How this CTO is navigating security in travel-tech

AirHelp’s Tim Boisvert discusses the challenges of updating legacy tech in the travel industry and the benefits of being ‘cautious ahead of time’ with security.

Tim Boisvert is the chief technology officer (CTO) at travel-tech company AirHelp, which supports passengers with flight disruptions. With more than 25 years of experience working at companies such as WeFox, Yahoo and AOL, Boisvert has expertise in leading large, distributed organisations focused on the development and architecture of platforms, services, tools and products.

In his current role as CTO, he is responsible for managing AirHelp’s engineering, data, IT and security teams to help scale its core systems and advance its technology culture.

“We want our technology strategy to be as closely aligned with our product strategy as possible, rather than working against it,” says Boisvert. “This means part of my role involves working with our chief product officer to refine and better understand our product strategy for the next few years.”

What are some of the biggest challenges you’re facing in the current IT landscape and how are you addressing them?

The incredible growth that AirHelp has experienced over the last few years has led us to rethink many of our system and process choices. Solutions that once scaled well when the business was smaller aren’t as effective now, as they are not built for the level of scale that we are quickly approaching.

We are also coming up against a vendor landscape that is obfuscated and oversaturated, meaning it’s very difficult to find real value in most of the offerings. Our leadership team is receiving dozens of new vendor emails a day and almost all of them are being ignored because their value isn’t immediately clear or they’re too enterprise-y, which is a major turnoff.

A positive challenge we’re enjoying is the opportunity to move to lower-cost resources within our existing cloud providers. AirHelp has been 100pc cloud-native for several years, but we’re now seeing success as our cloud providers continue to expand their offerings and bring ‘lower-cost-for-similar-performance’ compute options into the mix.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation in a broad sense within your industry? How are you addressing it in your company?

The travel industry has made strides in its digital transformation journey in recent years. This is largely due to the introduction of tools like AI and machine learning, but there is still room for improvement, especially when considering real-time communication and baggage technology. The main challenge for businesses in this space relates to updating legacy technology that has been in place for decades.

AirHelp is ahead of the curve in that we have been digital-native in most areas of our business from the very beginning. Our human-driven operation processes only operate with tools fully based in the cloud. We also run no data centres, we have no physical IT beyond our laptops, and our budgeting process is built around a vendor-driven approach.

‘It’s time to make security a first-class citizen, not an afterthought’

Sustainability has become a key objective for businesses in recent years. What are your thoughts on how this can be addressed from an IT perspective?

Approaching sustainability from an IT perspective involves leveraging the technology available to reduce our environmental impact, optimise resource usage and promote good practices. This starts with green technology infrastructures, renewable energy sources through responsibly produced hardware and electronic waste management. It also involves looking at energy efficient software development, green procurement policies and raising awareness about sustainable best practices.

Beyond this, we are reliant on vendors to deliver the majority of our core IT services in our industry, and we have to hold them more accountable. We need them to provide us with visibility into the various sustainability metrics associated with our specific accounts and at a microscopic level if needed. Only then can we work with them on desired metrics and even go as far as changing to vendors that are more aligned with our own internal sustainability goal.

ESG is a part of the bigger picture. By integrating these approaches into our IT operations and decision-making processes, we can better achieve our sustainability goals while at the same time potentially reducing costs and improving operational efficiency.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically?

There is so much hype around generative AI, and I see a great deal of opportunities for our industry to leverage this technology and make a difference. But I’m still really excited about the previous ‘big AI’ wave, specifically the focus on machine-learned recommendation and prediction. It continues to be the workhorse driving many of the major revenue drivers in our space. Predictive algorithms knock the socks off of humans when it comes to the task of predicting or hypothesising desired outcomes, and I’m enjoying seeing the depth and richness of the machine learning world continue to provide so much value.

I’m also interested to see the streamlined processes that automation based on large language models will bring to many of our human tasks, and how quick this uptake will be. There is something satisfying about engineers elevating themselves to the more traditionally challenging task of becoming proficient at building machine learning algorithms and all of the ecosystem that goes with them.

What are your thoughts on how we can address the security challenges currently facing your industry?

It’s time to make security a first-class citizen, not an afterthought. While this is challenging to do in practice, I’ve seen it work successfully.

After witnessing Yahoo go through dark times from a security perspective, I committed to putting security at the forefront. The day-to-day job of our engineers is sometimes more complicated as a result, mainly as it requires more upfront review and approval of configurations and design choices. But the pain of nasty security failures is far worse than the pain of being required to be cautious ahead of time.

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