The marriage between chief information officers and venture capital firms is a logical one, as CIOs are often the consumers of the enterprise portfolios of the venture community. There is a small but growing list of CIOs who are getting more involved in venture, including venture arms within their enterprises.
Eash Sundaram is one of those CIOs. In addition to being the Chief Digital and Technology Officer at JetBlue, he is also the Chair of JetBlue Technology Ventures. With this combination of roles, Sundaram is at the center of a tremendous amount of innovation through creative use of information and technology and through the digital transformation he has helped usher in. He also leads an innovation lab. In this interview, he describes his various areas of responsibility, the interplay between these functions, and reasons why he believes more CIOs will take on a wider array of responsibilities, as he has, among other topics.
(To listen to an unabridged audio version of this interview, please visit this link. This is the 34th interview in the CIO-plus series. To read the prior interviews with CIO-pluses from companies such as Intel, P&G, Biogen, Kroger, and Cardinal Health, please click this link. To read future articles in the series, please click the link above to follow me on Twitter @PeterAHigh.)
Peter High: Please describe your purview as the Chief Digital and Technology Officer at JetBlue and the Chair of JetBlue Technology Ventures.
Eash Sundaram: I have three distinct functions. First, I oversee Digital, which encompasses all of e-commerce. Second, the core technology functions report to me. Lastly, I have oversight of JetBlue Technology Ventures, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of JetBlue that was founded in early 2016. JetBlue Technology Ventures invests in travel, hospitality, and transportation verticals that will enable, through technology, the next chapter of JetBlue’s innovation.
High: From our past conversations, I know that you are working on the next generation of the customer experience. What are some of the things you are developing?
Sundaram: From its founding days, JetBlue’s mission has been “to bring humanity back to air travel.” Our latest vision of inspiring humanity touches every part of the travel experience. For JetBlue, the core of the customer experience starts with the mission of being personal, helpful, and simple. Our mission is tied to two things JetBlue takes tremendous pride in innovation and a culture of hospitality. For example, we are exploring the use of biometrics for improving the travel experience. Working with Customs and Border Protection and our partners at SITA, we have launched a biometric boarding process for select international flights at Boston Logan International Airport. We have seen some early success. The traditional process at a gate is people come in, scan their boarding pass, and wait in lanes. Biometrics improves the process because now people quickly have their picture taken and walk on through; all of the transactions behind the scenes are automated. Not only is this simpler for customers, but it also lets crewmembers focus on meaningful interactions with their customers, instead of transactions.
High: You are the chairman of JetBlue Technology Ventures, which is headquartered in Silicon Valley. What was your rationale for that location?
Sundaram: Innovation is a part of our DNA. JetBlue Technology Ventures allows us to fast track innovation. We chose Silicon Valley as the hub because no other place has 20,000 active startups, great universities, and an extraordinary amount of tech talent. It is where we must be if we want to learn from and embrace disruptive companies. Silicon Valley is our starting point, we may go to places in Asia and Europe, in the next couple of years.
High: What type of investments does the Ventures arm focus on?
Sundaram: Travel, transportation, and hospitality. As we mature the organization, we may look at adjacent spaces. The primary goal of JetBlue Technology Ventures is to drive innovation within JetBlue. In evaluating companies, we look at the short, medium, and long-term usability of their platforms for JetBlue. We are concentrated on investments that enable us to expand our presence into different markets and products.
High: Another way JetBlue has embraced change is through your innovation lab in Brooklyn. Many innovation labs have failed in creating true change across an enterprise. They might have minor successes through prototypes of ideas, but they have not successfully brought big ideas, at scale, back to the larger organization. How have you differentiated your lab to help ensure its success?
Sundaram: While JetBlue Technology Ventures is a separate entity, the innovation lab is an internal entity within JetBlue. The job of JetBlue Technology Ventures is to discover new technology. The lab’s job is to consume that technology and bring it to life within and throughout JetBlue. Our leaders and teams all understand and have internalized, the jobs of both JetBlue Technology Ventures and of our innovation lab. We have already seen success in the broader organization that was driven by embracing new technologies that started in JetBlue Technology Ventures.
