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JetBlue CIO, digital leader, venture capital investor

This blog post is part of our Essential Guide: 2016 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium: The digital CIO has arrived

“Our philosophy is we are a customer service company that happens to fly planes,” Eash Sundaram, CIO and executive vice president of innovation at JetBlue Airways, told a lunchroom of CIOs at this year’s MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. “Technology is the backbone of our customer service.”

eash sundaram

Eash Sundaram, JetBlue CIO

Many companies like to tout customer service as the key to their success. And many companies, no matter the industry sector, view technology as core to the quality of their customer service. How else could they sell to a digital customer if technology, specifically information technology, were not a pillar of their business models?

So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the JetBlue CIO, in addition to his IT and innovation roles, is also chair of JetBlue Technology Ventures, the airline’s Silicon Valley venture capital arm, which seeks out technology startups that enhance customer experience.

But the career twist — CIO as venture capital investor — was a new one on me in what may be the fastest-evolving role in the C-suite. And it apparently sounded novel enough to the CIOs and other IT corporate types sitting near me: We perked up when Sundaram, on a panel about the CIO role in digital transformation, started talking about the venture investment firm, formed in February and located 2,931 miles west of the airline’s Long Island headquarters in Redwood City, Calif.

“We have a small team out there with its own funding and a president who reports to me,” Sundaram said, referring to the multitalented Bonny Simi, pilot, three-time Olympian and Stanford grad.

JetBlue’s investment aim is to find and develop businesses that “sit at the intersection of technology, travel and hospitality,” in particular, early-stage startups specializing in personalization, geolocation, messaging, and virtual reality and other new technologies that bridge and enhance a JetBlue customer’s digital and physical travel experience.

“It’s a nice model for us to bring innovation back to the mother ship. In some cases, the investments we are making will be consumer products on Day 1, and in some cases five to 10 years out. We think this is going to be an important vehicle for expanding what Jet Blue does,” Sundaram said.

JetBlue CIO and digital transformation

While CIO-as-venture-capital-investor might be a rarity, Sundaram is representative of the latest iteration of the CIO role, said Shawn Banerji, managing director of the technology division at executive search firm Russell Reynolds and the moderator of the MIT Sloan CIO panel.

Five years ago, with the advent of cloud, most companies in search of top-notch IT talent put a premium on the “operational CIO,” Banerji said — someone who could build a robust, secure, scalable, functional utility across the enterprise.

“That’s a tough job. It requires great business aptitude; it takes relationship skills, great program project management skills, people leadership — all those sorts of things,” he said. About two years ago, CIO search criteria started to change.

“We saw the adaption of the role into the transformational CIO as businesses wanted to change from legacy ways of doing things into a more digital way of interacting with customers. They expected the CIO to adapt and play that role in that transformation,” Banerji said.

The technical aptitude and business skills required for this role are not exactly aligned with those required of the operational CIO, he added. Transformational CIOs like Sundaram, in addition to building robust IT operations for a digital customer, are also driving new products — and making money for their companies.

Many of those sought-after operational CIOs, while superb at their jobs, do not have the capabilities to become digital leaders. “It’s a different kind of profile,” Banerji said.

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