For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
All for the want of a horseshoe nail.
–13th Century Proverb
For the wont of a screwdriver
A training sortie over the West Texas/New Mexico flat lands…
Glassy-smooth air, and the ground miles below a series of sandy-orange postage stamps occasionally bisected by river valleys outlined by sparse, snaking strands of Mesquite trees. No stress because it was a buddy ride—meaning I was giving a new instructor pilot a flight to check him out on our departure procedures, our Military Operating Area (MOA), and our recovery procedures.
In between, we’d play with the jet, do some lazy-eights, loops, Immelmanns, stalls, try aerobatic maneuvers without names (which means failed attempts at aerobatic maneuvers with names). We were two men in our mid-twenties with a high-performance jet in our hands. I dove to set us up for the first loop. In a blink we hit 450 knots, and as I pulled the stick to 4-Gs, we got the radio call from Command Post.
One of the maintenance guys couldn’t find a screwdriver. They’re issued a standard toolbox according to their specialty, and with a foam-rubber cutout to hold every tool. One of the line-chiefs inspected each airman’s box, and she found a cutout lonely for its tool.
We’d all heard the horror stories of multi-million-dollar fighters lost to foreign objects—military word for tools—left in the cockpit and then lodging in or damaging an important thing in the cockpit. We’d also heard the legends of the screwdriver fouling the ejection sequence, forcing some unlucky fighter jock to ride a crippled jet all the way down.
To make everything weightless, I pushed down on the stick to bring us to zero gravity. Among the brown dirt and orange West Texas prairie sand, the screwdriver floated up to my face. I snatched it like a greedy astronaut grasping the last tube of NASA-packed liverwurst paste, and I stowed it in the map case.
We informed Command Post we’d secured the foreign object (put the screwdriver in the map case), and that we’d continue the mission. Seems older guys get spooked easier than the younger ones (like I was) and they ordered us to return to base for a precautionary, straight-in landing to a full stop. The end of our fun. Everything went normally from that point to landing.
In the immediate aftermath, the arrogant, swaggering, younger and immortal fighter pilot me missed the lesson entirely, though I thought about that event years afterward. No, it wasn’t the most dangerous challenge I faced in my fighter flying days, but lessons appear at their own whim.
The virtual screwdriver I left in the code
More than a decade later, a major tech company contracted my team to deliver a stalled project to a South American air force threatening legal action. This company put out the word that they needed a seasoned C++ developer who served as a military pilot and who possessed a commercial pilot’s license. They hired me on the spot.
We worked—and were paid—seven days a week, eighteen or more hours per day. Many nights we slept a few hours in the conference rooms and got back at it. Developers among you know the drill. The customer insisted we include their software developers, and I considered one lady a particular burden. Her code never worked, she didn’t understand computer memory management, much less anything more sophisticated. I assigned her to help unit test, and it took valuable hours to teach her how things should work. To help end her constant interruptions for questions, I wrote scaffolding code to help her with her testing.
On judgment day—the drop-dead date the customer set for delivery or legal action—we hosted officers from that South American air force. The application was complex, and we spent the first few hours going over the original requirements and demonstrating the complex capabilities of the user interface.
The lady I’d moved off the development team got my attention with an insistent, wide-eyed look of terror. I’d seen similar looks on back-seaters when informed that I’d pilot their next mission. Because I didn’t respect her coding capabilities, I’d long since only half-listened to anything she said. But I got the feeling that something was about to fail.I called a 15-minute break for refreshments. No surprise, nobody protested. Also, zero complaints when the break extended.
She ushered me to my desk and showed me a failure condition that I’d not detected during my own final testing at two in the morning. I did a quick unit test of the offending function, and it worked fine. I then tried it with the scaffolding code (I hadn’t taken the time to remove it from the build) and it failed.
I’d programmed a virtual screwdriver into the application, and it caused foreign object damage. The remedy was quick, I recompiled the application (I still love Unix) and the South American air force signed off. No court date for my customer. The pilots among the visiting team took me out that night for reverie and so that we could swap the lies of heroic exploits fighter pilots tend to tell each other.
As for my customer, they kept my team under contract for years.
The 4-Step prescription
My weary mind somehow associated what I’d nearly caused to happen due to lack of sleep, pressure to deliver, and the associated relaxing of coding discipline with the potential disaster the young airman set in motion by overlooking his toolbox discipline. I wondered if that airman faced similar difficulties—or maybe others—on the day he shut his toolbox and left his screwdriver in my jet.
So, what was the lesson I’d learned, but ignored, from that clear day of roaring high above the wastelands? The one planted in my brain but that didn’t blossom until years later?
Everybody is important. Each role is critical to your mission’s success and your career advancement.
If you’re having difficulty with this, here’s a prescription.
1. Get to know the cleaning crew by name.
Come in early or stay late. Find out about them as people. If you feel the need to humble yourself to do this, then you need this exercise will be liberating. Bring them a small present at the holiday times. I’ve been rewarded by the connections with these people. In Singapore, I was invited to a family Break-Fast at the end of Ramadan. In the USA, a cleaning person alerted me that site had been penetrated by a stranger. It was real, and security dealt with the intrusion. One friend got to know an elderly janitor who turned out to be a Medal of Honor winner (really), a national treasure.
2. Take the person you consider least impactful on your team to lunch.
My first was the young guy who pushed the cart with computer parts. Pay for that person’s lunch and keep the talk friendly. Don’t delve into work unless they want. They probably will. During my lunch, the guy told me about parts that had been failing in desktops. Armed with that knowledge, I was able to negotiate a better deal with our computer vendor, and to receive refunds.
3. Work to make everyone comfortable with communicating with you.
Sit with people that staff your call centers. Do it three times a week in the early morning, when they are least busy. Bring doughnuts one morning. Get to know them so they feel comfortable speaking with you. I’ve been able to ward off customer-satisfaction issues or make immediate fixes to applications by hearing what users are complaining about. More than once, a timely direct text from someone staffing our phones saved me from embarrassment and our company from reputational risk.
4. Fake it ‘til you make it.
Some people find empathy and compassion a challenge. That’s OK, we’re all different. If that’s you—nobody’s looking or judging here—then practice the three steps above anyway. They’ll enhance your career. And, if you do them enough, you’ll find personal benefit in other ways. Eventually.
More prescriptions exist but stick to these four for a while and you’ll soon see the value—the importance of everyone. I’m certain you will add to this your own to this list.
Or, you can wait until you’re knocked out of the sky by a screwdriver…or maybe you lose the career battle because of a single, inexpensive nail.