Facebook uses a Malibu-flying engineering manager to promote careers in engineering…

… specifically to women. There is a lot to celebrate in this Facebook Careers video. The description:

The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is happening this week in Orlando and we’ll be there. Join Engineering Director Debbie Ferguson on a flight journey as she offers her perspective and career advice from 600 feet in the air.

Ms. Ferguson has been commuting by plane from Sacramento to her office at Facebook. She says that she started the aerial commute (it could be 2-4 hours each way, depending on traffic, by car) during a previous job at Google so that she could be home with two young daughters for dinner every night.

Some public comments:

Sylvia French: “Must have been hard rising to that level as a woman.”

Missy Dawn: “I have never heard of you or any of this. I wish I would’ve sooner. I have a 17 year old daughter who is graduating this year. What an inspiration to young woman you are and this organization.”

Amy Hayes: “You are an inspiration to us all!”

The Piper Malibu, especially the early Continental-powered version with the 4-blade MT prop (quiet inside!), is the ideal family airplane. As long as you have a letter from God promising that the stressed-to-the-limit turbocharged piston engine won’t quit, you can fly in pressurized air-conditioned comfort nearly anywhere in North America with just one stop and sipping gasoline at close to 20 mpg. (Debbie’s Matrix version is slightly simpler and, unfortunately, not pressurized.)

As I tend to do with any story about aviation, I looked up the plane and the pilot in the public registries. It seems that the plane, N488EA, was purchased new by an Oregon LLC in 2008 and hasn’t been resold. (Oregon has no sales tax, so this saves about $70,000 in California taxes.) In the FAA airmen registry (who will get out the pitchforks to make them update their sexist language?) there is a “Deborah Ross Ferguson” in the Sacramento area with the bare minimum ratings necessary to fly a Malibu with insurance, i.e., a Private certificate with “Airplane Single Engine Land” and “Instrument Airplane” ratings. But the certificate was issued in May 2016. Certificates are issued when a person adds a rating, e.g., the instrument rating. How did Ms. Ferguson fly a $1 million cabin-class airplane for 8 years without the minimum ratings?

Ms. Ferguson’s LinkedIn page confirms the narrative from the video, with commuting to Silicon Valley starting in 2004 for a job at Google. Any kind of search for “Deborah Ross Ferguson,” however, brings up pages mentioning a “David Ross Ferguson.” A search for “Debbie Ferguson,” brings up this page:

Conference delegates will hear from Fiona Mullan, Facebook’s HR Director from EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) who will speak about Facebook’s diversity programmes and Debbie Ferguson, Engineering Director at Facebook who will speak about her experience as a transgender women in the workplace.

If we assume that this pilot got a new certificate due to a name change, that the transition from “David Ross” to “Deborah Ross” occurred at the time of the FAA certificate reissue in 2016, and that Ms. Ferguson was 18 years old when entering college in 1983 (LinkedIn), she spent 51 years identifying as a man.

Certainly this story could be inspiring as a tale of American personal fulfillment. Ms. Ferguson built a successful career doing what she loved, earned a pilot certificate, has enjoyed the freedom of flight, and was able to select a new gender. But why would it be specifically inspiring to women considering engineering as a career? What if the lesson that they take away is “The best way to succeed as a woman in Silicon Valley is to spend 51 years as a man”?

[And what lesson can men learn? Ms. Ferguson’s LinkedIn profile says “Particularly passionate about coaching women as they develop their leadership skills.” Is the best way for a man to demonstrate passion about women in the workplace to become one?]

Separately, I wonder if this is the answer to Bay Area real estate prices. Six Silicon Valley workers buy shares in a $300,000 Piper Malibu. That’s $50,000 each.  Four of them get pilot certificates and rotate so that there are always two pilots in the front seat as an airline-style crew (for safety). They can then live 80 miles away and get to work with about one hour of round-trip flying per day. The plane thus runs 250 hours per year for the commute. At $300 per hour (everything costs more in California), that’s $75,000 per year in expenses plus another $25,000 for hangar and insurance. Each of the six is thus spending $16,667 per year or about $1,400 per month. That’s way less than the additional cost of housing in Silicon Valley, right? As an added bonus, when these six folks age out of the Silicon Valley workforce, e.g., at 50, they’ll have enough flying hours to get a job at an airline.


15 thoughts on “Facebook uses a Malibu-flying engineering manager to promote careers in engineering…

  1. Clearly a ridiculous article but I am a little disappointed in you Phil! Why did you not ridicule the 600 feet in the air part? Seems transgenderism in the cockpit (or box office) is not uncommon. Caitlin Jenner used to fly a Mitsubishi MU-2 (when she identified as male) and Zoey Tur famously started the LA Riots with her helicopter (also when she identified as male).

  2. Yes! Yes! Ha! Awesome detective work Phil!

    Wow, talk about riding the wave of the Zeitgeist. She’s on top of that wave right now. Excellent example of changing genders to gain benefit at the workplace at the right time.

