Transcript: Innovation takes flight at SFO

This transcript details an Insider digital event on innovation with San Francisco Airport CIO Ian Law.

The below is a transcript of an Insider digital event with San Francisco Airport CIO Ian Law. To listen to the full conversation, please click here. This transcript has been lightly edited to ease reading.

John Gallant, IDG's Chief Content Officer: Hi, everyone and welcome to another installment of our Insider Digital Innovators series. I am John Gallant, Chief Content Officer at IDG. I want to thank all the members of our insider program, which is our premium technology content program, for being with us for this webcast. Joining me for a discussion on digital innovation and digital transformation is Ian Law, who is the CIO of San Francisco International Airport. Ian is helping to advance many aspects of travel. He's also solving major challenges posed by complex airport operations. He's going to share some of SFO's best practices regarding innovation in digital transformation with the hopes that you and your colleagues can profit from these ideas within your own organization. Ian, so glad you could join us today. Welcome.

Ian Law, CIO, San Francisco International Airport: Thank you, John. It's great to be with you.

John: Great. Ian, let's start off by talking about your role with SFO. I think most people probably wonder what it's like to be the CIO of an airport and how that's different from the CIO of, say, a manufacturing company or some other kind of organization.

Ian: Well, I'm obviously responsible for the technology here at the airport. It's a difficult one, I think, looking from the outside in, to unpack, because obviously in any typical airport we have a lot of stakeholders. There are airlines here with their technology and others with theirs. So, the airport piece, is the piece that kinda comes under my responsibility. As an environment, compared to some others, it's very exciting. It's an always on, 24/7 environment. Quite dynamic. There's always something new happening here every day. It's quite intriguing. Like I said, there are multiple stakeholders here, quite a lot of change and a lot of different situations to kind of adapt to as we go along. And it's challenging. I think our industry is an industry in change at the moment. The role of airports from a technology perspective is changing quite a lot, and I think mobile is part of that, where it enable us now to really enter, if you like, into the travel value chain with some of the other operators as opposed to really just being the landlord of a property, as it were.

John: That makes sense. Before we talk about some of the innovative things you're doing, who do you view as your customers? In most organizations people think about that as in the employees that they support or the business partners they connect to. Who are the customers of your IT team?

Ian: Well, we have several. There are a number of internal customers, which would be for example our security people, our security departments, our operations guys. An example would be our airfield safety officers, who work on the airfield. We provide systems to them to help them track and monitor everything going on out there and to comply with FAA regulations in terms of keeping a history of everything that's recorded on the airfield and having the systems for that.

As you probably experienced our endless construction zones, we're constantly building and renovating. And so we have a very large designing construction team here at the airport and they're all the time bringing new technologies into new parts of the airport and integrating with existing. So I have a team of people who actually work just to serve the construction programs and the design programs that are going on there.

And then externally my direct customer obviously would be the airlines, various security agencies, concessionaires, all of those outlets that operate at the airport, retail outlets and so on. And ultimately our passengers, although I think for the purposes of trying to keep it clear, if we imagine the airline as the retailer to the passenger, you'd see the airport as the wholesaler to the airline, as it were. That doesn't take away from the amount of time we take to try to understand how passengers are really looking for in an airport and design it that way.

John: I thought it would be good if we set the stage by having you talk about some of the very innovative projects that you've undertaken and that are ongoing at SFO. Can you share some of those developments with us?

Ian: Sure. I guess the large one we've had over in the last few years was the very rapid advent of what we call TNCs here, Transportation Network Companies, so these would be Lyft and Uber and so on. And they're having a profound impact on airports. Airports obviously earn revenue from taxis services that serve them, and limo services. And then what feels to some, I guess, like out of nowhere we've had TNC emerge and become a significant part of activity, at least, at an airport. And so we sat down with those TNCs here in California a few years back, and our operations teams did a great job at bringing those TNCs to a position where they were permitted to operate at the airport. So essentially we had a commercial arrangement with them as we do with the other transport modes to operate here.

But there was still the big challenge of how we would technologically integrate with then and track them and manage the finances, as it were, of the commercial transactions of their operations here. And the problem we had was in the past we had a number, typically we put transponders in vehicles, as you do going over a bridge or something, and our toll plaza. And that just didn't make sense with the TNCs, because they're essentially semi-commercial vehicles quite often. So we came up with early innovative way of doing it using the driver's mobile phone, and that's gone on to be a solution that's being used in other airports around. That...I think it was an innovative solution that certainly contributed hugely to our business here and helped us deal with what was the huge disrupter for us.

But it also helped us understand, interestingly, our older modes of transport a lot better. So we then went on from that to start to develop some new taxi services, our technology services to serve with our taxi industry. And we're still doing quite a lot of work in that area now.

