When organizations or cities innovate, more often than not, the reason is to provide a better experience for the people. 

Taking this to one of the busiest facilities in any part of the world, Abhijit Verekar talks to Trevis Gardner, the Vice President of Operations for the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority in Knoxville, Tennessee and the CIO for the Airport Authority. 

Here, Trevis shares with us how he spearheaded airport innovation in his city, giving us a view of their projects, which aim to help end-users, and the tools they use to help their teams navigate. Speaking as a leader pushing for a long term strategy for technology, he then discusses how he finds the balance between risk-taking and risk-averse. Trevis further gives out some words of wisdom for those who want to incorporate technology into their business strategy.

 AV: Trevis, tell me about your journey. How do you find yourself in this position?

TG: It was an evolution. Many times in both careers and our personal life, there are events that are evolutionary, events evolve slowly, and then events that are revolutionary. Finding myself in the role of the Chief Information Officer, it evolved over time. I happened to be the right person at the right time. 

I had started out being a super user or on the high-end of perhaps competence with personal computing and networking applications. I was a bit of a hobbyist in the early ‘90s; it was my heyday of putting together PCs. I did some consulting and support work for a couple of locals, and I had a law firm and an engineering firm. That was back when they released a network stack with Windows 3.11 loaded on low-density floppies. It grew from there. Our organization had distributed IT management, both practice and philosophy. We have three major components for IT. We have the stuff that makes money and spends money.

I’ll start with money-making because it’s more fun to talk about. 

In the airport business, we derive a lot of revenue from ancillary services, so, things that drive revenue from the passenger being at an airport. The most obvious one is parking automobiles. We use an automated revenue control system with ticket spitters, fee calculators, and equipment that manages the revenue on that incremental basis from each time a person parks here. 

It’s an IT system. It’s PC-based and it’s on a network. Management of that is set in our business office. If we roll the clock back years ago, the technology department, as we call our IT, didn’t have any responsibilities. 

The other major component of technology at an airport is access control and video surveillance. That keeps us, our fliers, and all our airport partners safe. It’s now a big IP-based network configuration of peripherals that look at things or open doors and grant people access through hardware devices. 

The last major technology component at an airport is exactly what you’d expect: Workstations, printers, network area, storage, email servers, etc. I have a staff, an IT department (we call them technology because it’s extremely diverse at an airport.) Sometimes our IT assets are two-way mobile radios that our public safety officers are using, and sometimes an IT peripheral is a sensor that’s buried in a runway that’s monitoring atmospherics, other data, and use for weather analysis and prediction.

We touch a lot of different types of IT equipment. It’s convenient whether it’s RF, a mobile data system in a police car, or mobile peripherals. We lump it all into the term technology. That last component of the three major components was a traditional IT network with devices and peripherals. About three years ago, we made the decision that all of these things have some vulnerabilities, some cybersecurity concerns, and we had no one person that was ultimately responsible. We’re a public agency and stewards. I was named as the Chief Information Officer so that there was one person accountable and responsible to provide those systems and security of those systems to the stakeholders.

 AV: Did you start in IT? What’s your career path?

TG: Absolutely not. It’s perhaps a bit odd, but I’m a land surveyor.

I started out in vocation training and licensure as a land surveyor working here at the airport on a large civil engineering project. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the McGhee Tyson Airport was expanding. We had one 9,000 foot runway and one 6,000 foot runway, but we needed two 9,000-foot runways. 

We moved approximately 6.87 million cubic yards of Earth. If you’re not familiar with East Tennessee, it’s not a flat spot. So we moved incrementally about 20-yard cubic yards at a time. We moved close to seven million of those to form an embankment to extend the runway about 3,000 feet. It was dirt work, and land surveying was a viable component of that. 

My role was at the end of the process. I checked and verified calculations from the contractor and an engineering group to verify the basis of their payment and confirm that they took dirt from spot A and moved it into spot B and it met all the specifications. They got paid. It was $2.15 a yard. At the end of the process, I used the land survey techniques and verify that they were entitled to be paid for their work.

