CIO interview: Trevor Didcock, CIO, Easyjet

The chief information officer at Easyjet tells Computer Weekly about the IT agenda at the low-cost carrier, in an exclusive interview.

Despite being new to the airline sector, Trevor Didcock knows a thing or two about the service industry: with a CV that includes senior IT positions at Homeserve, the AA and RAC, he now has the mission to deliver technology that dazzles Easyjet's customers and internal users.

The IT executive started work at the low-cost airline in September 2010 and before joining he was already involved in the company's growth strategy, dubbed "Turn Europe Orange". Unveiled in November, the plan also foresees a doubling of the firm's investment in IT.

Easyjet was in dire need of a new IT leader - previous incumbent Tim Newing retired in February last year - and Didcock was recruited as CIO to reflect the need for the technology function to become more business- and change-oriented.

"It is very rare to come in to a business like this and, exactly as you join, the management team is taking a big step back and rewriting the strategy - fortunately, this is what happened," Didcock told Computer Weekly.

Taking flight for extra demand

Didcock helped shape Easyjet's strategy, and is now finishing that work in terms of IT supporting business change. Future technology will mainly focus on improving the customer experience, creating new propositions for the business traveller market and improving internal service.

"Easyjet has been quite constrained in the past couple of years due to the recession and the strings were pulled quite a lot to make sure we continued to make a profit, but that also meant there wasn't a lot of IT investment at that time," he said.

"But we are an IT -oriented organisation and technology sits on everything Easyjet does, so getting the IT organisation in really good shape to cope with the increased demand was key."

Doubling the IT capital investment at the carrier was an important part of the process; until recently, IT spend was about £10m per year and now it's £20m-25m. The department itself is also looking to grow and Easyjet aims to hire 29 people to boost its team of 65 IT professionals.

According to Didcock the IT operation is already lean and the firm uses third-parties such as Savvis for network-related projects and Sopra India for Sharepoint and .Net development for business intelligence. This is set to continue.

"The percentage of work will go up, but that does not mean we will insource. [The IT team] is pretty small for a £3bn turnover company and is a small fraction of the IT team at British Airways, but we fly more passengers than they do," said Didcock.

"We don't plan to change the sourcing strategy - in fact, we and didn't have one before whereas now we know the areas we need to develop. We know we will keep the architecture and service management in house but will largely outsource the services - we are in that situation already," he said.

"In terms of development on the package side, if we can buy cloud-based services we will, and certainly fully-managed services wherever we can. On the .Net side, we largely do that in house as it is agile-based process, which requires proximity to the users."

According to the CIO, the carrier is "just beginning to test the waters" with a couple of organisations about agile development.

Improving crew systems

According to Didcock the IT provided in crew-rooms and the company's base offices across Europe was not very good. The process that crew had to undergo to get documentation from systems, such as flight plans, air traffic control strike details and weather disruption reports, was "clunky, slow and unreliable".

To tackle that situation, the CIO set out to revamp the technology available to crew and make it more consistent. That involved re-writing the company's crew portal, which was based on Microsoft Sharepoint.

"We fixed the entire portal and changed it from the ground up - it is now much more robust and easy to use," said Didcock.

He says there will be continuous improvements around systems for crew and pilot rostering, as well as its Lido flight planning platform from Lufthansa Systems. Lido provides meteorological data and creates the best possible route between two points, and has so far delivered "millions of pounds" in fuel efficiencies.

"The aim is to make the business more flexible for the crew and improve the systems we have incrementally. You see people implementing big packages and only using 20% of the functionality, but what we are doing is using the systems we have very well."

Catching up on mobile

Easyjet also started to build its first mobile app and while the IT chief recognises the airline is behind some of its rivals, he says his team is now "aggressively looking to get up to parity in mobile."

The airline's current app offering is a mobile website to provide information around service disruption, but Apple, Blackberry and Android applications are now being developed, the first two scheduled for release in the autumn while the latter will be out early next year.

"We want to build proper mobile APIs into all of our websites, so we can keep building additional features into our mobile platform, rather than taking a real quick and dirty screen-scraping approach, which is what some airlines have done," said Didcock.

On the web front, the company has introduced a flexible fare model for business travellers, which allows unlimited changes to ticket details within a four-week window - one week before and up to three weeks after the original booked travel date. This is available through global distribution systems and will go live online early this year.

Behind the scenes, another big piece of IT work is around the redesign and consolidation of Easyjet's two .Net-based web platforms.

"We will be able to refresh the home page more frequently, manage the environment a lot better and deliver change a lot quicker," Didcock said of the new web architecture, but this will take "a fair bit of rework".

Into the cloud

Easyjet is now carrying out a major network refresh with Savvis, aimed at reducing the number of virtual local area networks (VLANs), simplifying the environment and making it more reliable and secure. The project should be complete in June.

The company is also looking to further develop its Halo platform, which is based on Microsoft's Azure cloud computing platform to provide more services at airports.

Currently, Easyjet uses Halo for integration of handheld devices used for boarding passengers. According to Didcock, the firm is looking at using the platform for check-in as well as potentially using airport Wi-Fi to allow staff to use the devices to sell additional products such as speedy boarding.

As for the self-service payment kiosks the firm introduced in 2008, two airports in Geneva and Copenhagen are using them. According to Didcock, "the jury is out", as to whether the machines are beneficial to customers and also save the firm money.

"Our drive is to get everyone to check-in online, and we already have a 60% online check-in rate - we would rather people to turn up with no luggage, with the boarding card printed or on a smartphone," he said.

"What we are not doing is penalising customers for not checking in online, but we are pushing them towards that direction," Didcock said, highlighting a difference from rival Ryanair, which charges passengers who show up at the airport without boarding passes.

Gaining trust

Following Newing's departure, Easyjet's head of IT operations, Mike Sturrock, stepped in to look after technology at the company, and according to Didcock, managed to "not only keep the ship afloat but also push quite a few items forward".

However, there was still a lot of work to be done from an organisational standpoint. To that end, one of the main changes Didcock implemented was to set up a project management office, to "get the teams' arms around the large amount of change".

"[The team] used to work fairly ad-hoc, but now we are taking a much longer horizon across the year, budgeting and controlling and the projects that we are doing and have also set up IT steering groups at the major departments," he said.

"The biggest thing was managing change and getting some proper prioritisation and resource management in place, so we can see the wood from the trees and get people working on the right things."

However, Didcock says he inherited "a good team, with good leadership".

"Sometimes you go into a business and the team is a bit of a basket case and this is anything but that. Of course, it takes a little while to make sure that is the case - it took me two or three months to be comfortable with the team."

He says the most crucial part of the job was gaining the trust of crew and pilots, since IT had not been delivering a great service to them for some time.

"Getting their trust was really important. We are still in a journey around that but have already made a lot of progress," said Didcock.

The CIO says his business has "a huge advantage" over rivals such as British Airways, which recently lost its CIO Paul Coby to department store John Lewis.

"We have a lower cost base, so the IT cost base is a lot lower too. We can also do things quite flexibly, we can roll out our 'airport-in-a-box' model into a summer destination and be out of it months later - and a lot of that is delivered by IT," said Didcock.

"Some CIOs say, 'I haven't got a lot to play with', but we deliver a hell of a lot in IT for less than 1% of our revenue - not a lot of people can say that."

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