Eric Carlson: CS, Management, and Aviation

“This might be my most enjoyable role yet,” said FlightAware product manager and Rice CS alumnus Eric Carlson. “It leverages my consulting experience, and allows me to talk business and talk tech at the same time."

Rice CS Alumnus Eric Carlson is a product manager at FlightAware.

“Working as a product manager for FlightAware brings together my experience as a consultant, my skillset in software development, and my hobby interests in radio communications and aviation,” said Rice University Computer Science alumnus Eric Carlson (B.A. ’02).

FlightAware is the world’s largest flight tracking data company. It provides over 10,000 aircraft operators and service companies, as well as over 12,000,000 passengers, with global flight tracking solutions. FlightAware provides SaaS and data-as-a-service products to its global customer base.

Although aerospace and aviation-related business is a key component of Houston’s commerce, Carlson began his technology career in the city’s best known industry, oil and gas. He then leveraged his web and software solutions experience into a consulting role for more than a decade.

“In consulting, I learned a lot about business,” said Carlson. “Even at Rice, I had an interest in how organizations work, but didn’t pursue it. My early years as a consultant focused on business automation.

“How can we improve our business by increasing revenue and/or reducing costs? In addition to understanding software and business processes, I had to learn a ton of accounting because if you are going to succeed in developing software for the business sector, you have to be able to communicate with both the engineers and the finance department.”

The ability to translate how changes in business automation will impact the bottom line has been one of the keys to Carlson’s success. Equally important is the ability to translate the finance side of the business into priorities for the software developers.

He said, “My experience in business automation and managing engineers appealed to FlightAware, and they brought me on to create a cross-functional team that could leverage the latest air traffic control technology to improve FlightAware’s flight tracking services. We collect data directly from aircraft in real-time, feed it into our internal engine, integrate it with our additional data sources, and provide a single version of the truth to our customers.

“Our technology combines hardware on IoT infrastructure across 21,000 sites globally running on Raspberry Pi devices. But we’re a software company, right? So yes, we have these small devices to help acquire the data but the bottom line is they are simply an enabler for us. By having our own data acquisition infrastructure, we are able to feed over 100 million aircraft positions messages per hour into our tracking engine.”

After creating and stabilizing his first FlightAware team, he was offered a different role. The company’s first product manager position was created to solve new challenges and tailored to Carlson’s skills. He became the bridge between customers and the technology team.

“This might be my most enjoyable role yet,” said Carlson. “It leverages my consulting experience, and allows me to talk business and talk tech at the same time. I am immersed in our clients’ business problems and providing insights used by our tech team to develop solutions that solve those problems.”

He said his biggest challenge is staying up to date, a recurring challenge in software development that spans all industries. Carlson said it is all too easy to keep doing what has worked in the past.

“Your experience as a developer has to continually evolve. You have to force yourself to change. It’s a risk walking away from what you already know, but you have to remain aware of what is coming – not just in your career but also in your business.

“As a manager, that challenge is multiplied because there are multiple teams and technologies to keep up with. Plus, all the code we’ve written becomes legacy. We have to support the legacy and keep the business running while finding ways to keep our technology up to date.”

Incremental and continual changes help maintain the balance between legacy support and new software solutions. Carlson said he focuses on change management for every product or process because it keeps everyone engaged.

“Change management is all about communication,” he said. “Ultimately, to be effective, you have to over-communicate. The idea is to say something many times because people don’t always hear you. Using repetition and a consistent message across different channels is ideal.

“Some people need written communications, others need video, audio, or face-to-face. To be most effective, I get to know my audience and learn how they communicate. Then I adapt my communications style for that particular group.”

Carlson’s communications style helps move FlightAware’s products from idea to fruition. It is a satisfying process, particularly when he sees one of their new products launch in the marketplace.

“We’re working in an innovative field and offer unique products. We’re enabling our customers to expand their business. I have to change the way I do my job because of the new developments in technology and the new tools that are available. Furthermore, we have to teach our customers that they need to adapt their processes because our innovative software lets them do things in ways they never could before. Ultimately, my focus is making sure our customers get the maximum value out of our products.”

Carlson has maximized the wealth of opportunities in Houston as well. He said the city remains under the radar for a lot of people in technology and other industries, but he has never wanted to work anywhere else.

“It’s a fun city and very international, with a lot to offer. Outside the city, Houston is under the radar for a lot of people. The city is very entrepreneurial and innovative. The business opportunities are endless. Houston has recently been ranked the number one metropolitan area for economic freedom.”

The economic opportunities are so good in fact, that Carlson and his wife recently launched their own travel advisory service, LBL Travel, as a side business. “In my spare time, I’m providing the backend support, but she’s been focused on our business full-time since January.”