This Google engineer teaches his coworkers how to fly aeroplanes ... and it's changed his career in surprising ways

Bowen ZhangBowen ZhangBowen Zhang
  • Most companies offer employee training where experts within the company teach their coworkers important work skills. But Google is known for taking its employee-to-employee training to a whole other level.
  • Googlers can take multi-week classes, for free, from other Googlers on everything from professional skills (learning to code, machine learning) to fun stuff like aeronautics.
  • Teaching classes can have a profound impact on the careers of the volunteer employee instructors, Google’s aeronautics instructor tells us.

When software engineer and private pilot Bowen Zhang joined Google in 2014 he had no intention of becoming a teacher. But his new coworkers kept peppering him with questions about being a pilot. So one day, instead of answering the same questions he decided it may be time to teach a class. “As an engineer, I need a way to scale up,” he joked to Business Insider.

He had been taking professional development classes at Google taught by coworkers. Google’s curriculum includes everything from cooking to coding to ballroom dancing. Zhang decided to teach an Aviation 101 class, which covered things like how aeroplanes work and what’s involved in becoming a pilot. Zhang was a certified flight instructor but this wasn’t going to be a classic ground instruction course. This was a class about flying for the curious layperson.

Google has a vast and formal employee-to-employee training system, called G2G (for Googler to Googler). The first step in teaching such a course is to take training on how to teach, which he did. Then he invited his coworkers to his class.

To his surprise, more than 100 people signed up for it. He taught it again and got another giant crowd. His students wanted more.

“I set up another full course to teach people how to learn about becoming a pilot called Private Pilot Ground Course, a full 12-session course” Zhang said. About 30 people signed up.

There was one problem: ground school usually includes poking around inside planes and flight simulators to teach students how to control a plane. Google didn’t have any planes on campus. So engineer that he is, for his 20% project, Zhang built a flight simulator. (A 20% project is a personal interest project that Googlers can spend up to 20% of their time on.)

And then Zhang launched another class using the flight simulator called “Learn to fly in 60 minutes,” a more serious step for people who dreamed of being a pilot. 11 people signed up. From these classes, two people have gone on to pursue full-on pilot licence (taught at a pilot school, not by Zhang).

All told, in over two years Zhang has taught eight courses, over 20 class sessions, over 60 hours of instruction and had 400 students.

His most rewarding moments is seeing people decide to pursue their own dreams of learning to fly.

“People realised [and told me], ‘This is totally possible. It’s encouraged me to proceed with this getting my private pilot licence and making my childhood dream become true,” Zhang says.

Volunteer your way to leadership

But the biggest surprise to him was that that teaching a fun course to coworkers had big benefits to his career. It gave him exposure in a leadership role to people across the company. And it became a way to learn and practice public speaking and presentations. These are necessary skills to advance his career as a software engineer but hard to come by in his daily job.

“Every time I walked into class, I needed to be prepared, to speak in public, to design materials, to be very efficient in delivering the message,” Zhang said. “I got 60 hours of practice.”

While most employees know that volunteering can be a way to gain career skills, it can be hard to find time outside of work. But any employee can raise a hand and offer to teach a class to their coworkers, combining volunteering with the workday.

However, most companies don’t have a system as formal and organised as Google’s G2G training, which helps companies identify instructors, prepare them for teaching, and collect feedback. On Friday, Google released for free its how-to-guide for employee-to-employee training, making it easier for companies to set up their own programs.

As for those who dream of being a pilot, Zhang offers these two tips: 1) Be prepared to commit about two years to the process. It’s as time-consuming as earning a master’s degree. 2) Don’t be afraid of the cost. There are scholarships available and schools vary widely in their pricing, too.

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