CIO interview: Adam Gerrard, chief technology officer, LateRooms

The new IT chief at travel firm LateRooms talks about his plans for IT transformation to support a period of intense international business growth.

The new IT chief at travel firm LateRooms talks to Angelica Mari about his plans for IT transformation to support a period of intense international business growth, in his first interview in the job.

After nearly four years working at car rental giant Avis Europe as group CIO, Adam Gerrard is facing a fresh challenge as his new employer LateRooms changes its approach to IT to support its expansion worldwide.

Gerrard joined TUI Travel-owned LateRooms in May to help the firm, which is 12 years old and worth about £500m, to at least triple - if not quadruple - its size in the next three to four years.

According to Gerrard, the experience at Avis came in useful when he applied for the chief technology officer job at LateRooms.

"Clearly, international experience is one of the things needed here - understanding the challenges and pitfalls of working on a global basis across different time zones and dealing with a shared services centre type of model." Gerrard told Computer Weekly.

Growing pains

LateRooms, originally a Manchester-based venture capital-backed company, has been growing significantly in the last decade. In 2007 the firm was acquired by First Choice, which was then bought out by TUI.

As a result of these acquisitions, the company now has a fast-growing Asian business in addition to its UK and continental Europe operations. This means that a new and more scalable IT structure is needed to support expansion.

"From an IT perspective, we have grown from a Manchester-based operation to having to think about the global challenge: supporting various time zones, deciding whether we will have a shared services core and some local teams to deliver services and so on- we are going through a lot of growing pains," said Gerrard.

Currently, the CTO leads a team of about 130 people and expects that number to double in the next couple of years, particularly if the company adopts a shared services, follow-the-sun approach.

The IT portfolio at Late Rooms is mostly home-grown and quite focused on employing agile development methodologies for a .Net product set. According to Gerrard, as the IT transformation is pushed forward, there will be plenty of change to come.

"We want to bring in the global picture context to IT here. We will have small teams of agile developers, testers and business owners and work on the quickest ways to improve our websites and deliver value back to customers through incremental change," he said.

"Although it makes sense for a small business to build everything, when you start growing on a global basis and looking at the tools you need to be successful, you conclude that there are software companies out there to provide those tools and that can save you a great deal of time."

Such an approach will mean consolidating and bringing in a package-focused approach and the firm's finance system will be the first to tackle. Gerrard says the choice of tools for that requirement is "rather limited" - either Oracle Financials or SAP.

"I have a personal preference for SAP, purely because I have used it before in several implementations in the past, but I am not against Oracle, it is a very good product - I am not overly torn one way or the other," he said.

LateRooms has its own datacentre in Manchester, although Gerrard suggested that there is room for synergies with TUI in that regard. The main kit suppliers for the 200-server facility are Dell and HP.

"It would make sense to have one [vendor], but we are not going to make any decisions now. Across all of the tech stack, we seem to have gone for three to four vendors as an attempt to cover the bases rather than bringing economies of scale, so in the next two to three years I would hope that we will start consolidating and take opportunities as they come," he said.

Gerrard says neither virtualisation nor cloud have been employed at the company, but he says there is an opportunity to use virtual servers to "hopefully transform processes in terms of testing," while a private cloud could be a good option to improve access to data across different geographies.

The skills dilemma

One of the big issues faced by Gerrard is not related to technology, but to getting access to expertise to deliver the various projects in his IT agenda.

LateRooms doesn't have the skills for integration and implementation that a firm would need in a packaged software environment, for example. The company also plans to move towards a service-oriented architecture (SOA), so SOA skills will also be needed to understand and implement technologies based on an enterprise service bus.

"We are working under some pressing timescales and we need to do a lot: get the packages we need, bring skills, implement. In the next three to six months we will recruit a lot and help transition people into a different way of working as we will have a common element to IT rather than agile delivery cycles," Gerrard said.

The CTO explained the kinds of skills he needs: "We are looking for people who are geographically mobile, as this plays a huge part of being able to put the right skills in the right locations.

"We are also looking for very strong analytical skills, since we are trying to assess the state of our IT landscape and working out how to move forward with a global platform. Then we also need project managers, and a different mix of development skills," he said.

"We are a huge group and there are opportunities within LateRooms but also within TUI. And we want to bring the best calibre of people that we can afford and provide them with as much career potential and opportunities as possible, whether it is the UK or elsewhere."

Driving innovation

Gerrard hopes that the introduction of off-the-shelf software and standardisation across the IT portfolio will give him the chance to allocate more team time for other, more interesting projects around innovation.

"We have an ad-hoc 'skunkworks' team, which is not able to focus as much as we'd like. As we move towards standardisation, I want to put them in a team and get them to help us leverage what we can do with technology. It is something we do reasonably well but will do even better in the next few months," Gerrard said.

"If we bring some packaged software into the core, will that release people to work on innovative projects - different ways to display data, the look and feel of the websites - the risk is that if we don't do these things quickly you will be seen as a fast follower instead of a leader," he said.

"We are in a competitive industry with demanding customers. The ability to deliver innovation, allow them to slice and dice data the way they want, is paramount and we have to get the solutions in place as soon as possible."

Such innovations include mobile tools, which is something the company needs to improve - LateRooms only has an iPhone app, but the mobile offering will be relaunched in the next month or two with apps for iPad, Blackberry, Android and other platforms.

"Mobile is one of the things I am really passionate about and want to do more of, because I believe using consumer technology effectively is one of the keys to working effectively with your client base, so we will be pushing that to get these things through," said Gerrard.

Transformation challenges

Despite being excited about managing change rather than cost reduction and battening down the hatches, one of Gerrard's concerns is around people management through the IT transformation.

"We have a lot of great people who are used to working in a particular way and it is always a challenge trying to get people to see that there are better ways of doing things," he said.

"Not everyone is open to change, so for me that is one of the most difficult parts of the job as we have a lot of great people and we don't want to start losing them as we need to grow."

Retention of talent in times when talent is hard to come by will be one of the main areas of focus as Gerrard transitions to a new approach to IT and recruitment of new staff commences.

"We are going to do so many things in the near future - things that an organisation typically gets to do every three or four years," Gerrard said.

"And, at LateRooms, there is an opportunity for people to do six or seven interesting things within a space of 18 months to two years, which you would never get the opportunity to do unless you working for three or four different companies over a decade," he said.

"It is the scale of the business and the variety of things to keep professionals interested that makes it a very exciting place to be."

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