How Being an Air Traffic Controller Prepared Me for a Career in Advertising

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Published: May 31, 2024 (Association of National Advertisers (ANA) – Marketing Knowledge Center)


As dynamic as the programmatic advertising ecosystem is, I came into the industry well-prepared, having previously been an air traffic controller.

Ad serving is known for its speed, as it takes only a few milliseconds to win a bid and serve an impression. However, the risk of bidding incorrectly pales in comparison to the consequences of making a wrong decision as an air traffic controller; this is a key difference between the two. Working long hours in a high-pressure environment and monitoring movement on my screen was the best training I could have had for my work in advertising technology today.


Navigating the Turbulent Skies of Ad Tech Complexity

Despite the challenging task of coordinating multiple pilots requesting takeoff and landing simultaneously in extreme weather, navigating the ad tech industry is even more complex. Even in the peak hours of air traffic control, the factors to be considered are limited to planes, pilots, runway availability, weather conditions, visibility, and — ironically — other air traffic controllers.

In ad tech, there are significantly more factors to consider. To illustrate, the LUMAscape for display advertising includes 23 different categories of companies while displaying hundreds of companies within the chart, and it only represents one channel of digital advertising. There are 22 different LUMAscapes, yet not all are digital advertising channels.

Believe it or not, this is the relatively simpler part of the industry. Ever tried explaining to your grandmother how an ad created by an ad agency appears in-app on a phone? Let’s break down the steps:

  1. An app user triggers an event, and the ad server offers this as an ad opportunity to all Supply-Side Platforms (SSPs) working with the app.
  2. Auctions take place on multiple ad exchanges where several Demand-Side Platforms (DSPs) place bids on the opportunity to serve an ad to this user.
  3. Given the large number of SSPs, exchanges, and DSPs, issues arise surrounding bid duplication, and the tactics DSPs utilize to address bid duplication can limit the ad opportunities evaluated.
  4. Also present during this process are additional vendors for targeting/audiences, context, CRM onboarding, and for evaluating fraud, malware, and viewability.|

The billions of ad opportunities being auctioned across dozens of SSPs, DSPs, and ad exchanges by thousands of advertisers via real-time bidding results in a pretty complex process. For this reason, it’s not surprising that the leading DSP, The Trade Desk, had spent an astounding $730,000 per day on platform operations in the first nine months of 2023.

With all the different categories of vendors and partners across the supply chain, coupled with the fact that there are countless SSPs, DSPs, and exchanges for the billions of impressions sold across ad units, devices, and channels, ad tech is definitively more complicated in structure and by nature.


Mastering the Art of Real-Time Decision-Making in Ad Tech


As an air traffic controller, I’ve managed multiple planes simultaneously waiting to take off or land with a limited number of runways; each pilot having their own flight plan and timeline, they didn’t care about the other planes or about the fact that I’ve been in the control tower for 11 straight hours.

Over time, I’ve learned how to effectively manage my tower control display in real time. As I gained experience, I further understood how to manage relations with the pilots and optimize their experience as they took off and landed. I’ve learned which pilots should be given priority, which pilots could wait, and what reasoning should be provided in the event of a delay.

Even more so, with time, I learned how to best navigate traffic peaks by making efficient decisions in real time. Occurring spontaneously, there could be hours or even just minutes between traffic peaks, teaching me to identify patterns in their approach and to manage them by applying the very same logical processes and procedures to handle any number of planes on my monitor.

However, one of the greatest and most universally applicable lessons I’ve learned is that continuous optimization is not just a competitive edge but rather a foundational necessity for operational success. Within the context of air traffic control, optimization ensures that planes take off and land safely, regardless of the volume or conditions, and as everyone working in ad tech inherently knows, optimization is the biggest driver of success in our industry.

Making real-time decisions with accurate judgment for optimal outcome, and continuously optimizing out of necessity, have served me tremendously well in programmatic advertising technology.


Thriving Under Pressure: Lessons from the Control Tower to the Boardroom


The single skill set I had learned as an air traffic controller that had contributed the most to my growth and activity within ad tech is the ability to manage pressure. Whether due to long shifts at the control tower, unforgiving weather conditions, or a significant increase in take-offs and landings, I was frequently under a lot of pressure and had to learn to best handle it, because the consequences of mishandling it could be fatal.

Ultimately, air traffic control is a high-stakes numbers game. Landing or taking off one plane, with all the variables involved, is the same as doing so with many. By dividing and conquering the tasks I was faced with on my air traffic control display, I learned that my ability to facilitate and harmonize between multiple moving parts was the same at both low and high scales.


How Air Traffic Control Shapes My Ad Tech Strategies


I’ve definitely been in high-pressure situations in my work in advertising technology. But following my experience as an air traffic controller, it’s become second nature to apply the same lessons and skills I’ve learned in the field of ad tech as well. From large-scale coordination and real-time decision-making to leading a continuous effort to optimize routine and performance, I’ve been leveraging the same set of skills long before I entered the world of advertising technology. If anything, I often get an adrenaline rush from any pressuring situations that come up, and enjoy the work and the experience.


For the full story, visit the Association of National Advertisers (ANA).