I did that for about two years. I did environmental management in our Engineering Department here for a year in engineering project management and served as an airport engineer for about seven years. I used computers and I use them in a unique role. I did a lot of CAD, Computer Aided Design. I started out doing AutoCAD release 2.1 on a Sun workstation with a great big digitizer tablet as the user-interface, there was no gooey, no graphic in it. The puck on the digitizer served as a mouse. This was before the mouse was even prolific. I had to learn the Sun distribution and commands for Unix. I did backups on a 60-megabyte tape. It was about the size of a VHS tape and I used a big Calcomp pen plotter to do maps and graphic products with a pen in a turret that put ink on paper, with a different pen for each color. 

When you’re doing topographic lines, you would start a plot at the end of the day and pray that when you came back into work the next morning that expensive vellum paper wouldn’t be watered up in a giant ball underneath the paper cover and that your plans on 30×42-inch paper would print out correctly. That’s where I cut my teeth on some of the programming and learned networking in its infancy. 

We agreed to help our administrator over the Access Control System. The early versions supporting it were on Novell Network using DOS commands for network commands. Quite an evolution.

 AV: Was this the early ‘90s?

TG: 1991.

 AV: Microsystems.

TG: It was a Sun Operating System running on a 386i.

 AV: That was my first computer. It was the late ‘90s when it came to India. 

So you’ve taken that on and you’re the CIO of a major airport in the US. I want to know what your thoughts on innovation are because what you described there is you had a set of tools that you use for certain purposes and you’ve adapted them to do other things for you. 

TG: I’ll use an example. I’ll offer a verbal white paper here. I manage operations and maintenance, I don’t have to collect the rent and I don’t have to do capital construction any longer but if it’s at the airport, I have my hands in everything else that occurs. 

I have a large workforce and managing that workforce efficiently is my calling. It’s my responsibility. It’s what I do. I inherited that management of people and assets from the paper-based systems. We had a rudimentary database written in FoxPro and I could program some advance to check a pump, sewer lift station pump monthly. It would spit out reports. You hand a piece of paper to someone and they execute.

When they get done, the database gets updated with data entry manually. We reconciled paper to update the database. There was no mobile implementation. I understood and was ready to harness the power of readily available office, type computer systems typically Windows workstation to make that easier. I began to look for something that was simple and easy to use, it has a term now called COTS or Current Off The Shelf. I picked this database system. It used Microsoft Access as the front end. It had a SQL server backend. It looked easy to use. I got it bought, getting ready to deploy it, and then September 11 happened. We set it aside and did it manually for another year or so. When we deployed the CMMS, which is a Computerized Maintenance Management System, it made us much more efficient, but there was no mobile implementation.

About 3 years ago, it was obvious we needed toolsets to make us mobile. So, I did what we’d always done. We began to look at what’s available on the open market that either is tailored for that use or could be tailored for that use. 

We needed mobile collaboration and a way to take what everyone else in the world was doing, which was sending each other text messages or emails from an iPhone, but we needed an enterprise version of that. 

We looked at a product that we used quite a bit in the late 2000s called Glassboard. It was a threaded discussion tool. It worked great for us. We loved it. It was inexpensive, but then a horrible thing happened: Facebook bought it and took it out of service. We began to search for another product like it and we found Basecamp. We became big Basecamp users. Our first big foray into the powers of collaboration with Basecamp is in 2016. We managed the Smokey Mountain Air Show with Basecamp. We had a disparate group of users and there are tools like Basecamp. I don’t hold it up as the end-all-to-be-all for online collaboration. It is a tool that works for a purpose, but it does not work for all purposes.

 AV: It’s what gets adopted and works best for you.

TG: It was adopted and it worked for us because we had a disparate workforce. We had high-end users, we had low-end users, and we needed a solution that was set in the middle and both could use. 

