On an internal blog at Microsoft, I came across a posting by a Corporate VP on some books he was going read while on vacation. One of the books was a autobiography of one of my hero’s, Gene Kranz, who was Flight Director for several flights in Project Gemini and Apollo.
Kranz lead his team of Flight Controllers (known as the White Team) during two of the most dramatic events in the space program at the time; the touchdown of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, Eagle, and again when the Apollo 13 Service Module exploded.
Kranz’s book is called Failure Is Not An Option and is wonderfully written and I recommend it highly. In my opinion, and echoed in the internal blog posting I read, the lessons of the space race of the late 1950’s and 1960’s are of value to any large organization. Kranz’s management style is no-nonsense, and that constant practice through simulation kept everyone alert and allowed them to react quickly to unplanned situations.
Probably the worst thing in his Flight Control world was encountering a problem that wasn’t already thought about. The idea being as anything went wrong, everyone has experience with the problem from simulation and could react very quickly. Absolutely there are numerous lessons for Microsoft in how NASA and it’s contractors approached the space race to the Moon.
In this arena, anything could happen, so you assumed that from the start, planned for it, designed for it, and executed it with that in mind. Imagine a world in which software developers assume everything could fail and one in which simulation (testing) does fail everything. The result would be much more robust code.
I think Microsoft does more of this kind of testing than another major software maker. While software components, particular the interactions with the operating system platform are complex, the various systems of the Apollo missions where incredibly complex as well. There were several major companies and hundreds of small contractors providing pieces to the system and they all had to work together perfectly.
After reading his book, I got to meet Gene at a MoF dinner a few years ago. He’s got a great personality and mentality for thinking through problems.
I also recommend Angle of Attack by Harrison Storms, who was a senior VP for North American Aerospace, personally responsible for Apollo Command Module. It too has lessons on how business can react to tragic failure (as what happened when the Apollo 1 command module caught fire during a ground test, killing three astronauts).
These are not business books, but biographies of head-strong people leading large organizations doing high-profile work.