NATS CIO Gavin Walker is deploying software as a service (Saas) tools where possible to ensure the air traffic control firm can continue to scale as it focuses on emerging markets, like the Middle East.

As well as providing operational services for some of the world’s busiest airports, NATS - which hit the headlines for its server failure at Heathrow causing hundreds of cancelled and delayed flights - provides consultancy and engineering services to airports all over the world.

The firm recently chose SAP’s Cloud for Customer over Microsoft's rival Dynamics platform to lay the groundwork for its global expansion and find the elusive ‘single version of the truth’, allowing it to improve its sales process.

“Our strategy is to utilise Saas wherever we can, so that we can scale,” Walker says.

NATS decided on an SAP product because of the firm’s existing enterprise application environment, with the firm already relying on the vendor for HR, finance and ERP platforms. The deployment of the cloud CRM tool is intended to help track lead generation for contracts the whole way through to bidding and securing of a contract, integrating with other SAP platforms.

"That is the main advantage we will have in the future," he says.

“Ultimately, we wanted the customer relationship information to flow the whole way through our system. All our financials and business planning is achieved in our SAP suite.” 

While that integration is not quite in place yet, Walker explains, once the data governance and processes are perfected, NATS “will have that technology set out for the future”.

'Massive leap forward'

The 120-strong business development team began using Cloud for Customer in September last year as an early adopter of the technology, using it to input information and provide information about airport clients in real-time. 

As well as improving the sales process, this means important data about contracts NATS is bidding for is always up-to-date for senior management to look at.

Before, data was pooled from employee’s inboxes and a “day and a half” was wasted collating into a single source in time for a meeting, Walker says.

Now, for example, employees use their iPads to keep up to date on a particular bid to see exactly where they are in a tendering process, the probability of winning a contract and a ballpark figure of what that win would be worth to the firm.

“It is a massive leap forward for us,” he says.

‘A difficult one to crack’

In order to deliver a successful cloud deployment, Walker, who has been in the IT business for several years, says that the best place for IT to be seen is “partnered with the business”.

“This wasn’t an IT transformation project, but a business transformation one. We took a number of difficult business processes - all using their own version of technology and no single version of the truth - and put one technology behind it that brought it all together,” he says. 

However, he continues that it is also crucial for CIOs to "push back" if it serves a purpose in the long term, regardless of the hassle it may bring, Walker says.

“It is very easy to make the business very happy if you do exactly what they want. But you have to understand what the real requirements are, say ‘no’ and push back at the right time. That’s why you need a good relationship.”

Walker warns that SAP's Cloud for Customer comes straight out of the box, and firms must be prepared for the perpetual change that comes with a Saas tool.

He says: “You have to accept the evolution of the product and got to be able to manage those releases into your business. Customisation has been to a minimum and we’ve had to manage that expectation amongst the business, but people are beginning to see that software is going to change every quarter, which comes with a little pain. However, there is gain with the evolution of the product.

“It was a difficult one to crack.”

Future for NATs IT

Walker’s role is to understand what NATs is trying to achieve, and deliver the IT that will support this. The flexibility of Saas software will play a role here, and Walker expects the business to use more cloud tools in future.

“The solutions need to be able to grow with the business and shrink when the market changes and we change direction. That agility is what I need to deliver, and enterprise solutions must be able to cope with that,” he says.

But the continuing cloud-first strategy at NATS is underpinned by safety, he adds.

“If you fly regularly you’ll be pleased to hear that.”

In essence, thinking about cloud is a balancing act, he adds.

“I assess cloud in what it can deliver - scalability and compute power on demand so you don’t have to plan for capital investment cycles every five years. But our strategy is to take a hybrid approach.”