Bundled up in the aftermath of a candy-induced Halloween coma, warmed by a Pumpkin Spice Latte, and ensconced in autumnal hues before Thanksgiving, is Wednesday, November 11. Despite American flag pins on politicians, and references on the morning news, sadly many Americans might forget that November 11 is a day to honor those who serve.
It is Veterans Day.
Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean is a floating city 18 stories tall, 1092 feet long, 4.5 acres of sovereign American territory inhabited by nearly 5000 sailors. The Navy knows this city as CVN-74. Civilians know it as the USS John C. Stennis, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
Though my life and work are at the intersection of technology and venture capital, I recently had the honor of being a "Distinguished Visitor" aboard the Stennis. The Navy "DV" program allows rare access to observe active-duty enlisted and officer life aboard an aircraft carrier, and it gave me an appreciation of the immense skill, discipline, and sacrifice men and women in our armed services make everyday around our world, keeping America safe.
When my transport plane, a C-2 Greyhound "Carrier Onboard Delivery" or "COD," made its arrested stop aboard the Stennis, we went from 105 mph to stopped in under 2 seconds. Facing backwards, harnessed to a metal seat bolted to a rattling floor, as a passenger one has a rather visceral sensation of crashing. There is the holding pattern at 1200 feet, a continual left turn for 30 minutes, followed by leveling, and a ducking and weaving with the plane's nose plummeting toward a moving runway no more than 300 feet long. Out of the two porthole windows one sees an accelerating set of blue ripples on increasingly close water, followed by a series of flashing grey objects, and a violent thud as you screech to a halt.
Landing a plane onto a moving runway where the only method of stopping on deck is to "tailhook" one of four metal wires across the deck is known as a "trap," by Naval Aviators. It's known as "the best moment of your life" by anyone who went trick-or-treating as Maverick for the better part of a decade.
Prior to my trip I understood the precision of naval aviators, and what it takes to train for years to launch F/A-18 fighter jets off of catapults, and land aboard carriers on starless, obsidian nights. I understood the challenges from conversations with friends who had flown F/A-18s, who told me about the blackest nights where a barely illuminated runway would turn from a line into a point as the landing deck pitched with the swell of a stormy ocean. I'd also been lucky enough to work for Navy submarine commanders, fighter pilots, and Marine reconnaissance officers during my three years at Google.
But as a DV aboard the Stennis I came to observe the impeccable ballet that is the coordination of a city 5,000 people strong, most citizens between the ages of 19 and 24, confined to 18 decks full of engines, munitions, ordinance, gyms, testosterone, stainless-steel showers, berths stacked three to the ceiling, and closets the size of high school lockers. While Naval aviators in squadron-patch adorned green flight suits will always command the utmost respect, and conjure Maverick and Iceman reverence from any Top Gun fan, when the blood came back into my extremities after launching off of the catapult and off Stennis, I was left with a greater appreciation for our Veterans. Not just the Mavericks.
The military is perhaps the best job-training platform the world has ever seen. Growing up in Palo Alto, and part of a Silicon Valley world where 'rebel' and 'dropout' are synonymous with success, I appreciated taking a step back and looking at the world through the high resolution infrared displays from the flight deck. I welcomed the chance to consider the gravitas of military service, and how that level of commitment helps build real leaders whose organization, experience, and resolve power the turbines of America's best companies.
The world isn't all frilly apps built by college-quitting hackers. Sometimes it takes the jolt of landing on an aircraft carrier to recognize that some of the characteristics of true leadership come through sacrifice, by getting employees to buy into a clear mission, and by building a culture of empowerment and ownership where employees take exceptional pride in what they do.
The twenty-something enlisted men and women I met on the flight deck, in the hanger bay, standing at attention against the metal hull at 0600, polishing floors, assembling ordinance, and managing the maintenance schedules for $90 million dollar aircraft, all had a sense of pride and purpose I've seen missing among colleagues trying to build the next big thing, trying to ink the highest valuation built atop vanity metrics and frothy investor sentiment. I was awestruck by their morale, and by the organizational capacity of the U.S. Navy to foster teamwork across all walks of life.
As we launched off the catapult and caught the air, we lifted over the glittering Pacific. I looked down at the USS John C. Stennis bumping over the swell at 20 knots, a 4.5 acre shrinking grey rectangle. I was immediately thankful for those men and women who serve in the U.S. military, and thankful that despite motivations and methods that not all will always agree with, all should agree that the armed services help train and equip some of the best and brightest to do great things in and out of service.
And for that, we should all be thankful for, and work with, our exceptional Veterans.