Former Eurostar CIO Antoine de Kerviler has been in the job exactly two years as we meet at the organisation's headquarters in December 2015, a stone's throw from the rejuvenated St Pancras station in central London. Our discussion is a retrospective of these two years, as de Kerviler is about to cross the channel again, but this time to take up the wheel of a new opportunity vendor side in the travel sector. He leaves Eurostar on a very different platform, one that enables it to react to a challenging marketplace.
"We have been able to demonstrate that it is better to hire a local person at local pay," he explains of the insourcing that he has focused on. "This has been a big change in the way to look at what we are doing. We are looking at it as being more agile, and our commercial directors understand agility and do not want to be project driven any more; we are not making a standard product," de Kerviler says. The CIO has introduced co-location and sprint methods across the business.
"If we fail with a sprint, the only delay is about two weeks. They understand that this is a better allocation of resources." Unlike national rail companies, de Kerviler doesn't see delays as business as usual. "In one of the Agile teams, if people are late for a meeting, they have to put £1 in a pig to raise money for charity," he shares, while at 4pm on Friday, his team coordinate an all share of favourite tunes, which is then broadcast to all employees to enjoy while working the end of the week out. "It's created a friendly environment and they are extremely motivated, and our contractors are willing to be on call to follow the roll out of their products. We did a test of the Wi-Fi on the new trains and half of the team turned up. It was at 8.30pm and 10pm and they were there in their own time," de Kerviler says.
Most loved business agenda
"Eurostar has a mission to deliver the most loved travel experience," de Kerviler reveals and explains that his team has been on a journey to see that it is part of customer experience.
"We have convinced our team that the client is the person travelling, so it is client driven delivery. So I make sure everyone is aligned that we only have one customer, the person on the train," he says of why agility and co-location work, putting IT people as close to the customer as possible.
"If you can't modify your ticket on your mobile, it is not a loved experience. It has to be delightfully easy and it must help our colleagues to deliver an enjoyable experience.
"In a checkout process there are always little failures we are trying to sort every one of them out," de Kerviler says. He is clear, as the leadership team at Eurostar always have been as to why that loved customer experience is so vital. "We have lots of competitors; easyJet, BA and KLM and there is growing interest from other rail organisations to use the channel tunnel to offer services to and from London."
While the word disruption is used a great deal in CIO circles of late as technology organisations create new market segments, as Uber has to de Kerviler's travel compatriots in car travel, for Eurostar and its CIO disruption has been physical and very real during the past 12 months. Just before the August bank holiday, de Kerviler and I lunched and the CIO correctly predicted the global migration crisis would be at a critical point that weekend. Throughout 2015 Eurostar and its fellow channel tunnel users Eurotunnel faced myriad problems from refugees fleeing wars across Africa and the Middle East. This world crisis has really brought home to the CIO and his team the importance of customer communications. In March 2015, the tunnel was closed and Eurostar had to cancel up to 20 trains. That negative created a positive in IT.
"We had an app finished by 4pm on the first day and received 5,000 requests from that app, which gave us a lot of data. Our customers understand that there can be disruptions and there are safety reasons for the disruption. We need to give our customers a way to plan and rebase, we need to find ways for you as a customer to replay your life.
"On one day of the disruption, I met a 19-year-old who couldn't take her exams and she said to me she had lost one year of her life. You can give them anything they want, but you can't give them that year back or if it is a business meeting or a funeral," de Kerviler he explains of the limits of Agile app delivery in the real world.
"How we can is to help people replan. We went into the stations to understand the customer, and worked with the customer and call centre teams to design the app," he says. The resulting app enables travellers to rebook for two weeks later, travel the next day or look for alternative arrangements.
The CIO says this helped in the call centre too, releasing stress for the agents and helping them to process and modify tickets because they and the customers had access to better information from a single screen. The business benefits are two-fold, customers remain loyal despite the disruption and with good information, de Kerviler and his team have kept call centre costs down with a single call from a customer, rather than multiple calls.
"We pull the data for your ticket, make the change and instantly email you that the change has been made, it is all done in 30 seconds.