Separately, our teams here have trialed systems, for example, to help the visually impaired navigate their way through the airport, and we're about to hopefully move on now with the second phase of that program, where we will be helping the visually and hearing impaired and elderly and those with cognitive disabilities...just make it easier for them to travel through an airport.

John: Which is great. I wanted to just go into a little more depth about that virtual taxi queuing system that you've discussed with me in an earlier conversation. How does that work and how does that set up new revenue opportunities for the airport?

Ian: Taxis queue at airport, as you know, and they have to queue somewhere. Quite often they queue in parking lots that are allocated by the airport. And the taxi queues can be very long. As our operational folk look at those queues, they've come up with some calculations to say that, well, if you could shorten the queue, you wouldn't undermine the ability of us to have a taxi waiting somebody even if they come through the door, but at the same time you would save a lot of space by reducing the lengths of those queues.

Now, for the taxi drivers that's also helpful, because they don't particularly like queuing at an airport for two or three hours. So if you can schedule them in, as it were, more efficiently, then there's a win for them as well. And that space that we would save can be given back to the airport to use, for example, for private parking and other purposes. So we're working on this concept of the virtual taxi queues. There's been some...I think a good body of research done on this around the world. And it's something that we're very keen to implement here.

John: That's great. And Ian, as we've talked about, the point of these webcast is really to provide inside into the innovation process and the digital transformation thinking at different organizations like SFO. In our earlier discussions, you talked about something called "Reaching for Number One" committees that have led to some of these innovations. Can you describe what those committees are and how that process spurs innovation?

Ian: These are committees are sponsored by the airport director, essentially our CEO. These are committees that we established a few years back, and it's this "Reaching for Number One" profit as we implement every year, whereby as leadership team we pick a set of topics that we want to focus on where we believe that we want to make improvements at the airport and there's opportunity potentially to bring in some new innovations to help us.

We then set up committees by picking people out of different bits of the business and essentially taking them to one side for a certain number of hours a month to work with each other on these things.

A good example of that would be water conservation. Although you might not think it lately with all the rain [in San Francisco, that] water conservation is a big topic for us here at the airport. So we established a team from our mechanical maintenance groups, from our construction project management teams, from our IT teams, and so on. And those guys go off and they're tasked with coming up with better ways and more ways to conserve water here at the airport.

And that team, for example, just to name them, has had phenomenal success in the amount of water we've saved. Some of that could be just simply an awareness thing. So there might be some marketing people, let's say, in that team, and they just do awareness campaigns with the other operators here at the airport. But also there's technology in there.

There are tasks to extract data from different systems to be able to actually give us some insight into how much water we are actually using, or better insight, and better analysis as to how we could conserve it.

John: So Ian, who goes about setting up the goals and the missions for these "Reaching for Number One" committees?

Ian: Usually the senior staff at the airport. So the senior management group at the airport will sit down. It's not hard at all to come up with a list. These are kind of those things that are knocking around in your head during the year that you think, "Well, wouldn't it be great if we could just...?" And so we all get together, about 10 us, and we contribute a list of things. But there are kind of perennials that keep coming up as well.

We've got a group, for example, that's focused on finding new and interesting ways for us to give back to the community in our area. And they just get involved in all sort of things and come up with new ideas every year that you could never dream of if you didn't have a group of people like that set aside from the day to day business to be able to just think of that particular issue. And we take it. It's not just about people sitting and having a discussion in a room.

Different groups will go out and visit other airports or other facilities maybe unrelated to the transportation industry where we think somebody is doing something that we're trying to achieve really well, and they'll bring that back in as a set of ideas. We then get together twice a year and we present all of those back to each other as a very large group. And it's interesting how many of these then just get turned into projects and go forward to do something great.

John: So as people consider implementing a process like that, what lessons have you learned from that, Ian? When does it work well and when does it not work as well?

Ian: I think if anything, if you have the right people in each of these groups. So finding what people are really interested in and want to do and giving them the opportunity to do it just gets you the best result, in our view. Having a clear set of topics that you want people to focus on and ideally not overlapping so that it doesn't become confusing for some groups as to on who's doing what. I think it's important to reinforce it from, in our case, that kinda CEO level down, as it were.

Because it is important that managers dance with the organization as well set their staff free, as it were, to take part and empower them to take part in these groups. And so just that clarity downs with the organization of the importance, of this is important.

Some of the reverse things really are just the things that we learned along the way, where we might have picked people and just put them into a group thinking that was gonna work and it was probably the wrong thing to do. We should have spent more time talking to them about it and thinking through ourselves what we wanted to achieve with this before, and just getting more organized about it before we went at it.

John: Make sense. One of the other issues that organizations are struggling with right now, IT groups, is how to structure best to move innovation projects along to be more agile. How does your IT team handle innovation projects to make sure that they move along quickly and they don't get bogged down by other existing priorities?

To listen to the full audio conversation, click here.

