The five minute CIO: Eric Neville

14 Feb 2014

Eric Neville, IT director at Ryanair

Fasten your safety belts: Ryanair’s IT director Eric Neville flies through topics from digital strategy and improving customer experience to broadband at 30,000 feet and meeting the technology needs of a fast-changing business.

Can you give a snapshot of Ryanair’s IT operations?

We have 65 bases where we park aircraft, though we actually fly to 178 locations. We then would have about 2,000 PCs and laptops spread across the bases, predominantly, and then we would have about 600 printers. We have five data centres – we have two for internal systems and then we would run and the booking system separate from that on the three other sites.

We’ve got about 600 telecom lines, because every site we have has to have resilience. We have about 50 different applications we support and we have about 400 servers – that’s a mix of physical and virtualised. We’re moving more and more to the virtual, although virtualisation of the booking system isn’t of any benefit, because the server has large numbers of hours where it’s busy.

Virtualisation makes sense when you have servers running at 5pc at some times of the day compared to 50pc at other times. We have virtualised the systems that it makes sense for us to virtualise. But our site is busy 24/7. We have about 30m hits a day, and we’re selling between two and three aircraft a minute. And the site is very busy from 10 in the morning till 10 at night.

Behind all that we have 40 people in IT. And the plan is to expand that now because we are rolling out a lot of changes in a short period of time.

What does a typical day look like for you: are you very hands-on, or is it much more of a management role where you work closely with the team to deliver IT to the business?

In Ryanair, you have to do both, it’s as simple as that: so that could involve troubleshooting if we have major network issues. I’m very much from a technical background, so I like to get involved in these things. It’s a small group of 40 and I sit right bang in the middle of my group – you get to hear everything that’s going on, so you benefit from what’s going on around you.

I’m 25 years in IT, so I’ve gone from being managed to being the manager. You have all elements of people management, project management, and managing the expectations of the business and managing the infrastructure, day-to-day. You’re only as good as people around you and I have a good team.

What are some of the challenges involved in managing a large infrastructure like that?

Obviously, it’s one of the biggest websites in Europe, so keeping that running is a massive part. And the same system is used by 178 airports so they have a dependency on that: they start at 4am and finish at midnight, in many cases.

They use the system to check passengers in, for taking bags, or selling tickets in the airport. What’s the biggest thing that keeps me up at night? The main part is keeping the site secure and keeping it up 24/7 – and if we do have an issue, to get a solution and get it back up and running as quickly as possible.

What kinds of steps have you taken to help manage your IT more effectively?

We’re under Sarbanes-Oxley, and it is interlinked with ITIL [IT Infrastructure Library]. We implemented a helpdesk that is an ITIL-based system: we are process-driven, with formal signoff, change control – we drive all that through our helpdesk system.

And to be honest, IT is IT, so there’s always something new. Virtualisation is part of it, and it was the big buzz before. My biggest thing for effective management is visibility: you need to have full visibility into how your network, systems, servers and processes are working,

We would do a lot of customised monitoring and graphing that gives us live visibility. To me, that’s a massive plus. Most of that has been created in-house. We have a lot of alerts, monitors and thresholds set. I prefer to know when a server is 95pc full than to find out that it’s 100pc full. You get insight straight away. Now that it’s up and running, it’s a major benefit overall for me from a management point of view.

At times, Ryanair announces routes in new countries, or cancels older ones: do you have to set up your IT in a particular way to ensure that this can happen quickly and seamlessly?

You could say that [laughs]. A few weeks ago at a board meeting I was told, “we’re launching three new bases in Italy in three weeks’ time”. To set up a base, you need your WAN links, your infrastructure, your PCs, printers, network cabling – in a building we have never been in. So we’ve learned to be prepared – we sound like the scouts now! – and the three bases started within two days of each other. We have a system in place where every base has the same setup so we can model it. And it’s generally modelled on how many aircraft will be flying into there. IT has to be very responsive and adaptive because our business changes very quickly.