    I especially love the “Particularly passionate about coaching women as they develop their leadership skills.” So how many years experience does she have as a woman? Is she qualified yet to give advice to other women about having a career as woman (what would be enough to qualify as having enough experience, 2 years? 5 years? 10 years?) ?

    Putting aside the absurdity (again, big fan of absurdity) it is remarkable though that the USA allows for such limitless personal fulfillment. Hats off to Debbie Ferguson and may she continue on her pursuit of happiness.

    Certificates Description
    Date of Issue: 3/25/2010

    Is that you? Your middle name makes me think Chinatown is a favorite movie of yours?

  4. Jerry: That is me. Sadly no new type ratings since 2010. The Remote Pilot is a different certificate, not a rating, so it didn’t reset the clock on my core certificate. The FAA site is working for me now. I think maybe the issue is that I had left in a default of “USA” and for some reason the FAA is now withholding my street address (maybe since the Remote Pilot cert was issued this summer). So any address criterion causes me to disappear. (The main character in Chinatown is named after my mom’s first cousin, the late Hollywood producer Harry Gittes.)

    billg: I’m not sure that Ms. Ferguson’s position at Facebook is evidence of overcoming ageism. If “Engineering Director” means “Manager of programmers” (a.k.a., babysitter of Millennials) then it wouldn’t be so unusual to have a 52-year-old in the role, would it?

    Toucan Sam: I didn’t ridicule the 600′ part because I wasn’t sure what they meant. There is no reason why one couldn’t fly a Malibu at 600′ MSL around the Bay, is there? I’ve flown up the 101 highway past SFO at 500′ in a helicopter. Actually, if memory serves, there is a famous Malibu that spent almost its entire life flying around 500′ or 1000′ AGL on pipeline patrol. After a few thousand hours, but nowhere near the life limit of the airframe, the wing spars were cracking and in danger of failing. The cracks were attributed to the fact that it was a lot more turbulent near the ground than where a Malibu typically flies.

    J.: Thanks for the vote of confidence. It doesn’t surprise me that this Price guy would want to join Hillary in the Gulfstream 450+ club. But it does surprise me that he was traveling at all. The guy’s agency had a $1 trillion annual budget. He was doling out more cash, even adjusted for inflation, than a Roman emperor or an Ottoman sultan. Why wouldn’t anyone that he wanted to talk to have come to him? Did the Ottoman sultan have to go to a conference and meet with other rulers of empires?

  5. Phil I think the 600 feet refers to the altitude she flies over facebook HQ. 91.119 section B. Facebook HQ is in a yellow shaded area on the VFR chart. I think the rules for helicopters are different. So there is your reason! Standing by for snarky comment.

  6. > The main character in Chinatown is named after my mom’s first cousin, the late Hollywood producer Harry Gittes.

    That is a delight to learn! I’m glad I asked!

  7. This story provides great new hope in the present dark reign of the T-fuhrer, because it points to a way America’s greatest President could save the country again.

    If the *former* President were to become a woman, term limit should not apply, since no woman has been a president, and she will be able accomplish great things without partisan roadblocks, since only a person who is simultaneously misogynist, racist, anti-transgender, and anti-same-sex-marriage (if the President stays married to the former/future First Lady) can oppose her.

  8. (since J brought up the topic of travel for govt officials) It’s traditional for HHS Secretary to attend WHO meetings. To Price’s credit, he did actually set foot in Liberia (so he didn’t limit himself to Geneva and other first-class WHO destinations). Wondering whether Price & Mnuchin compared notes about how to book military or private jets. From Wikipedia: Mnuchin denied the trip was related to view the solar eclipse, saying “People in Kentucky took [the solar eclipse] very seriously. Being a New Yorker, I don’t have any interest in watching the eclipse.”[84] Mnuchin reimbursed the government for Linton’s travel to Kentucky.[85]

    As Philip has pointed out, that $200 ticket on a commercial flight for which Mnuchin reimbursed the Treasury (for Linton’s travel) covered the Gulfstream taxiing from one end of the runway to the other at the military airport near Fort Knox. Meantime, I know someone in Kentucky who understandably feels aggrieved by Mnuchin’s implying that NYers are superior intellectually to Kentucky residents, and therefore have no interest in the eclipse. Mnuchin was not caught in the legendary traffic jams leaving SC & Oregon so he is as out-of-touch as his Tom Ford! Gucci! wife.

  9. Mnuchin – I don’t know what to make of that guy… but the vibe is creepy.

    I guess it could be said that Mnuchin has a good eye for figures if you catch my drift. Just which figures he’s keeping an eye on is anyone’s guess. Getting into trouble with the government planes… don’t underestimate power of the vagina as my great grandmother would say…

    Just looked him up and it’s his third marriage. Still hasn’t learned his lesson, I see. I wonder what the pre-nup that a man with that experience and net worth looks like. I’m sure he’s covered every loop hole and scenario possible – probably offered a flat fee of $y millions after x amount of years. Might as well call a rental arrangement

  10. Not clear that the ‘plane pool’ idea would scale – there’s not enough space at local airports, I think, for hundreds of planes to come in from Mendocino, Grass Valley, San Luis Obispo every day and sit while their owners went to work.

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