“It’s not our job to own and operate computers. We are a train company,” said Eurostar CIO Antoine de Kerviler while talking to V3.
And not just any train company. Eurostar is one of the most unique transport firms in the world, operating a service that not only crosses three borders between the UK, France and Belgium, but travels under 24 miles of the English Channel, or La Manche, depending on your world view.
With such a unique operating environment de Kerviler has the vital job of ensuring that the right mix of technology is used to deliver on Eurostar's promise of “providing the best travel experience possible”.
Heading into the clouds
To do this de Kerviler has focused on moving as much of the company’s IT to the cloud as is feasible, and reducing hardware ownership whenever possible, allowing Eurostar to operate in a more flexible and efficient way.
“There are better ways to spend our time and energy than thinking about optimising email servers, and the same goes for file sharing, print services and so on. It does not generate value for customers, so the more we can outsource that and provision it in a different way, the better,” he explained.
“It’s more secure, more efficient, greener, faster and so on. We are better off in the cloud, so we are moving quite steadily.”
Eurostar has embraced tools such as Okta for identity and access management, Salesforce and Remedyforce for IT service management, and AWS and Microsoft Azure for hosting staff and customer-facing web tools.
Another notable cloud move last year involved a major switch to Box for cloud storage and collaboration in a 1,600-seat deal.
De Kerviler explained that this solved several problems for the company by weaning staff off consumer services like Dropbox or WeTransfer, and creating a more efficient process for sharing documents and information.
“People find [Box] convenient as it means they have original documents at all times. There’s no wasted time at the start of meetings checking if everyone has most recent version of the document," he said.
"And, because most people have mobile devices, tablets and so forth, they can access documents on their mobile devices and PCs as well.”
Complementing this push to the cloud is Eurostar’s effort to mobilise the workforce by providing key staff, such as train drivers and train managers, with iPhones and iPads so they can access information on-the-go, hosted in the cloud, rather than having to carry reams of documents everywhere.
“Everything was done on paper for years because that’s how it always was. But paper is expensive and very heavy as you have to carry kilos of documentation. It’s much more efficient to do it on a mobile device, and you can use it for lots of other tasks too,” he said.
De Kerviler explained that train staff have welcomed the change as they were already carrying mobile devices to access information such as journey manifests containing passenger information, so it made sense to move all information to a mobile device.
Of course, moving to iPhones and iPads for key information that can be required before a driver starts a journey opens up the risk that any incident affecting a device could lead to delays.
A similar incident hit American Airlines earlier this year, grounding a plane for several hours.
De Kerviler is realistic about this risk, accepting that, while it could be a problem, it’s no different to the potential difficulties that paper posed.
“Yes, somebody could break their iPad and not have their documents, but it’s just a new type of problem that's always existed. With paper documents someone may have forgotten their suitcase, or left it in a hotel room, or it gets wet and ruined," he said.
“We’ve just changed the potential risks, but gathered many more benefits from having the information stored in the cloud and using mobile devices to access it.”
Some staff are issued with iPads and iPhones, but Eurostar also has a bring your own device policy so that employees can use their own devices if required as part of an effort to operate as flexibly as possible.
All aboard the skills train
De Kerviler is similarly sanguine about finding people with the right IT skills for the organisation, noting that everyone suffers from the same problems and that demand for various IT skills ebbs and flows as the industry dictates.
“Every CIO I know in London has the same issue,” he said, adding that for most firms, including Eurostar, it’s just a question of adapting as required to the skills needed and how those skills are used.
He cited the example of cloud file sharing as a new skill IT staff now need. “Instead of managing file services on Windows we will retrain our staff or work with contractors who know how to manage file sharing in the cloud. It’s just evolution,” he explained.
De Kerviler also believes that this evolution of the industry, whereby IT tools are outsourced and not under the direct control of staff in-house, underlines how the role of IT leader is changing to focus on improving business strategy, not dealing with IT woes.
“Most issues facing CIOs are not tech issues, they are about change management, customer needs, behavioural challenges. We can find the specialists we need for technology challenges but my job is more about driving change," he said.
De Kerviler has the right background for this as he holds an executive MBA, and has experience covering IT at a travel firm, having served as CIO at French airline Corsair before joining Eurostar in December 2013.
“In terms of customer expectation the two industries are actually very similar, although Eurostar is a rare beast in the rail industry as every trip is international,” he noted.
“Most train companies are national and have been organised in the past in a way that meant invaders couldn’t come in and use their infrastructure, so they all have different track spacings and so forth.”
For Eurostar, where interoperability between nations is a must, it is no surprise that cloud and mobile tools that allow the firm to operate efficiently and beyond the traditional barriers have taken precedence during de Kerviler's tenure.
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