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Suited phoneys vs honourable technocrats

Tales from the airshow

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Comment Smart suits, I've come to understand, are a sure sign of a business involving a bunch of phoneys. After this year's visit to the 1950s (otherwise known as the Farnborough Airshow) I've also discovered something just as important: I'm allergic to these guys.

Aircraft are expensive, and once you've got the basics right (get off the ground, land again, don't run out of fuel half way) the stuff that matters most is dealing with people with big budgets... and big egos to match. Phoneys, in short.

The hallmarks of a phoney business can be summarised, sadly: "Pompous, overweight men with gray hair attended by smart, blonde 'secretarial' gofers of the female gender." Back in the 1950s, that was what business was like. In the 60s, that was what the computer mainframe business was like (if you weren't an engineer, you could get fired by IBM if you wore a shirt that wasn't white). And in the 80s, when computer companies switched to open-neck shirts and woolly sweaters, it was the telco business where all the orders were for $600 million at a time, and they were placed by egoists in their late 50s, weighing about 50 pounds more than they were comfortable with, with smart suits.

And they were attended by girlies who actually made all the serious decisions, but had to pretend to be obedient lackeys.

The archetypal smart-suit business, of course, is banking. I'm not going to go there; we all have stories to tell, and the only one worth bringing into this piece is my quite recent discovery of a friend - a technology genius and a normally, an inveterate tee-shirt and sandals guy - dressed in a pin-stripe. "Had to see the bank manager," he grunted when I expressed my amazement. A bank manager, it is clearly understood, is someone who is incapable of understanding your real worth, and needs you to play the phoney game.

There are, goodness knows, real technology stories to be told about aircraft. My own focus is wireless internet, and so I was really looking forward to chatting to people from Seattle. No, not Microsoft system engineers: people from Connexion by Boeing who are trying to find someone in the commercial airline business who understands them.

"Take your airline online and upline," it explains, desperately trying not to sound patronising. "Discover how world-class airlines are differentiating themselves by adding in-flight internet service. Give your employees and customers the convenience of high-speed, direct connectivity wherever your flights take them." And it goes on to explain there are benefits to the airline, not just to the passengers (who cares about the passengers?) "Differentiation, cost-effective in-flight maintenance monitoring, security surveillance, passenger manifest transmission, entertainment content updates and remote medical evaluations..."

Well, to cut a long story short, my journey down to Farnborough was a complete waste of time. Boeing had about two acres of corporate hostility buildings there, and not one of the 90-odd Boeing staff there, either corporate-suited or attentive bimbos, knew anything at all about Connexion. "There is someone here, I'm sure," sniffed one very cute gurly whose job it was to give the lie to the "Welcome to Boeing!" sign. "Try the Dreamcraft tent..."

But there wasn't.

I ran into a veteran of the flight business, a very experienced Washington DC hack called Elaine. "There are really no stories here," she confided. "Every year I wonder what on earth makes me come here."

Of course, Elaine won't go back to her Washington editor empty-handed, she's too canny a hand at the trade. She'll do some stories which will entertain and probably inform her readers, and even make them say: "Gosh... did you know?" - but there's nothing there to rival the sheer excitement of the typical mobile phone show like 3GSM, for example. And when she says "There's nothing new..." she knows what she's talking about.

Of course, if you aren't the sort of person who finds technology interesting, working for an aircraft company is "just a job." You have a schedule, you have contacts, you have management lines of reporting, you have meetings, you have memos, you have a Dilbert existence of surviving in the company of other time-wasters. Most of these people would be leading exactly the same schedule if the company they worked for sold pipelines to Russian gas companies, or concrete to big construction companies.

What they do, is to pander to the egos of people who have the power to give them promotion. What we technolocrats do, is try to unravel which set of features best solves a set of problems, try to understand new problems, try to create a world in which things become possible which were not possible before.

The moral, I think, is that if you find yourself trapped in a career where it's more important to know who is doing best, than to know who is doing the best work, you know you're in a business of suited phoneys. And if that's what you want to do, then take what comfort you can from the thought that maybe, you'll make a little more money there than you would risking everything for a technology idea.

But for me, that's no choice at all.

I just found a technology -My Perfect Picture - which takes an ordinary portrait photograph, and subtly modifies the face so as to make it look as if it caught you on a good day. It's something that requires a lot of studies, a lot of knowledge, and an amazing amount of inventiveness. It may, or may not, make its inventors wealthy... but that is almost not the point. The point is that it's interesting.

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