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CIO Interview: Amex Global Business Travel CTO on incident response

American Express Global Business Travel adapted an existing incident response service to support staff and clients during the lockdown

Like many global firms, American Express Global Business Travel (Amex GBT) needed to adapt its IT department overnight after the industry was brought to a rapid standstill by the coronavirus outbreak.

David Thompson, chief technology officer (CTO) for products and technology at Amex GBT, says the company began seeing lockdowns appear in late January, and the company kicked emergency response measures into gear to support clients and protect its staff.

As Computer Weekly has previously reported, Amex GBT’s corporate customers are placing increasing importance on duty of care in the light of terrorist incidents and other misfortunes. For instance, when Brussels Airport was bombed in March 2016, Amex GBT could tell where travellers were because it had their Amex card data.

Amex GBT runs a large virtual response team which operates on a regional basis, and the company realised that the incident response services it offers clients could be adapted to the global pandemic.

Thompson says the incident response strategy aims to respond to client needs and keep American Express GBT’s own employees safe. “We have a pretty mature incident response and made an early decision to close offices,” he says. “If our people were travelling, we made provisions to get them back home. We leverage our data to determine where our people are located, their access online and whether they are working remotely or at an office.”

Because the response to the pandemic varied by country and region, Thompson says the company modified its line of duty of care products to provide the latest travel advice around the coronavirus. These products provide Amex GBT clients with the latest travel advice and tracks incidents that they should be cautious of, such as the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud  that caused huge disruption across Western Europe in April 2010.

“We have a pretty mature incident response and made an early decision to close offices”

David Thompson, Amex GBT

Thompson says: “We built a database rapidly, taking content from the World Health Organization and data from governments around the globe. For instance, if a client was travelling to Chile, we could find all current restrictions, which we could then communicate back to them.”

Using agile methodologies, it took seven engineers just four days to add in the new data sets to the existing duty of care product, says Thompson. Amex GBT’s bigger customers connect this information directly into their HR systems to link into the pre-trip approval process. Here, it offers risk assessment and regional information that business travellers need to be aware of when visiting a country.

With lockdown measures being eased, Thompson says the coronavirus advice has been made available to Amex GBT clients via a portal, which they can access as they begin to return to booking business travel.

He says the Amex GBT online booking tool is being adjusted to provide more information relevant to Covid-19, such as the sanitation policy at the hotel and the aircraft’s cleaning policy. “We are trying to add value to the process,” he adds.

Remotely agile

IT departments have never been seen as more valuable and crucial to an organisation in coping with the lockdown as they are today. 

In 2014, when it separated from American Express, GBT built IT infrastructure to support a virtual workforce. Thompson says computer assets across the business were configured to enable staff to communicate with peers and work at home.

According to Thompson, this investment in state-of-the-art laptops paid off during the coronavirus lockdown, as employees have been able to stay productive. “It has allowed us to be laser focused on our customers and help them get their own employees home,” he says.

Virtualising agile scrum

With everyone at Amex GBT working remotely, the IT team has been energised, says Thompson. Virtual team working has enabled follow-the-sun, 24/7 remote software development.

However, in Thompson’s experience, among the challenges of running agile scrum projects is that there is generally an in-person meeting with someone from the business. “We have had to move to virtual workrooms,” he says.

Here, developers can screen-share new user interface functionality with the business user.

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While software engineering teams are used to this way of working, Thompson says there is now a need to educate business users in this virtual approach to agile scrum. The benefit, he says, is that now more experts from the business can get involved in the virtual project meeting.

This should lead to applications that have a better user experience. “It is more efficient and the developers can see the keystrokes that users type,” he says.

Prepare for the unexpected

Thompson has been at Amex GBT since 2017 and was previously CTO at Western Union, where he oversaw the company’s IT strategy, operations, information security and product development. One of the key lessons he has taken away from the pandemic is the need for CTOs and CIOs to adjust to the new norm. “We respond rapidly to new needs and we will see a new norm,” he says.

Thompson says CEOs expect that more of the workforce will be virtual, which will have a big impact on IT, not only to support remote working by enabling face-to-face meetings. “We will see more meetings conducted in hotels rather than offices,”  he adds.

What has been most apparent for Thompson during the pandemic is the need to be prepared for anything. “Do you have the right tools for the next big surprise?” he says.

Thompson says the coronavirus has given him an opportunity to look at end-to-end processes. “We are looking at what we can automate, leveraging our applications to their full extent,” he says.

This, he hopes, will reduce the volume of manual processes that may require people to be physically present in an office. “Can we automate to avoid manual work when we are in lockdown?” he asks.

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