The below is a transcript of an Insider digital event with San Francisco Airport CIO Ian Law. To listen to the full conversation, please click here. This transcript has been lightly edited to ease reading.

Ian: It's an issue, I think, when IT leaders and that get together a lot, I think, this is the question that comes up frequently. We really ran into that when we had this TNC, when we were doing this Lyft and Uber thing a few years back.

What we established then was a twin-track process. And really, we're mirroring what the "Reaching for Number One" was doing. The "Reaching for Number One" is for all intents and purposes, a twin-track process. It's taking people out of the main business, or their main business activity, and setting them aside to perform a different role. Now, what else, what we did was we actually took people out and set them permanently into a separate track of work, which was this innovative group to just come up and work on that particular challenge, for example. But they've gone on to do, oh gosh, maybe 10 or 15 other things since then.

John: So, Ian, as you talk about that kind of bifurcated IT approach, what have you learned from that? How do you make that work well? I've heard various concerns about that, whether people who are working on existing projects feel left out of the innovation and sort of on a back room track, finding the right people to work in this innovation track of things. What's worked well for you, and what have learn along the way in making that two-track approach work?

Ian: The two-track approach works very well in terms of a group of people that are autonomously working towards one objective. The issue starts to come towards the end of this, where you're bringing their solution back into a production environment. And I have a team of well-established people here who got a well-established set of processes and procedures to look after our core production systems.

It's quite often that twin-track process also will draw on newer employees who've got newer ideas about things, let's say, not exclusively but certainly to an extent. We have a very healthy intern program here, and we bring not all but some of our interns into that separate track. And at the end of that process we will have our established core production team, so we go in and say, "Well, now you need to overlay us with this security and with that and with the other." And that's really, really important, but getting that kind of nexus right is key.

And we've kinda had to learn along the way, I think, with that. The two groups need to pull together and just understand why what each other is doing is really important. And I think it's also important as a leader in the organization to stress that the different groups each have a different role. One isn't kind of better or ahead of the other, they perform different roles, and their key contribution is their expertise in that role.

John: That makes sense. In my conversations with other CIOs, I know that one of the things that holds existing organizations back, as they try to be more agile and develop things more quickly, is concern about risk and security and all the mechanisms that they put in place over the years to handle risk and security. Security, obviously a huge issue for airport. So how do you make that balance between agility, speed of development, and risk management?

Ian: Well, on the security side we just have very, very well established processes. And yes, a very kind of hyper-agile team working on something new just will know that when they come to that delivery point at the end, they're going to, in their minds, just slow down, understand the implications of integrating their solutions into our core environment, and go through that process.

The good thing is they learn from that as they go through it, so it's not a hardship, but it's definitely a different approach. But airports, particularly, in our physical world if I just set aside technology for a second, have very well-set and established protocols around various things to do with safety and security and so on. And so that gives us the, if you like, the ethos here to be able to take that into how we do things with technology.

We have here at the airport a set of core values, and the first one is safety and security is our number one priority. So you can imagine that throughout the organization, no matter what you do, this is the front line item. And so that permeates, I think, into our IT organization, as well. So it's not a hard sell or anything with anybody here to take that into account.

John: Good. Well, as a flying passenger I'm glad to hear that. Now, Ian, I know that one of the things you've worked hard on also is to push your team to be out in the business more. How have you done that, and what's the result?

Ian: Yeah, basically, I think one of the things I recognize here is that, and particularly in the Silicon Valley, we're not going to be the Nobel prize technologists here, this isn't gonna be. There's the Googles and the Apples and everybody else in the area around us. But the one thing our technology guys, they're good technologists, but they're brilliant at understanding the airport business. And so, really being able to tap into that business and just understand more and more about it and how it works is our kind of key differentiator, and that's something that I don't want to lose here.

We can bring in as needed technology skills, but it's very hard to grow that institutional knowledge, and it's really, really important for what we do here. So we stayed focused and really doubled down over the last few years. I'm trying to get our people more embedded into the business. And one of the things that we did was, we started out designating people as business relationship managers, which I think was, in retrospect, at best, that gave us an average result.

Because we were really just following process, and what we should've done, and which is what we did afterward, was we actually started to get a better understanding of our own people, our own, for example, our project managers here in our technology function, of their real interest. And we tried to marry them or match-make them with different bits of the business, as well, not just taking their interests into account, but also their personalities. And that worked out really well.

So one of my team here, one our project managers, has been developing our taxi solutions and leading that work, is just very interested in that industry. And he's gone out on countless trips with taxi drivers and really understands kind of the inner movings or motions of that industry. Probably none of the rest of my project managers would really want to do that, but they do other things instead. So we learned to be a lot more focused, I think, in how we match people and just following process by allocating people a bit for the business just did not prove out to us to be particularly productive.

