A few years ago, during my transition between software engineering at Google and program management at Microsoft, I took an intro flight in a Robinson 22 helicopter, simply because there was a good deal going, and it sounded like an adventure. I instantly fell in love with the challenge of flying, was mesmerized by the aerodynamics of it all, and was enthralled by the thought of how to improve the user experience of the pilot and optimize the process of flight.
Here I am, many years later, thinking that was the most expensive $70 Groupon I’ve ever come across! However, I’m now an FAA-rated private helicopter pilot, with 150+ total flight hours between the S300, R22, and R44, and have started working on my fixed wing add-on.
I’m often asked if I’ll ever take up piloting as a career. When I say this isn’t likely, but I plan to invest in it further as a hobby, the looks I get vary from “why are you wasting your time” to “how is it worth it financially?” The same goes for anyone looking at my resume (or that of other aviators); those who haven’t experienced aviation training don’t immediately see how the skills it takes to fly an aircraft apply to improving various aspects of life and other non-aviation-related career skills.
Here are a few of the skills I gained while getting my private pilot license, which help me every day in my personal and professional life:
1. Planning for a dynamic environment of unknowns
When planning a flight, there are countless variables which must be considered, such as weather, winds, fuel burn rate, other air traffic, and technical or mechanical failures, just to name a few. What is interesting about this is that the environment we are planning for is not static; it’s changing. The weather at your destination will be different when you land than it was when you were planning the flight. The ship you flew last week may have a different fuel burn rate than this new one you are renting. It took you 15 gallons to make this trip last time, but now you have a 15-knot headwind – will you make it? Do you have enough fuel to turn around? The density altitude is a lot higher at this airport, so the performance of the ship won’t be what you’re used to; how will this affect your landing?
Alright, so you can plan a flight. How does this help you be in an office and launch web stuff?
When building products, we are in a very dynamic environment. In addition to our resources changing, the world and audience we are building for, and the products already available to them, changes as well. Some examples of these changes that I’ve experienced in my current career are members of the team leaving the project (when this happens, the project deadline doesn’t magically get extended, nor is there always someone to replace the team member), shifts in the market which change the company and team goals or priorities, and unanticipated project obstacles, such as compatibility or new requirements from the user.
2. Multi-tasking, context switching, and prioritization
There is so much going on while flying! In addition to actually flying the machine, you have to be on the communications, watching visuals in the field, navigating, consuming data inputs from the flight deck, checking that the information you get from the flight deck is accurate and that it makes sense with the other information available, making new plans and back-up plans based on the ever-changing situation/environment you are in, and dealing with other potential distractions, such as passengers.
After dealing with all of that, there is no amount of things you can put on my plate that will push me over an edge. I train to deal with many things at once, with my life, and those of my passengers, depending on it. When it comes down to it, I always remember I have one main priority – keep flying the ship. I complete the primary goal and work on the others as resources allow. In my career, these same concepts are ingrained into my habits. When things get super stressful I come back to my main priority – the user and feature goals laid out at the beginning. While we may adapt these goals as the market shifts, they always exist. While this may sound like a simple concept, it’s a common flaw to get so caught up on the additional helpful tasks/features, such that we forget what our primary goals were – ultimately leading to never accomplishing the MVP, or minimal viable product we committed to creating and delivering to our customers.
3. Risk – It’s how you achieve great things, when you manage it properly.
No matter how much you train (or how excellent your school is), how well you pre-flight, the amount of sleep and nutrition you get, or the thoroughness of your planning and backup plans, there is risk involved when taking off and throughout the flight until the wheels are on the ground, key is out, and the blades stop turning. Risk will always exist, and as pilots we work to manage and mitigate this risk as much as possible. The only way to have zero risk is to never try and, well, that’s just failure.
However, no matter how much we mitigate, by nature of the job as a pilot, as you gain more experience, you take on more risk. When you start bringing passengers, you’re adding distractions. When you have advanced training, such as long-line or firefighting, it’s normal to advance in your career and do more risky things. Taking on more risk (in a responsible manner) equates to you achieving more – ultimately, literally saving lives.
Somehow, this concept tends to get lost in the corporate world. We take on risk while we are new to the industry, try cutting-edge projects, we aren’t afraid to fail the first try (or first few tries), iterate, and learn. When in large companies, we start out managing and accepting risk, and this helps us achieve great things. We accomplish something no one has done before, and we do the everyday tasks in an innovative way. With this success comes larger teams, larger budgets, more to lose. The skill of managing risk becomes more necessary.
I’m glad I’ve built, and continue to build, this skill set in aviation. While I’m not in the air everyday (or even close to that), I do use the skills and knowledge everyday, multiple times a day, and I achieve greater things because of it. Aviation training not only keeps me safe in the air, but also keeps me pushing the boundaries of technology at my day job. Everyone, including the everyday office worker, could benefit from the skills developed by piloting.