silver Lake area of California. “I’d run up to this house in the Hollywood Hills that’s designed by Frank Lloyd Wright,” he says. “I was obsessed with this house, but it’s closed to the public. I would stand outside and think, Wow. How can I ever step foot in this home or one day own something like this? It seemed so out of reach, so impossible.” But the first time Zadeh ever looked at the Airbnb website, he found a Frank Lloyd Wright house for rent in Wisconsin for $200 a night. The impossible suddenly felt possible.

“The expense of travel doesn’t correlate to how good the experience is,” says the tech executive. “What really correlates is, how local do you get? How much do you connect with the people who live there?” The ideal experience would be like the one with that local family in Austin, who text their renters during Texas’ howling summer storms just to make sure they’re comfortable in the apartment—just to make sure they feel at home.

“I instinctively knew what Airbnb was offering by letting you stay in someone’s home,” says Zadeh. “You’re getting a deep, local experience that is, by definition, non-mass tourism. I knew that was going to be important.” Airbnb, after all, is all about the experience.

Zadeh has made a home for himself in many places throughout his career—and in all of them he’s sought out the experience rather than the work itself. At Caltech, Zadeh pursued graduate work in bioengineering, working with Scott Fraser, Stephen Mayo (PhD ’87), and Niles Pierce. Under Pierce, he designed biomolecules and created algorithms for self-assembling nucleic-acid structures. 

“I felt like the work I was doing was cool,” says Zadeh. “But I also worried that if nobody used it, it wouldn’t matter.” Even so, Zadeh figured the research was going somewhere. The team was working to build science apps that other scientists could use. Those experiences brought him to a realization that start-ups might be the perfect next step. “Maybe,” he thought, “I should keep focusing on the development of making hard things easy to use.” Start-ups had plenty of tough problems to solve as they launched and grew—especially in an online world. So Zadeh packed his bags and headed to the Bay Area, where he eventually joined a team of six working out of a bedroom in a three-bedroom apartment on Rausch Street in San Francisco. It was 2010, and Zadeh was the third software engineer for Airbnb, a two-year-old company.

Start-ups, by their nature, are risky. “One of the rules is that you have to be comfortable with changes and ambiguity,” says Zadeh. And frankly, the founders of the company were taking a risk, too. “He had just graduated with a PhD from Caltech, and he had no experience in product management or even working for a start-up,” says cofounder and CEO Brian Chesky. “But we quickly realized that his skills extended beyond engineering.” For Zadeh, the transition from lab to bedroom office made perfect sense. “Caltech gave you a degree in a field, but it also taught you how to think. What you’re doing is trying to [take] something nebulous and make it concrete. In some ways, that’s what start-ups do. Actually a lot of start-ups don’t look a lot different structurally from most research labs at Caltech.” 

Risks aside, this group, founded by three design planners, was onto something. “We kept growing,” says Zadeh, “and pretty soon we moved out of one bedroom into multiple bedrooms. Then people started working in the kitchen and the stairwell.” The growth became a bit of a joke. “Every time we grew into the kitchen, it was time to get a new office.” 

The growth has also come with some hardships, including concerns from cities and towns used to more traditional lodging models in the forms of hotels, motels, and bed-and-breakfast spots. And city officials have voiced worry over lodgers’ safety, lost tax revenue, and unlicensed hotels popping up on the horizon. Though Zadeh operates more on the technology side of the company, he explains that Airbnb believes in partnering with cities. 

“We want to work with them and show them the benefits that Airbnb brings to their communities,” he says. “If you take your typical big city, and you look at where Airbnbs are located versus more traditional tourist areas, you’ll start seeing that Airbnb is bringing a lot of tourism dollars to areas that don’t traditionally get it.” He cites a new partnership with Los Angeles that makes taxable income more transparent as a model of how the company could evolve.

Today Airbnb has 19 offices around the world and boasts listings for more than three million spaces (including 3,000 castles and 1,400 tree houses—if you’re into that kind of thing). Guests can find Airbnb just about everywhere—191 countries and more than 50,000 cities. On a smaller scale, the company has helped hosts through financial difficulties. Zadeh remembers interviewing with Airbnb and seeing a note from a host hanging on the wall. It said, “Thank you for saving our home in the 2008/2009 financial crisis.”

But reaching that kind of success took vision—one that blended the worlds of art and science, and Zadeh’s role was to sit between those two worlds. “One of the first things he created was our photography program,” says Chesky, “which today is made up of thousands of photographers who have taken millions of pictures. From there, ‘Joebot’ became our first product manager, and we built the product-management team around him. He’s now the glue that binds our design and engineering teams, and from the early days has played a large role in building the product that you see today.” It’s a vision driven by gut instincts but backed up by scientific method, says Zadeh, and much of it comes down to design, strategic thinking, and, really, making Airbnb easy and fun to use.

“We have this bold vision about what we think travel should look like,” Zadeh says, “but then we bring a lot of rigorous science to it.” Their goal: to fix what he calls “the soulless experience of mass tourism” by providing rich local experiences—experiences like that Frank Lloyd Wright house or that studio loft apartment in Austin. 

For Zadeh, that means long-term visions of how Airbnb might evolve, and then taking those visions and making them reality through his team of product managers. “A product manager,” says Zadeh, “is kind of like a conductor of an orchestra, and the orchestra is all the engineers and designers and data scientists and all the different people that contribute to bringing something to life with technology.”