The Elevator Storyteller


I recently read FastCompany’s interview with John Lilly.

I knew John from my time at Mozilla1, so it was interesting to hear him talk about the developments after my tenure at the Corporation.

One thing he said stood out to me:

[W]hen I was at Mozilla the activity I did mostly was to tell the story—tell the story simply, understandably over and over and over again.

… I’d feel bad about telling the same story 50 times, so I started to change it and embellish it from time to time. What I realized is that if I told a different story to 50 different people, then suddenly the whole organization will be slightly out of alignment. And so, my job was to tell the story in a simple way that was repeatable and amplifiable, not to make it all diverge.

This was an interesting insight to me.

I have struggled2 to explain precisely what I do and why it’s important.

I’ve had varying degrees of success over the years, and the success I have had has been inconsistent.

As I thought about the above excerpt, I realized what I may have been missing: a simple, coherent, engaging way to accurately, yet consistently and succinctly tie it all together: the so-called “elevator pitch.”


I was phone screening a candidate recently, and they likened their role as a release engineer to that of a mailman: “She doesn’t write the letter; she didn’t drop it in the mail; she didn’t make the envelope; she’s not going to read it, but she’s critical to moving the contents around and ensuring it gets delivered.”

While I liked the analogy, longtime readers know I prefer a different one: air traffic controllers.

I’m often asked why I continue to find this analogy so relevant.

  • Air traffic control is operational in nature: functionally, it involves a lot of planning and talking, but it’s fundamentally an exercise in scaling process to keep people safe and keep things moving.
  • There’s a level of detail orientation that many other professions simply do not require.
  • It’s an open secret that air traffic control towers are often understaffed and under-resourced; this can turn situations that would be small problems into catastrophes, which leads me to…
  • No one pays attention to air traffic controllers until catastrophic events occur, and then (and usually only then) are they under the spotlight.
  • Air traffic control is a service-oriented role, but to maintain sanity and ensure consistent outcomes in a complex environment with many actors with competing requirements and goals, they must do so within a framework3.
  • It’s well-known that it’s a high stress environment4.
  • Controllers’ (advertised) responsibility is the safe, expeditious movement of traffic, but they must prioritize that necessity with procedure and air craft emergencies and deviations; good ones know when and how to safely issue shortcut instructions.
  • On its face, controllers’ work seems simplistic: “Move the blips around, make sure they don’t hit each other and talk on the radio all day? A chimp (or maybe a computer) could do that!” This prompts some interesting perceptions about their role5.
  • A pilot won’t realize why air traffic controllers are useful if they only fly on sunny days with no turbulence in the middle of nowhere, by themselves.
  • Controllers can be one of your best friends when something goes wrong with the plane and a pilot finds themselves declaring an emergency.

Replace “controller” with “build engineer,” “traffic” with “release” or “check-in” and “plane” with “project” and you’ll start to see why I find the similarities so compelling, at least when release engineering is approached the way I approach6 it. Now, to turn it into a narrative like Pushing Tin.

Or maybe Top Gun.

1 I have more-than-a-few-vivid memories of interactions with him, including when he interviewed me
2 Especially back at Mozilla
3 And expect pilots to do the same
4 [Never ending] Firedrills anyone?
5 And in many ways, informs how they’re treated
6 Pun intended