What does it take to combine the many information-technology systems of two giant airlines?
Well, it takes the analysis of nearly 1,200 IT systems, completion of 75 projects and 100 sub-projects, the coordinated effort of more than 2,000 people and years of work. And if there are any mistakes made along the way, you run the risk of irritating the thousands of customers who book flights online and print boarding passes every day, as well as the crews who fly the planes and the government regulators who monitor the industry.
To pull off such a monumental task, Delta Air Lines Inc. turned to its chief information officer, Theresa Wise.
An expert in applied mathematics who entered the airline industry as an intern at Northwest Airlines Inc., Wise is widely credited with making the marriage between the Delta and Northwest IT systems a success.
The process began in the spring of 2008, when Atlanta-based Delta announced it planned to acquire Eagan-based Northwest. The combination created what at the time was the world’s largest airline. Wise had been CIO for Northwest since 2001 and was tapped by Delta to take on the same role at the combined airline. Wise quickly set to work, examining a host of IT systems within both companies that handled everything from scheduling pilots and flight crews to printing out boarding passes and managing baggage.
Along the way, she developed what became known as the “wall walk”: a giant piece of paper covered with multicolored Post-it notes, each of which denoted an important piece of the integration process. The patchwork of Post-its formed “swim lanes” of tasks. When staff members needed to add, remove or re-order a step in the process, all they needed to do was stick or un-stick.
It was a low-tech approach, but most important, it worked. “It was much easier to engage a large group of people because it was so tangible,” Wise said. “It is a little bit corny and hokey. At the same time, what I was interested in wasn’t flashiness — I was trying to get at the heart of a really complex problem.”
The size and scale of the integration project presented challenges, but so did the speed at which tasks had to be completed. Delta executives wanted to offer customers of the two airlines a combined frequent-flier program and a single flight-booking system. And they wanted to do it fast.
To make that happen, Wise and her team had to create “cut-overs” — ways of either combining any two systems into one, or ensuring that customers interacted with only one system, even if two were doing the work. Ultimately, Wise identified 269 such cut-overs.
“From a pure IT perspective, it would have been simpler to have done one big cut-over, so that we weren’t cross-connecting things,” she said. “But we wanted to get as much value for our customers as early as we possibly could. That was the theme we were marching to.”
The process required countless tests and coping with a few unexpected snags. For instance, the paper stock used in one airline’s airport kiosks didn’t work in the other carrier’s kiosks. Wise’s staff had to ensure that when they cut over the kiosk systems, there weren’t major paper jams at airports worldwide.
“It’s not a big deal if paper in two kiosks gets stuck. It’s a very big deal if it gets stuck in hundreds of thousands of kiosks.”
Despite those and other issues, there were no major disasters. Most passengers were unaware of all the work being done behind the scenes, which is key to the success of any such systems-integration project, said Bob Mann, an airline industry expert with Port Washington, N.Y.-based R.W. Mann & Co. Inc.
“Customers are fairly intolerant of failure and, of course, regulators are similarly intolerant,” he said. “To get it done essentially without notice, which is the way you want it, is notable success.”
Integrating massive IT systems is just the type of challenge Wise relishes.
A Twin Cities native, Wise developed an interest in math during middle school, when she enrolled in an advanced-learning program at the University of Minnesota. At St. Olaf College in Northfield, she majored in math and chemistry with an eye on the medical field. After studying in Budapest, Hungary, for a few months, she decided to forgo medicine in favor of pursuing a Ph.D. in applied mathematics.
“I saw how math and that systematic thinking, as well as that creative side to it, dovetailed with a lot of other disciplines,” she said. “What I was interested in at the time was the ability to solve large, complex, optimization-type problems.”
In graduate school at Cornell University, she began scouting for internships in her home state, citing the “draw of Minnesota.” The search landed her at Northwest Airlines, where she invented a system for scheduling pilots that the airline put into practice. When matching up flights to pilots and routes, there are billions of combinations, each of which can have a big impact on an airline’s expenses, Wise said. She developed an algorithm that helped Northwest pick the best of those combinations.
Wise took a full-time position at Northwest after completing her doctorate and soon rose through the ranks. Richard Anderson promoted Wise to the position of CIO while he was the CEO at Northwest. At the time, she was still below another layer of managers, but Anderson said Wise’s leadership skills made her a standout candidate.
“She’s brilliant in terms of innate intelligence, but she also has tremendous emotional IQ and really great leadership ability.”
Anderson was hired as Delta’s CEO in 2007, before the merger was announced, and when the Delta and Northwest management teams were combined, he said, “It was obvious who the CIO was going to be.”
While the bulk of the IT integration is behind her, Wise said there still are plenty of exciting problems to solve, and plenty of opportunities to make the airline work better for customers.
“I sort of pictured [the integration] as being the biggest thing I would do. It was a big thing, but I think the opportunities in front of us are even more exciting.”