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On July 20, 1969, minutes before the lunar module Eagle was scheduled to touch down on the moon, dashboard alarms began to indicate an emergency. There was a hardware failure, and the onboard computer wasn’t keeping up with the calculations required for the landing. The reason we can now celebrate the 50th anniversary of the successful Apollo 11 mission and not a critical disaster is due to the work of Margaret Hamilton — a programmer who had a clear vision for how software should be engineered when lives were at stake.
Hamilton had architected the system so that in the event of an overload, the onboard computer would ignore all unnecessary tasks and only focus on a prioritized list that was essential for landing. Mission Control was able to give the astronauts the green light, and we all know what followed: The landing was a success, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and the United States achieved its “giant leap for mankind.”
A sense of responsibility for the astronauts’ safety shaped Hamilton’s vision for her work: Her team would need to build systems that could detect and recover from every possible error. It was this conscientiousness that led her to pioneer the field of software engineering and defensive programming, and it also turns out to be one of the key ingredients of a lasting vision.
Through my research and interviews with hundreds of business leaders and their teams, including Hamilton herself, a pattern emerged: High-performing teams feel a sense of shared responsibility for creating the world they envision.
This kind of thinking can be applied to all different kinds of work — the impact of the project or product may be on a different scale, but you can still feel responsible for the change you want to create for your end user. Brian Crofts, chief product officer of Pendo, a product engagement platform, says of the company’s vision for Pendo’s product, “In the past, when product managers wanted to get data on user behavior on their product, they needed to involve engineers to run reports. Our earliest vision was to give product managers autonomy in being able to gather the insights they need.”
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Pendo was started by product managers who experienced the pain felt by others in the same line of work.