British Airways’ In-Flight Hackathon Spawns Solutions To The Engineering Crunch

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An 11-hour flight, 150 techies, and one problem: How do we educate more engineers? This was the premise for the British Airways UnGrounded “Innovation Lab In The Sky.” While heavy on ideas with few to execute them, the flight forced Silicon Valley elite to stop and think about education. How? It took away their Wi-Fi.

Something crazy happens when you cram brainy people in a flying fuselage with no Internet. They actually talk to each other. No work could be done and there was nowhere to hide. Andreessen Horowitz partner Todd Lutwak, Google(x) VP Megan Smith, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, and an army of startup founders didn’t have a choice. They had to brainstorm, productize, and pitch their solutions to the world’s shortage of great programmers.

Shaky Takeoff

From March when British Airways announced the flight, a marketing stunt appealing to entrepreneurs but with a social good angle, it came off a bit half-baked. What would we do up there? No one seemed to know. An open discussion would surely devolve into chaos, especially when you factor in the open bar. Luckily BA brought on renown design firm IDEO to turn the problem into a process for improving education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Simon Talling-Smith, British Airways, pre-Ungrounded flight at the Clift hotel and press conference

The itinerary started yesterday in San Francisco with an intro session at the Clift hotel. British Airways announced it would launch APIs to surface their cheapest tickets and offer access to their seat-selection system with hopes that partners could build better apps in exchange for a small revenue cut.

BA then piled the passengers into shuttles and shipped us to SFO. There, we did what any self-respecting adults would do at 3 p.m. with the rest of the day off work. We drank. Champagne and scotch flowed in the BA departure lounge, which made the prospect of spending the night at 30,000 feet with a bunch of nerds a lot less daunting. We boarded the double-decker plane, lifted the wheels, and the IDEO ice breakers started. A geeky crossword with clues like “A gem of a programming language” was distributed, and we were asked to sketch portraits of each other. So far, so bubbly.

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Grab Your Magic Markers

When we finally got down to business, it started to feel like less of a wank and more like a mission. The issues at hand? STEM seems geeky to kids, there aren’t enough women involved, the emerging market is desperate to modernize, and the first-world economy demands more tech talent. E30A7267We were tasked to come up with solutions, commit them to poster board, pitch them to each other, and present the best ones at the DNA Conference in London where we landed. Seeing dignified tech execs fumbling with magic markers and getting ink all over their hands had a bit of perverse pleasure to it, and some of the projects were downright silly.

A nutrition label-style sticker for tech products that tells kids what STEM education went into building them? Oh yeah, because kids love nutrition labels. A “global network that connects tech talent to jobs”? Yes, LinkedIn does exist.

But some weren’t so bad. AdvisHer sought to put promising female STEM students in touch with successful women in tech who could mentor them. A crowdsourced children’s television show hoped to let kids show off cool science projects to each other. Maybe I’m biased, but I thought my team had a decent idea for a next-generation bookmobile where kids could play electrical engineering and computer science games like a mobile Exploratorium.

Each passenger was given little stickers to paste to their favorite projects. I wandered the aisles of hand-drawn pitch decks taped to the overhead compartments. Veteran VCs and corporate VPs giddily promoted their ideas to scrappy young founders, pandering for votes.

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Then something special happened. Somewhere in the hackathon’s fourth hour I forgot we were hurtling through the sky at 500 miles per hour and just lost myself in the spirit of progress. It wasn’t until I looked over to the window and saw the sunset over the wing that I remembered how surreal the scene was. It made me think that we discount the value of turning off our phones and thinking uninterrupted for a while.

When we do disconnect for a digital detox, we’re usually on vacation, not trying to solve big problems without the aid of Google search. Maybe we shouldn’t need an actual lack of connectivity to connect.

High-Minded, But UnGrounded

After a comically short three-hour scheduled nap time, we were awoken by a perky voice on the loud speaker announcing the votes had been tallied. The winning projects were: “Beacon In A Backpack,” a mobile stem toolkit that helps travelers become STEM evangelists to rural villages; CertifyMe, a certification tool to determine if developing world talent has the STEM skills for serious tech jobs; Init, that tech nutrition label idea I can’t see any gadget-maker showing on their boxes unless legally required; and, my favorite, AdvisHer. 1006135_10151954893140830_2050107337_n

Women in STEM education majors can sometimes feel out of place. They’re often the minority and can face unfair scrutiny, trouble finding work groups, and misogyny. A better mentorship program like AdvisHer could keep them on the path to high-powered engineering and tech product management jobs where their perspective is sorely needed.

AdvisHer founder and Women Innovate Media managing director Kelly Hoey tells me “If girls in pipeline programs don’t see more role models, we’ll never change the percentages of women entering and remaining in STEM-related fields.” She follows that the AdvisHer site is live, and “We’ll see if the constituents we designed the site for embrace it as enthusiastically as we hacked it.”

Tomorrow, AdvisHer and the other winning projects will be presented to the DNA conference, which features speeches and panels from tech leaders like Microsoft’s Paul Allen, Lean In’s Gina Bianchini, and several of the flight’s passengers. The hope is that the DNA (Decide Now Act) conference organizers will find a way to put one of the UnGrounded flight’s projects into practice. Simon Talling-Smith, British Airways’ EVP, tells me he thinks the event performed “Beyond expectations” but admits the goal “was more to create proposals than make them happen today.”

In Silicon Valley, though, ideas mean nothing and execution is everything. That’s why the lack of a concrete plan to fund or implement the output of the flight was disappointing. Even the winning team has little plan beyond just putting its idea out there and seeing if anyone takes to it. This makes the ideas generated on the flight feel like well-wishing in a space that needs real impact.

But up above the clouds, the UnGrounded passengers seemed satisfied to suspend their cynicism for a minute and just dream. While the plans in our colorful posters may never come to fruition, the importance of STEM education won’t be forgotten. The people aboard are in a position to pass that insight on. We need more engineers to bring about tomorrow, and the next generation can’t afford that understanding to vanish into thin air.

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