How Southwest’s CIO modernized the airline by way of turbulent instances


Taking the helm as CIO is a serious transition for any IT chief, however Lauren Woods’ expertise at Southwest Airways stands aside.

Two months earlier than she was formally named CIO in February 2023, Southwest skilled one of many largest operational disruptions in aviation historical past, proper in the course of the busy vacation journey season, with outdated software program methods on the middle of the meltdown. 

Southwest CEO Bob Jordan later attributed an imbalance within the firm’s progress mindset and an absence of funding in digital transformation as central causes of the journey disruptions the airways incurred through the December 2022 holidays. Centered on progress, the corporate’s management had deprioritized modernizing inner methods, hiring IT employees, and updating inner processes to maintain tempo with its progress agenda. The outcome was a PR firestorm with greater than 15,000 cancelled flights, unprecedented refunds and reimbursements, a $220 million income loss throughout This fall, and a $140 million civil penalty when the mud settled.

Woods was thrown immediately into that deep finish, with little time to regulate to her new management place. She calls it an “accelerated studying alternative,” noting that while you tackle a brand new position, you usually count on round six months to study and develop into the place.

Woods didn’t have that luxurious. As a substitute, she discovered herself going through not solely an accelerated studying curve, but in addition “accelerated visibility.” Nearly instantly, all eyes have been on her as she sought to proper Southwest’s operations.

“That was attention-grabbing as a result of I feel among the prime management who knew of me and supported me into this position actually hadn’t seen me,” she says. “So now they acquired to see me in motion.” 

Main throughout turbulent instances

Woods’ background main transformative initiatives at Southwest, in addition to her method to management that she has developed all through her tenure main IT groups, suited her nicely in taking up IT because the airways was plunged into chaos.

Leaning on these bona fides, Woods rallied and guided her groups to overtake Southwest’s technical operations with a shared dedication to doing proper by the client. In reality, buyer options is the place Woods started her tenure at Southwest 14 years in the past, having signed on to handle throughout a time when the corporate was transitioning from C++ to Java, and adopting agile improvement methodologies.

Woods spent the following decade studying the ins and outs of Southwest’s business aspect, overseeing the transition to a brand new reservation system, integrating new methods when the corporate purchased AirTran, and ultimately shifting into extra integration work throughout the corporate, earlier than coming again to the front-end a part of the enterprise as a director.

When Kathleen Merrill, then SVP of know-how and CIO, tapped Woods to work on operational methods, Woods was hesitant as a result of the majority of her expertise was on the business aspect. However Merrill acknowledged that Woods understood software program improvement and had each a robust working data of the airline and deep area experience — all of which singled her out as a robust candidate to make the shift.

“I ended up leaning on my companions within the enterprise and studying a lot from them about how our airline labored and what it was like on the operational aspect,” she says. “It gave me insights into how essential information, cloud applied sciences, and different issues have been that we actually wanted at the moment.”

As Southwest launched into its cloud transformation, Woods was promoted to vice chairman of know-how platforms and structure, taking up bigger digital transformation and modernization duties alongside the best way. And in September 2022, Woods was introduced as incoming CIO, set to take over the IT mantle from Merrill in February 2023.

Woods says the expertise navigating Southwest IT by way of that turbulent interval was a time of utmost private progress, forcing her to dig into the chief position and determine what was wanted from her, exhibiting up for her crew, and main them to higher organizational footing. Whereas the occasions that led to Southwest’s most up-to-date modernization have been regrettable, Woods and her colleagues are pleased with what has come of their efforts.

“We’re a greater airline for it,” she says.

Woods benefitted from the truth that Southwest IT was already launched into a modernization journey when she was named incoming CIO. The December 2022 meltdown merely pushed the corporate to speed up that course of, with a deal with updating outdated and irregular operations all through the enterprise.

One key concern Southwest confronted through the 2022 vacation meltdown included mass flights cancelations because of operational methods struggling to get better from the preliminary weather-related disruptions, rendering the corporate unable to find crew members at instances to employees flights. Woods and her groups addressed this concern by constructing a software referred to as Crew and Plane Built-in Restoration and Optimizer (CAIRO).

