Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Alaska Airways CIO Charu Jain is leveraging tech to take the trouble out of journey

Charu Jain, second from left, at the U.S. Chamber’s Aviation Summit in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. (Alaska Airlines Photo)

Charu Jain got her first exposure to technology as an intern at a company run by her father’s friend in India. Making 500 Rupees a month (less than $10 U.S. ), she fell in love with tech and changed her mind from wanting to be a diplomat to being a techie.

She had another brush with love as a software developer trainee at United Airlines in Chicago, where she fell for the airline business.

“I started with maintaining current systems where problems were usually in the middle of the night,” said Jain, who ended up spending more than 14 years at United. “After trying to fix badly written code with no documentation, I learned how to write good code.”

Jain is now vice president and chief information officer at Alaska Airlines in Seattle, and she is our latest Geek of the Week, focused on leveraging innovative technology to connect people.

“The most satisfying part of my job is seeing the magic happen, when people connect with the use of technology and that service leads to an amazing guest experience,” Jain said. “An airline is part retail, part manufacturing and part logistics, so we get to experience multiple industries in one place. … We take the lessons learned from other industries, whether it’s a coffee shop or hotel, and apply them to how we deliver on the guest experience. We want our customers to look forward to the journey, not just the destination.”

Jain, who is one of five female CIOs in the U.S. airline industry, believes the future of the airline travel experience will further leverage mobile technology, data analytics and artificial intelligence, blending the physical and digital.

“As we begin to leverage mobile services throughout the airport and inflight, you’ll see a personalized experience. This will allow for a more interactive experience between employees and guests,” Jain said. “We will also leverage analytics to optimize the guest journey (without being creepy). Imagine as you arrive to the gate area, your favorite song is playing as we work to personalize the traveler’s overall experience.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Charu Jain:

What do you do, and why do you do it? As the CIO for the fifth largest airline in the U.S., my team and I are laser focused on delivering a hassle-free travel experience to the 44 million customers that fly us every year. I lead an engaged workforce of 600+ information technology professionals responsible for Technology Product Management, Software Engineering, Common Services, Enterprise Architecture, Infrastructure and Information Security, while working closely with C-suite leaders throughout the company to ensure technology solutions align to the overall strategy and goals for Alaska Airlines.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Stay ahead of the curve. This week I had the pleasure of speaking at the U.S. Chamber’s Aviation Summit in Washington, D.C., and had the unique distinction of being one of five female CIOs in the U.S. airline industry. I spoke about technology and innovation, specifically how technology transformation is changing the airline industry. Technology solutions change and evolve every day, and it changes so rapidly, so you always need to plan for the next big thing. Ten years down the road, there will be jobs we couldn’t imagine existed in today’s world. Every day you need to look at how you deal with disruption in the industry and determine where that comes from — and drive innovative solutions forward.

Where do you find your inspiration? The remarkable people I work with every day inspire me the most. I am inspired by people consistently overcoming obstacles. I love to watch people grow as leaders, and go above and beyond what they set out to do. I am especially inspired working at Alaska Airlines where our frontline workforce and technology teams work together continuously to build on and improve our technology tools to make processes more streamlined for employees and our guests. I love to see people breaking though barriers, and getting things done against all odds, always embracing the “Alaska Spirit” and taking care of each other.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? My PHONE! I use my managed device for personal and work to track important meetings, access email, track my progress on 5K training, and actually to use the voice option on the telephone to call people and just say “Hello. How are you?” I love staying connected with people.

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? My desk is a conference table, which is useful for impromptu collaboration with my team.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Plan ahead, prioritize the critical items and be intentional. Don’t let the calendar take over your day. Set priorities and drive progress towards completion every day. And my gosh, have FUN. We drive innovation in fun and engaging ways at Alaska. Two great examples are through Shark Tank events with ITS employees to identify new ideas, and hackathons with universities and industry partners. 

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Definitely Janeway!

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter.

I once waited in line for … to meet a Bollywood movie star when I was a teenager.

Your role models: Indira Gandhi, the first female prime minister of India; Bill and Melinda Gates; and my father P.C. Jain, who was a diplomat.

Greatest game in history: I love to compete! No one sinks my BATTLESHIP

Best gadget ever: My Alexa Echo.

First computer: Russian mainframe using punch cards.

Current phone: iPhone Xs.

Favorite app: Couch to 5K trainer; Waze; Alaska Airlines.

Favorite cause: Any cause related to furthering opportunities for women to advance in STEM focused fields. I am passionate about that cause and serve on the board of directors for YearUp and the UW’s Foster School of Business. We actively recruit STEM talent and Early at local elementary schools as well as high schools and leverage Hour of Code programs (Flappy birds and spheros) to show students how easy it is to code at a young age. We are also very involved with Aviation Day and Seafair Fanfest to meet with students to talk about careers in aviation and opportunities in technology and aviation.

Most important technology of 2019: Augmented reality like Microsoft’s HoloLens.

Most important technology of 2021: Artificial Intelligence, which will become more mainstream for predictive capabilities.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Never stop learning, keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, challenge yourself in all that you do. When you’re tired and ready to give up, just give little more.

Website: Alaska Air and Alaska Air Blog.

Twitter: @cjain1 … and 10 points if you use the hashtag #FlyTechAlaska

LinkedIn: Charu Jain.

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