“My life is all taken up by my two loves: family and work. I have no real time for personal hobbies,” admitted Ian Briffa, Director of Technical Systems, Infrastructure and Security, at Corinthia Hotels Ltd. He said this in a most loving tone. He was not lamenting but merely emphasising his complete dedication.
It took little to entice Ian to speak about his family. “I met my wife, Connie, when I was only 16 and still in sixth form. We were both enjoying ourselves at a carnival party, and something attracted us to each other. And that something is still there. It was the start of a beautiful life journey.
“When we married and had our only child, Jade, Connie stopped working and dedicated all her attention to the family. It was not an easy decision; Connie gave up her career for this, and I am full of admiration for her. She graduated with a BA in History at the University of Malta. She later worked in Fund Management at a local bank, so she was well on her way to an established career, but she never looked back, and we are now both very proud of our daughter, Jade, who is 18. She will be starting her university studies in psychology this October.”
“So you will have two university graduates in the family,” I quipped.
“No, three. I, too, have a university degree: a BSc from London University. I studied whilst working, and it was tough. But all so rewarding!”
Did any of his parents work in the same field as his? “No, I come from a family of tailors. My father was a qualified tailor who studied in England, and my mother was also in tailoring. Father was the Headmaster of the Tailoring School in Malta, set in Floriana but he also ran his mini factory, which produced clothing for export. The cottage industry closed when my father died some 12 years ago. A growing textile industry sounded the death knell of small enterprises. I vividly remember when I also gave them a hand.”
So, was his father irked when Ian decided to take up computing? “Not at all. On the contrary, I owe him a lot on this score. Though he was not proficient in technology, he readily understood its future potential and made it a point to buy us home computers to familiarise ourselves.
“I joined Bank of Valletta as a clerk in 1996. Back then, we used to type bills payable for salaries of customer companies, which was quite a chore. It would take long hours to type, check, etc. I suggested a system to automate the process, and my proposal was taken up. We finished the process in 10 minutes instead of a whole morning. This contribution caught the eye of management, who, after four months, suggested I should join the bank’s computer team. And that was the beginning of a long, exciting journey.
“When I left the bank, I joined Island Hotels Group to gain a broader experience in my field. There, I was not merely responsible for a small division but had to handle the entire system. In 2015, Corinthia acquired the Island Hotels Group, which is how I joined Corinthia.
“I immediately suggested that we should join all our hotels to one corporate domain to avoid a disjointed system, and my boss, Adrian Scerri, immediately took this on board and now, for over seven years, we have joined most of our hotels. A standard system also facilitates the movement of staff from one property to another since these would experience a uniform scenario. Each process is very time-consuming to complete but is most rewarding and efficient. Naturally, we keep a vigilant eye to see when changes are required.
“One crucial problem is how to upgrade systems without frustrating an ongoing service. It takes cautious and judicious planning. Naturally, no new systems are allowed to be introduced without our authorisation because of the real danger of incompatibility, which would thwart ongoing processes.
“With the imminent opening of new hotels, I envisage a surge in work, but I look forward to the challenge with great interest and determination.”
Ian led me through his primary responsibilities. The infrastructure aspect includes caring for the foundations of IT, beginning from wiring a new property and up the scale until reaching the application stage, such as internet, email service, hotel systems, etc. Without these foundations, nothing functions. “We now speak of infrastructure and security,” added Ian. “Security involves a healthy robust and resilient infrastructure, plus securing it as solid and safe before the end-user reaches the application level.”
Introducing the infrastructure must essentially be followed with rigorous maintenance. Network equipments’ lifetime must be managed and catered for by ensuring timely replacement. It is not as easy as it may look. The process requires planning to avoid disruption of services, which could derail continuous efficiency.
“When you drive a car, you do not need to know how the engine works. All you care is that it works efficiently. In the same manner, the general manager and all staff are interested that their internet, POS or other services are working efficiently. And we must ensure that this remains a constant reality. Periodically, we study replacement and recommend budgetary considerations.”
I noted that Ian’s job title also includes the word Security. “Correct! That is a wide scenario, which includes the security of the data room against fire (fire extinguishers, fire precautions, etc.) and the security of data ports, where we have to ensure, for example, that a customer using a telephone port does not disrupt the whole telephone system. It also includes the safety of data against viruses, the use of firewalls and other processes which protect the system from external interference and ensure data retention.”
Though the IT department at Head Office is lean, it continuously liaises with all the IT departments of the different hotels. Centralisation of security is also of paramount importance since changes in personnel in the various hotels would not cause differences in systems and approaches. “Centralisation is safer and more efficient since it involves standard policy and knowledge of it is retained without spurts of independent initiatives.”
The growth of the Corinthia Group has necessitated a separate Director of Information Systems for systems which are out of the scope of infrastructure and technical systems, the latter falling under Ian’s remit. “But, naturally, we work very closely with the Systems Department because they, too, need infrastructural support from us.”
“Other units we work very closely with are all the IT departments of our business units, and also third party entities which support our units, such as Costa Coffee, Corinthia Caterers and MFCC, which are supported by a third party.”
Ian’s job is a demanding one which requires possible work outside regular office hours. “I always say to others that if you are not ready to extend your families to the hotel, this job is not for you. In the past, systems were less resilient. It was not rare to be called on-site during the night. Nowadays, more resilient systems and remote access have drastically reduced these night visits, but still, there could be a rare occasion. We must assist in time or suffer serious repercussions. And we must do this with utmost dedication.”
Are youngsters nowadays well-trained for this type of job? “Academically, yes, but we lack apprenticeship. Nowadays, students face their jobs with only academic support, without practical experience. I am a firm believer in apprenticeship since it benefits both ways. Employers can assess and direct the apprentices in their work and even offer them permanent jobs upon completion of their studies. On the other hand, youngsters can assess what aspects they prefer in their job and come to grips with practical problems which will certainly enhance their studies and assist them in choosing the type of work they prefer. I yearn for apprenticeship to be re-introduced.”
Though Ian was chatty with me and outgoing, he admitted he was a reserved person. He felt at ease talking to one person but uneasy talking to an audience. “I have had to do this and prepared myself to the hilt, but public speaking is not my preferred scene.”
“I get on well with all the staff and consider myself very accessible. Still, I am very conscious of the need for quick decisions to solve what could otherwise develop into a severe inconvenience or problem. I have no greys; it’s either black or white. So, I like to be clear with all and expect the same approach in my regard. I want to know and be made aware of mishaps since time is of the essence in our job.”
I led Ian back to his after-work relaxation. No hobbies, but indeed, some form of relaxation must exist. “Oh yes, after work, I fully enjoy the company of my family. And, by the way, I also love travelling with my wife and, when possible, my daughter. We enjoy all types of holidays: cities, countryside, culture, cruises, etc. I relax while driving, but I limit this to two hours for one way since that would mean another two hours way back, which would frustrate our schedule of the day. I plan a holiday but confess my agenda is not set in stone. I do not want a visit to turn into a race to complete a list.”
“I cannot omit naming my friend Buster, our Yorkshire Terrier who is now 11 years old. He is a living alarm. Anyone who walks close by our door is heralded by a sharp, unrelenting bark. He is more my wife’s pet, but when I arrive home, he is always the very first to greet me. And he never barks when he hears my steps outside the door. He is aware it’s me before I even open the door and that makes me feel special in a place which commands a privileged place in my heart.”