From Theory to Practice in a Zillow Internship

Author: Kevin Yang

This summer, I had the opportunity to take my growing knowledge of computer science theory from school and apply it at Zillow. During my exciting 12 weeks on the Rich Data Team, I enhanced my practical software engineering skills and received incredible mentorship.

My specific project was to add Sun Number and building permit data to homes on Zillow and give users even richer information about homes. Sun Numbers data helps our users understand the feasibility of solar energy for a property. For context, here is an example of a Sun Number:

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Improving Homepage Performance

We recently overhauled the Zillow homepage to make it faster and even more modern and user-friendly. As a summer intern at Zillow, I had more fun than I could have ever imagined working on such a high-impact and high-visibility project.

As you’ve probably learned from Nathan’s recent blog post, at Zillow we measure performance in user-experience terms, analyzing performance across metrics that directly reflects a user’s perceived experience. On the homepage, we felt that an apt metric would be a mark fired upon completion of loading of the hero image. This means that upon painting of the hero image, the page feels ready to interact with and has completed loading from a perceived user-experience perspective.

During our recent homepage work, we blew past our initial goal of 25% improved perceived performance, making a 67% improvement!
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How’d we get there?

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Bigger, Faster, and More Engaging while on a Budget

A true story of how Zillow uses performance budgeting

By Nathan Bower

At Zillow, we’re always implementing new ways to empower consumers with data, inspiration and knowledge around the place they call home, and connect them with local professionals who can help.  New features, more property data, big beautiful photos, and videos are just a few ways we like to delight shoppers as well as agents, sellers, and property managers through added page views, agent contacts and traffic.

Developers everywhere in the industry continue to make their sites more engaging through adding more responsive JavaScript, richer images or videos, custom fonts, and unique styles.  Data trends recorded by prove the evolution of the web has seen page weight and resource requests creep a result of ongoing feature development.  Over just the past 5 years, the average transfer size per site has increased from 700KB to over 2100KB, or a 3x increase!

Site Growth over Time

Image credit to ( )

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Splunk at Zillow

Seattle Splunk User Group Hosted at Zillow 

The Seattle Splunk user group was recently hosted at the Zillow HQ in Seattle.  The Splunk user group is community-built and run, and is a platform for sharing knowledge and real-life examples while connecting with other Splunkers. The presenters for the event, Bernie Macias and Jerome Ibanes, support Splunk at Zillow and shared on topics that they have been working on internally.  The topics embody some of the crucial elements of our Splunk projects that we thought would be relevant to others looking to harness the power of Splunk in their organizations.  The evening had substantial Splunk representation from the local Seattle Splunk office with folks representing engineering, sales and support attending.

The topics for the evening were “Extending Splunk Through the Use of External Commands” and “Finding the Needle in the Haystack.”

You can watch the entirety of the presentation:

Below Jerome and Bernie provide a summary, including additional details and supporting links that recap their presentations.

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The 2015 Barton Ventures Mobile Web Summit

We hosted a Mobile Web Summit here at Zillow last week, sponsored by Barton Ventures, with leaders from several companies: Avvo, DogVacay, Expedia, Glassdoor, GrubHub, Nextdoor, Orbitz, RealSelf, Trover, Trulia, Yelp and Zillow. It was a fantastic event – we spent the day exchanging questions, learnings and ideas around mobile web. And, we were lucky to have Rich Barton and Bill Gurley in attendance to discuss their insights. The content was timely, valuable and worth sharing with a broader audience.

As Rich pointed out, mobile web is the fastest growing platform for most of us, but has the lowest engagement. For many of our companies, mobile web gets the majority of mobile users (as high as 70 percent) but a small fraction of engagement (as low as 5 percent). Mobile web is not as sexy as apps, from either a development or usage standpoint – but, because of this, there is an opportunity to invest heavily in our mobile web experiences, and get disproportionate returns, since so many players are focusing their efforts primarily on apps and desktop experiences. Creating a great mobile web experience has its challenges, with browser friction and slower page load times, but we believe this area deserves to be more than an afterthought.

Moving away from apps?

Given the historically low engagement rates on mobile web, why are we now seeing more of our mobile traffic on that platform? One common suggestion is app fatigue: Users don’t want to keep downloading apps (interestingly, this trend seems to be higher with women than men). We’ve all seen that in the past couple of years, it’s become harder to acquire an app user – both in terms of cost and user motivation. In focus groups, we hear people say that they just don’t want another app on their phone (this is especially true in verticals with a lot of players, like real estate and travel).

