What I learned from a Space Shuttle Commander

Space has always fascinated me.  Like many people, I looked forward to a Space Shuttle mission.  Shuttle launches and landings generated so much excitement and patriotism that I was deeply saddened when the Shuttle program was put to rest.  Over the years, I lost touch with NASA; until last week, when I had dinner with a retired astronaut while at an IT conference.  Yes, I had dinner with a real live American hero that risked his life for science and space exploration.  If I had known that one day, I would have the opportunity to meet a real astronaut, I would have definitely put it on my bucket list, but I guess I won’t have to now.

At dinner, what surprised me about this gentleman was just how simple and humble he was.  He looked like any other guy.  If I hadn’t recognized his name, I would have never known who he was.  He spoke with confidence and humility.  He went out of his way to understand who I was and what my role was at my company.  I felt like I knew this guy for ages.  I felt that I could trust him.

The next day, the astronaut spoke to about 200 people on leadership and i’d like to share his most salient points:

Focus on Iterations, not Failures – NASA is clearly a research organization, but they weren’t able to get to the moon by sheer luck.  After all, they do call it rocket science for a reason; it took a ton of smart engineers and scientists to get a rocket through the atmosphere, land on the moon and make it back home.  They divided up the work and continuously improved a process over and over until it was as lean as possible.  And while they had many failures, they focused on the end game by not obsessing on every failure (as we all tend to do), but to learn from their mistakes, move past them and keep trying to find a way to make it work.  A lot of great companies have this engrained in their culture – GE, Apple, etc.

Succession Planning – We all kinda stink at this; and it’s really not that hard to plan for.  One of NASA’s biggest failures was the fact that they never had a viable replacement for the Space Shuttle, thereby permanently ending the excitement for a lot of fans like myself.  While there are a number of aerospace companies trying to privatize space travel (including Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic), it just isn’t the same anymore.  Sure, there were a ton of changes in NASA leadership, loss of human life with some of it’s expeditions (that still horrifies me) and the severe shrinking of the budget, but the fact that an alternative or the ‘next shuttle’ wasn’t waiting in the hanger(s) was truly disappointing.  Let’s face it; NASA may never be the same again.

Service to Others – The astronaut spoke about continuing to periodically remind yourself why you do what you do; in almost all instances, you’re there to serve other people (we all are).  He explained that being a shuttle commander was mostly about knowing your people well, knowing what was important to them and what drove them as individuals and as a team.  By knowing this and truly caring, you would not only achieve great results, you would also gain their trust.  And trust is a hard thing to ask for, when you are placing your life in a commander’s hands while traveling to space at 17,500 miles per hour.  I translate this to having strong Emotional Intelligence (EI) and we all know people who demonstrate this well.  These are the people who really care how your weekend was; they get to know you on a personal level and feel like your extended family.  These people gain your trust instantly and would bend over backwards for you.  You would follow these people to the end of the earth and to the moon if necessary (pun intended), because you have professional admiration and trust for them.

It amazed me how these three things translated seamlessly to the business world and especially to those of us in IT.  The focus of iterations has long been the idea behind Agile development and operational processes.  Succession planning is something every leader needs to be doing, but somehow this falls off the list of priorities.  Finally, we do often get so focused on our own careers that we forget why we’re there and how our actions can affect people.

The good news is that we can all work on these.  We can even get coaching assistance to build these into our normal routines.  But by far, beyond the cool factor of spending time with an astronaut, his lesson on ‘service to others’ resonates the most with me, because it is painfully true.

Digitalization is Dividing and Undividing the Human Race

I was at the Seattle airport waiting for my flight back to Chicago. I had come into town to give a talk on the awesome power of emerging, disruptive technologies to a group of seasoned IT leadership and to meet with customers and coworkers. While sitting by my gate, I was doing my usual bit of multi-tasking; responding to emails, connecting with people on LinkedIn, skimming through some new articles on HBR and MIT Tech Review, looking at web analytics on my Word Press App, asking Siri about the weather in Chicago and downloading the latest research documents to my Box folders so I could have them for offline reading on my 4 hour flight, while charging my MiFi hotspot in my battery-powered ‘smart’ bag and sipping on my espresso pick-me-up. This was a regular day for me, and the normal way most of us high-tech road warriors live while on the go.

