I was eight years old when I discovered one of my father’s secrets — he had taken a few glider pilot lessons after he landed his first job. My father grew up as a farmer in India. He was 14 when he lost his father; as the eldest of four kids, he had to support his family. Years of drought made life difficult in his village. So he turned towards the nearest city to study and get a job. He dreamed of becoming a pilot, but he could not complete his training because money was tight.
Ever since I discovered his unfulfilled dream, the idea of flying a metal bird through the air amazed me. There was a sense of fascination, mystery and thrill surrounding the experience of piloting an aircraft.
One day I was able to pilot a plane with my father and mother along for the ride. As a young girl whom no one would expect, picking up the mantle, becoming inspired, then going on to not only full-fill my father’s dream but using the courage and momentum to take on an even harder challenge of becoming a woman senior director in one of the most biased and challenging industries there is.
Through the ups and downs of learning to operate this revolutionary mechanical wonder, I also learned to make good decisions, display confidence in command, and hold myself responsible for my actions and outcomes.
As a woman from a world where the expectation was to serve, I carved a different path for myself and believed you can combine unconventionality with curiosity and focus to achieve almost anything.
Fun fact: Women constitute a mere 6% of all pilots in the entire world today. I am one of them.
A decade ago when I became a pilot, professionally I was a Senior Software Engineer. Today I am a Senior Director of Engineering in the heart of silicon valley. I found that skills like perseverance, focus, curiosity and self-confidence were cornerstones to my success in aviation and as a technology leader.
I hope that I can share some insights about the overlap between commanding an airplane and leading an organization.
Be committed to your goals
Being an immigrant and wanting to fly in post 9/11 era meant undergoing additional security checks. I mustered all the patience in the world waiting for administrative clearances before I could even begin flight training. Throughout the training process, I was exposed to a whole lot of other interesting challenges. I would get to the airport to find out that the plane was still in maintenance, or the engine wouldn’t start. Sometimes the weather conditions were below flying minimums, and other times, life got in the way.
I learned to be flexible, to be patient, and to make alternate plans “on the fly”. I carried through on my commitment, and by overcoming every obstacle, I had a pilot’s license (FAA Certificate) in my hands.
The corporate world is not immune to unavoidable delays and technical difficulties. Every unexpected challenge can feel like an insurmountable obstacle. As a leader it’s important to remain patient and clear with why you are doing what you are doing. When you start a project you may be full of enthusiasm, but when the priorities change or problems knock the wind out from under your wings, you just need to keep flying. Successful leaders are those who have the strongest commitment to their goals.
Your employees will see your perseverance as your strength to manage any circumstance.
Keep things simple
Aviation is a technological wonder, but the fundamentals of flight are driven by very simple physics laws. Air flows across the wings, the difference in air pressure around the wings generates lift, airplanes fly. During the early days of my training I was surprised to see my flight deck instruments were extremely rudimentary, most important ones were powered by nothing more than the wind. It was an amazing realization to see such simple systems were enough to achieve flight.
Today we are inundated with technology in every corner of our lives. Cars, phones and houses are becoming smarter, sophisticated and interconnected. It’s easy for systems to accumulate complexity but it’s incredibly hard to shed it. Complexity increases gaps between incompletely understood facts and assumptions. As a leader when you are faced with a crisis can you cut to the chase and get to the root of the issue quickly?
You have the power of choice to keep things simple but, this is a demanding skill to master. You can start small by taking an inventory of your day — emails you send and receive, reports you view, meetings you attend, your personal agenda etc. see if you can simplify those to be more effective at work.
Another thing I spent a lot of my time is in analyzing how my team functions. Where do they spend most of their time? Why? Are there ways to rearrange processes to simplify those deep inner workings which eventually results in building a culture of simplicity.
Be ahead of the plane
Millions of things compete for your attention as a pilot. After decades of research into the human factors that affect aviation, scientists have learned that standardizing procedures and following checklists reduces the chance of errors. These types of procedural advances in aviation have resulted in making flying the safest way to travel today.
By following checklists, pilots relieve themselves of cognitive load required by routine tasks, keeping their mind and attention available for the unforeseen things that may surface. This is especially important in times of emergency — but even in normal operations this helps keep the pilot “ahead of the airplane”. The pilot can remain alert and recognize anomalies early before the problem ends up compounding into an emergency.
As a leader you are required to deconstruct complex problems into easy predictable workflows. The routine of the checklist will ensure you don’t forget something critical when you end up distracted by other events. For critical workings my team has built run books, the concept is derived from the aviation checklist. These are important when deploying services in production or handling on-call requests. Sometimes there are dependencies that have to be honored to ensure graceful shutdown and restart processes to guarantee zero data loss.
I encourage my teams to have two sorts of lists. A“do-then-verify” list — here they perform the tasks and then go back to the checklist to verify and a “Read-then-do” list where they stick to the chronological order of the list and perform them one by one. Standardizing your business procedures also allows you to analyze patterns of inefficiencies, makes product life-cycle easy to adopt and automate in the near future.
Build a curious mind
When I drive a car I use the “steering wheel” to steer the car around. But when I jump into an airplane, I can’t use the obvious “steering wheel” in front of me to steer an aircraft. I have to make use of rudder pedals located down by the feet. Yes! you steer a plane with your feet.
When faced with unique situations you have to fight the tendencies to grasp for the most obvious option. This is where being ready for the unexpected helps. You have to be open to learn nuances and treat every situation with a sense of exploration.
Especially when under pressure we narrow in on what immediately seems the best course of action. But those who are passionate about continuous learning contemplate a wide range of options and perspectives. Then you figure out what skills are going to be needed to get the job done and go gather those skills. Focusing on learning and rewarding your team for cultivating a curious mindset will reap long term benefits.
It’s all you in the end
If you are flying and an emergency pops up, you don’t have the luxury to pull over to the shoulder and wait for help. The pilot is the only person who can manage the problem.
As a leader, you will be faced with constantly changing situations. There will be times when you have to throw conventional wisdom out the window and follow your intuition.
You can always read books on leadership or learn from watching other leaders, but there is no substitute for doing it yourself. Flying solo as a leader allows you the opportunity to discover yourself, your skills, and your personal limits.
Final Thoughts: Flying an aircraft or leading an organization is a huge responsibility and a demanding task. Be certain of why you are doing what you are doing, simplify complex things when you encounter them, maintain focus, and lead by example. You are bound to make mistakes, but pick yourself up and keep flying.