CIO interview: Gavin Walker chief information officer at NATS

Gavin Walker, CIO of NATS, talks about how a vendor-neutral approach is key to successful IT, and why huge outsourcing contracts are the enemy

“Technology should be irrelevant,” says Gavin Walker, CIO of the UK’s air traffic control business, NATS. Walker is a firm believer in focusing on what IT can enable, rather than the technology for its own sake.

As CIO, he heads a technology team of 35 and is accountable for the delivery of infrastructure and applications for the organisation’s 5,500 staff across 20 UK locations and three European bases.

Having started as an engineer at NATS 22 years ago, he believes the only way to ensure IT is doing its job is by staying close to the user. As such his team works closely across the business’s five core areas: airports, airspace, consultancy, defence and engineering and information.

“I try not to talk about the technology in the business. And when I do, I talk about it in a neutral way and what's in it for the business – making the flexibility and agility real. It’s all about the changes in behaviour pushed into the workforce,” he told Computer Weekly at desktop virtualisation company Citrix’s Synergy conference 2012.

NATS is in the process of deploying virtual desktops across the organisation, using Citrix XenDesktop and XenApp. 

It also recently deployed a Violin Memory all-flash array solid state storage system to support the virtualised desktop infrastructure (VDI) roll-out. “It took away the performance issue, which was the key driver behind that design," he says.

But Walker is adamant the brand of product themselves have little value. “It doesn’t matter whether it is Citrix or something else. It’s all about creating a change to the way of working, productivity of employees and a real outcome,” he says.

Many of the organisation’s air traffic controllers have no desks, phones or PCs in their offices, but want to access applications outside the control room. 

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“But, we have a large engineering workforce, who are heavy users," says Walker. "So VDI gives us flexibility for the mobile workforce but also for different types of customer needs."

The project forms part of the organisation’s Future Workspaces initiative, designed to enable bring your own devices into the workplace, and access the applications that they need from any device, anywhere.

Managing suppliers

Last year, the company handled 2.1 million flights, with one plane landing every minute. It is an immense operation, with the IT model underpinning it heavily outsourced.

“We rely completely on suppliers to provide the systems and services,” says Walker.

“We’ve been outsourcing for some time, having moved from one big monolithic contract to a multi-supplier approach several years ago.” 

Other large suppliers include Capgemini, Vodafone and BT.

“It’s not exactly easy to work with all those large organisations, but I believe breaking the contracts down is the most efficient model," he says.

“The way our contracts are written is quite innovative from a user perspective. They are written very much from the customers service level agreement (SLA).

“With the virtual desktop, the key thing is performance, so we have SLAs which state a 15-second log in and log off time.

“We chose the technology that will cope. If you do the analysis right and build it the right way, it should be able to cater [for the needs of the user].”

Prior to moving to a multi-supplier approach, contracts were negotiated centrally, with rigid service agreements, from 9-5. 

“But we are a 24-hour organisation,” Walker says.

Multi-supplier approach

Over the last three years, the company has subsequently moved to a multi-supplier approach.

“My role is that of brokerage and to leverage the cloud.

“When we did our first forays into cloud, the market wasn’t mature enough," says Walker. "So we used a private cloud. But I do think we will move to the public cloud in the future. 

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“Three years ago, when we started we couldn’t get the right suppliers as they couldn’t guarantee where the data was stored." 

The next big capability will be to build on the virtual environment and move into business intelligence (BI), he says.

“Part of the organisational change is that we want to move away from being a rear-view mirror business to looking into the future. BI will help the business to manage lot of knowledge. There is a lot of data analysis we can do in that area, such as fuel for flights.

Virtual desktops will dovetail into this move, as they allow the organisation to be more collaborative and less siloed.

But, despite his long-time at the organisation, Walker says there has never been any real heart-in-mouth moments. 

“Stuff isn’t there all the time. We recently rolled out SharePoint and that didn’t go well in the first attempt, which caused me some angst,” he says.

However, there is much to keep him busy. “All IT services are business critical now. For example, if email goes down it causes huge disruptions.

“Those sorts of services won’t stop planes flying or impact safety, but it will make people very frustrated," he says.


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