Then suddenly I get a dose of reality. A very nice elderly Army veteran sat next to me, squinting at his paper boarding pass (I only say ‘paper’ because I’ve been using digital passes for over two years now). He looked pretty stressed out, because he wasn’t sure why the LED sign above the gate said Chicago (he was going to San Fran). So after eavesdropping some more, I asked him if he needed some help finding his flight. He said he wasn’t sure why his gate said Chicago. I of course, knew there could have been several reasons for this, primarily being gate changes, cancellations etc. so I quickly pulled up the info on my iPhone and figured out that his gate had indeed changed. Did the airport announce it? Probably, but the gentleman clearly had a hard time seeing/hearing, so that could have been the reason why he was in the wrong place. I shared with him the info, he was very thankful and off he went. I then boarded my flight with my digital boarding pass and wrote this blog entry on my iPad.

We live in a digital world, which is something we don’t think about anymore; most of us are wired digitally. We are connected in more ways through social, cloud, mobility and sensor-based networks than ever before. We have washing machines that talk to us, plants that tell us when they need to be watered and glasses that help us consume the growing world of augmented reality. We have our own personal digital assistant on our smart phones, wave with gestures to change channels on Samsung Smart TVs, know where each other are at all times and have beer taps in bars that tweet to millions of people worldwide in less than a second. And in many ways, we’re just getting started. But, what happens to all the folks that are still analog and unconnected? How do we make sure we continue to make technology that is easy to use and accessible for not just our elderly citizens, but also for those who have a disability or impairment? This is a tall order to ask for, but I certainly hope tech and non-tech firms are thinking of both the positive and negative impacts to mankind.

Earlier in the week, I read a couple articles about a few TV channels that were debating on ending broadcast TV and going straight to cable. The US has an estimated 50 million people still using broadcast tv, but cable and satellite subscribers are almost 3-4 times that and I’m guessing that broadcast systems can’t be inexpensive, so this could be a cost reduction tactic. Whether its the right or wrong thing to do, it’s hard not to quickly think about the folks who use broadcast TV because they can’t afford cable/dish, live in remote areas or are elderly and still use a tube analog TV with bunny ears. We saw some of these issues when broadcast went all digital a few years ago, in spite of all the free conversion kits being supplied to the masses.

I recently tried to sign up for a new intuitive video conferencing service called Rabbit but couldn’t do it because it required a Facebook account to get started. Really? Are new tech companies going to stop offering authentication services and just redirect or outsource their authentication exclusively to Facebook? If you’ve been reading my posts, you already know how I feel about Facebook privacy issues. This really irked me, but it makes sense for Rabbit. They don’t want the additional cost of managing people’s usernames and passwords, and by being connected to Facebook, they can get a ton of information about their users. It makes you wonder how Big Data Analytics, Social and Mobility will together drive certain technologies, or perhaps not drive them at all.

Now let’s use the Army veteran, “Mike” as an example. He is probably someone’s Grandpa. What if his grandson wants to call him using Rabbit(let’s make the assumption someone got Mike an iPad Mini)? Well now you have to get Mike on Facebook just to be able to download and use Rabbit. And let’s face it, have you seen how your parent or grandparent navigates Facebook? I’m sure you’ve seen messages posted on the wrong thread or on the wrong photo or even on the wrong person’s wall. I’ve even seen messages posted on the wrong social network saying “oh sorry, i meant to post this on the Facebook system, not GoogleBook.” This connected social thing is very difficult to grasp for most of the Gen X and older; some can barely do email, and you can forget about texting, tweeting and walking around squinting with Google Glass while clicking buttons on your iWatch.

Our world is changing immensely. I happen to love most of it because I feel like I’m in the drivers seat, but that’s not for long. Someday I will be in Mike’s shoes, and will be so frustrated with the world around me. All we can hope for is that organizations continue to build products and services around great, intuitive interface design using natural language controls and factor in important things like age demographics, accessibility, etc. Also, I hope they find a way to make it easier and cheaper to connect us into the matrix (yep, that’s what the Internet is turning into) and avoid getting folks lost in this continuous sea of change. It’s a tall order alright, but we have to try and connect even the unconnected or the divide will continue to get larger.

Ironically, I just had a related, dividing moment. My United seat had its own large LCD screen with Direct TV programming, and I just spent a few minutes clicking on the screen, swiping trying to get to the main menu, only to have an 8 year old next to me stop me and point me to the controls on my armrest that I have to use in order to control the system. Then he took off his Beats headphones and said “yeah, this thing is so old right?” I rest my case.

PS: I realize ‘undividing’ isn’t a word, but shouldn’t it be? 🙂