That said, I'll just add one thing to the end of that. That has been taken out to such an extreme, as it were, that I am delighted today to be actually, funnily enough, to be signing the paperwork to actually succumb some of my staff across to another division in the airport to lead IT projects from within that division. So I think we've kinda taken it out to the edge of the limits now.

John: That's great. You described earlier on that you're sort of the wholesaler to the airlines who are retailer to the customer. But how do you get a great handle on what things you could be doing for the people who are flowing, the many millions of people that are flowing through the airport each year, and the kinds of ways that you can make life better for them?

Ian: Well, as an airport, our marketing and coms teams run... There are number of ways, but the one that springs to mind first is the marketing teams run focus groups with volunteer passengers and that. And in fact, we're having one next week, and I participate in those, and that, for a start, helps us.

Airports, as well, this one in particular, submits to a number of different kinds of surveys as well, and we get rated and scored on those surveys, and we take those very seriously. So everything from cleanliness of our bathrooms to amenities at the airport to the quality of the Wi-Fi are all rated and graded once a quarter. And we get those scores and we read those.

And I think the other thing, to be honest, is we just walk the terminals. We have as a leadership team, we have kind of an unwritten rule, as it were, that we spend a certain amount of time out in the terminals all the time. So despite my role on the technology side, I also take some time every day, maybe an hour, to just walk through different terminals and trying to pick a different route on different days and just talk to people and see what they're doing. Often you'll discover that there's a particular pinch point where people are persistently asking for directions. And contrarily, we come back together. We have a habit of coming back together as a team here quite a lot, and as a wider airport team, and just discussing those things. And interestingly you'll find three or four people will say the same things about passengers having a difficulty with a particular thing, and we'll go and address it.

John: Makes sense. So you mentioned that you're out there in the heart of Silicon Valley with companies like Google and Apple, and that's both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge being, obviously it must be very difficult to hire. But how, also, can you take advantage of that? How do you take advantage of the opportunity of being around all the venture companies, lots and lots of innovative startups and existing companies, in order to keep up with the latest developments and applications of technology?

Ian: There are few different ways. One is, we are fortunate in that we get a lot of visitors, as in people who will call us up and say, "I am such and such. I have started up this company, or we're doing a particular thing." Not necessarily startups. And because they use the airport they will literally come to the airport 30 minutes or an hour early ahead of the flight and just call by and visit. So I'm guessing that more than a lot of other airports, and other people in my position in other airports, I probably get a fair share of folk who come to see us. And we try to set aside a lot of time for that, and so we just get to hear about a lot of interesting things.

People do take an interest and, just because we're in the Silicon Valley, want to come and showcase things at SFO. And so, again, we get a lot of input from that perspective. But we're also in touch with a number of organizations here who just facilitate meetings for us with startups.

And I've just come back from one, actually, about two weeks ago where we had kind of a two-day beauty parade of startups. And they're great. I highly recommend this, because it gets you out of the office, away from the day-to-day for a while to actually really think about what's out there, what people are developing. Be able to give your input as well, because we obviously have a unique perspective on our own business. Give the input to that and see what comes out of it. We do this sometimes with airlines, we do it with security agencies. Working on just particularly different facets, and it's very, very helpful.

John: That make sense. And Ian, as a final question, I guess, sort of the highest level question I will ask you today is, how is the CIO role changing? What do you think that CIOs need to be doing now and planning for today in order to be successful for the future?

Ian: I don't know. To the extent that it's changing, I think there''s obviously, I think, become for all CIOs a much more dynamic environment. Once upon a time we kind of owned the technology and owned the data center, and everybody around us now is running their own little cloud service and doing whatever they want to do. So I'd imagine there's...control is going away a little bit and influence, or the need to influence, is certainly growing quite a lot.

I think, though, and the reason I hesitated at the beginning of this, I think for anybody, whether it's the CIOs or anything else, if you're a leader in a business, it is part of your role or a big part of your role to set a direction. And that direction always comes down to your...and it could come from other people into you, but ultimately what you're diagnosing your situation to be.

So if you feel that the world is moving in a certain way, you will then shape the direction in that way. So it's actually...that leadership role is very pivotal for any organization in saying, "Right, this is my assessment, based on all the input I've taken on where we are and where we're going, and this is where I'm going to take it." And I don't think that's...I think there's probably just more input and more input to be had now than there was before. But that's always been a challenge, I think, for leaders and any organization.

John: Very good. Ian, thank you so much. Ian Law, CIO of San Francisco International Airport. Ian, thanks for joining us today and sharing your insights on innovation and digital transformation. Thanks for being here. Ian: Not at all, John. Thank you too. John: And to our listeners, we appreciate you taking the time to join us. We hope we've given you some great new ideas and insights that can help shape your own innovation in digital transformation efforts. Have a great day, everyone. Thank you.

To listen to the audio version of this interview, please click here.

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