I keep on using Facebook as a metric. If a senior worker is comfortable getting on an iPad and communicating with their grandkids, they’re comfortable with Basecamp. We found we could use it for collaboration and project management. That set the stage for what happened with COVID-19, we had kept ourselves efficient by using technology collaboration tools. When March the 10th and 12th 2020 came along, it was within 24 hours of the restriction of air travel out of Europe. We had about half a dozen Basecamp projects stood up to manage both the data that we needed to manage ourselves, as well as act as an archive of all of our events, so that we could begin to communicate with all of our stakeholders and the rest of the world about how we were dealing with this issue before us of COVID-19.

I know that you were on the receiving end of some alerts that I had sent in early January 2020. We began to see some international intelligence about the impacts are for supply chain interruption and travel disruptions due to COVID-19. I published a webpage from my cell phone via Basecamp. I took the URL and pushed it out to our Airport Alert System to users. They could get 140 character text messages but they weren’t equipped to get anything rich content. I stood up a Basecamp web page quickly and sent out a text to work.

You got one but you will receive one of those. “Trevis was insane. Trevis was nuts talking about this Coronavirus and Wuhan, China having an effect on the rest of the world.” I sent a grand total of four of those beginning mid-January up until late February 2020. I can remember the date was March 8, 2020. Someone was discussing, “I heard about this Corona thing. Do you think it’s going to have any impact?” 

This was at a Blount Chamber function we had at the Hilton. Somebody asked me a question about it, I said, “Here’s an alert I sent out. I said I don’t know what’s going to happen but I know that we need to pay attention to it.” Within about 3 or 4 days, it had devastating impacts.

 AV: I got those texts. It was after you and I had met at the coffee shop and it was good intel because the news was all over China. What I took from your texts was, “This is coming from the Airport Authority. I’m going to believe this over anything else.” I appreciate that. It’s a great use of the Basecamp. When I said that, it’s about who’s adopting what? I’ve tried using Basecamp. I like it. I couldn’t get my team to buy into it. We use the Google Suite. Most of us use Slack and Zoom. That’s what they’re used to. With many options available, not just in collaboration and project management tools, and everything. You probably get 10 emails a day and people trying to sell you the same thing with a different sticker. How do you manage to stay on top of it and cut through the noise that surrounds us in technology?

TG: Firstly, I don’t trust myself. I am one of the worst people to edit my own work. If I have some written work product, I should not be the last person to read it because I cannot find my own mistakes. I cannot see a situation, I see it through my eyes. If I’m the person that has written something, I am poorly equipped to review it. 

I look at technology much the same way, and I learned a hard lesson one time. I remember it distinctly: it was in 1998 and I had the responsibility to survey the market and find technology approaches to deal with a land mobile radio to equip firefighters, public safety officers, and law enforcement officers. I understood technology. I bought, configured, and provided this project to these end-users. It was fantastic.

You could do phone patches of interconnects and you could have private conversations on it. I have no doubt. I log rhythmically provided more capability than they had when they started, it would do wonderful things and the end-user hated it. All they wanted was a radio that they could press one button on, talk to their dispatch center, receive audio back, and they could follow those directions. They didn’t want any other features like an orange emergency alert button for a man down or to have a private conversation. They didn’t understand that. They didn’t want it. I had provided it and I stayed frustrated for almost two years. I trained, we retrained, and we trained again. I had given the end-user more features than was appropriate. The capability was there but it did not match their needs.

I had done a poor job of needs assessment. I think the key is finding a tool that matches the need and not over providing too much capability. It leads to the frustration of the user and ultimately the owner or provider. You and I talked about the proliferation of video teleconferencing options. We observed that Zoom was in the right place at the right time with the displaced workforce and how they had risen above the competition and their peers of the Google services and Microsoft teams even though there are some folks out there still use them delegated architecture with Polycom’s in this day and time and Zoom was easy to use. The user made that distinction, “I want to use the easy one.”

People had never done a video teleconference as a consequence of their work. They’re now doing them every day, all day. It’s a matter of finding tools that the users are comfortable with, not the provider, or the policymaker. 

I’ve got a trusted group of folks that I routinely pull into Beta projects, and I trust them to tell me the truth. We are on our tenth unified messaging platform in five years, we’ve moved from using it to manage some aircraft incidents, recording the data, and documents. 

