CIO Update Q&A with Southwest Airlines

To support it’s growing operations, Southwest Airlines relies on it’s IT department and a service orientated architecture (SOA) to give it the flexibility and business insights for continued growth.

CIO Update caught with Patrick Bolin, senior director of Data Warehousing and the No.3 man in charge of IT at the 31,000 employee airline, to find what role IT plays in the company’s continued profitability and success.

CIO Update: Why is data warehousing important to Southwest?

Bolin:“Southwest is a company that has always been very intuition based. And as we’ve grown, we just need information to support our intuition. So the warehouse has become more important the last couple of years because people need information to support their thoughts, their feelings especially in a large organization like Southwest.

The warehouse is the foundation for (business intelligence) so we have the odd delivery teams that are part of our strategy and the warehouse is really about acquiring the data to support the use from the business standpoint.

It’s really an integrated repository verses just copies of productionized data. So we take data from multiple systems, integrating in a way that makes it more useful to the business is really what we do.”

The company is expanding at a significant rate, does IT have to keep pace with this or have you architected the infrastructure to expand with a few key strokes?

“We design all of our applications with the idea of expansion in mind. But I wouldn’t say it’s as easy as a few key strokes. It really depends on what you are trying to accomplish. If we’re just adding a station or flying to a new city or something like that, that can be done relatively easily.

The things that get tougher is if you want to significant change to a business process or provide a new service you don’t currently provide, then, obviously, that would require more custom work to be done.”

What effect is growth having on IT?

“Obviously, the demand for our services is growing. What we need to have is a combination of the business to help prioritization and we have to constantly look at ways to make ourselves more efficient and more effective so that we can maintain a low cost.”

How important is IT to Southwest’s ability to keep offering low fairs?

“I think it’s very important because what we are trying to do is provide technology in a way that gives (our employees) the capability to spend more time servicing the customer and less time doing repetitive tasks.

And we’ve seen this the last few years, we’ve also have tried to deploy more self-service automation to our customers: the ability to do boarding passes over the internet, the ability to do check-in’s through kiosks and those sorts of things are all be driving by technology.

Such as with the kiosks for instance, we can have people more focused on helping the customer that need personal service … verses checking bags. It’s that sort of thing.

I guess the other airlines have looked at it more from the standpoint of can we cut staff or reduce staff. We’ve looked at it from the standpoint of can we continue to grow the airline with the staff that we have by giving people the opportunity to do different kinds of things.”

To help accomplish this goal, have you laid out a roadmap for IT with regards to the business and where it’s going?

“Absolutely, we have a multi-year plan that is always in place and we revise it multiple times a year.”

A lot of companies want to do this but don’t seem to be able to succeed in their efforts. How does your plan stay current with the needs of the business?

“It’s got to be part of budget/planning process, it’s got to be part of governance process—there are a lot of aspects. It’s more of discipline thing I think. You can’t just put it out there and say, ‘Okay this is the multi-year plan were going to function under for the next three or four years.

You have to continually look at it and say, ‘Okay, I know I made this plan last year but is it still the plan that makes sense for us’.”

It seems like, just form people I’ve talked to, a lot of the challenge (in making an IT/business plan) is you have geographical dispersion where everything at Southwest is centralized from a corporate management standpoint.

The other thing is Southwest has done a wonderful job of building a real team-minded spirit where people understand what our purpose is and what our goals are as a company and that we’ve got an obligations to give that our best. So you don’t have a lot of personal agendas getting in the way of meeting the needs of the company.”

You’ve said that IT is viewed as ‘essential’ to the company’s future success by Southwest’s leadership. How do they view IT in terms of the business?

“We are part of the strategic deployment plan for the future of Southwest airlines. So you can’t say we’re going to change the company or we’re going to continue to make the company become more efficient without looking at technology as a part of that.

It’s not the only part of it; there’s process change, and then obviously, for us, the most important part is our people. You have to have all three of those things in place to be successful.”

Are efforts under way to better align IT with the business?

“Yes, we have actually made a lot of strides in this area over the last three years. The biggest thing there is we didn’t really have a good governance process in place (in the past) to really help us decide what work is going to done and who is accountable for making sure the work stays focused on the things it needs to be focused on.

And, ultimately, just governing on a day-to-day basis—making sure that the right people are involved; that the right visibility is there on high-profile projects; that the connectivity is there between the infrastructure work that needs to happen and the project work that needs to happen.

“Really, that has made all the difference in the world to us because now we don’t get distracted by things that aren’t as important to us. We stay on track better. People have a better understanding of their responsibility in terms of input into projects and keeping things focused and moving along; it’s really a combination of a lot things.”

How important is ROI today in selling new initiatives to upper management?

“It is a factor, but is one of several that are considered. It’s important but I think Southwest has a healthy perspective that it’s not the only thing that needs to be considered. You have to look at projects from multiple aspects and, I mean financial is one, but there are others. It really depends on the project.”

If you could change anything about your IT operations today, what would it be?

“It is still very hard to put together an IT strategy that covers the highest impact areas. You may not be able to get to everything all at one time. You have to have some sort of plan for prioritizing things and working from highest priority down. But there can be a lot of high-priority initiatives that don’t get looked at at any one given time.

Many decisions are still made in silos … [t]he problem is there’s always lots of needs out there and everybody feels like their need is the most important thing. It’s how do you get people to be like-minded about what the priorities need to be.”

Even though you are working with a centralized infrastructure, date warehouse and a SOA, do you still have issues with siloed applications and data?

“Most of our siloed applications are legacy. We’ve been spending a lot of effort getting out of that but it takes time.

(Web services) sounds good but when you actually have to do the work it’s not quite that easy. So, for instance, if you have legacy applications … that weren’t really designed for a SOA, if business rules are embedded deeply in the code, you can’t just write a service that sits on top of the application and provides data or a framework where you can just ask a question and get an answer. It’s a little tougher than that.”

You’ve said you do no outsourcing. Why is that?

“We’re just a very high touch organization and so we believe that working hand-in-hand with our customers is what differentiates us and that’s hard to do with offshore.”

What’s in it for you personally? Why do like IT when it’s become such a tough place to make a living these past few years?

“The big thing for me it’s been a fun experience working for Southwest. I’ve been here for 10 years. I’ve gotten to see the company evolve quite a bit. And the exciting thing now, for me personally, is I’m in an environment where the data warehouse is becoming important to how we make decisions at the company … and it’s great to be at a company that really appreciates the value of the work that we do.”