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McLaren CIO putters sideways into Heathrow Airport

So far that's aircraft and cars for Birrell. Trains next?

Stuart Birrell is to hop into the CIO hot seat at Heathrow Airport, one of the most highly exposed roles in tech, and a position that could see him catching the blame for everything from lost bags to international diplomatic incidents.

He may be fingered for security cock-ups or failures in the automated baggage handling system, whether or not it's warranted. The man has the potential to ruin more than just holidays or business trips: reputations are at stake at the world’s busiest airport.

Birrell is currently CIO at F1-related tech company McLaren Technology Group, but taking charge of the vast tech organisation at Heathrow is not entirely alien to him – he previously revamped IT systems from the CIO chair at Gatwick Airport so knows the terrain well, albeit on a smaller scale. He is to replace BAA veteran and board member Neil Clark.

A spokesman at Heathrow told us that Birrell “built an integrated IT team of in-house experts and specialist suppliers” in his previous role.

“He has experience of working in a high-performance environment, and will bring an extremely high level of reliability and resilience,” she added.

This is marketing speak for being a safe pair of hands in a high-profile position, which has the capacity to upset thousands of people and cost millions of pounds should things indeed go wrong, perish the thought.

Of course, Birrell ticks all the typical boxes that a tech overlord should in 2015 – he has experience in the “use of big data sets, cloud based solutions and IT security in support of business growth and increased productivity”, the PR person told us.

These skills will apparently build on the “strength of the current Heathrow team”, the marketing person told us.

Birrell oversaw a massive tech project at Gatwick that involved upgrading the majority of 140 legacy systems and separating them from Heathrow – this came after Gatwick was acquired from BAA by Global Infrastructure Partners for £1.5bn in 2009.

Gatwick subsequently inked a multi-million pound contract with SAP and Siemens IT Solutions to replace the Oracle-based ERP software. The budgets at Gatwick will, however, likely be swamped by the available spending muscle at Heathrow.

As a rule of thumb, large organisations spend one to three per cent of revenues on IT – Heathrow turned over £2.6bn in 2014 and Gatwick some £593.7m. Heathrow refused to confirm its annual tech budget.

Presumably, one of the projects Birrell will pick up is the Terminal 3 Integrated Baggage facility that started in March at a cost of £500m. The ultimate goal is to run integrated and inter-connected baggage facilities across all terminals at Heathrow. What could possibly go wrong?

One on-going job has been integration between the business and technology operations, overcoming operational silos. A priority will be to ensure the technology and business teams communicate more effectively, rather than work in isolation – using information from various stakeholders in real time.

Another job on the to-do-list facing Birrell is to decide how Heathrow will manage IT – the existing five-year outsourcing agreement with Capgemini expires next spring.

Cap is the consortium leader, prime contractor and integrator, responsible for the management of IT services, including applications, infrastructure and projects for 10,000 users.

Airport transport comms specialist SITA has provided network, telecoms and radio services, Atkins oversaw “multi-disciplinary project service capability”, Computacenter the desktop and server support element and Amor Group looks after niche apps.

The contract covers all of Heathrow’s five terminals – some 200 techies had transferred to the Cap under TUPE conditions.

Birrell starts as CIO in June but Clark has already left the building, Heathrow confirmed. ®

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