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From aircraft to apps: How Air Force engineering helped me become a Product Manager

by Ryan Lock23 April 2019 4 Min Read

For anyone who spends the early part of their working life in one organisation, or a specific industry, making the move to something new can be a daunting prospect. “Will my skill-set be valued? Will it be relevant? Will I be able to ‘catch-up’?” are the questions many people who have considered making a big career change will have found themselves pondering. My semi-recent move from Air Force Engineer to Product Manager was case-in-point. Fortunately, I soon found the answers to those questions were, “Yes. Yup. Yeah, mate”.

From Aircraft…

After graduating with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, I spent seven years in the Air Force across a number of roles, including Aircraft Fleet Maintenance Manager. One of my key responsibilities was managing the team of technicians who carried out preventative and on-condition fleet maintenance. Assessing risk and authorising the aircraft for flight was par for the course. At the time, I thought that the skills I was developing were specific to managing aircraft maintenance, to being an Air Force Engineer, to being a Military Officer. I didn’t know that they would turn out to be my most valuable resource several years later in a completely different industry.

…to Apps

Fast forward a few years and I found myself in London, looking for a new challenge. An opportunity arose for the role of Product Manager in a small product studio and, whilst I had very little exposure to software development (I could barely write a line of code), the prospect of working with modern technologies and learning something new was enough for me to give it a go.

In the first months of my new role, I absorbed as much information about product management as I could. I used Codecademy to learn the basics of our tech stack, investigated design development frameworks, and read about Product Management ideology. Throughout this process, I was surprised to learn that the most valuable skills I brought to my new role were not the ins and outs of product management but those I honed as an Air Force Engineer.

Use your technical specialists

In a management role, you rarely need to have a deep technical understanding of the product or service you are delivering. That’s what your technical specialists are for. The key is knowing how best to utilise your team and trusting them to deliver.

As an Aircraft Maintenance Manager, I had a team of technicians with in-depth knowledge of the aircraft systems and how to fix them. I depended on the technical experts to explain system problems to me and then justify the suggested solution. As a Product Manager, I have a team of software developers with in-depth knowledge of building digital products. If I give them a problem, I depend on them to explain how this problem might be solved through development and justify the suggested solution.

It sounds awfully similar because it is. Given a team with the requisite technical knowledge and the ability to communicate it, I can assess risk, remove barriers, and communicate solutions to stakeholders, whether their business is aircrafts or apps.

Explore the root cause

In both aircraft maintenance and managing product, I’ve found root cause analysis to be a valuable tool. With aircraft, I might have used root cause analysis to investigate why a hydraulic leak occurred. In product management, I try to determine why a critical bug was released in an application. And the process remains the same. Root cause analysis is about asking the right questions of the right people and continuously digging deeper until you’re happy that you’ve found the first domino. One of my favourite methods is the Five Whys, and it’s just as applicable for app development as aircraft accident training.

Manage competing priorities

Product Management requires good interpersonal skills because you’re constantly balancing the needs of numerous stakeholders. From identifying user needs to implementing feedback with designers, PMs are instrumental in delivering for end customers, internal teams, and clients simultaneously. All of these stakeholders have their own problems, spoken in their own language, and, more often than not, they’ll be looking to the PM for solutions. To be successful, PMs need to know how to adjust their communication for different stakeholders whilst also acting as the translator and mediator. Many roles can prepare you well for this environment, and being an Air Force Engineer was undoubtedly one of them.

From briefings with technicians through to strategic conversations with directors, I was already used to acting as the point of contact for various stakeholders and comfortable speaking the language of each. This stood me in great stead for my next role as a Product Manager. 

If you’d have told me when I began my career in the airforce that the skills I would learn would prove useful later down the line in a different industry, I would have brushed it off with, ‘only the common sense stuff’. But when you’re surrounded by contemporaries with similar training, it can be hard to distinguish between common sense and highly transferable skill.

If you’re an aspiring Product Manager, Military Engineer, or just mulling over a career change, you might just surprise yourself over how transferable your skills can be. Aircraft to Apps is testament to that.

The third founder at Planes. Head of Product Management and all-round problem-solver, you'll find me leading Planes projects and building our killer PM team. Some people say I'm 'a bit serious'. I'm not. I swear. I've got an ice cream.
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