How to Combat Extreme Market Disruption With Tech, Talent and Data

Covid-19 wreaked havoc on the air travel market. Seating capacity fell roughly 50% last year, leaving just 1.8 billion passengers taking flights through 2020, compared with around 4.5 billion in 2019. That adds up to a financial loss to the industry of around $370 billion.

In other words, it was a great time to join a technology and data company. When I started as CTO at OAG in August 2019, I certainly didn’t expect what was about to happen. The booming, high-growth travel and tech markets I joined were disrupted to the core.

As CTO, my charge was simple but critical: continuously drive innovation, resilience and growth to ensure our users — which include many of the world’s largest airlines, airports, travel providers and technology companies — could navigate and rebound from the market volatility.

Here are the three key technology strategies and investments we made that your organization can emulate to remain resilient, innovate quickly, overcome complexity and continue to grow.

1. Build a Focused, Empowered Tech Team to Navigate Change and Disruption

Prior to the pandemic, we made the strategic decision to consolidate our tech talent across two locations (the U.K. and Lithuania) with an equal distribution of people. This decision simplified our tech operations and provided a solid foundation to grow our tech resources as required. Our team of domain experts in the U.K., coupled with our tech center of excellence in Lithuania, provides all the skills necessary across infrastructure/cloud, software engineering, data engineering and data science to ensure we are well placed to meet the needs of the business.

Conway's Law tells us that organizations design technology systems that mirror their own communication structure. Put simply, the more complex the organization, the more complex the technology you have to manage. The more complex the technology, the higher the cost and the slower the pace of change. When events like the global pandemic hit, the simpler your organization is, the easier it will be to navigate and stay focused on the key business objectives.

2. Double Down On Engineering Excellence And Data Science

The aviation and travel industries run on data, which created massive challenges during the peak of the pandemic. Airlines were forced to constantly change schedules and new travel restrictions came into play with little notice. The volatility and volume of changes reached unprecedented heights and uncertainty.

This dynamic put enormous stress on our systems and databases. Many major airlines literally reinvented their entire operations in days — and we had to manage that workload and distribute the data around the world to keep the market moving.

The lesson I’ve learned from this period is that data democratization — having all your data easily accessible to all stakeholders — enables your business/domain experts, your engineers and your data scientists to work seamlessly together. The business experts understand the challenges presented with highly volatile data; the data scientists can quickly establish patterns and models where appropriate to resolve data issues; and the engineers can systemize fixes to these issues. This collaboration, underpinned with our technology platform, really fueled our ability to navigate the volatility we witnessed during the pandemic.

3. Stay Focussed On The Future Tech Innovation

My other advice for CTOs: Do not let short-term distractions and volatility disrupt long-term plans. While we had to shift our day-to-day strategy significantly, we remained committed to our vision and bigger objectives: shifting to the cloud and improving data access and analytics by deploying key technologies, including Microsoft Azure and Snowflake.

We made the decision to migrate services to Azure for additional scalability and multi-region support. This cloud investment ensured operational resiliency during our most challenging times and equipped our staff and systems to operate like clockwork remotely.

Implementing Snowflake was a particularly important decision as it enabled a cloud-first approach to data and supported a fully elastic, globally distributed data lake. Snowflake deployment was critical for our long-term growth, as it’s now enabling our data science team to understand trends and market patterns in ways that were not possible before. This has been critical in helping airlines and travel providers not only navigate the current disruption but make informed recovery choices to spark growth.

Crisis Plus Innovation Creates Opportunity

There is no downplaying the tragedy of Covid-19 or the economic impact across the travel ecosystem. The pandemic could have significantly stalled our business, but instead, it acted as an accelerant to upgrade and elevate our tech infrastructure and product offerings.

This experience is a teaching moment for CTOs leading their teams and companies during uncertainty: Whatever crisis hits, you must always remain focused on your strategic goals and drive to continually improve everything that you do. If you react to a crisis and focus on short-term actions, you risk losing momentum and allowing your competition to steal a march.

This article was originally published on 16 April 2021 by Forbes Technology Council.

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