In a region known for home-grown tech titans, rapidly-expanding engineering centers and emerging-tech startups, it can be easy to overlook the integration of technology into legacy Seattle industries.
The 2019 State of Technology luncheon, presented April 26 by the Technology Alliance at the Sheraton Grand Seattle, gave insight into the relationship of technology and legacy industries with a focus on aerospace and retail.
During an on-stage “fireside chat,” Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden and Ken Worzel, Nordstrom’s Chief Digital Officer, discussed the deep integration of technology into their businesses. They also touched on ways to use technology to better serve their customers without losing human connection.
The CEOs of three Northwest-based companies shared their visions of the future of aviation and hundreds attended the event from the region’s educational institutions and tech and government sectors.
Kinzer was proud to sponsor the event to better understand the drivers of change, emerging ideas and innovative companies across the Greater Seattle region.
“The conversation between Brad and Ken was engaging and thought-provoking,” said Craig Kinzer, partner at Kinzer Partners. “It unearthed a lot of practical ways that companies outside the traditional ‘tech’ sphere can modernize and improve with careful applications of technology.”
Every company is a tech company
Early on in their conversation, Worzel asked if Tilden considers Alaska Airlines to be a technology company.
“Absolutely,” Tilden replied. “I bet every single person in this room thinks of where they work as a technology company. It’s hugely, hugely important to us.”
For talented young workers either relocating to the area or just joining the workforce, Tilden said he certainly understood the appeal of joining one of the major tech firms, but said opportunities abound for workers in smaller tech teams at companies like his.
“I also see the appeal of working on a three- or four-person team to develop an app that your families and friends use,” Tilden said.
An obsession with meeting the needs and wants of the customer is a common theme among locally-raised Fortune 500 companies. Alaska fits in with Amazon and Costco in this regard, Worzel said.
Many of the conveniences in air travel that we take for granted today were pioneered by Alaska. In 1995, Alaska became the first U.S. company to sell a plane ticket online. Tilden said Alaska was also the first to roll out self-serve check-in kiosks, allowing their fliers to skip the counter and print boarding passes themselves.
“We want to be the first in making it easy for our customers,” Tilden said.
Moving forward, Tilden said he wants to continue to look for ways to use data and technology to improve his customers’ flying experience.
“Our flight attendants going up and down the aisles, they know if you’re MVP or MVP Gold,” Tilden said. “In the future we want to know if you like gin and tonics.”
Worzel said companies need to understand and be strategic with “where to bring tech into the customer experience.”
For example, he said Nordstrom’s research into integrating smart technology into dressing rooms came back around to addressing shoppers’ two simple needs: a different size or a different color.
After their chat, a question from the crowd asked about the lack of competition for in-flight Wi-Fi, and why it was so slow.
“Gogo is getting better,” Tilden said. Alaska currently has 225 airplanes with Wi-Fi, and 25 airplanes with satellite connectivity that is 20 times faster than the ground-based Wi-Fi.
All the airplanes will be upgraded to the faster satellite system within 12 months, Tilden said.
These examples and others illustrated an essential practice for any modern company: Continually evaluate your offerings and innovate to keep up with customer demands and match those offerings to what consumers are asking for.
“Waze for your airplane” & other high-flying tech
Other highlights of the event included presentations by leaders at locally-based companies.
Tom Gibbons, Interim CEO of APiJET, showcased his company’s “Digital Wingtips” app, which analyses weather, airplane vitals and live updates from other airplanes to help pilots steer around turbulence and maximize a flight’s efficiency.
“It’s Waze for your airplane,” Gibbons said.
The Seattle-headquartered company also markets technology to help speed up airplane turnaround between flights and advanced aircraft health monitoring.
A vision of electric airplanes making short, regional hops to smaller markets like Ellensburg and Pullman was outlined by Roei Ganzarski, CEO of magniX. The company’s U.S. development center recently opened in Redmond.
Ganzarski said electric airplanes would not only eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from these short trips, but could use existing airport infrastructure. He advocated for the state legislature to push all regional airlines to go electric by 2050.
Finally, Spaceflight CEO Curt Blake gave an update on his company’s “rideshare” service for launching satellites into orbit. The front page of company’s website allows users to pick a date or an orbit for their satellite, as if they were scheduling an Uber.
On a trip to Pioneer Square, Blake saw the Klondike Gold Rush Museum and related the old outfitters to what he was providing for the “final frontier.
“The people in Seattle were selling tickets to get up to Alaska; they were selling picks and shovels,” Blake said. “We’re basically doing the same thing. We’re providing the means for people to get to outer space and really fulfill their dreams, commercializing what’s out there.”