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High Performance Embedded WebViews in Mobile Apps

Last year, Zillow began to use a technology we’ve developed to keep our mobile apps and the web site current with latest product innovations: embedded HTML that’s updated asynchronously by both Android and iOS applications.


Zillow’s success is driven by its rapid innovation and much of that focuses on the real estate and rentals “home details page.” This is where the home shoppers (and voyeurs) go to see a home, its photos, the Zestimate and lots of other facts.

Home Details Page (to the right of the map) on iPad

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Image Processing at Zillow: Out with the Old and In with the AWS

The old saying goes that real estate is about Location, Location, Location. We’d like to submit a new saying: online real estate shopping is about Photos, Photos, Photos. Nothing delights Zillow’s users more than big, beautiful, and bountiful photos on real estate listings. And nothing delights agents, sellers, and property managers more than the page views, leads, and traffic they get when their listings entice shoppers with great pictures!1500x675_white_home

As Zillow’s popularity increased and agents started providing higher resolution photos on their listings, we found that our legacy imaging system could not keep up with the demand. We realized we needed to scale in a big way. Amazon Web Services (AWS) was the way to get us there.

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Zillow Hosting Housing Hackathon

Calling all developers, designers and business professionals! Registration is now open for Zillow and the University of Washington’s weekend-long housing hackathon. “Hack Housing: Empowering Smarter Decisions” is scheduled for February 6-8 at Zillow Tower in downtown Seattle, with participation from the White House, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Participants will be tasked with coming up with creative solutions to make it easier for first-time homebuyers, low-income renters and senior citizens to find a home that meets their needs. As part of the event, participants will have access to newly released government data sets on topics like federal housing programs, apartment buildings with accessible apartments, and transit information. In addition, Zillow will make available its data on home values and rents.

The winning team will take home a $10,000 prize.

Get more information and register.

Source: Ian Britton via Flickr Creative Commons

Zillow to Host Performance Expert and Tech Speaker Steve Souders – Tickets Available!

Join us Monday Jan. 26 at Zillow’s Seattle office to hear a talk by performance guru and Fastly Chief Performance Officer Steve Souders! As one of the top experts in performance and operations, Steve will discuss the difference between perceived speed and actual speed, and share techniques for leveraging perception gaps to create websites that feel fast.

Click here to register for the event.

Tickets are free and available now, but space is limited, so you’ll want to reserve your spot early. You can learn more about Souders and his talk below.

Steve Souders Headshot

When: Jan. 26, 6-8 p.m.

Where: Zillow’s Seattle Office (1301 2nd Ave., Floor 31)

Session Title: Perception of Speed

Session Description: Which would you rather have: a website that’s fast or a website that’s perceived as fast? The answer is “Both!” The list of performance best practices is long and well known, but there’s been less focus on the user’s perception of speed. In this presentation, Steve Souders provides examples of how the perception of speed is completely independent of actual speed, and techniques for leveraging this perception gap to create websites that feel fast.

Who is Steve? Steve is Chief Performance Officer at Fastly, developing Web performance services. He previously served as Google’s Head Performance Engineer and Chief Performance at Yahoo. Steve is the author of “High Performance Web Sites” and “Even Faster Web Sites,” and he is the creator of many performance tools and services including YSlow, the HTTP Archive, Cuzillion, Jdrop, ControlJS, and Browserscope. You can learn more about Steve here.

Alchemy: Converting a ZInternship Into a Golden Opportunity

I always wanted to be a scientist. Where I grew up — in a northern Indiana farming community with a heavy Amish population — all scientists are doctors. My choices were: Did I want to work at gas station/grocery store, or did I want to become a doctor?

But, there was also something else happening in my community — something more insidious and frightening than lack of choices. An epidemic of heroin was taking over our community, and I watched as many of my friends died from heroin overdoses.

Determined to leave behind the culture with which I could never identify, I left to attend college in the big city — Iowa City. Three years into my biochemistry studies of University of Iowa, I landed my first research job in the school’s chemistry department. It was a part-time unpaid job that counted as a grade. Even though it’s more like a class, it’s not easy to get a position like this. It was a special thing to be trusted with a nearly bottomless dispenser of THF, diethyl ether and toluene, and to have my own set of Schlenk lines. One misstep in handling this pressurized system could have hurt dozens of people. But I was a darn good chemist.

Out of My Control

It was also during this time that I experienced first-hand what sexual harassment looks like. First, one of UIowa’s  chemistry professors resigned after being convicted of assault (two counts of assault causing bodily injury and one count of assault with intent of sexual abuse) against one of the few other females in the department. The incident made headlines.

