Keith Williams is managing director of Altran Praxis, a UK-based systems and software house whose projects have included the Solar Impulse aircraft, air traffic control systems and tactical unmanned air vehicles.

What does Altran Praxis do?

Altran Praxis is a specialist systems and software house. Working with both civil and military organisations in the aerospace industry, Altran Praxis has experience on projects ranging from unmanned air vehicles to air traffic management. We specialise in two quite different areas: everything to do with safety-critical systems and innovative infotainment systems.

How did you start with the company and where did your career go from there?

My first job was working on the Channel Tunnel, which was an excellent project for learning about complex critical systems. After a couple of years, I left to join Praxis as a software engineer. Praxis was one of a few companies specialising in the critical systems field, and one which I had always wanted to work for.

Keith Williams - Altran Praxis
 © Altran Praxis

My first project with Praxis was for a seaborne helicopter landing system. I was testing the hardware and software using advanced techniques against extremely demanding defence standards. This introduced me to extraordinary levels of engineering excellence.

Praxis was bought by Altran, and in 2001 I was given the opportunity to run a spin off business funded by the new owner, where I spent three years building a team. Eventually I returned to Praxis as Managing Director, where we completed a couple of mergers. In 2010, I was also appointed Group Executive Director of Embedded and Critical Systems at Altran Group.

Describe a typical week as managing director

No week is typical, but they all begin the same. On a Monday I am in Bath UK with Altran Praxis. On Tuesday I fly from Bristol to Altran’s headquarters in Paris, which works well as I can use CDG airport as a hub. The rest of the week is spent visiting teams and clients around the world. Altran operates in 15 countries, so the week could see me travel around Europe to Germany and Italy, or as far as China and India, where we deliver engineering expertise in the aerospace sector.

I try to travel in the evening to avoid losing the working day.  Airport lounges and flights provide a good time for catching up or just switching-off, and so I remain a great fan of mobile phone free flights, despite our expertise in connectivity.

What projects are you most proud of?

Altran Praxis has many projects to be proud of. We have been working with the UK’s National Air Traffic Services (NATS) on the development of the advanced iFACTS system. iFACTS will provide controller tools for medium term trajectory prediction, conflict detection and monitoring aids, and will also replace the paper flight strips at Swanwick. This is one of the most important software developments in Europe, it is great for our engineers to be involved in such a complex, innovative and important project.

There are other exciting projects, like Solar Impulse. In 2010 the prototype, HB-SIA, made the first ever manned 24 hour solar-powered flight, achieving a world record. Altran is closely involved in the project, working as Engineering Partner in areas such as energy management and simulation. The overnight solar flight drew attention from global media outlets like the BBC and the New York Times, followed by hundreds of blogs and tweets - it will be a huge event when it makes the around the world attempt. My favourite story from Solar Impulse is the pilots getting used to fuel dials going in the “wrong” direction, sometimes landing with more power than they took-off with!

A personal point of pride is that my 15-year-old nephew recently announced he’d like to be an engineer. Engineering is moving at such a fast pace, and is key to solving so many of the world’s problems from green issues to food security; a derivatives trader is of little help with such issues. Seeing young people aspiring to build things makes me proud of my field.

What advice would you give an 18-year-old interested in working for your company?

My advice would include learning several languages. The industry is becoming increasingly international, so having additional languages and being able to do business using them is a great benefit when working abroad.

And, while it is important to make sure you learn the fundamentals of engineering, and that your education has a solid foundation, it is also important to focus on interpersonal skills. They are a necessity for career progression: without good people skills you can still be a good engineer, but you may struggle to become a leader of engineers.

What does the future hold for Altran Praxis and you?

Many of the issues facing the industry offer opportunities for both Altran and Altran Praxis. Demands arising from SESAR, datalink adoption, advances in unmanned air systems, passenger infotainment and the need to improve safety despite the increasing complexity of systems, all play to our strengths. Also, many of our clients need to be supported in many different countries, typically Asia, China or South America and this is also a major focus going forward.

On a personal level, the future will see me further integrate my two roles within the Altran Group. Being appointed Group Solution Executive Director for Embedded and Critical Systems at Altran last year, as well as continuing in my role as MD of Altran Praxis has been exciting. In my new role I want to further develop Altran’s engineering and technology engine and particularly look to bring technologies and expertise from other industries into aerospace and vice versa.

Source: Flight International