Head in the Clouds, Foxtrot


Gen linked me to a recently posted article detailing an old interview from November, 2005 with Google’s Eric Schmidt.
It was a great read, but Gen brought it to my attention for a specific reason1:

Wired’s Vogelstein: You’ve talked before about how flying your own jet helps you manage. Explain. The reason I’m intrigued by it is because the only other guy I know who flies a jet is (Oracle boss) Larry Ellison. But you can look at Larry Ellison and understand how the machismo associated with flying a jet translates into Oracle’s culture. I don’t get that same sense of machismo talking to you about flying.
Schmidt: It’s helped me in the following sense. The difference between what I do normally every day and flying a jet is that when you are flying a jet people can actually die—right now. So while it’s very hard for any actual human harm to come in this hour with you, when you fly a jet that’s very possible.
And so in the jet training, and they do this whole thing called cockpit resource management, CRM, there’s a whole protocol about how you handle life and death matters, what are the rules, and people pay attention and you would too obviously. I mean, it’s a natural human thing. And by the way, people who don’t pay attention don’t pass, they literally fail them.

And the other rule, and this is particularly true in difficult training situations, is it’s “What’s next, what’s next, what’s next, what’s next.” Your eyes have to be constantly moving, and literally to the second.
And the problem, of course, is at the end of this you’re very tired, but I think it’s a reasonable metaphor for high tech management. The moment you let your eyes relax, there’s something else coming. And by the way, it’s okay for you to say you don’t like that, but if you don’t like it, then you can’t succeed in it.
So we’re always on. Everyone is on their e-mail 24 hours a day, you know, people work at midnight on a Saturday night, that kind of thing, and it’s expected.

Me being… well… me, I find his analogy interesting and, of course, apt… except for one aspect, which I think is not only a false analogy, it turns out to be an extremely dangerous one.
[This is the part in the post where I'd normally go to a cut, but I think this is a relevant issue,2 so I won't for this episode.]
In his answer, Schmidt accurately describes the pressures related to preparing for and executing proper Cockpit Resource Management during a flight; as he says, life is faster in a jet, but CRM is something even us lowly piston-pilots have to take into account on every flight3.
I think Schmidt does a great job of trying to convey the attention it takes to focus and fly with proper CRM; the way he describes it, it makes me believe he’s referring to The Scan, which I can attest to from experience can be tiring from flying by for as little as half an hour4. Even flights on severe clear days, I’ve often come home and fallen right into bed.
Where his analogy falls apart is his conclusion: “So we’re always on. Everyone is on their e-mail 24 hours a day, you know, people work at midnight on a Saturday night, that kind of thing, and it’s expected.”
Now, how many of you would want to get on a plane at midnight on a Saturday, flown by pilots who’d be up flying since 8 am?
Any takers?
Yeah, me either.
I obviously don’t know under which rules Schmidt flies his jet, but commuter and “on-demand” operations—your standard chartered flights— are governed by part FAR Part 135, which specifically limits the amount of flight time a pilot can have in a year (1,400 hours), a quarter (500 hours), and two consecutive quarters (800 hours).
The regulations go into further detail about how much time a pilot must “rest” for before they can return to flying duty. FAR 135.267 has all the gory language for unscheduled 1-2 pilot crews.5,6
This may seems common sensical, but what I find particularly interesting about the issue is there have been a number of recent7 rulings that require carriers to include “reserve duty” against the limits: “We have consistently stated that reserve duty is not rest when the reserve flight crew member must maintain accessibility (via telephone or pager/beeper) to the employer and there is a present responsibility to work.”8
So describing our industry as “So we’re always on … and it’s expected” is an awful analogy to being a (safe) pilot. If you interpret the analogy to be to “a pilot responsible for the safety of his ‘airplane’9 and ‘those on board’10, it’s factually incorrect.
Another concept taught to pilots starting during the initial rating11 is a concept called Aeronautical Decision Making.
It’s the FAA’s fancy way of describing the part of being a pilot that says “You know what? I only got three hours of sleep and I haven’t had anything to eat in the last 8; maybe flying a plane isn’t the best thing for me to be doing right now.”12
Obviously, when hacking on code, the decisions (typically) aren’t life-or-death. But the law of (quickly) diminishing returns still applies.
I don’t buy the (implied?) supposition that “being on” at “midnight on a Saturday,” and generally 24 hours a day, seven days a week, holidays included, makes you a better decision maker.
Or a better leader.13
I can’t imagine it particularly enhances one’s ability to execute.
Buuuuttt… I’m not the CEO of the most successful company this generation. I’m not a CanythingO… or, heck, even a businessperson for that matter.
I do know one thing, though: it certainly doesn’t make you a better pilot.
1 Which I actually didn’t know about Schmidt…
2 Which I’ve pontificated on before.
3 So it turns out that you fall out the sky at the same 9.8 m/s whether you’re in a Cessna or a Gulfstream…
4 I’m told, however, that like running, it’s a skill you build a tolerance up for.
5 FAR 135.265 has (even stricter) dutytime/rest requirements for scheduled operations.
6These sorts of rules exist for air carrier operations as well, but of course they’re covered by a different FAR, Section 121.471.
7 In the last decade.
8 Quoted from a 1999 Department of Transportation ruling on the matter.
9 “Company.”
10 “Employees?” “Shareholders?”
11 And reviewed heavily during most BFRs and safety seminars.
12 A surprising number of pilots lack this little voice of preservation in their heads, and I think we all tell it to shut up from time to time, with varying implications on safety.
13 Confusing human beings for the baremetal in your data center seems… problematic to me.