We have moved from using Drop.io, Glassboard, Basecamp, Microsoft Teams, to G Suite. We even use Google Stream at one time and Google+. I’ve got about five or six folks, trust to tell me the truth, and they do. Sometimes they tell me I’m an idiot. They tell me, “Trevis, you’ve got no business trying to implement this organization-wide. Use this one for me and you.”

 AV: Is that the foundation of a long-term strategy for technology? How do you balance? In your position as a CIO and vice president, there’s an element of your job that is risk-taking and the other one is being risk averse. You need to find a balance and at the same time you want to hear from people about how they want to do their jobs.

TG: I’ll use the Pareto Principle of 80/20 when it’s easy to go out, find, and buy technology solutions. 

Technology practitioners or IT professionals, that is their world. They live in it and they realize all the positive benefits of adopting solutions. Most times, they should avoid becoming an advocate for any one particular solution. Their role is to guide the end-users to a point of self-realization. If the end-user perceives that they have a need and they ask IT to find a solution for them, there is a golden opportunity. Eighty percent of the time, that’s going to be successful. When IT or technology practitioners, when they have a solution in mind, think something’s cool, or it will solve problems and they need end-users to change their habits and their processes to match the solution.

It’s only successful 20% of the time – I’m probably overstating it – I bet it’s 5% of the time. The more that IT professionals can do to keep the solution in the background and keep the user agnostic, they don’t have to worry about it, think about it, and deal with it. They use their existing processes or work practices. They’re insulated from the background. It’s a win every time. I realize it’s not always achievable. You have to move folks from WordPerfect to Word. You might have to move folks from Word to Google Docs that goes with the territory. Whenever possible, if you can, be a guide that end-user perceiving that they have a need that technology can fulfill, it leads to a greater chance of success.

 AV: It’s about outcomes too. As the end-user, if I want to get an email out to somebody else, I want to make sure my files are not lost. That’s the outcome I’m looking for. At least 80% of the success rate is to get you end-users the outcomes they expect without having to jump through hoops. Talking about IT strategy, it also starts with a vision. In your position or your peers, have a certain vision for delivering services to the patrons of the airport. At some point, someone like you has to translate that to the technicians at all levels, not just IT. What are your words of wisdom on translating business and strategy to “techie speak?” 

TG: It is the realization that one size doesn’t fit all. 

I’ve also got a military background, so I’m driven to standardize things. If we have primary decision-makers and they want to live in the Microsoft ecosystem, I’m driven, “We’ll adopt Microsoft ecosystem organization-wide, and we shall have no G Suite users.” 

For instance, we’ve got a GIS department and a GIS manager. His mission is to collaborate with other GIS professionals external to our organization to deliver data, graphic, and geospatial information to us as decision-makers and their preferred platform is the Google ecosystem.

In the vernacular to cram Microsoft down his throat and make him conform is averse to our vision of standardization. Those old paradigms that one size fits all, if you can make the whole organization look consistent and homogenous, does the end-user a disservice which is the opposite of what we’re called to-do which is to make that end-user’s life easier, not harder as a technology provider. That part of the vision is having flexibility and adaptability so that our users have tools, not only the ones that they need but the ones that they want. Sometimes it’s not possible but it should be pursued every time that it is achievable.

 AV: You’re echoing the thoughts that have been in my head for a long time. Let’s move on to some buzzwords. The term smart cities get thrown around a lot. Any magazine you open, there it is. I understand you’re not in city management but it has a lot of the common elements that you require things to be “smart.” You have a network of things going on even though you may not call it that. What is your definition of a smart organization city ecosystem?

TG: I’ll hit you back with two buzzwords and answers. 

Number one would be proliferation – so that whatever technology platform and services are provided, they don’t become islands unto themselves. They’re widely distributed, and it’s ubiquitous as water. You can go anywhere in a metropolitan area and you can connect a water fountain, a toilet, or a fire hydrant and you can get water. We are now seeing the infrastructure to allow the widespread use of the internet of things and devices. We are now in the beginning throes of the adoption of 5G. We thought we’d see that years ago with WiMAX and it didn’t happen. We’re at fault because we didn’t put the legislative pieces in place for the infrastructure providers to spread WiMAX among the urban areas.

