Like many of today's senior IT people Philip Langsdale, CIO at BAA did his articles — as he puts it — at IBM starting at its Nottingham datacentre in the late 1970s.
IBM gave him a real grounding in what IT could do for businesses and in the mid-1980s Langsdale went to work for consultancy business Nolan Norton, set up by Harvard Business School IT professor Dick Nolan. The consultancy focused on how businesses used IT practically, and Langsdale maintains that no-one else was thinking about IT as a strategic lever for business in the same way at that time.
"It catapulted me into working with the FD of British Rail on investment plans," he says, describing the experience as a bit of a baptism of fire, but acknowledging that this position allowed him to cross over from the sell-side to the client side of the IT relationship.
It was there that Langsdale met Gene Lockhart, who was with Norton Nolan before he moved on to Midland Bank Group (now part of HSBC) as its CEO. Langsdale followed him, joining Midland Group as Group IT director for planning and architecture in the late 1980s. He was looking at moving old legacy systems — big Unisys monoliths — into a much simpler architecture to get better information on customers and take cost out. The similarities between this role and the remit he has at BAA aren't lost on him.
Langsdale followed this up with six years at Asda, working with chief executive Archie Norman in Leeds as the supermarket's IT director. Again, there was a strong focus on what IT could do for customers. Alongside his IT role, he had responsibility for up to 40 stores and was obliged to go store visiting, just like every other senior retail executive.
"It was good experience for anyone who wants to understand how to use IT to help the business," he says.
Langsdale went on from there to the BBC where he worked on the creation of Freeview and ended up reshaping the BBC Technology division quite significantly. The unit was sold to Siemens in October 2004, not a sale that met with Langsdale's approval, according to media accounts at the time.
Langsdale left the BBC to setup Langsdale Crook, a small consultancy that focused on board-level governance and use of IT. He got a lot of work with BA and aviation technology consortium SITA, and this experience meant he was a natural choice to take on the IT strategy at BAA.
Langsdale has obvious admiration for his CEO Colin Matthews, who he values for his commitment to focus. Quoting Matthews, he says: "One goal is better than five near-misses."
Alongside his duties at BAA, Langsdale is a business leader himself, owning a yacht-building company in Cornwall, where he is chairman. It provides a useful counterpoint to his week-job in terms of scale but he insists his role as CIO at the airports company has the highest priority.
"I enjoy the job because of the complexity of the stakeholders, of the ability to get things done, working as part of a great senior executive team," he says of BAA, just as another 747 lands on the runway outside. "And the fact is, you can see your business."
This may seem a throwaway comment, but Langsdale has made an important point. When the impact of IT within business is often so subliminal, how many other IT leaders see the results of their efforts landing and taking off countless times every day?