Ryanair recently announced the hiring of 50 new IT and digital staff in Dublin: with so many tech companies recruiting in Ireland right now, how will you differentiate yourself?

Where we’re competing is, people who come in to work here, they’re not in big silos working on smaller items. We’re implementing changes to the site twice a week, so it’s not something you work on for six months and not see deliverables.

To be honest, a lot of resources have come from outside Ireland. The fact, secondary schools in Ireland don’t do computing as a subject, (that) is a problem. There’s a shortage of developers in Ireland: that’s a major bugbear of mine. The last batch of people I would have hired would have come from Portugal, Poland and Spain … although we did the recruitment open day last Saturday (8 February), and that was quite fruitful. We had a good uptake and it was our first time doing it. So it was an interesting learning exercise.

You’re also overhauling your website and will launch a mobile app later this year. How big are each of these projects, and what kinds of challenges do they present?

That’s actually a small number of the projects we have overall. As part of our digital strategy, we have between 15 and 20 projects open at the moment. Our biggest challenge is resourcing, but we have started resourcing extra developers and now the challenge is getting them up to speed on our platform.

We’ve integrated into Google, we’re working on a mobile site, we’ve just completed the redevelopment of our booking process, we’re doing some work on hotels, we’re doing seat allocation and a bunch of other ones I can’t tell you about [laughs].

What else can you tell us about Ryanair’s digital strategy – what’s the aim, and how will it benefit the business?

A lot of it is ultimately, to improve our website. To make the booking process simpler, to be more in touch with the customer needs – they want to be on, book and gone. They don’t want 20m questions on do they want a bag or not. If you take a look at our booking site, it’s gone from 17 clicks down to five so it’s a cleaner process. And on the mobile, you can’t have a slow, clunky process – we want to have a streamlined mobile presence, as well. The goal, ultimately, is to improve the customer experience.

Do you think IT at Ryanair is perceived as an order taker, or is there a sense that it’s a real contributor to the business goals: for example, does IT have a direct seat on the board?

I report into the CFO but I sit at a weekly digital strategy meeting with the CEO, CFO and CMO. It’s to be there, participate, and bring new ideas forward – as a team. It’s open to everybody. We’re a very active contributor to the overall meetings. It helps to have a sense of humour working here!

Most of what we do has a business decision for us. I’ve been here for seven years and the approach hasn’t changed. It’s not just that IT decides to run a project by itself. All the projects we do are a combination of business and IT. A lot of our role is still about keeping the lights on, but obviously we contribute a lot because the systems we use decide what we can and can’t do as a business.

Airlines still rely on paper: are you looking at ways where IT could improve certain processes?

Absolutely, the airline industry has a lot of paper. The pilots themselves carry what they call the brick: a paper manual. We’re currently trialling an electronic flight bag, and we have a number of iPads and Windows devices on test at the moment.

We also have a number of projects looking beyond just the website: pilots, cabin crew, within the aircraft to remove paper and improve the information in their hands. We’re looking at anywhere that there’s a potential new digital approach that could benefit the customer or the company.

Now, in terms of in-flight entertainment, most people in your aircraft now have a digital device of some sort, so it’s about how to make use of that. For instance, you could have a server on board with a Wi-Fi unit, so people can order things online or watch a movie. It also gives the customer a reason to go back to that airline.

What are some of the obstacles to these aims?

The big issue for most airlines that’s still a good bit away from being solved is reliable broadband speeds off the aircraft: the performance isn’t good, it’s very costly and there’s a lot of fuel burn associated with it, so that’s an area I’d like to see improve over next couple of years.

There needs to be a reduction in the cost of bandwidth through satellites and an improvement of the antennas on aircraft because they’re currently bulky and they cause a lot of drag. People are used to being connected 24/7 and at the moment it’s quite expensive to do that in the air.

Is there now an aim at Ryanair to use IT as competitive differentiator?

If there’s a business reason for us to do it then we’ll look at doing it. At the moment, we’re probably catching up on things, but that’s why we’re trying to hire some of the best brains out there – to get ahead of the rest.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic