CIO50 2022 #16 Sam Charmand, Qantas
The aviation industry is well accustomed to periods of extreme market turbulence, but nothing could have prepared it for the alarming loss of altitude when it collided with COVID-19.
During the worst of it, there was speculation as to whether Qantas might even cease to exist, after the Australian icon was forced to ground most of its fleet and stand down 20,000 staff as it sunk in a sea of red to the tune of $23 billion in foregone revenue and $6 billion in net losses in just one year.
This proved the impetus for a root-and-branch overhaul of the airline’s core systems and network led by chief information officer Sam Charmand and his team, which saw the retirement of long-entrenched legacy systems amid a mass exodus to the cloud, all up saving an extraordinary $200 million on tech spend.
“Before the pandemic, we already knew that we had to untangle and simplify our legacy technology landscape, unifying our common technology and data assets across the Qantas Group,” Charman tells CIO Australia. “Our fight to survive throughout the pandemic brought this imperative into even greater focus and compelled us to accelerate our plans.”
As you’ll read in David Hogarth’s CIO50 profile, he and his team were instrumental in bringing Virgin Australia back from the dead after it went into receivership less than a year into the pandemic.
But for Charmand, his promotion to the CIO role in February 2020 became a baptism of fire no one could have imagined.
Among his first challenges was re-imagining Qantas’ core technology principles for long-term sustainability by removing the historical dependency on traditional ‘owned’ technologies and promoting the benefits of cloud-based infrastructure and services.
He then undertook to reshape the internal narrative, focussing on the ability to deliver speed to value, increased resilience and flexibility through this transformation, whilst maintaining and improving the airline Group’s sharp focus on safety and security.
More than 100 applications were decommissioned as part of the legacy purge, which included the retirement of entire data centres, as more than 300 applications and services were transitioned to modern platforms.
Meanwhile, more than 200 sites – including regional airports – were migrated from a bespoke fibre network and on to a modernised software-defined network.
“This has been one of the most significant technology transformations in the country,” Charmand says of the initiative fittingly dubbed internally as ‘Project Supercharge’.
“Transitioning the entire technology ecosystems of a 100-year-old airline is a huge undertaking. Doing it in the shadow of the greatest crisis that we have lived through presents even more complex and unique challenges, but we knew that it was the right thing to do to set us up for our recovery.”
Relentless customer focus
Qantas understands as well as any large organisation the challenges of getting customer service right, and as Charmand explains, the technology transformation he led had a “relentless focus” on this aspect of the business.
“Our technology capability underpins just about every customer touchpoint and experience with Qantas,” he notes. “The pandemic significantly accelerated the shift in customer behaviours to online and particularly mobile, so we had to respond in order to meet the changing needs and expectations of our customers. We moved quickly to adapt our priorities to focus on customer mobility and self-service.”
This saw Charmand advocate for and receive increased investment in Qantas’ mobile platforms to support unifying its Loyalty offering with the main Qantas mobile app, streamlining customer interactions with the Qantas brand and improving customer self-service.
Leveraging more flexible back-end services made possible by the shift to cloud, Qantas moved swiftly to introduce new customer-focussed capabilities in the mobile app including:
- Improved travel booking experiences
- Extensive opportunities to earn and burn Qantas Frequent Flyer points
- Various flight upgrade options right up to the point of boarding.
Qantas was also able to leverage its mobile platform to respond to tactical needs, such as the decision to launch a COVID-19 vaccination rewards program in 2021 via the Qantas mobile app.
“In a matter of weeks, Qantas launched the campaign that allowed nearly 750,000 Australians to verify their vaccination status via a sophisticated and secure algorithm, and subsequently claim a reward such as Qantas Frequent Flyer Points, Status Credits or travel vouchers,” Charmand boasts, adding that Qantas has broken several records including monthly active users, app downloads and new Qantas Frequent Flyer sign ups.
As a member of the Qantas Executive Leadership team, Charmand is known for his ability to cut through complexity and use relatable analogies that connect technology capability to business outcomes.
Equally, he recognises the need to drive the organisational influence of technology at all levels.
“It’s one thing to have a great team, as we have worked hard to build,” Charmand explains, “but it’s equally important to provide the right conditions for that team to do their best work for the business. As we embarked on a fundamental structural shift in our organisation, I recognised the need to put our best technologists in the right place to enable critical business needs.”
In order to solidify the role and perception of technology as a key business enabler within Qantas, Charmand executed a reorganisation of the group technology division, aligning senior technology leaders with business counterparts and business units.
This has fundamentally strengthened the relationship between the business and technology group at all levels of the organisation.
“Most notably, this has ensured that technology has a seat at every table when it comes to discussing critical business objectives, priorities and decisions spanning everything from customer and digital strategy to airport operations and engineering.
Importantly, Charmand has consciously designed technology structures and systems to avoid the perils of Conway’s Law, which states: Any organisation that designs a system will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organisation's communication structure.
“Learning from the lessons of the past, we knew that we had to balance the need for business alignment with technological efficiency and unity,” reflects Charmand.
“Elevating our business-facing technology teams and simultaneously having them connected directly with our architecture, cloud, data, integration and automation teams led by our group chief technology officer, Michael Ross, has ensured that logical, common technology structures and principles are maintained and are complimentary to the broader organisational constructs and needs.”