CIO2CIO Interviews

Ali Al Hamdany - Air Arabia

Mr Al Hamdany started his career as a manufacturing engineer after completing his master’s degree in engineering product design in the UK. After a number of years he moved to IT and completed a second master’s degree in information systems in the UK.

Then he started working for IT companies like Logica and Sun Microsystems. Later on he had the opportunity to move to the UAE and join Air Arabia as one of the few people who started up the airline.  Right now e is the Group Director of IT for the no frills airline.

His hobbies include, sports, diving, traveling.



The Interview

CIO2CIO: Talk to us about your company, its key business challenges and how IT supports overcome those
Ali: The main challenge we faced was how to get customer to accept the then new business model. We are a low cost airline and this was a new concept to the majority of people in this part of the world. Being the first low cost airline in the region, we had to educate the public. One example of such challenges; when we had people looking at our prices they were asking us if they were going to have seats or if they had to be standing during the flights. So looking at the prices they didn’t believe it was a proper airline. Once they tried it they liked it and understood, but we had to educate and educate.

When we were starting this business, we had a number of challenges, such as the reservation system which is something we took on our own to develop and make it available to the airline. The reservation system is something that you can consider as the commercial backbone of the airline. It involves scheduling, pricing, sales whether for travel agents, websites or the call centre.  And now in addition to using this in the UAE, we are using it in Morocco and Egypt as well as offering it to other airlines. And that goes for other systems we developed internally, such as the crew scheduling, baggage reconciliation, customer care and other systems.

From an IT point of view we had to support making our tickets available through post offices, banks branches, money exchanges, and even freelancers in addition to the traditional channels. We had to reach out to the people and asked if they would come and try our product. IT had to integrate all those sales channels, we were the first to go to the ATM and CDM for ticket sales, that was in 2003, at that time it was only the printed tickets that were recognized at airports.

CIO2CIO: Can you talk to us about the project you hold closest to your heart, the project you are most proud of?
Ali: Seeing Air Arabia as it is now, relying heavily on IT and taking it from a couple of laptops and a couple of printers to an airline serving electronically thousands of sales channels and millions of passengers, connecting them through the latest technologies, that is something I can say I’m very proud of. Obviously that can be broken down to many small projects and I was lucky to have the right team with the right attitude and we managed to achieve all of that. You can consider this an achievement even if we had a large number of people and an open budget, but the achievement becomes a lot bigger when you know that our team never exceeded 10 people and our budget was always very conservative.


CIO2CIO: As a CIO how do you make a decision as to whether to adopt a new technology or not?
Ali: We are very open to new technologies; we know that the world of IT and business is developing very quickly. At the same we need to be careful with what we select. As most people in IT know, out of ten new initiatives, only one really takes off and becomes a reliable business solution. We don’t want to be one of the companies choosing any of the other nine.

So there is a bit of caution, and that’s what we are exercising now. When it comes to cloud technology for instance we’d like to see more evidence that this is actually reliable and solid before we adopt it. In conferences I get asked about the cloud. My answer is always that the first thing for the suppliers that currently offer cloud technology as well as traditional technology, to offer the cloud maybe free of charge or at a highly discounted price so customers can actually take the risk and move to the cloud. Then if it fails we still have a plan B. I don’t see that happening, maybe the suppliers are very proud and very confident of their offerings. I think it needs a better strategic approach from the suppliers’ side to make it more acceptable. But the world is getting linked by networks and this network is becoming more and more reliable so I think the future will be going in that direction but whether the suppliers would like to wait for this moment to happen or if they want to speed it up.



CIO2CIO: The IT industry is going through a phase of acquisitions; if you look at Oracle, IBM, more recently SAP and Google. As a CIO do you look at this as a positive or a negative development?
Ali: It happens at the maturity stage of every industry, you start with many small companies. These small companies have a limited breath and then they join the bigger ones. That has been the case whether you look at the auto industry or the electronics industry, and now the IT industry.
It’s positive because for the users you will not end up with a huge amount of choices that are not necessarily very reliable. For big businesses you need to go with one supplier that you know has all the ability to give you something that you can build your business on. I don’t think it will reach a stage where there is a single supplier through acquisitions, competition will always be there. So I see it as a positive thing.


CIO2CIO: How do you see social networking in the enterprise?
Ali: We are using social media a lot and as it is developing and as the public are using it more, then it will be the wrong thing for us to try to avoid it. So sometimes you need to follow the direction of the public. Sometimes you need to open the door for them and other times you need to speak to them. It has become an effective communication tool and we have no problem at all in going in that direction, without forgetting the other traditional communication channels.

CIO2CIO: You operate in a largely expat market, how difficult is it to attract, nurture and retain the best talent?
Ali: There was a worse time in 2007-08 when there was a real shortage of skilled people. During that time we were struggling to get talented people and then retaining them. Thankfully we got through the real difficult time. When we search for a talent we don’t restrict ourselves to a particular geographical area. We look outside and depending on what we want we involve the right recruitment channels and we select the best. We don’t see ourselves as hire and fire and hopefully we’ll recruit a good one. We spend time and we do what is required to find the right people.


CIO2CIO: What would your advice be to new CIOs in the region?
Aly: I think it’s very much related to the industry but I would say a couple of things. One is to ensure that the other stakeholders in the company appreciate the strength of IT. Unfortunately all the stakeholders appreciate what IT can do for them, whether on the short term, medium term or long term. So I feel that new CIOs should take the responsibility of educating the other stakeholders of the importance and benefits that IT can bring. The second piece of advice is although IT is something we cannot live without, it comes at a cost. And these days cost is important. So take enough time to select the right technologies so you don’t end up with redundancies and wasted money. And only buy when you need, because what you don’t need will be cheaper tomorrow. So these are my main two pieces of advice.


Air Arabia IT Fact File

Database: Oracle
Middleware: JBoss
BI: JAVA and Oracle
CRM: JAVA and Oracle
Other important applications: In-house developed
Server technology: IBM
Desktop OS: Linux and Windows
Networking: Cisco
Telephony: Cisco