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Mining taking all tech talent: Virgin Australia

Cashed-up miners are creaming off Queensland's top IT talent, leaving Virgin Australia and other companies scratching for staff to complete major projects, the CIO of one of the state's highest profile corporates has claimed.

Virgin Australia head of information services Segar Reddy said some mining sector IT roles were paying 30 to 60 per cent above the market -a premium which firms in other, more financially constrained, sectors were unable to match.

The airline is headquartered in Brisbane and draws the bulk of its IT workforce from the local talent pool, as do the state's booming resource players.

"We're not getting the best people because of this," Reddy told IT Pro.

"Virgin is a 'brand' company but the miners are paying more."

Key Virgin IT staff, including systems architects, had been poached by the sector in recent times, Reddy said.

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They're bodies the airline can ill afford to lose, as it works against the clock to replace core systems and increase the capability and reliability of its IT shop. The projects form part of a company-wide business transformation program known as Unify, which commenced in mid-2011.

Drafted in a year ago from rival Qantas, Reddy's mission was to ensure that the Virgin IT infrastructure and staff were up to the task of supporting the business as it morphed from cut price carrier to full service airline. Its efforts to crack the business travel market received a fillip last October when the Qantas self-grounding forced more corporate travellers aboard the airline.

Virgin has learnt through bitter experience the value of a robust backroom operation. The airline took a hit two years ago when the meltdown of its reservations system, Navitaire New Skies, grounded more than 100 flights and threw the travel plans of thousands of passengers into disarray over an 11-day period.

Virgin sought damages of $15-20 million for the debacle and reached a confidential settlement with Accenture-owned Navataire in April 2011.

It suffered another meltdown in February 2011.

Speaking at the Australian Information Industries Association's monthly lunch in Brisbane last week, Reddy said the increasing complexity and breadth of Virgin's services meant its IT systems had to become more reliable and available.

Moving the business upmarket meant the cost of technology failure would increase and Virgin needed to have robust IT infrastructure that could enable faster paced business change, Reddy said.

He outlined plans to replace Navitaire and Amadeus, the ticketed booking system currently used by Virgin for international flights, with the SabreSonic Customer Sales and Service ticketing system, on track to go live by March 2013.

At the same time, the airline is replacing its accounting system and data warehouse and installing a new version of Sabre Movement Manager, a flight display and movement control system to increase aircraft utilisation.

As well as overhauling Virgin's key systems, Reddy said he had embarked on a 'people transformation program' since joining the airline.

While he had inherited a dynamic set of people, staff had needed to adapt from a seat-of-the-pants approach towards running an IT shop and "learn more processes", Reddy said.

Some had been unable to make the cultural shift and had chosen to move on, he added.

Contractor roles have been cut and permanent numbers pumped up, on Reddy's watch. The firm now has 200 full-timers and 60 contractors; down from 100 when he joined the company.

Reddy told IT Pro he was looking to create a stable workforce, with more internal business knowledge, and one in which contract labour was restricted to project work.

"The business is so dynamic, you need people in-house – you can't outsource everything," he said.

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