Recently I made the choice to part ways with a company I’ve worked with for several years in a leadership position growing and maturing into something truly world class, and something the team can become increasingly proud of. - But with every start there is also an end. - It’s hard to leave something so familiar, something so highly invested in with the most valuable things anyone has, time and energy. Harder still, the people of this company were excellent, and never forgot that everything around them was built by other people like themselves, that it could be made better, that it could be changed. It only took an idea, some time, and some energy. We remembered that we were people, and members of communities. We used this ethos to approach unknowns and hardship together, stronger than the sum of our parts. This kind of foundation allows us to have courage, to dream beyond the benign and do something powerful. It’s one thing to describe this in words, but another to experience this ultimate realization of passionate people mastering their trade, and being of service to their community, to each other, and to themselves. It’s not uncommon, but it is all too rare.
It is a pleasure to see the focus that brings that capability to bear on complex problems and issues that affected people around the world every day. We helped people get from one place to another, safely, on time, and with awareness of what was happening. We served the world to help realize their dreams of travel in the sky. We had to be curious, to question everything and try to understand why we did what we did, and what the people of the world needed. We failed often, sometimes a bet was too premature, not understood well enough, or not brought to market well, but this community not operating from fear of failure remembered these experiences and often used them as learnings. We did not always do the right thing, we did not - but we felt obligated to try, and then do better next time. We took to heart our responsibility to be a conscionable member of our industry, and of our community. We did not wait for laws or regulation to tell us what to do, we tried to do the right thing every time and help establish precedent that made our industry better, not just for us, but for all. In the end, this made our actions greater than the sum of their parts as well.
I joined FlightStats which was an aviation data company in 2014, and in a short ~4 years I supported and observed a company of passionate, creative and deviously smart people build great things, overcome adversity, and truly dream big. I have a deep respect for this company, it’s people. In a major move the company dreamed bigger still and wanted to make even larger impacts in the market it couldn’t realize on it’s own, it needed partnerships, investment, and more. FlightStats was acquired by another company that shared a dream of something bigger, something that had never been done before in the industry of aviation, FlightGlobal purchased FlightStats to bring together for the first time the most broad collection of aviation data within one company to deliver even more powerful products to the world. I know they will do well, the passion is well alive, and I wish them all the best.
Fitting into a culture can be complex, hard, and unclear. For me, fitting in at FlightStats was easy, it aligned with my fire, my ambitions, and my ethos well. I was born in Wichita, KS in 1989. It was a time and place before modern technology was in full stride, but it was like being on the rocket pad as the countdown clock was in it’s final seconds as technology started to massively change the world. Mesmerized by technology I had found my trade from the outset, my brain understood computers, understood the inherent logic, and I’ve been called a savant for it which I agree with, not for ego, but for definition.
While that is all good and well - it took much more to create the drive to exercise this trade, this passion. I owe more than this post can go into to my parents, both teachers, having hard earned everything in their lives, and passionately trying to help their communities be better. Kansas is a place of contradictions, of humble, proud and hardy people, and it was hard to miss this detail. In a place so flat, so bare, everything you needed and wanted had to be erected on the great plains, extracted from the earth and earned at great effort by communities of people. There is no survival in the plains alone. We were often called the heart of the country, and the reason why is that we were the bedrock to support others and help make dreams come true. I wanted to learn what this meant, and after years of reading into the history of the state, and the peoples of the midwest, I thought this poem I discovered in a history book described it best, this ethos and unspoken code of Kansas and the hard working people when we are at our best.
The truly internal motivation for this latest choice when I was meditating and re-reading a history book depicting among others the Shawnee, and one of their great charismatic leaders. There was clear and immediate desperation to rally, and be bold, to avoid being complacent, and push forward against adversity (the invading Europeans). It’s part of the Kansas culture, and I am sure others as well. I have been told I challenged others to dream bigger, be better, and when I read this the first time, around ~11 or so, it resonated for me, and I saw it in my parents, and the community I was exposed to around me. It was privately part of my formative years.
Here was his admittingly militaristic worded, but call to community and arms meant to inspire courage and preserve a people. It shaped a dialogue of iron clad purpose, and of community, and something greater than ourselves that requires our healthy participation. When I see it, it brings to me many memories during times of hardship and change, when I felt I wasn’t remembering the priorities that really mattered, and how to do the right thing, the best thing I could not tomorrow, but every day.
“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and Demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, Beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and Its purpose in the service of your people.
Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide. Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, Even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and Bow to none. When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the food and For the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, The fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and nothing, For abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.
When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts Are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes They weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again In a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.” -Chief Tecumseh of the Shawnee
These ideals are timeless, and are not only held by those in our past, but also people we look to as great leaders of the future. Being exposed to NeXT, and Apple at an early age, it was powerful to hear Steve Jobs speak about his thoughts, and it resonated quite clearly with how my mind thinks, and I suspect it does for others. Not all of us need to go start a company to be brave, to be different, but these are principles we can carry into all that we do, the small, and the big. Be bigger than oneself, learn and grow from the community, and be humble that such a vast array of ideas are at your fingertips to solve the next unknown.
Like yarn can be woven into a great fabric, we need to accept that the ingredients to something great may not look so complete until they are assembled, and after the different colors are combined. We should never take the ingredients for granted before we learn how to bring them together. Remember that beauty is the combination of different things, and art is the craft of weaving these different ingredients together to make something more than what we started with to create something beautiful.
While on the topic of Steve Jobs, he also saw what I described earlier, an appreciation that most of the human-made-world is just that. Human-made and human-changed. I grew up in a place where everything more than a few inches off the ground was almost entirely human made, or human changed, a flat plains full of opportunity, and deceptively dangerous to those who took it for granted. I accept that it might be hard for a bird to build a rocket ship, the fact is, that likely you are human if you are reading this, and these fantastic things around you are simply things humans have built and changed, and you too have the license to do the same. I challenge you to consider this one of your most powerful birthrites. Do not feel afraid to follow the path of others, but feel it your right to find your own path, to change something, to discover something new, and learn from it.
Leaving something is hard, and it took a lot of courage from me to do this. Despite years of learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, it hurt to experience loss, and go through change. The existing path was more sure footed, the people very good; what success I experienced with FlightStats and later FlightGlobal is wholy built not upon, but with a community there, I owe great gratitude to my experiences there. But I decided it was time to go visit another community of people, to learn and be humble, be called to see if I can be of service to another group, to help challenge them to be great. To add more dots to my collection so I can discover how to be an even better version of me so I can serve my family, my community better. I’ll leave this post humble, and excited for the next challenges by sharing what I told my team as I left.
~Stay passionate, be good to each other, assume best intent, challenge yourself and others to be the best version of themselves they can be, and be compassionate and support them when they fail so they can get back up.~ -Alex Witherspoon Senior Director of Software Engineering at FlightGlobal, 2014 -2018