The foundations there with 5G, we were well-served to be patient. We think we know how to do 5G and adopt it with our culture but by the same token, there are still hotspots in this country that are opposed to the installation of 5G. The first element for you is to use smart cities and I’ll use smart areas or regions. We have to wait until the infrastructure is mature enough so that we have proliferation. It needs to be available everywhere. We can’t rely on islands or you’ll have a disparity between your user groups. You’ll have non-adopters if they don’t have it available to them. It’s not as ubiquitous as being available, I’ll use water as the analog there. They will stay isolated and they’ll never get on the island or it will be greatly avoided.

 AV: It’s a utility – you expect it to be there. Someone on the show said, “I don’t care what you have. What are you going to use it for? How do you extract valuable data to make life easier for your patrons and your citizens and whatnot?” That’s one definition of “smart cities.” Speaking of IoT, connected devices, 5G, and all of that, there’s a risk element to that. You’re going to open yourself up to, we saw this today, ransomware, City of Knoxville. What are your thoughts on how this is going to unfold going forward the risk of cyber intrusions and ransomware? What do organizations like yours need to do to stay prepared?

TG: Organizations are driven to look at their peers and see what they’re doing. Secondary to that, they’re going to look to the providers for recommended solutions. 

There’s a third element that so far has gone overlooked. If we can harness this capability, it will bring more to the fight than anything else. That is the education of the users. We take for granted that we have to prevent the end-users from making choices and being involved in the processes of keeping themselves safe. I agree we should strive to do that but it will be analogous to how long it takes for safety culture on highways and roads to get folks to realize if you put your seatbelt on, you can keep yourself safer.

It took changing the culture of Americans and folks all around the world that they are a stakeholder in keeping themselves safe. It’s the same thing with stopping smoking and it has wonderful health effects. If we involve the end-users as we transform the security and cybersecurity per those programs, preventative measures, infrastructure, appliances, and all those things that keep our networks and our devices safe, what has gone overlooked is involving the end-user giving them more information to make decisions with so they can play a stronger and more vital role in keeping themselves and their systems safe.

 AV: You hit it right on the head. Education is critical. You can have the best of the blinking lights in your network. Someone’s going to open an email they shouldn’t, not out of carelessness, the repercussions are unknown at that point to them. Education helps. What are some of the most impactful projects you have going on at the airport?

TG: I’m almost scared to say it because I’ll jinx myself. It’s like the Beetlejuice movie. I’m beginning the initial programming documents for a project, in “airport speak” it’s called FIDS, BIDS and “common use.” FIDS is Flight Information Display Systems. That’s the big screens and the monitors in an airport that tell you which gate to go to catch which airplane for whichever flight and whichever airline. It is a consolidation of automated feeds from various sources worldwide communication infrastructure that’s used by the airlines. It is corrected with some real-time data inputs locally. It is pushed out visually on screens in the terminal as well as data feeds to other products, our web pages, and mobile distribution.

 AV: Let me ask you a burning question. When I am at an airport running to get my next flight and on the large display, let’s say Dallas, it says my gate is D5 but my app says it’s E7. It’s the other side of the airport. Who do I believe?

TG: I’m sorry that I have to give you this answer. It depends on which airport. In some cases, those screens that you see are owned, operated, and the content is provided by the actual airline. In some cases, it’s provided in a common fashion by the airport operator with everyone’s data amalgamated and displayed in one piece, or it’s a third-party that is doing that as a service for both the airlines and the airport operators. 

It depends on which app. Is it the airline’s specific app? Are they feeding data into the system? It’s getting resold by a consolidation provider and then sold back to the airline so there are some delays there occasionally. I can answer your question. It’s just, there are many different answers.

