by Martha Heller

The CIO as champion of change

Oct 06, 2015

JetBlue's CIO makes himself a champion of change by collapsing silos within the organization and allowing everyone at the airline to be a developer.

When technology is the business, how does the IT organization need to change?

To my mind, this is one of the most critical questions facing CIOs today. From my last interview on the art of storytelling with JetBlue CIO Eash Sundaram, I knew he would have some answers. In the following interview, Sundaram talks about how shared metrics, a product management structure, and building a “development platform for everyone” is changing IT at the $6 billion airline.

Martha Heller: With technology permeating every aspect of JetBlue, how are you changing the way you lead IT?

eash headshot

Eash Sundaram, CIO of JetBlue

Eash Sundaram: The most important thing we are doing here is collapsing the silos. When we think about a program, we don’t think about IT and finance and commercial operations. We think about how the program improves our customer or employee experience.

For example, we are radically changing our lobby experience, and the person leading that project is not from the technology group. She is the head of sustainability for JetBlue, and she is one of the smartest crew leaders we have. She is so passionate about changing the airport experience that we asked her to lead the initiative, and we provided IT people to support her.

We often think we need a technology person to lead technology solutions, but that is no longer true. We need somebody who can envision the future. We have technology people who can translate those ideas into technology requirements behind the scenes.

How are you building speed into the IT organization?

Let’s use the analogy of Microsoft versus Apple. Historically, most companies have thought like Microsoft; they want to build solutions that solve everything for everyone. But if you adopt more of an Apple mindset, where you provide a platform for others to innovate, you can develop solutions faster. When you build a platform that allows you to crowdsource talent, then anybody can be a developer.

As a case in point, three of our pilots at JetBlue are building apps. Traditionally, an IT organization would have never let that happen. But we said to the pilots, “While you build, we are going to put a developer with you who will support what you build in the future.”

The traditional IT mindset is, “It’s my silo and you can’t come in. I’m not going to give you access. You have to wait in the line.” But the world is changing. I don’t really look at IT as a skillset anymore. IT is a toolkit. And everyone should have access to the toolkit.

How have you changed the culture of IT at JetBlue?

In the last 18 months, we’ve moved toward a product management culture.

A product could be a crewmember-facing product or a customer-facing product. Within each product, we have plan, build and operate functions, each of which require different skillsets. People who are planning think three to five years ahead about how the product will change. The build people think ahead one to two years, and the operate people think about capacity and reliability now and in the future.

Traditional IT departments have separate groups for project management, development, and service management. In that structure, nobody really owns the product end-to-end. In our structure, the product owner is accountable for delivering a great experience regardless of what stage the product is in.

How do you conceptualize your role as CIO?

The CIO job is more of a Chief Integration Officer than a Chief Information Officer. My job is to integrate multiple functions and be a champion of a change. As such, my goals are tied to the operating performance of the company, to our customer net promoter score, and to crewmember engagement. And I share these goals with other executives. When you share a net promoter score with your Chief Commercial Officer and your Chief Customer Experience Officer, you are collaborating with executives about how you can make the company better.

One metric that is fundamental to JetBlue is cost per airline seat mile. Every seat has a unit cost to it and everything we do across the business, including in IT, is measured against that cost of airline seat mile.

So every time you invest in a technology solution that adds cost to that airline seat mile, you need to bring in revenue or reduce cost somewhere to compensate. That’s how we make investments.

Many people in IT still measure systems reliability and uptime. But that doesn’t mean anything to anyone outside of IT. Another metric that we use is “Departure 0” (D0) which measures how many planes leave zero minutes late from the gate. Rather than say that we have three nines of uptime, we measure our network performance against D0. When everyone in IT owns that metric, they become passionate about the airline running on time.

What advice do you have for up and coming CIOs?

My dad used to tell me, “Efforts are appreciated, excuses are understood, but only results count.” As CIO, you can appreciate effort, understand why things didn’t happen as planned, but in the end, you have to build a result-driven company.

About Eash Sundaram

Sundaram joined JetBlue in 2012 as CIO. Before joining JetBlue, he served as CIO at Pall Corp., a global business in the diverse field of filtration, separations and purification. Prior to that, he held several IT leadership positions in the healthcare and supply chain management industries. Sundaram has a Master of Science degree in transportation management from the State University of New York – Maritime College. Additionally, Sundaram is a board director and member of the Audit & Risk Management Committee for SITA.