Mission-critical software engineering: an interview with former pilot Adam Field

I met Adam Field several years ago at Babylon Health, where we were both part of the “PGM Engineering” team, working on Babylon’s innovative diagnostic engine – a healthcare AI designed to replace your GP. In our conversations, I was intrigued to learn that Adam was a former commercial airline pilot. Even more impressive was the uniquely pragmatic know-how he was able to transpose from the world of aircraft to the world of software product management.

In this interview, you will discover what software engineers and product managers can learn from airline pilots – especially when building and delivering mission-critical software. Adam also talks about the challenges and rewards of working in the chaotic environment of fast-growing startups; winners and losers in our post-pandemic future; quantum computing; blockchain; and productivity tips.

The awesome power of checklists

JD: Let’s begin with the most unique thing I know about you. You used to be a commercial airline pilot and have since pulled off a successful career transition into software product management. What can software engineers and product managers learn from pilots?

AF: Ha, what a great first question and one I could literally talk about for hours. I recently published a blog post on this very question. It may seem a million miles away but there are so many things I learnt during my time in aviation that apply to the tech industry.

A huge part of being a pilot is understanding why things go wrong and trying to mitigate them. I spent hours listening to black box recordings to understand the human factor involvement in dozens of crashes.

The reason for doing this was to better understand the ‘user’ (the pilot in this instance) and how they are affected by their environment, their state of mind or the system they are using. This same thought process is at the core of my day-to-day work. Without understanding the user you won’t find product / market fit, which ultimately is what we are all trying to do!

We also covered a whole range of other factors such as communication, team work, leadership and importantly checklists! The psychology behind using a checklist is more complex than you would think and their use is becoming more widespread – specifically in medicine. Dr Atul Gawande wrote a good book called ‘The checklist manifesto’ where he showed that use of a checklist resulted in a 50% drop in surgery mortality. Nothing has had that kind of impact since we figured out how important washing your hands was! The book is so convincing that my former boss at Potato wrote a checklist app for the company on a flight to San Francisco. It was a great little tool!

The blog post I wrote was focused on decision making and the framework we used called DODAR. It stands for:

  • Diagnose
  • Options
  • Decide
  • Action 
  • Review

It’s a long blog post but worth the read. Decision making is super complex and plagued by problems like ego, confirmation bias and importantly bad data. In my experience making a decision is often better than delaying one even if it’s the wrong one. In the agile world we are part of, it should be easy to manage change. If it’s not, you’re probably not doing it right! So long as you have an effective and timely review process in place, you can always course correct and along the way you’ll have no doubt learnt something!

How to survive hyper-growth

JD: What is the most interesting project you’ve worked on and how has it changed the way you see the world?

AF: This is a tough question. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great people and on some really cool products. Whatever I’ve been doing I have always taken a lot from it so in that respect they’ve all been interesting.

If I was to pick one I would say my time at Babylon was probably the most interesting. It was also the most frustrating, rewarding and complex product I’ve worked on. It was real cutting edge tech built by some of the most intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure to work with and grateful for everything I learnt there.

They’re pushing the boundaries of what a medical device can be and navigating this regulatory space was certainly a challenge. It was also great to work with such a diverse team including research scientists, doctors and epidemiologists. When all this is wrapped in such a strong mission statement of striving to provide accessible, affordable healthcare to the world it’s hard not to get excited.

In terms of how it has changed my view on the world, I suppose I have come away with a greater acceptance of the fact that things aren’t always going to be perfect. Your time is going to be pulled in a myriad of different directions and is important that before you shift your focus you need to ask yourself if it’s both important and urgent.

Things are going to go wrong, things are going to break, and if you’re in an important space like healthcare you are going to have your fair share of critics. Regardless of the problems you face, the reactions to these problems also need to be measured, devoid of emotional response and follow an agreed upon process. If you find yourself fire-fighting all day long, you aren’t doing the work that really matters.

JD: It was certainly a wild but rewarding ride at Babylon. I will never forget Ali Parsa making the analogy of a fast-growing startup being like a spaceship being launched. It rocks your world for sure and even with everything documented and mapped out, you never quite know what to expect.

In pursuit of post-pandemic sustainable growth

JD: Speaking of the unexpected, what do you see as some short-term and long-term consequences (positive or negative) of the current pandemic, the lockdown and the expected economic recession? Do you see any emerging winners from the whole situation?

AF: I suspect that we will see this pandemic cause ripples in the economy for years to come.

In the short term, I don’t see us all returning back to the office any time soon. Just recently the government said that if we are to maintain social distancing on the tube only 1 in 10 people will be able to travel. That would just not be feasible in the ‘old world’. Companies that are supportive of flexitime and can effectively manage remote teams are clearly going to be the winners in this situation. I’m very lucky to work with a very forward thinking company who has adapted to this change quickly.

