Sitting across the table from Stephen Tame at lunch is a bit like dining with a tiger (if the Jetstar chief information officer will permit us a small airline industry pun).
When you first break bread with the executive, his mild, gentlemanlike manner is deceiving. You can’t help but feel as though he might be more like a house cat than a predator, as he sips his wine and quietly enjoys his meal and the good company.
But then as the meal wears on, you start to realise the truly ferocious nature of Tame’s intellect. As the conversation progresses and the CIO is given room to speak, his energy rolls off him with an almost visible force and ideas explode out in rolling waves — ideas that have, over the years, earned the executive a reputation as one of Australia’s most innovative CIOs.
If you can name the new technology, odds are Tame has implemented it or at least trialled it at Jetstar since the startup airline was formed in 2003. Software as a Service (SuccessFactors, RightNow, Navitaire), SMS check-ins, in-flight iPads, thin client terminals, 3G mobile broadband. And the list goes on.
Tame says his ability to innovate as a CIO goes back to the formation of Jetstar in 2003. At the time, he says, Qantas was conscious of the need to strictly separate its new sister startup brand out from its main operations, having learnt its lessons with subsidiaries in the past. And so Jetstar was set up with three main principles — keep costs lower than those of Qantas, don’t allow the larger airline’s operations to ‘contaminate’ those of the smaller, and don’t allow Jetstar to simply commoditise Qantas’ operations — minimise direct competition between the two.
These principles, coupled with a focus from Jetstar management on a next-generation head office, have given Tame tremendous freedom to break the mould of corporate IT.
Where Qantas has a plethora of in-house legacy applications which it is attempting to modernise, for example, Jetstar never really bothered with on-premises software, opting for the software as a service model wherever possible. Where an airline like Qantas would roll out expensive cables all the way to its terminals to provide network services, Tame talks about lightweight alternatives like netbooks with in-built 3G cards — for a fraction of the cost.
The principle also extends into the startup airline’s voice telecommunications systems. Tame says when Jetstar was set up, he bought a “second-hand” PABX system which cost about $10k.
Now the time has come to replace that PABX — but Tame isn’t planning to buy a new monolithic platform from the likes of Cisco or Avaya. Instead, he’s doing away with desk phones on employees’ desks altogether. This week Jetstar was revealed as one of the first customers to deploy Microsoft’s Lync unified communications suite — the software formerly known as Office Communications Server.
Tame says when Jetstar’s PABX system reached end of life, he faced a choice — “do we buy a piece of hardware, or do we push ourselves into a software world?” Knowing the CIO’s history, it’s not hard to see which way he would jump. Jetstar has moved 500 employees at its head office across to the softphone Lync platform over the past several months — and will look at a gradual wider deployment to its international operations as well, when appropriate.
“We are a young and highly mobile business and our management team is equipped with mobile devices; however, desk phones, and their extension numbers, have been an anchor that has restricted true mobility,” says Tame.
The new platform is already driving a change in the way Jetstar’s employees are working internally.
“Over the past few years, people have become more mobile,” says Tame, noting that laptops, instant messages and email now follow employees as they travel or even just move around the office. “The only thing that has been anchoring you to your desk is your desk phone.”
Now Jetstar staff can plug in their laptop in Singapore and take and place phone calls on their Melbourne-based number. Voicemail messages are delivered by email and IM also follows staff around.
“Fixed landlines are becoming irrelevant,” says the CIO.
Tame says his fellow CIOs need to face facts when it comes to the changing habits of their workforces. “One of the biggest applications I had in my business was Google Talk,” he says, referring to the search giant’s popular IM, voice and video application. “It’s silly if CIOs think it isn’t happening anyway,” he says about the software unified communications revolution.
Traditional wisdom is that when large organisations buy corporate IP telephony solutions, the whole network must be enabled for quality of service, the back-end hardware integrated with desk phones and so on. And Jetstar does have QoS on its network, except on one international link to Singapore, where Tame would like to implement it.
But Tame points out that Australia is on the verge of a bandwidth explosion being driven by the National Broadband Network rollout — and so corporate networks will eventually shrink anyway. The CIO says he has already shifted some of Jetstar’s regional locations off expensive high-end corporate links and onto broadband — because it’s good enough and does the job. The rapidly expanding 3G networks have already started to provide a level of network redundancy.
“When the NBN comes in, these things start to come into their own,” he says of the planned gigabit network. “If you can use a VPN back to the office, you don’t need a corporate network any more.” Redundancy, too, is not so much a problem any more — as voice telecommunications moves into software, if a system breaks, you can simply swap in another virtualised image and bingo — it’s back up.
Jetstar does still maintain some handsets (about 50), especially for executive staff — not all of the 500 staff it has moved onto Lync are purely using software to make calls now. But the overwhelming majority are now using headsets connected to their PCs to place calls. And Lync integrates back into email and Active Directory systems.
Jetstar also has traditional videoconferencing devices in the business, as well as roundtable devices which let multiple staff talk to each other across the globe.
Of course, although Tame has earned himself a reputation in Australia’s technology sector for being on the cutting edge, he still maintains his core of CIO cynicism about vendor hype. One unified communications concept which the CIO appears to think might be a bit overblown is the concept of ‘presence’ — which lets employees see each others’ online status and call each other at an appropriate time rather than when one party is in a meeting, for example.
Tame points out that while presence is “a nice to have”, it doesn’t necessarily play into the actual way business work in practice.
“Put it this way, if I’m busy, my chief executive officer doesn’t care,” he says. “And if I see his name pop up, I sort of have to answer it.”
That might just be a useful metaphor for the role of the modern chief information officer in 2010. They’re expected to keep all of their organisations’ systems up, as well as innovating and preparing for the future. But at the end of the day, an organisation’s technology department ultimately needs to serve the business.