Ryanair’s Colin O’Brien: ‘We will be a tech company with an airline attached’

8 Sep 2017

Ryanair’s head of QA and change control, Colin O’Brien. Image: Ryanair

Colin O’Brien, head of QA and change control at Ryanair Labs, reveals how the airline has embarked on the ultimate digital journey.

In the past three years, Ryanair has departed on a significant digital transformation trip and this has only accelerated since the launch of Ryanair Labs.

Last year, we interviewed Ryanair CTO John Hurley in the aftermath of the launch of the airline’s MyRyanair platform, with which the company aims to disrupt air travel by employing customer-focused technology and cutting-edge user experience design.

‘Voice activation, predictive analytics, machine learning, AI – all of these are going to become mainstream quite soon and we need to be a part of that revolution’

At the time, Hurley made no secret of the company’s ambition to be the “Amazon of air travel”.

To delve further into the airline’s digital odyssey, we spoke to Colin O’Brien, head of QA and change control at Ryanair Labs. O’Brien is responsible for assuring the quality of all of Ryanair’s software solutions.

He is also taking part in the Quest for Quality conference that Comtrade Digital Services is organising on 4 and 5 October in Dublin.

At the event, O’Brien will elaborate on how Ryanair has gone through a significant digital transformation over the past few years. He will talk about how the speed and capacity to delivery software solutions has increased greatly since the advent of Ryanair Labs.

The challenge is how to exceed that pace, constantly delivering high-value, high-quality software to power the airline’s ambitions to carry 130m passengers in 2017 at the lowest possible cost to the travelling public, and onwards to more than 220m passengers by 2024.

Several platforms have already been launched, with more under development to maintain Ryanair’s market-leading position among its European low-cost competitors. Many techniques are used to develop and test these platforms; some have a very visible front-end user interface, providing a shopfront perspective for customers; others are less visible and provide a conduit for integration with partners via APIs to have their inventory hosted on Ryanair.com.

What is Ryanair Labs all about?

Ryanair Labs is the technology arm of Ryanair. The ambition is ultimately to become a technology company with an airline attached. There is a large, ambitious programme of work that we are undertaking here in Ryanair labs, servicing all of the functions of innovation. Probably the most recognisable would be the mobile apps and the website. But we do service some of the other functions as well, from the commercial side to the organisational side, including finance, HR, inflight, ground ops, operations and more.

They would all have various different IT systems in place that would be at varying degrees of age and capacity and so, we would be evaluating those with a view to changing or improving to meet scale and growth ambitions of Ryanair into the future.

How digitised is Ryanair today and how prepared is it to deal with up to 220m passengers by 2024?

The key foundation of it all is going to be our digital play. A number of years ago, it was recognised that we were quite a bit behind our competitors in terms of our digital offering online; how we approached the whole digital question as a whole across both marketing and digital experiences for customers, and how we actually processed people through our website.

The website traditionally would have been described as being an obstacle course in the past. We really didn’t pay much attention to that up until the advent of Ryanair Labs three years ago. The idea was that our fares were so cheap that people would effectively crawl over broken glass to get them anyway.

But what we found was, we had reached a ceiling where we couldn’t poke through the 80m passenger mark, and then that provoked an evaluation around our offer as a whole.

What came out of that specifically was that our digital offer was quite a bit behind competitors and so, there was a pivot towards putting together structures and systems that would allow us to deliver a better digital product to customers, put things in front of them in a better perspective, better presentation, an easier website to navigate, better apps and so forth.

I think we’ve been quite successful in that regard over the last couple of years, and that saw us break through the 100m passenger mark two years ago. We carried 120m passengers last year. We need to make 130m in the coming year. So, it is clear that the digital strategy has worked from our perspective.

We also looked at how we are marketing from a digital point of view, and we put various tagging and analytics around our website so we can see where people are having difficulty as they go through the booking funnel, and how we can introduce improvements to both the speed and passage of passengers through booking flow itself, and to also improve conversion rates.

The key is to remove any blockers passengers might have for making a booking rather than going to one of our competitors.

That’s all been part of the digital play over the last number of years. The website and the apps are the cornerstone of that.

Ryanair famously built its first website for €15,000 in 1999, and high-quality software appears to be lifeblood of this strategy. Can you elaborate?

That’s correct. It is quite a large quality-assurance organisation that sits within the software life cycle. We have anywhere between 10 to 12 teams developing software for the apps, the website; and within that then, we would like to maintain a 2:1 ratio of quality assurance staff to development staff. We do achieve that for the most part.

There is also a heavy emphasis on automated testing. We match the tools we have for automated testing with the actual tools being used for developing the website dev. We use tools such as Protractor and other fairly complex tools to run our automated tests across that.

We would consider the cost benefits of that in terms of the many people coming onto the website using various different technologies and applications to ensure there is a similar experience across the board. We’re covering a vast and broad amount of people on a myriad of different devices.

How complex is the infrastructure, are you taking steps to simplify it?

We look at new technologies all the time. We’ve looked at a lot of cloud platforms such as Azure and AWS, and we are moving towards cloud solutions for efficiencies. There are cost savings in using those solutions versus hosting our own content and equipment.

And we do get the performance benefits as well as cost improvement.

Quality software is the key as we move forward. Quite a lot of the organisation is based in Wrocław in Poland, and we have development and testing in Madrid, Spain. We have 20 people in Madrid with a view to going towards 200 people. We have 140 in Wrocław, and our ambition is to grow to around 250 there, with 110 already in place.

We have quite large ambitions on the IT side and so, we are always moving towards being a tech company with an airline attached, as we like to say.

How open is Ryanair to working with third-party developers and app creators?

Extremely so. The birth of that was simply looking at the likes of Uber and MyTaxi and seeing how somebody with a great idea could come in and entirely disrupt a very traditional industry such as the taxi industry.

We’re very conscious that we can’t think of every possible idea that might be out there in the wider world. But, in order to become party to that, instead of being disrupted by it, we reached a decision to put together a set of APIs: ‘Ryanair as a service’, we like to call it.

People can come in and interrogate APIs using the data that we can supply for them to come up with new and interesting ways to develop applications, services and integrate with our platforms. This will propel Ryanair forward as a digital entity and also help innovators in the industry to have their ideas get to market and have a ready market of 120m passengers waiting for them.

What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

One of the major trends we are seeing is everything around artificial intelligence and machine learning. Everybody now is using historical data for predictive analytics. It is more or less how to anticipate what travel requirements people would have before they decide to make that purchase and anticipate that. Predictive analytics and predictive marketing is something we see coming on stream in the not-too-distant future.

We are also looking at Amazon Echo and its AI voice assistant Alexa, and we have put together some Alexa apps where people can get flight information via their voice and ultimately go on and make bookings.

Voice activation, predictive analytics, machine learning, AI – all of these are going to become mainstream quite soon and we need to be a part of that revolution.

We have the basis of that at the moment. You can interrogate Alexa for flight information and for availability requests. The next step will be to enable bookings and store your payment in Amazon and having that linked to Alexa. That would be something that would be very real and not beyond the realm of possibilities in the next six to 18 months.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years