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Airport CTO takes customer service to new heights with sensor technology

Houston Airport CTO Lisa Kent uses sensor technology to provide superior service to her customers -- both internal and external.

Our SearchCIO 2013 IT Leadership Awards recognize the contributions and innovations of IT professionals at enterprise...

companies. We put out a call for nominations for individuals who have excelled in six categories: cultural innovation, technological advancement, business value, green IT, IT engagement and customer experience.

Lisa KentLisa Kent

Finalist Lisa Kent is the chief technology officer for the Houston Airport System (HAS) and oversees the day-to-day technical operations for three city airports, including the George Bush Intercontinental Airport and its nearly 40 million passengers each year.

Last year, Kent and her team ushered in a passenger wait-time tracking program that leverages Bluetooth-enabled devices and sensor technology to give the business a deeper understanding of how passengers move through the airport. The data is also used to aid passengers; screens located in the airport lobby display the average wait time for security checkpoints. The project epitomizes an IT department that understands that customers come first -- in this case, both its internal business customer and the customers of the business.

Superior customer service doesn't stop there. Kent is also charging forward with a stack of initiatives that highlight social, mobile and collaborative exploits, such as beefing up the airport system's Wi-Fi, creating mobile applications for passengers and staff, automating the badging renewal process and developing internal social media and collaboration efforts, to name a few. According to the nomination form, one of the keys to Kent's success is building good working relationships and encouraging her staff of 68 to not only support stakeholders but also consider ways IT can generate new revenue streams. Now that's just good business sense.

Read more about Kent, a finalist in the technological advancement category, in this SearchCIO Q&A.

Official job title: Chief technology officer

Number of years in IT: 23

From the judges

"Lisa's focus on both external and internal customers is exemplary. Anyone who can help make an airport a better place to be deserves recognition."

Company: Houston Airport System

Revenue: $491M (Total Revenues, Fiscal Year 2012)

Number of employees in the company: 1,405

Number of employees in IT: 68

Educational background: Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering, University of Tennessee

First (professional) job: Software engineer, Northern Telecom

What's the best advice you've ever received? Put God first; everything else will sort itself out. 

In the movie of your life, who would play your character? Reese Witherspoon or Meg Ryan. They've both played characters who were girl-next-door types -- compassionate but plenty of spunk and not afraid to speak their minds.

If you could have just one superpower, what would it be and why? To heal people -- bodies, minds and souls -- because suffering is painful to watch. I would enjoy lifting those burdens.

What's your favorite app on your smartphone or tablet device? Evernote

Where do you fall in the iPhone versus Android debate? iPhone

From the nomination

"[Lisa Kent] is constantly building relationships throughout the organization, taking the time to understand our customers' needs, and collaborating with stakeholders to properly grasp general requirements. From that, we're packaging the ideas together to effectively select the appropriate technologies."

Describe the best technology decision you ever made: We created an infrastructure license agreement that allowed us to barter unused infrastructure for [Wide Area Network] and [Internet Service Provider] services that we needed, and never would have been able to afford [otherwise]. It continues to be a very lucrative business deal that I am very proud of.

Was there ever a technology that you thought was a gimmick but now couldn't live without? This is embarrassing: the cellphone camera. I am an amateur photographer, so cellphone cameras seemed inferior, and why would I want to use one? Now I cannot live without it and use it nearly every day for both work and personal purposes.

What's the biggest challenge you face in IT today? Two challenges: staffing and staying ahead of my boss, who is quite visionary and progressive about the use of technology.

Which role/internal partner do you rely upon the most? The entire Houston Airport System technology team. They are the people who make things happen, who understand how to analyze problems and develop ways to solve them and who come up with creative ideas that help our customers think outside the box. 

What's your prediction for the next big technology? Believe it or not, we are thinking about commercial space travel from one of our three airports in Houston.   

What's your favorite nonmonetary benefit or perk of your job? Airports are just cool places to work anyway, and Houston is a vibrant and growing city. We are continually expanding and renovating the airport facilities, which means researching, designing and deploying new technology components. Every terminal and runway has my team's fingerprints all over it, and it is fun to see the fruits of [our] labor come to life. My family is annoyed when I point out all the systems or infrastructure when we travel.

What is the biggest problem you see with corporate cultures today? Communication and assumption of intent. Successful corporate cultures communicate well and accomplish much because they are all pulling in the same direction. They look for win-win strategies rather than expecting or assuming it must be win-lose.

What are "rookie mistakes" you see in up-and-coming IT leaders? Failing to understand the business need before trying to apply a technology solution.

Describe your leadership style: Most would probably say tough-but-fair. In the DISC profile I am a conductor/persuader. I have high expectations for myself and others, and I feel successful when we are getting the right things done. I typically set the strategic direction, but get out of the way so the team can determine the technical solutions. 

Let us know what you think about the story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer or contact @TT_Nicole on Twitter.

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