FIDS is Flight Information Data. BIDS is Baggage Information Data. The last term I’ll hit you with is “common use.” The concept of common use is at some airports, you’ve got 50 gates. Twenty-five of them are owned by one airline, and 25 of them are owned and used by another airline. A Delta gate is always a Delta gate and an American gate is always an American gate, that is proprietary or preferential use gates. The other concept is common use and it means depending on what time of day and which flight it is, you may go to a different gate. Gate 10 might be an American gate at 7:00 AM and 30 minutes later, it’s a Delta gate. You take all of your demand for gate space and you get to track it, and you assign them out on an as-needed basis and it’s more efficient.

The first use of this was back in the late ‘80s, Los Angeles hosted the Olympics. Tremendous demand on the LA Airport to support all the air travel and they came to the realization. We can’t build enough gates fast enough to have those ready for the Olympics. What do we do? What we do is we take all of our gates, we put them into a basket, and when an airline has got a flight ready, we give them a gate. When they’re done with it, we put it back in the basket and we reassign it as soon as someone else needs it. That allows airports to grow and provide more capacity without building more gates. We’re there and a lot of airports are there. In some cases, airlines, depending on their business structure and their business model, love this because they get to replace capital investment in bricks and mortar with management systems.

Having gates and a fixed lease for a fixed number of gates gives them a certain market position against their competition. Which is better? It all depends on the market conditions and the lease arrangements but we are beginning the process of replacing our 20-year-old FIDS and BIDS system with the infrastructure and the background pieces that will allow common use. That means that any airline can go to any gate, process passengers, talk to their background systems, and peripherals would be common. 

The computers don’t get changed out at the gate position. They have a common login and they talk to their proprietary system, and then they’re able to print common ticket stock and bag tags out. The Myrtle Beach Airport and White Plains New York Airports, these are very common at some airports and it provides additional capacity without having to build more gates. We’re at the headwaters. We’re beginning this journey. Wish me God’s speed.

 AV: Good luck. I’m assuming there’s off the shelf or close to off the shelf systems available for scheduling and matching gates to flights and things like that.

TG: There are a couple of big boy providers in that market and there are some customized solutions. That’s what lies before me is serving the market, looking at our needs, trying to find the right match going through the acquisition process, and then getting our stakeholders, our end-users with airlines. Hopefully, at the maturation of that project, we will have happy customers that lack our systems, which in turn allows us to meet our mission of we keep people happy because they can be flying in and out of McGhee Tyson Airport to do their business and seek their recreation.

 AV: I love flying as much as I used to fly. I haven’t been on an airplane for months, which is weird, but I love flying out of McGhee Tyson.

TG: You gave me the ability to end my day with a happy note. I got to talk about some things that I’m passionate about. 

I encourage anyone, if you’d like to learn more about McGhee Tyson Airport or the Knoxville Airport Authority and how we manage and utilize technology to serve our customers, which is the traveler in the region. I’m always happy to talk about that.

I’m thankful for our partnership and relationship with Abhijit and the fine folks at Avero. They do great work and they don’t just help me out from time-to-time, they help out our community. They’ve got a passion for serving others. I happen to think that East Tennessee is a better place to live because we’ve got fine folks like them that are here to help out local government and help us see the light, how we can use technology to overcome some age-old problems of talking to each other and working on problems.

 AV: I appreciate you, Trevis. You’ve got your own podcast if people want to hear about airport operations.

TG: We sure do. You can find out more about our podcast at FromTheRunwayUp.com. It’s From The Runway Up, it’s produced by Becky Huckaby and Caitlin Darras in our Public Relations Department. They produce it on a routine basis and it goes behind the scenes at an airport to help fliers understand more about how we operate, and air travel works. Thanks for the question.

About Trevis Gardner

A native of Blount County, Trevis Gardner is a graduate of Pellissippi State, Tusculum College and Leadership Blount. He currently serves as Vice President of Operations and Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority. Gardner also served with the U.S. Air Force/Tennessee Air National Guard for 24 years as senior NCO noncommissioned officer and commissioned officer. 

His community service includes Blount GED Program volunteer tutor, Adult Education Foundation Board, as well as Blount County Board of Education chairman. Trevis is the Chair-elect for the Blount County Chamber of Commerce. He and his wife, Candice, have two daughters, Libby Kate and Bekah Dale.

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