Playback speed
Share post
Share post at current time

The Burn

A series of overly dramatic comparisons between Apollo 13 and our work as product designers.

One of my favorite scenes in Apollo 13 is toward the end, when they conduct a "controlled burn" – a critical course adjustment, achieved by firing the rocket engines, manual steering, all without guidance computers. During this high-intensity period, the smallest angle adjustments have enormous impact on the crew's chance of success; one tiny error can be the difference between a successful reentry and a ricochet off the atmosphere.

The re-entry corridor is, in fact, so narrow that if this basketball were the Earth and this softball were the moon, and the two were placed 14 feet apart, the crew would have to hit a target no thicker than this piece of paper.

When I worked at Facebook, I was fond of referencing this scene. I went so far as to make the video above, drawing a series of overly dramatic comparisons between other moments in the film and our work as product designers. The “burn” was my most frequent citation. It refers to a stage I think every product team faces at some point: you're past launch, your definition of success has changed, and you're staring down the barrel of another big push. You have to get your angle calculations done before firing your rockets, because once the burn starts, your ship is moving too fast for you to break out your calculator again.

The video was recorded years ago and included confidential information. I finally was able to open it, scrub it of anything FB-centric, and hopefully make it interesting to anyone toiling in the product design mines. Please enjoy 😊.

Very Long Press
Very Long Press
Alex Cornell