"I never asked my team for this, the combination of the team, the Eurostar vision and customer understanding and they come up with great ideas.
"What I am telling you is obvious," he says of the need to be customer centric.
That customer-centric ethos runs throughout the business. Back in 2014 when France's greatest sporting event, the Tour de France, had its Grand Depart in Yorkshire and a third stage from Cambridge to London, Eurostar knew it would experience a significant hike in customer numbers and cycling mad Europeans and Brits flocked to the event. Eurostar kitted its staff out with yellow fleece jerseys to reflect the leader's yellow jersey. When the disruptions of 2015 began Eurostar staff donned their yellow fleeces and led out to the station concourse to deal face to face with customers. CIO UK's office is across the road from St Pancras station and this scribe saw first hand the number of staff and the calm and informed way disruptions were dealt with.
"The key is to help the customer and show we care, show them where the information is and if necessary make a phone call for them," de Kerviler adds in complete juxtaposition with the way other rail companies are unable to tell passengers which platform will depart first.
"It is a simple thing to do for a customer. The CEO regularly goes on the trains and talks to the customers as do I. If the WiFi is not working, I explain to them why and people respect you.
This increased customer awareness, born out of the worst possible scenario, has created a positive direction for Eurostar. De Kerviler reports the organisation has increased its data levels and is using this to become a data led decision-maker and during de Kerviler's tenure as CIO, he has increased the data skills the business has in its teams.
"We had a discussion with our CFO regarding data being an asset. If it depreciates because it is not managed properly, then it becomes a liability. That creates bad marketing," he says. At the time of our interview, Eurostar were recruiting for a data governance leader. "We have gone from being a business that always had a lot of data that wasn't used to now looking at data and how that describes a process," he says.
New Eurostar platform
Rapid delivery of apps and data-centric decisionmaking have been made possible by a strong focus by de Kerviler on using cloud tools where ever possible. Amazon, Box and Salesforce have been the tickets to this change and de Kerviler has been able to drastically cut the usage of systems integrators (SI) and bring skills into Eurostar.
"Salesforce is incredibly good. You start an engagement with them on a project and they give you choices and explain that you don't have to do things certain ways. So they have given us a way to shorten engagements with them. It is a really different attitude.
"There is going to be a huge change in the future in the big SI world, and I don't think they have a place if they do not change. They take things as a technology issues, when it is not, it is a business issue," de Kerviler says of the cultural challenge SIs face of being technologists and not business focused suppliers.
Physical disruption is a very real and public fact of life for Eurostar. As an international rail operator with a high brand awareness, cyber security is also a major challenge to the organisation too.
"We are very careful, but that doesn't mean we won't be hacked. We try as hard as possible to protect our customer data. The approach to security is at times too subjective. Where are your risks and then protect them," he says of the approach taken by Eurostar. "Most of our customer data is in Salesforce, which is more secure there within Salesforce than in a database we have here. We then protect the access to Salesforce. It is like protecting a house, if a burglar wants to get in, they will," the travel CIO explains.
In his two-year career with the rail line that connects London to Paris and Brussels, de Kerviler has focused on the use of cloud technologies.
"If we want to concentrate on our customer, we need to be as reactive and as fast as possible. You cannot tell a customer that cannot have a service as we are adding compute power. It is not Eurostar's mission to own metal," other than rolling stock. "We want to be giving priority to our customers. Amazon, Salesforce and Box, they do brilliant jobs at operating the systems and delivering a service. That service makes us better at our service," de Kerviler says of the customer technology team he leads that does not focus on operational systems.
New Eurostar fleet
Eurostar is in the process of changing its fleet of express trains, a significant commitment in hardware for any organisation. "There's more software in the new train, more screens. So for my team there has been a lot of testing of the onboard WiFi and security systems," he explains of the role his team played.
A week or so after the interview de Kerviler boarded (one presumes) a Eurostar train again, but this time to head back to his native France and a new career with one of the travel industry's software giants, Amadeus, where his recent experience in rail will be highly valued. "I have spent all my life in travel, by chance initially, I like the complexity and the link to people. It is about how do you move all the people? There is a human component and it is about stressing, how do you help people."