Interview With Stuart Birrell

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What are the top 3 priorities in your role?

The first is Cyber Security, maintaining integrity of the company, the challenge is how you maintain trust of the company from the inside and with the outside world – there are a lot of factors but it basically all boils down to trust.

The second one is how do I build IT to a capability that means I can a) run the business and b) transform the business quickly enough – it’s a whole capability piece, whether its in-house or external its getting the whole ecosystem, supply chain and internal teams balanced for rapid change, whilst still providing absolutely rock solid and resilient operational performance. Something which does not always go together.

The third thing is developing business capability to use, adopt and change the business models that technology is disrupting. As part of my role, John my CEO is clear, 50% of my job is running the business and 50% running IT. We have got a lot of work going on with HR and the leadership team on how we build the whole digital capability, not just the digital tools but digital in how you look at lead and manage the business in the current disruptive world.


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Which previous role had the biggest impact on your career?

There are a couple of areas I think, one where I wasn’t a success. I was running a factory for Walkers Crisps that I had built from scratch – from a blank sheet of paper. I spent 3 years from concept design, building the place and then running the factory. I loved building it, I loved setting up the team, but running it, I found a real challenge. It wasn’t a success, I wasn’t good at it, I didn’t enjoy it. But I learnt a huge amount, a huge amount about leadership, a huge amount about bringing together a new team, there were 270 people running 4 shifts 24x7 363 days of the year. You learn a lot about yourself when things don’t go right, you learn a lot about how to survive, how to lead, how to manage, especially manage people who really know their jobs.

That is the second part, when I moved from engineering to IT I moved from being the expert in everything in the area I worked in to all of a sudden you are leading a team of people who are much better than you, know a lot more than you and are the experts in an area of which you know comparatively nothing, but you still have to lead them and lead them to a very successful delivery.

I think those two areas really made a huge impact on me and particularly in IT these days, you can’t know everything, you can’t be the expert, you have to rely on people who are smarter and better than you. Building a team around you who are like that and respond to you is really tough but actually its hugely rewarding, because you trust them to get on with it.

The higher up you go you must accept that you don’t know everything. So if you want to be successful you have to have people who are really good around you, who know you – to cover your back because you don’t know all the details so you have to be able to trust their world and what they are saying because from the business perspective the business trusts you and you have to trust what your team  is saying . Ultimately it is your face and your credibility on the line with the business so getting really good people you can trust around you makes a huge difference.

For example in IT architecture, there’s no way I can do 10% of what most of the architects do around here, you have to trust them, you have to give the guidance, leadership and structure and then you trust them and present their ideas as gospel.


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How do you see the role of the Technology Leader changing?

It’s evolving, evolving quite rapidly. It’s also fragmenting, you still need the traditional, highly valuable operational technical leader who is going to run the network and data centres a little bit better tomorrow than today. Because it’s operations it must be rock solid, it’s about continuous incremental improvement and is a valuable, good operational role. You can’t get into agile data centre management you need absolutely rock solid, strong processes. You are always going to need that and have the right people that work in that space and environment.

The leader across the bigger, broader piece is very much around business capability, business change, certainly the role here is evolving, take my technologists – the expectation from the business is they are technology leaders, they are not technology managers – they are there to lead, facilitate, coach and train the business about how to use the technology and how to deploy and apply it to their business area. There is a big demand and some of it is overt and some of it is more unconscious or subconscious. The nature of the questions we’re asked and the nature of the roles we’re being asked to do is shifting into – you’re IT you know about this stuff, how do I do this, what are we going to do with blockchain, what are we going to do with AI, how do we deploy machine learning, how do we do security. It’s not, “I need one of these”, it’s a very different way of looking at it. Part of it is the maturity of the business and your senior colleagues around you and part of it is the maturity of your own team. Part of it is the credibility – when your business colleagues trust you and you have the credibility they will ask you questions.

This applies right up through the organisations, I sit on the exec so my role there is very much helping and coaching the rest of the exec on the art of the possible – what’s coming, what’s changing, what are the skill sets we need, making them more conscious and aware. It’s no longer just is the ERP running, can I get email, its way beyond that now, it’s how do I use this technology to drive my business and the art of possible and that is the whole bit around running the business I mentioned earlier. Not you are running IT and IT people need to stop referring to “the business” because you are the business and you’re an integral part of it. And in many companies, IT is fundamental for example the big technology .coms, retail the online world – IT is the business – and so that “them and us” culture must disappear.


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What are the 3 most important issues confronting the technology industry?

The problem with the supply chain is they have been overtaken by events, the whole thing with automation, with start-ups and the traditional large IT systems integrators are like any other big company. They have organizational structures, incentive schemes, they’ve got business objectives. These don’t consider the very rapid changes we’re going through and some of them are being left behind. Most of them are like operational businesses, like running factories, they are setup to run like a factory and to change a factory is very difficult. I guess I have a reasonably sceptical view of many of these companies because they are either selling me an operation they don’t understand, or they are selling me a thing, which I know in six months’ time will be out of date and they are not there providing, or there are very few there providing, real value as to how you can run your company better.

