Sunday Business Post
The partnership between Aer Lingus and EPAM demonstrates why two minds are better than one when it comes to digital transformation and creating superior customer experiences
The reinvention of Aer Lingus has been one of the best business success stories of the last decade, a rare example of an established enterprise seeing off disruptors and building a leading market position.
As director of digital and mobile, Dave O'Donovan was brought in to help steer the growing airline through the turbulence of the internet age. He was quick to recognise the role that outside expertise could play when it comes to navigating digital transformation pitfalls, and EPAM, a global global product development, digital platform engineering, and digital and product design agency, was one of the companies he turned to.
EPAM has been working with Aer Lingus for five years in a relationship that is more of a seamless partnership, than a 'them and us' approach. This has been vital in achieving success, according to O’Donovan. "My team in Dublin doesn’t treat EPAM like a vendor, they see them as colleagues and a part of Aer Lingus," he said.
When he visited EPAM offices in Ukraine and Belarus, he saw how this worked both ways. "Their local and global team really do feel like part of Aer Lingus and it’s great to know that their loyalty and commitment is there," he said.
A better experience
Engagement with customers, or ‘guests’ as the airline prefers to call them, increasingly relies on digital capabilities and mastering the art of agility. This requires significant change to happen very quickly, so external expertise can be vital. When new competition emerged on Atlantic routes, Aer Lingus responded with its Saver Fare. Reinventing the way it sold seats was a big change achieved with the help of EPAM. "We got to market in about four months, which is fast in the airline industry," O’Donovan recalled.
The work around the mobile app has been particularly fruitful. Incremental improvements over a number of years have got to the point where it’s now listing as a four-star app in the Apple store and in the top free apps in the Irish Travel section. Revenue from it grew by about 60 per cent last year and it’s expected to increase by about the same again in 2019.
Similarly, the airline’s brand refresh in January was supported by a huge amount of work across digital, as well as physical, domains. Again, expertise and agility was required to help get the new look and livery across the line, including the website and mobile application. "It was a really good example of how multiple locations and geographies can help you keep going," said O’Donovan. "And we set it up in such a way that if we ever need to change things, we'll be able to do it much more quickly."
Before he joined, O’Donovan was involved in the US start-up scene where agility is embedded in the culture of companies. Bringing the same mindset to an established airline involved a massive change management project. O’Donovan warns organisations that persuading employees to park one way of working and do things differently is no easy task, and credits EPAM with helping Aer Lingus remodel the way it works in this regard.
Understanding how to adapt with flexibility in an organisation with legacy technology has also been pivotal. Rather than rebuild everything manually, with the risks and errors that come with it. EPAM provides Aer Lingus with a combination of test automation, DevOps and Amazon Web Services skills, which are increasingly hard to find. Having automated and streamlined its production cycle, Aer Lingus is now able to bring new services to market more quickly.
Agile backend development has been crucial to the process. "I wanted Aer Lingus to do things faster with more automation, particularly around testing," he explained. "There’s quite a lot of technological change required to make that happen, so we worked closely with our internal teams and EPAM to start building out our automated processes."
An understanding of how and when new technology should be applied to established companies is always challenging but critically important. With the help of EPAM, Aer Lingus is implementing robotic process automation (RPA), which uses machine learning to speed up workflows. "They will take a punt because they know what works for us," said O’Donovan. "We were aware of RPA but they are investing in getting it up and running because they believe it is something we should be doing. That’s been hugely helpful to us."
Innovation at scale
The range and depth of EPAM’s resourcing and its capacity to scale has also helped Aer Lingus. At a time when IT skills are notoriously difficult to source, O’Donovan has access to a global pool of experts that includes people in Dublin, Lviv in Ukraine and Minsk in Belarus. The time differences have proved useful when it comes to squeezing extra hours out of a day when a deadline is looming.
The maturity of the partnership means that EPAM is always ready for what Aer Lingus asks of them. "They know us culturally and they know how we like to work," he said. "They also keep a ‘warm bench’, people who are up to speed with what our teams are working on and can jump in to help when needed. That's a resource we use, because it can save a couple of weeks if you have to bring someone new onboard."