During this same time, I was struggling in my chemistry class. When I asked the professor for help, he suggested I visit his fraternity — the one that he belonged to while attending UIowa — and “see what I need to do to get the answers” to his next test.

I was stunned. The class was almost all male, and almost all of its members belonged to this fraternity. Class conversations centered on the school’s football team, rather than chemistry. This was hugely disappointing for me. I had always been terrified of failure and here I felt like the outcome of my whole life was totally outside my control. It was the worst time in my adult life.

I needed to get out, so I left the chemistry lab and switched to cloning and sequencing rotifer DNA for the biology department. This was my first paid research job, at 45 cents above minimum wage.

During this time, I was looking into getting an internship in the biotech industry. The biotech industry just seemed more glamorous and fortunately, the University of Iowa was holding its first biotech job fair. I was excited about all of the career possibilities.

At the fair, I showed up in a business suit with a clipboard full of resumes. When I approached a company’s representative, she gestured a “give it here” motion for my resume without any greeting. Bright-eyed and ready to sell myself based on my previous work that had been well-respected and presented internationally, I introduced myself and expressed my interest in this unpaid internship. “You and a thousand others,” she said, tossing my resume into a messy pile. I got the same response when asking to volunteer at a nonprofit walk-in clinic. It was a demoralizing event.

Bye-bye Iowa, Hello Seattle

Later that same year, I decided again to change careers. This time, I was focused on another science: computer science. After taking one semester of programming classes and discrete math, I fell in love with CS, but soon realized that living in a state that had just one major tech company (Rockwell Collins) wasn’t going to cut it.

I needed to be in the center of a growing tech market — Seattle.

While we considered the Bay Area, the cost of living scared me. My husband (fiancé at the time) worked at Rockwell Collins, and he got a job at Amazon in order to get us to Seattle. We moved to the Emerald City in May 2013.

My goal was to get into the University of Washington, but the lead time to apply is almost a year, so I planned to take community college classes in the meantime. I had no job lined up, and it was a couple of months before the community college classes were to begin.

Shortly after moving to Seattle, we got married in a courthouse (best wedding ever!) and while waiting for community college classes to start, I got a job at Starbucks as a barista. While exploring Reddit one evening, I learned about an upcoming class at the Ada Developers Academy. Applications were due in 12 hours, and that’s literally how long it took me to apply. The application contained difficult logic puzzles and a coding challenge, and I had to make a video of myself answering interview questions that I then had to edit down to 5 minutes. The process involved having to learn markup language and use it to produce my resume for submission. Ada is very selective, and I was selected for its intensive, six-month program.

As part of Ada’s training, you get placed in an internship at a Puget Sound company, and I was accepted by Zillow, starting on May 5, 2014. The best part of my Zillow internship was that I was added to the development of the Zillow Digs product as a real, contributing member and not separated from the actual development. I gradually took on more complex tasks that were critical to the overall development of Digs. As an integral (but considerably slower) member of the Digs team, I implemented some major features that improved our SEO and Google Analytics data, added richness to our image data, and most importantly, gave our users an even better experience. I have had an amazing Zillow internship experience, and the skills that Ada taught me continue to develop — such as agile methodologies, Git and JavaScript. I continue to actively build on my knowledge of algorithms and functional programming.

The Moral of the Story

My journey has been filled with heartache, amazement and finally, joy. I have been fortunate to land in an industry that is rewarding and fascinating. But, I’ve come to realize it’s hungry for more people like me. While there is outreach to girls, women and people of color to get excited about tech, there needs to be outreach to places outside urban centers, too. Rural kids don’t know what computer science is, and few people are trying to reach out to these kids who are dying of hopelessness.

The coasts put out knowledgeable students who went to computer camp at 10 years old, but passion comes from everywhere — even the “fly-over” states. Tech is for everyone. Tech is a pure and beautiful application of math, unlike life itself. Tell your daughters about tech. Tell your weird cousins in Alabama about tech. Be active in informing these marginalized and potentially very talented children, because the MIT-bound students are already made.

If you know a smart, but underemployed woman who wants to become a software developer, I highly recommend Ada Developers Academy. All 15 of the first group of graduates have left behind old jobs for this new career path. We are not quitters; we are high achievers who were willing to take a risk.

My Ada class graduated on Oct. 24, 2014 and so far, every single student received a permanent job offer, including me. Yes – I am now a full-time employee at Zillow, continuing my work on the Digs team as a full-stack software engineer. I am grateful to everybody here for making me feel welcome, buying me lunch and generally being awesome. Unofficial Karma points for everyone!