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CIO interview: Stuart Birrell’s tech modernisation at Heathrow Airport

In part 2 of the Horizon CIO Podcast interview with Stuart Birrell explains how you modernise the IT and team, but retain heritage and valuable experience

Stuart Birrell has been CIO for Heathrow Airport since June 2015. Heathrow is his second CIO role in the congested flight space around the UK’s capital, he was CIO of Gatwick airport from 2008 to 2011 and led the technology split from BAA, the organisation that at the time owned and operated Gatwick and Heathrow.

In June 2018 Birrell sat with the Horizon CIO Podcast to explain the important role data and technology is playing in the expansion of the airport, which you can read in part one here.

At the time of the interview Heathrow was waiting to hear if the Conservative government would commit a U-turn on its electorate and back a third runway to be built at Heathrow, which they have done and approval has now been given. To build a new runway and to improve the airport Heathrow needs to rethink many of operations and processes.

“In February and March we ran some autonomous vehicles at the airport. These were operated from our control centre, so the challenge is how you look at orchestrating new technologies, because one of the big challenges is safety,” Birrell explains at the Heathrow Airports headquarters which face the existing runways to the west of London. “It sounds easy because it is private land, but we are a heavily regulated sector,” he says of how innovation introductions have to be managed. The CIO goes on to say how the safety needs of the airline industry mean that consumer grade technology, such as being used by mining giants Rio Tinto on autonomous quarry trucks in barren Australia is not an option in the complex world of an airport.

Although there are obstacles and challenges as a result of regulations and the complex eco-system that is an airport. Birrell and Heathrow have piloted an innovation course.

“We set up an innovation team and that has been really successful and doing trials and at working with startups. They are doing a lot of work around the passenger and working on different ways of running an airport,” he says.

Heathrow has developed an innovation hub with three senior leaders, one from Birrell’s team, the others from operations and sustainability. The CIO says the innovation hub ensures that it is not part of IT but is very much supported by IT and by being a unique entity with its own leadership there is a focus across the business and its needs, which IT add value to.

Team focus

Since joining Heathrow Birrell has been busy modernising the IT operations and improving the relationship his team has with the organisation. Something Birrell did at his previous role at McLaren Technology Group, owners of the once illustrious Formula One team.

“People recognise that everything they do involved connectivity and if it needs connectivity they come to us and we add some value,” he says. The CIO adds that this has helped reduced stand alone systems and Heathrow has consolidated the number of platforms it operates. In part one Birrell talked of the central data reserve Heathrow now has on the Microsoft Azure platform and how that was benefiting the organisation and the CIO believes this has helped with the relationship between IT and the organisation.

“Having the data in one place to help make decisions means we have built up a lot of trust and we have been focused on the business,” he says. Heathrow has also adopted Microsoft’s Office 365 and Windows 10 software-as-a-service tools, which Birrell says has helped increase the agility of the business. The adoption of Microsoft PowerApps has also helped cross functional teams experiment and develop tools to business problems in collaboration with IT.

“You don’t need to control it, just make sure they are developed on the platform. 90 will fail an those 10 that succeed get great enablement,” he says.

Heathrow did have a large outsourcing agreement with Capgemini, but Birrell says this has been broken up.

“We have taken the integration of the service towers back and that has meant we have had to build a new team,” he says. Capgemini remain a major supplier alongside Computercenter, Microsoft and Oracle. The CIO has an opex of £45 million.

“We look at cycles of 30, 20 and 10 years time. So my team has 30, 22 and 18 years of experience. I have a really good blend of experience and then you mix that with the graduates. When you work in these cycles you do need history, so you have to make sure that they have an open mind. How do you help them see outside of the industry and see what your customers do,” Birrell says. The CIO has been instrumental in setting up exchange visits with other sectors, which he says has had a real impact.

Birrell has been with Heathrow for over three years now and this is his second stint in airports, having previously led IT for Gatwick. In between the two London airports he spent just under four years with Woking based McLaren the F1, technology and luxury sports cars firm. Before Gatwick Birrell cut his teeth in FMCG and automotive sectors.

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About Mark Chillingworth 259 Articles
Mark Chillingworth has over 20 years of journalism and editing experience across all media platforms including online, live events, print magazines and television.
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