‘Build the plane while you’re flying it’

A look at why a nonsensical idiom beloved in Silicon Valley has caught on so among the rest of us.

Paul Sakuma/AP
Journalists looks at the Bloom Energy power servers at eBay offices in San Jose, Calif. in 2010.

Adam Lashinsky of Fortune magazine recently visited and wrote about AltSchool, a San Francisco-based education-technology firm that has “begun its corporate life by operating a small number of private ‘micro-schools.’ ”

Starting small has allowed AltSchool to experiment. Mr. Lashinsky quoted AltSchool chief executive Max Ventilla, a Google alum: “We’re kind of flying the plane while we’re building it.”

This idiom, Lashinsky pointed out, is a cliché of Silicon Valley. It’s rooted in the idea of “iterative” software development – ship it and fix it and ship it again – in contrast to the earlier approach of tinkering for years and finally shipping.

The idiom also showed up in Rebecca Mead’s recent piece in The New Yorker on AltSchool. She mentioned another ed-tech software guy who “likes to use an alarming metaphor popular among Silicon Valley innovators: ‘You’ve got to build the plane while you’re flying.’ ”

And the metaphor has spread. A conference presenter in Philadelphia recently spoke of the information technology challenges that health-care providers are scrambling to meet under the Affordable Care Act: Developing the infrastructure they need is like “building the plane while flying it,” he said. 

In another example, the Financial Times recently quoted the founder of an Indian ride-hailing service on growth in his fast-growing industry: “It’s almost like you are building the jet plane as it is flying.”

A vivid visualization of this metaphor is to be found in a 2000 commercial for Electronic Data Systems (EDS), now part of Hewlett-Packard. The ad shows, well, an airliner under construction as it flies through the air. The ad features the kind of photography and “inspirational” music familiar from “welcome aboard” cabin videos, while showing the passengers exposed to stiff breezes in the not yet fully enclosed cabin, even as the crew rivet the “skin” of the jet to its frame.

To state the obvious: An airplane is the last thing you would build while you’re flying it. Maybe the metaphor reflects a kind of concreteness envy on the part of the software crowd. Aircraft engage with the laws of physics. They are definitely heavier than air. At work on our computers, we sometimes look for pinwheels and progress bars to confirm that something really is going on as a file downloads or a program launches. When a jet engine fires up, you know something is happening. 

And there’s a subtle difference between the Silicon Valley application of the metaphor and the EDS message in that ad. The software being developed in an iterative process is a product to be sold to someone else. It is hugely important to the business, but not the same thing as the business.

On the other hand, what EDS was telling potential customers with that ad was, We’ll help you invent your business (or at least its management information systems) while the business itself is already up and running. This was what the health-care speaker in Philadelphia meant: He and his colleagues are up in that plane.

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