From Groans to Drones

How I Went from the Entertainment Industry to Creating Software in the Defense Industry

“This is a game-changer. I would re-enlist today if I could use this software,” the soldier told us. (I’m paraphrasing.) For almost a year, we conducted research and created designs that were evaluated and iterated. This user event again validated what our UX process had produced. So, how did I end up on a base conducting research after a career in entertainment?

It began with a request. 

A friend had won a large contract with a Defense company that wanted to create paradigm-changing software for its aircraft. They wanted this software to be more like a game and unlike anything used in the industry. The need matched with my skill-sets, so I made the leap, and one rewarding project has led to another.

In my journey from entertainment to a ‘serious domain,’ I learned some valuable lessons.

1.      Don’t be afraid of change

There’s a reason that adaptability is one of the top skills hiring managers seek. Flexibility increases opportunities for you, your company (which might still be you) and for your customer. Your willingness to learn and try new things will serve you well in your career – whether you’re a lifer at one company, a job seeker or striking out on your own. It’s easier and more comfortable to stick to what is known, but the risk of stagnation is real and detrimental. Embracing change – even if it is small like developing a related skill or changing a routine to be more productive – will pay dividends. Think of change as the engine behind your personal growth and development.  Change can fuel your passion. It can lead to exploring new frontiers. Change, of course, can also be bad, but even in those circumstances, some benefit to that change can be identified.

2.      Be open to new experiences and challenges

Challenges call for creativity and perseverance. You can be your own biggest obstacle, but by habituating yourself to not fear change and instead to embrace and seek new challenges, you’ll prepare yourself with valuable skills and experience when the next challenge arrives. You can grow your value to your current or a future employer, strengthen relationships and strengthen your skills by embracing challenges – big or small. 

After 20 years in television, my natural inclination was to find a position that leveraged that experience. A pivot to a serious domain wasn’t remotely on my radar, but by being open to this new challenge, I’ve been rewarded with experiences that are equally satisfying as my entertainment days, but in a much different way. As Seth Godin says, “The best experiences and the biggest ideas don’t fit into a category. They change it. They don’t get filed away, they transform us.” By taking skills from one industry into another, you may make an outsized contribution to that new industry.

3.      Understand what your skills are and how they can be applied in different domains

You may be surprised at how many transferable skills you have. Creative problem-solving, leadership, collaboration, teamwork, decision-making and empathy are some of the skills that immediately come to my mind that can be applied to almost any industry.   There’s very little similarity between promoting Seinfeld and enabling a reconnaissance mission, but I understand how to apply my hard-earned skills to whatever industry or domain I enter. Embrace that next challenge even if you need to keep repeating “Serenity now!” (that’s a Seinfeld quote for those of you not fans of the legendary sitcom.)

4.      Be curious

Being curious is a life skill that can serve you well. My wife often tells me that I ask too many questions and jokes that I’ve hit my quota for the day, but questions not only reveal information, but typically lead to better solutions. By digging deeper, you may have a better understanding of the bigger picture and be able to make better decisions.  Questions can fuel creativity. Don’t be satisfied with a cursory understanding when a better understanding can unlock something greater.  

Good questions not only foster understanding, but collaboration as well. What do you not know that you need to know and can others help you get there? Questions can also keep you in learning mode rather than judging mode. How many great innovations have been undermined by taking the easy path or settling on the first idea generated? Like a good reporter, keep asking questions. “If you are curious, you’ll find the puzzles around you. If you are determined, you will solve them.” – Erno Rubik

5.      Seek to understand

Individuals and companies that integrate emotional intelligence into their work and workplace typically perform better. Empathy can build trust with co-workers and employees, but also with customers. Especially with technological advancements like AI, empathy and seeking to understand can provide a competitive advantage. It reminds me of the adage that one of my managers at Turner Broadcasting liked to cite about the job: It’s part art and part science. I’m a firm believer in leveraging technology to the extent feasible, but it’s critical that we don’t lose the humanity aspect of what we do. Just as AI can augment and not replace the human, so too can we augment our ‘hard’ skills with soft skills such as listening and empathizing.

Yada yada yada.

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