Building a Foundation for Leadership with Alaska Airlines

In the MSIS 550 Leadership Lecture Series, students have the opportunity to complement their in-class learning experience with related practical experience from executive IT leaders. As the academic year has come to an end for the class of 2020, MSIS reflects on one of the hallmark leadership lectures featuring Alaska Airlines, hosted this fall. 

Here’s an inside look at what we learned about building a meaningful career in tech and what it means to be a leader in the field.


In her opening remarks, Charu Jain, Senior Vice President of Merchandising & Innovation* of Alaska Airlinesshared she didn’t set out initially to be a CIO and actually wasn’t planning to work in tech. But during a tech-focused internship, she knew she’d found her passion. Looking back on her career as a whole, Charu said,

My career success is full of learnings, embracing change, leaving my comfort zone, and getting lots of help along the way.”

Charu wasn’t the only leader on stage who didn’t start with tech in mind. Former Alaska Airlines Managing Director of Information Security, Nathaniel Callens shared he originally wanted to go to medical school, but quickly realized the tech side of health care is what interested him the most. As a manager, he sees the value of diversity in career paths: “People will come from all backgrounds — it makes the team stronger,” he said.


One of the most meaningful lessons of the evening was that the person you should trust the most to steer your career path is you — including knowing when to leave a job and when to stay.

If something about your path doesn’t feel right, especially early in your career, that’s when you should take a risk.”
– Vikram Baskaran
Vice President Information Technology, Alaska Airlines*

Lori Longthorne, Strategic Communications Manager at Alaska Airlines echoed the importance of listening to your gut. On this she said, “It’s so important not to let yourself get complacent. You should be driving your career, not the corporation you work for.” Andre Nellams, VP of People at Yesler, Inc. said, “You know it’s time to go when you’ve lost the drive to challenge.”


Our panelists shared that taking on a leadership role in tech is uniquely challenging because so often as tech professionals we’re focused on having a significant, measurable impact as an individual contributor. As Vikram Baskaran said, “[When you become a manager] Your value system changes — it’s harder to see your direct impact. To succeed you need to be intentional about that shift toward helping others make an impact.” Lori Longthorne addressed this, sharing, “Pride in your work now comes from seeing your team succeed, but that shift doesn’t happen overnight.”

Andre Nellams brought up another important point about leadership, stating that leadership is not necessarily about the title you have. On this he said, “Thought leadership and influence are more important than the role itself when it comes to leadership. You have to desire to be a leader and shift your focus toward the collective.”

Leadership is about more than being the most accomplished person in the room or the one with the brightest ideas. As leaders in tech, one of the biggest, yet most rewarding challenges we face is building a team and creating an environment where innovation can flow freely. The leaders at Alaska Airlines and Yesler, Inc. reminded us that the foundation for any great team begins with self awareness and the drive to help others succeed — no matter which path we’ve taken to get there.

*Charu Jain previous Vice President & Chief Information Officer was promoted to Senior Vice President of Merchandising & Innovation in January 2020.  
*Vikram Baskaran previous Managing Director of Product Management & Software Engineering was promoted to Vice President Information Technology in January 2020. 

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