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An Interview with Marianna O'Hagan, Head of Product at Secret Escapes

maria Ohagan.JPG "Autonomy is the key. When you give smart, dedicated people the resources they need and empower them, they blow you away with amazing products".


Tell me about Secret Escapes, what do they do?

Secret Escapes is a free-to-join member's website and app, which runs
'best-in-market' flash sales of four and five-star hotels and holidays
worldwide. The hotels and holidays are hand-picked by a team of travel
experts and include everything from UK country house hotels and city breaks
to luxury European getaways and long-haul holidays, with travel included.

How would you describe your role to someone who does not work in the technology industry?

At Secret Escapes, we have loads of ideas on how to inspire our members to
escape. My role as Head of Product is to make sure we are working on the
ideas that will yield the highest returns to the business.

Have you always worked in tech? If not, where were you before? Please briefly describe your career path.

No, I started in ecommerce before transitioning into strategy consulting
and eventually Product; but I find that every role was in fact closely
related to tech, insofar as any modern company is now effectively a tech
company. I would say Secret Escapes is a tech-enabled company that inspires
people to travel to luxury hotels at the best prices.

What were the top three factors that contributed you to working in technology?

I honestly didn't start my career thinking "I want to work in tech". I
applied for roles that sounded exciting and organically moved towards tech,
as that is effectively where a business lives or dies now. I did want to
work in a growing industry, in a fast-paced environment, and on solving
real business problems. Tech meets all these criteria and more.

What was your favourite subject at school and what did you want to be when you grew up?

And now for the biggest tech cliché: I was a geek and very much into the
sciences. Growing up, I probably had a different answer as to what I wanted
to be every week. From Astronaut, to marine biologist to heart surgeon.
Basically, when I thought "that would be cool" it was added to the list. I
think it is important not to limit yourself too soon and to try lots of
roles. The sooner you learn what makes you tick, the faster you can find
something you love doing.

What were your top three chosen subjects at GCSE, not including the compulsory Maths, English and Science?

I am American; so I am not familiar with GCSEs. But I went to a school that
specialized in maths and sciences. It was a wonderful experience to be at a
school with other geeks. Needless to say, we didn't have a football team.

If you went onto Higher Education, what did you study?

I studied Economics.

What was your first job out of education?

Working in ecommerce as a merchandiser. It was just at the time that
retailers were starting to realise the value of online stores compared to
physical ones limited by their square footage, catchment area, opening
hours, and most importantly, data. Retailers had no idea how many dresses
had been picked up from a rack, how many had been tried on and left in the
dressing room, how many price tags read and put back. But now with the
online world, you know exactly how many clicks, how many added baskets etc.
It's exciting.

What do you think the perception of the technology industry is to people
outside of the industry? Do you think it's accurate? If not, what would you do to change this?

I think the common stereotypes still exist of young men in hoodies and
sneakers coding in garages. That's fun and a bit edgy, but totally wrong.
Every business is now in some way confronted by technology, so it's only a
matter of time before the stereotype fades away.

What do you think businesses can do to help with the gender imbalance in tech?

We need to work on two elements: broadening the candidate pool and avoiding
recruitment bias. The first one is long term and multi-faceted, but the
second one is immediately actionable by any business. That is, there is a
natural bias to recruit people like yourself, but the most important thing
is to step back and run through a checklist of facts about candidates.
Concretely this can be achieved by having diversity in the recruitment
process, such as having more than one person to interview and debrief
together. We're always on the hunt here at Secret Escapes for new talent!

Does your company have any formal initiatives in place to encourage more Women into Technology?

We want to hire the best candidates. We're aware that there are some ways
we can write a job description which may deter some great candidates from
applying. Recruiters have told us that women may be less likely to apply to
a job if they can't tick off each requirement. For example, if we were to
say the role requires 5 years of experience, a candidate of 3.5 years may
not apply, even though they may be the best fit for the role. We therefore
avoid specifying definitive requirements and stick to the tasks at hand
instead. At Secret Escapes, we would love to see more women applying for
roles in the tech industry both here, and in the sector at large.

What do you think keeps people happy and productive at work?

Autonomy is the key. When you give smart, dedicated people the resources
they need and empower them, they blow you away with amazing products. I
have a brilliant team. The best bit is that we don't work in a vacuum. We
actively encourage our talented teams across the business to pitch in with
their own thoughts on how the site could be improved and new features we
could try by placing 'Idea Jars' around the office and by hosting
workshops.

What are your favourite things about working in the tech industry?

I love that I can make a difference for our members and for the business. A
good day is when you find the results of an AB test showing a new change to
the website led to an increase in conversion.

What has been your biggest achievement in your career in tech so far?

I believe the best is yet to come. But I am quite proud of being able to
move conversion significantly for a couple of businesses-- like Seatwave,
an online ticket marketplace bought by Ticketmaster-- through analysing
data and by simply listening to customers and putting them at the heart of
business decisions.

What one thing would you say to every 11-13 year old in the country to encourage them to consider technology as a career choice?

First and foremost, I would say find what you love and then get good at it.
If you enjoy what you are doing, then it is never work. Maybe you love
helping people, maybe you love creating things, maybe you love solving
problems; but all of these things require skills that the technology
industry will need. You might be surprised how you end up in tech. I'd also
recommend everyone to take maths past the age of 16; it's fun and
incredibly useful.