In line with Woods, CAIRO is “the primary of its sort,” enabling Southwest to automate, prioritize, and reset the crew and plane networks concurrently and flag potential flights which may must be cancelled, whereas minimizing the potential influence on crew members.

Woods’ crew was additionally supported by work they already did in response to COVID-19, which pushed them to deal with core information basis adjustments. These made it simpler to implement real-time information streaming, lowering the time to drag information from an hour or extra, to simply minutes.

Authenticity and braveness

Woods additionally credit firm management with serving to her crew efficiently flip issues round, noting that she had the total assist of the chief crew, who have been open to listening to what wanted to be modernized, what wanted to be improved, and the place the largest investments wanted to be made.

“In order that’s the place we’re centered — ensuring we now have these dependable and efficient methods so we are able to create that aggressive benefit the place we need to be centered on having the ability to produce a very good product, as a result of we now have actually nice prospects,” she says.

As CIO, Woods oversees a “large breadth of labor and focus,” as know-how performs a task in each a part of the enterprise, from airline bookings, to employees scheduling, to the monetary methods that preserve the corporate afloat, she says.

Previous to coming to Southwest, Woods labored in consulting, an expertise she feels helped make her the chief she is right this moment. As a part of that work, Woods turned very accustomed to navigating conditions by which she was the one girl within the room — a actuality she says she has by no means shied away from. As she has superior her profession, Woods has made some extent to determine leaders she will study from, in addition to these she doesn’t need to emulate. Regardless of working in a male-dominated trade, Woods says she’s additionally been lucky to have a number of ladies leaders who got here earlier than her at Southwest, together with Kathleen Merrill, who was VP of technique when Woods joined 14 years in the past, in addition to EVP and CFO Tammy Romo, Chief Administration Officer Lunda Rutherford, and SVP of Buyer Expertise Teresa Laraba.

“What was wonderful about Southwest was that after I got here in, there was a very good quantity of feminine management. That was a beautiful alternative for me as a younger chief to come back in and say, ‘Okay, I see myself there.’”

That illustration proved to be a cornerstone as Woods developed her management type, and seeing different ladies leaders within the group helped her envision the same path ahead for herself. She discovered herself drawn to genuine leaders, particularly ladies who weren’t involved with being “good,” and who confirmed up as their true selves at work.

“A number of instances after we are arising in our careers, we see individuals who appear very skilled,” she says. “You get the elder statesman, the very quaffed feminine chief, and I didn’t relate to any of these. I need to be very genuine. I prefer to lean into being very brave, however I’m additionally very a lot not good.”

In creating her management type, Woods has recognized authenticity and braveness as her main values. To Woods, authenticity is essential as a result of she feels it’s the one means she will present up as her greatest self; braveness in the meantime allows her to deal with the tough facets of her management roles successfully, whether or not it’s having tough conversations or being vital of processes and platforms.

“I at all times need to lean into that braveness, however I need to do it in an genuine means that matches my values. I need to be sort and respectful, even when I’ve to be powerful and exhausting. I need to discover readability in my position, and my crew wants that readability from me. After which I want to hunt that readability from my stakeholders and govt leaders,” she says.

These values served Woods nicely as she navigated one of many hardest transitions a CIO can endure.

Whereas Woods acknowledges that management approaches could be formed by those that got here earlier than you, on the subject of mentors, Woods advises aspirational leaders to make sure that they aren’t solely wanting above them for mentorship. Whereas it’s essential to study from and make connections with leaders within the group, you’ll be able to study simply as a lot from friends in your group, or individuals exterior your division or profession path, she says.

“I feel there’s lots of people who search for mentors to be your boss, or any individual who’s already in these positions,” she says. “And I’d actually encourage ladies to search for individuals keen to spend money on them no matter their place, as a result of among the individuals who have been most influential to my profession aren’t executives.”

Digital Transformation, IT Management, Journey and Hospitality Business

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