What the Tech Industry can learn from the Aircraft Industry

The recent discrimination lawsuits against Google point to not just an issue at Google, but an issue with the tech industry. Google leadership has taken great pains to support women in tech more broadly. Google was the very first large company (not just in the tech industry) to openly publish the percentage of women employees to the public. This was in 2014. Since then more and more companies share their numbers, and “diversity and inclusion” has become a real term. Google has also supported the pipeline by investing in education programs targeting girls. It was the only company to support the first girls’ technology entrepreneurship program, Technovation in 2010.

But consistent implementation of what the leadership believes and wants in a company as large as Google, is a separate challenge. And that is when unconscious biases at all levels rear their ugly heads.

The issue is not just with Google — it is with the tech industry. And there are some lessons that this young industry can take from a very old one – the aviation industry.

The race to space in the sixties was a powerful fever that gripped the public’s imaginations. It was visual, romantic, dramatic, and thrilling on all levels. It was on TV and every form of media. And unlike today, there weren’t unlimited channels of entertainment. Children (girls and boys) grew up influenced by technology and there was an increase in enrollment in engineering and computer science.

Since then however due to many different factors ( increase in economic prosperity, persistent cultural stereotypes and the lack of an inspiring rallying call to action) the number of people going into engineering and technology declined, and the most dramatic decline was seen in the number of women going into computer science.

The issue is a complex one and it has to be dealt on many different levels, on different time scales, but I wanted to draw attention to one particularly successful example of building a diverse community of enthusiasts. And the community is not small – it is hundreds of thousands of people strong.

Its the Experimental Aircraft Association community and the annual gathering they hold in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. This year they drew almost 600,000 children, men, women and seniors. They get four things right that the tech industry doesn’t.

Engage the Family – The tech industry prides itself in being exclusive. Tickets to Apple’s WWDC sell out in the very first hour. Annual events put on by other tech giants are not any more accessible. And that is a big mistake. If you want to inspire the broader public with the coolest innovations, then you need to invite the broader public – and what better way to do that than to invite the families of your most ardent devotees. That is a sure-fire way to get the next generation inspired.

As far as I know EAA is the only organization that has succeeded in making a technical conference a warm and inspiring gathering at a phenomenal scale – a scale that no tech company can even dream of currently. The lesson here is to come together to create an inclusive family celebration of technology (old and new). And no, it’s not the Maker Faire!

Engage your VanguardThe other powerful lesson to be learned from EAA is to involve the pioneers in the story telling. Storytelling is such an important part of what makes us human, and what helps build strong bonds. That layer of richness and humanity is completely missing in the tech world. EAA does a great job of honoring veterans and pioneers and connecting them to the next generation through carefully designed hands-on activities. The tech industry does not lack giants, but it needs to work much harder to bring them together and give them an opportunity to pass on the lore and the love to the new generation.

Make it Hands-on and Real – Technology has moved into the realm of complete magic. It is almost impossible to authentically explain how a phone or computer works to a child in a short amount of time. This is unfortunate, because hands-on activities are quick ways to draw people in. But this is also where there is some real room for innovation. EAA brings in aviation industry experts to use old engines, electronic systems, radios etc to explain their fundamental operating principles to young children. Only when the children demonstrate their understanding do they go onto the more abstract concepts and principles at play in modern aviation.

The closest equivalent in the tech world to this is Paul Allen’s Living Computers Museum. That museum is beginning to get at the right idea. However, the next level of work still needs to be done to create open-ended activities that help children actually understand some of the mechanisms behind the computing.

Make it Dramatic – This is a challenge when technology is relentlessly pushing towards becoming ever smaller. Beautiful airplanes, thrilling, screaming jet engines, and flying fireworks are hard to compete with. But we can draw inspiration from what is working well and adapt the principles to a technology family gathering.

It will take time – This is probably the hardest to think about in a world of instantaneous feedback. It will take time to change mindsets and open up a community that has long prided itself in being an exclusive club. EAA started 64 years and this year there were 600,000 attendees from all over the world celebrating the spirit of aviation. There is no question – it takes time, much love and passion to do this right.

But we have to start sometime otherwise ten years will pass and we will still be fighting lawsuits, scratching our heads wondering where the problem lies.

“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far we can go” – T.S Eliot


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