Airbus CTO talks innovation and his CIO's difficult job

Dr Jean Botti, Chief Technical and Innovation Officer at Airbus, is a veteran engineer: he holds 24 scientific patents and has served at some of Europe’s technology giants over three decades. Starting his career at Renault in 1978, he spearheaded efforts in technical innovation at General Motors and Delphi Corporation before becoming Airbus’s CTO in 2006.

Armed with an MBA, a PhD and two honorary doctorates – all achieved after having embarked on his professional career – he has demonstrated a longstanding commitment to using and understanding technology, at the helm of Airbus’s technical group and as an active member or leader of several professional bodies across Europe.

Dr Botti was at the Singapore Airshow last month to support Airbus’s presentation of its groundbreaking A350 XWB aircraft – nearly 10 years in the making. We talked to him about some of the innovations that went into the aircraft as well as his management ethos and the issues that keep him awake at night.

Could you talk about your role at Airbus, and what are some of your concerns around technology and innovation?

My role in the Airbus Group is to be responsible for technology, IT and quality. Not quite in terms of operations, but with other tools that help the company get more unified, more integrated. In particular, under the “quality” umbrella, I have program management, systems engineering tools, and Product Life Cycle Management (PLM).

On top of that, I'm also looking at innovation and new business ventures.

In my organization we create little startups that are supposed to become the companies of tomorrow – these will take some of the technologies that are not necessarily core, but that could become core in 10 or 15 years from now.

In particular, we have an example here at our booth in the Airshow, of Non-Destructive Testing, where we have developed tools to check cracks on composites, metallics and materials like that. This is not in the core base of the three major divisions, but something that is absolutely necessary to have to be able to control our airplanes or parts that are now more and more composite-made.

So my spectrum of responsibilities in the company is pretty broad. It's not only technology. That's why I'm not the technology officer, but technical officer, which is much broader.

How do you see IT having disrupted the airline industry?

It's no question that connectivity is a fact of this century. I think for us, this means more connected aircraft. It's not just a matter of in-flight entertainment; I'm talking about information systems and greater sharing of information. When you take the example of what happened in Iceland, with the volcanic ashes, being able to have greater predictability is extremely important to us.

The IT field will become more and more important in the aircraft industry. And obviously, when you do that, you have to make sure that the exchange of information is done in a very safe and reliable way.

Today it's called cybersecurity. I'm also in charge of that for the company, on the inside. I'm not in charge of developing the business for the outside, I'm in charge of making sure that our company, our products are completely safe from any kind of threat coming in from the outside.

So even with aircraft-to-aircraft communication, you might have some security elements that need to be taken care of quite stringently?

Yes. And it goes deeper than that, in the manufacturing aspects, when you get more and more parts that are manufactured in many different countries. Metalwork can come from anywhere, so you need to guarantee that the company runs in a seamless way.

Can you imagine, for example, if you have to stop the assembly line for one week because of a malware somewhere? This is a lot of money – millions upon millions of dollars. These are things that are not visible from the outside but are absolutely key to us. So that's part of my job.

A lot of people say that when security works, nobody gives it any prizes, but when it breaks down, there's always a finger being pointed. So in a way, it has to work by default?

You're absolutely right. The worst job in the company is the job of my CIO. He's got the most difficult job because everybody criticizes him, even in everyday activities, because of this.

In a company like ours, in the business of aerospace and defense, you cannot do everything you want to in terms of connectivity. You have to have safety nets, safety gates.

It's extremely difficult to understand for young people that come in fresh from school or even for us at home, where we are connected to everything. We've got Facebook, we've got LinkedIn, etc. Inside the company you can't do that, because you open too many gates - that's the dilemma we have to try to resolve. How do we make people happy to come to work with us knowing that we have all these constraints that are unfortunately in the DNA of our company?

That's a big thing because it means you have to create a ‘Facebook’ inside the organization – people want to be connected and they want to talk to each other. You just have to do it in a way that makes them as happy as possible.

So this is why I come back to the original point, to say the most difficult job is the CIO’s job, because if things go well, nobody says, “Oh it's going well”. Everybody assumes it has to go well, but if things go badly – even minimal things – all of a sudden it's an explosion of complaints.

I always take the time to thank our IT people because they're doing a heck of a job, and we have a heck of a constraint on our shoulders. The CIO reports to me in the corporate structure, so I'm very close to him.

Is there a philosophy at Airbus for innovation? Is there an overarching thrust?