High: What do you see as some of the unique attributes of JetBlue’s culture?
Sundaram: We measure the success of our culture in different ways. We evaluate our Net Promoter Score, which is how much our customers love traveling with us. We also look at the internal engagement of our crewmembers, or how much they enjoy working with JetBlue. JetBlue has the highest engagement score in our industry. Our engagement scores are in the high 90s, which is an unbelievable score for a company in the service industry. In fact, we rank pretty high amongst many industries.
Our scores are high because we are present. When we come to work, we leave our titles at home. It is meaningless to have titles running a company. We are present and engaged across the company, at all levels. As we grow our footprint, it is important for us to stay engaged with our front-line crewmembers and the people who run the company day-in and day-out.
High: The set of responsibilities you described earlier suggest looking to the future, thinking about innovation, and rethinking the customer experience. How have you populated your team with people who can see around corners and think about the art of the possible? What sorts of backgrounds do you look for?
Sundaram: Our technology organization is diverse. It includes deep subject matter experts from different operating functions, pilots, in-flight crewmembers, and technologists. When we bring all these people together, the outcome is fantastic. Because of my background, I started in operations and grew up there, I see technology as a toolkit, not as a skillset.
High: Bringing people from different walks of life together, suggests JetBlue recognizes the value to be gained at the intersection of traditional disciplines. Is it fair to say your organization prioritizes the touch points between functions, as opposed to thinking about them as silos?
Sundaram: Absolutely. In the past, our digital function was split between commercial and technology. Today, it is a blended organization. When we think of technology, we think of running a great business, not about running a great technology company. It is a different mindset. The biggest drive force for us is a great customer experience. We deliver that through merging a great culture with great technology.
High: You have been what I refer to as a CIO-Plus, multiple times over. For example, before JetBlue, you held CIO responsibilities and were the SVP of Global Supply Chain at Pall Corporation at the same time that you were CIO. What are the advantages of having multiple purviews and operating at the nexus between multiple disciplines?
Sundaram: To be successful, you need to have a great product, a service model that delivers that product, and a great operating company. I have spent most of my career managing those functions in companies where technology plays an integral role. My background in operations, customer experience, and technology, when married together, are perfect for helping to take JetBlue into our next chapter.
High: Do you think your experience in bringing multiple disciplines together, is something more CIOs will have the opportunity to take on as we see a translation of the way value is created in the IT function?
Sundaram: Definitely. With the current pace of change, a successful organization has to bring functions together. Functions will start merging even more than we have seen in the past. It will be the new way of doing business.
High: You are on the boards of Champ Cargosystems and SITA. What value do you derive from serving on these two boards?
Sundaram: I am thankful for JetBlue for the opportunity to serve on boards. It has been a great experience for me. Being on the board of a large multinational company gives me access to things I may not see in my day-to-day job. My current board seat is strategic in nature. This is in contrast to many CIO roles, who are often 50 percent transactional and operational. The different perspectives provided by serving on a board enable CIOs to think strategically about how organizations evolve, learn about governance and compliance, and see how successful large companies are run. You have to run a great company first. You can only drive innovation if you have a great platform to support it.
High: As you look to the future, what trends excite you?
Sundaram: We do not invent anything in the airline space. We are a recipient of consumer electronics; we take what is happening there and find ways to implement it. A trend that is changing the way we operate is near field communication (NFC) technologies. It will help us simplify how we run our business. We have seen a large transformation already with biometrics; both with facial recognition and fingerprints.
Another trend we are excited by is fintech, particularly in the payment space. Large banks and credit card companies are tapping into our customer base to access real payment information. We have to find a way to get into that space, partner with them and have real-time connectivity with our customers.