They are there to sell their stuff it is still down to us as leaders to work with the business on what is it we need to run our business. We don’t get that from the suppliers – I get bombarded 5, 6 sometimes 10 times a day with phone calls and certainly 10-20 emails a day from sales people trying to sell me things. Or saying I’d like to come in for an hour to speak to you about your priorities, why? there’s no value add in that, and so there is a real challenge, the one or two companies that have proper partnerships can be really powerful but most of them are coming at it from a different angle.

Our industry is changing, there are now a mix of big players, legacy organisations, with tested technologies and steady revenue streams, which aren’t always as daring as the smaller, younger start ups who specialise in more niche subjects. Now that we’re looking for cloud support, we’ll need to seriously consider which company is up to the task. There’s a real challenge coming to the more established players in the industry,  and this big players are going to have to ramp up the pace of change.


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What 3 technology trends are you most excited about and why?

There are technologies that are helping us here and now and there are technologies coming at us which will be transformation over the next few years. The here and now that I’m seeing a huge difference on today is with big data and data analytics in the cloud. We have built an insights hub on Azure and so we’ve got a least a dozen big data sources now which used to be in disparate line of business systems.

We’ve now taken that data and are pumping it into the data lake in Azure and using analytics. We’ve also found in the last 12 months that there are around sixty colleagues in Heathrow who are doing data analyst roles – some of them are degree qualified data analysts and some are people that can do excel macros – but we have got everything in there. There are twenty of them going on power BI and R training courses over the coming months and there is a real community that has evolved and that’s because we’ve established a common platform. There are common data structures, common data sets and all these people that have historically been working in disparate systems are now coming together as a community and the power we are getting out of that is phenomenal and we’re only 20% through creating the environment and platform.  We are bringing stuff together that is relatively cheap and straightforward and once you get the architecture right and the people behind you the power is incredible for driving the business. So that’s the here and know.

The things coming down the line and where we’re working is in a number of areas around identity. When you start combining biometrics with block chain and with digital identity capabilities and start applying that to an airport environment, then the potential for serious business and industry disruption is huge. We’re working with Government and industry to achieve this because it’s a global aviation issue in any journey there is one passenger one airline two airports and two governments involved in any journey.

When you join up the governments with the airport and the airline you can make the passenger journey much smoother, seamless and easier which is the goal. We’re investing quite a bit of time in this as part of a global initiative with IATA, IAG and UK government on how we develop that. We’ve got proof of concepts working recently on all of those technologies and so now it’s about how we productionise that and get the trust of the governments and the authorities to go and deploy. I can see this being really disruptive and transformation

The third one would be autonomous vehicles and automation, that’s on most people’s agenda and over the next few months we’ll be exploring how the airport can better use automation to help our colleagues to deliver outstanding service. It’s quite a wide piece but certainly autonomous vehicles I think has got quite a big role to play.


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    What product or company is having the biggest impact?

    Microsoft Azure and the data lake we have built. Especially how it has enabled us to quickly and at relatively low cost establish a common platform which is bringing people together into a community of data analysts across our business.


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    What mobile app do you use every day?

    I use OneNote extensively and that is the one thing I’d probably see as indispensable. Twitter is also key for keeping me and my team updated on industry news as well as the day to day goings-on at the airport.


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    What 3 skills should an aspiring Technology Leader look to develop?

    You need to be reasonably sociable, because at this level it’s all about the people and relationships, you need to be able to work the numbers and you need to be able to almost create pictures or visions by pulling together multiple strands into a vision – not a manufactured vision. It’s being able to join up the dots and create a big picture from bits of information. A big picture view of your environment or the opportunities, not getting stuck in the numbers but being able to run them.


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    Where do you look for trusted technology information & inspiration?

    If you want rapid headlines on what is going on, there is The Register, which is quick, fast and constantly rolling which I quite enjoy and then if there is more depth you want to know there is CIO.com and Computer Weekly. To stay well informed, I try to get my information from a variety of sources, including industry analysts, news outlets and blogs and use these to ultimately form my own picture. One of the most valuable ways I find is to sit down, usually at a business dinner with peers. When you are sitting having a debate with people you get to have an honest conversation, getting into what really works and what doesn’t, really discovering the project learnings. At conferences, there isn’t always that same opportunity to discuss the project learnings in much detail, so building these types of peer relationships to discuss things is really important.


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    What books should someone looking to get on in their technology career read?

    I don’t read many actual books but, because I spend 2 hours a day in the car I listen to audible which is really good – some really diverse things because you have the time to do so. At the moment I’m listening to the history of The Templars, before that I was listening to the podcast for the infinite monkey cage. I also listen to some novels and history books – I tend not to read or listen  to a lot of business books.