Combined with this change in working patterns, companies who can quickly adapt their product lines to help or handle the crisis are also going to do well in the short term. Companies like Symington Estates (one of the biggest Port wine manufacturers) converted their production lines to create hand sanitizer to support the pandemic relief efforts. This goes to show that even the oldest of industries can remain agile. I had a rather macabre joke with my parents about their use of technology – adapt or die. Fortunately it turns out they didn’t want to do the latter so now they’re running quizzes over zoom calls with their friends. Regardless of whether you are a large established company or an individual – remaining flexible is key.

As for a longer-term outlook, I think the cultural shift towards sustainable growth is going to become even more important. Sustainability is a widely misunderstood term and to-date peoples default is to think of the environmental impact of products, but it goes much deeper than that. The pandemic has proved this and we are at an inflection point where consumers are starting to demand companies to be more transparent and the investors are now taking notice.

I would have expected a company like Deliveroo to be flying at a time like this but when you dig a little deeper you find them with massive losses year on year because up until now they’ve been pumping money into Blitzscaling and growth at any cost. A controversial thought, but the problems associated with the current strain of capitalism are starting to rear their ugly head. Using growth as the only metric for success needs to change if we are to tackle some of the huge problems we will face in the years to come. Whilst I am confident in our ability to adapt to ever changing problems, the pandemic is just a small taster of some much larger problems to come.

Great use cases of paradigm-shifting technologies

JD: Taking this into account, and based on your experience, what are some under-explored trends and opportunities for applying technology to solve specific problems that could have a big positive impact?

AF: I came across a great company called Provenance and love what they are doing. Their vision, to quote their website “is that one day, every great product, whether a bottle of wine or a pair of jeans, will come with Provenance: accessible, trustworthy information about origin, journey and impact”. They’re using the blockchain to do this, which is one of the few great use cases for using this technology. This concept of provenance and transparency requires some very complex technology to track all the materials and components that make up modern day products so I’d expect to see more of this in the years to come.

Beyond that, I’m a big believer that Quantum computing is going to trigger another technological revolution. It’s super early days but there are many comparisons between the classical computers of the 1970’s and the quantum computers of today. They both take up whole rooms and are largely the focus of the military and university research teams. If people can productise this technology effectively, it will be a game changer. Protein folding, drug simulations, logistics optimization – the list of opportunities in this space is a long one (when we do eventually have a viable QC that is!)

One piece of advice

JD: You’ve worked for startups and I know you’ve also pursued interesting entrepreneurial projects yourself. What advice do you have for aspiring technology entrepreneurs?

AF: Sadly, my own entrepreneurial efforts have never made it to much – for me it’s always been about learning new things and importantly trying to fail fast! If I was to give people any advice it would be to JFLI – just f**king launch it!

You can spend hours debating the importance of features but until people actually start using it, and you put it into the wild, you’re only guessing.

The art of brainstorming

JD: What is the most fascinating book you’ve read recently (fiction or non-fiction) and what did you get out of it?

AF: I recently read “The art of innovation” by Tom Kelley, who was one of the founders at IDEO. They’re an amazing company who have done some incredible things – creating the first Apple mouse being one of them!

There is a great section in the book on brainstorming. He outlines a few key things that are critical to a successful brainstorm. The main one being the focus of the brainstorm and the question that you are wanting to ideate on.

Defining the question itself is an art form, it’s a balance between being specific enough to get the ideas you are looking for and keeping it general enough that you aren’t constraining the ideation process.

We recently ran a brainstorm at Forward Partners on “How to help founders lead and succeed in a post covid world”. Sadly it didn’t go as well as I would have hoped – there are other factors in play, but ultimately it stems from the question being too broad. We work with quite a wide range of companies who each have very different challenges to face in the coming weeks and months, so ideating at this level was tough. In hindsight I would have focused on something a little more specific such as “How can we help founders generate sales leads in a remote first world?”

Regardless, the book is full of many more nuggets of great information and well worth the read!

Useful resources

JD: Are there any particularly useful newsletters you subscribe to, or consistently insightful people you follow on social media?

AF: A bit of self promotion here but the Forward Partners team have a load of great insights and learnings on a regular basis. Our site “The path forward” has loads of great information to help founders on their way.

Shope Delano who runs our brand and content efforts has only been at the company a few months now but it’s been amazing to see how she can bring all this content together and craft an experience rather than just another run of the mill email newsletter. Her “forward in five” emails are a great new addition and seem to be resonating with folks.

Bespoke workflows for increasing productivity

JD: Do you have any productivity tips that you’ve recently found practical and useful?

AF: As mentioned, I’m a big fan of good process. Part of that is the tools you use. All too often our use of tools hinder our performance, people find work-arounds or other tools to do the things they need. Especially as we are now all working remotely, the decision around what tool you use is even more important.

I recently came across a service called Fibery which is an incredible tool that allows you to build workflows to suit your needs rather than trying to force a tool to fit your situation. It’s early days for the team – they have only just released the first public version but hands down it beats products like Notion and Asana. It also works pretty nicely with Zapier and Slack, so you can automate and manage your workflows. Confess that I’m currently trying to get the team at FP to buy into it as we speak!

Oh and checklist. Have checklists for everything!

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