Over vacation last week I finished reading Flying Blind. Peter Robinson does a masterful job of taking the reader through the development of the plane and evolution of Boeing that brought us to this tragedy. When CEO Dennis Muilenberg joined Boeing as an intern it employed engineers that called themselves The Incredibles with a mandate to build the world’s best airplane. By the 2000s and development of 737 MAX the company had outsourced talent and cared more about avoiding more costs and requirements. They deployed armies of lobbyists to neuter the oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration. Their stubborn avoidance of procurement rules shackled them to old technology and eventually cost them more than had they started fresh. It also cost people their lives.
If you are in Civic Tech, or work in software the issues and stories in the book will feel familiar. We see how outsourcing costs more than developing things in-house when Boeing engineers have to put in extra time to make sure the outsourcers do things correctly. Rushed work leads to mistakes or mechanics leaving food and tools in the fuel tank. Regulators, in over their heads, use questionable methods to decide whether to keep planes in the sky. We see it all.
The biggest bummer of the book is ending it with little feeling of hope. The issue with the 737 MAX was fixed, but it’s a compromise of an airplane that continues to be delivered and used today. Every time I have flown in one the seat widths are uncomfortably tight, 16.8 inches versus the 18 inches of an Airbus. There is little sense that Boeing is inching to build something bigger and better.