Getting to core of innovation

(Courtesy graphic)
Staff Sgt. Julio Medina, 6th Space Warning Squadron, used innovation to create an Air Force Fitness Assessment application.

Commentary by Staff Sgt. Julio Medina

6th Space Warning Squadron

CAPE COD AIR FORCE STATION, Mass. — When we think of innovation, we often think of life-changing inventions that have improved our lives dramatically. Innovation, however, encompasses more than inventing something great from nothing. Innovation is often improving something that was already good or utilizing it in a novel way to resolve different problems. In other words, you do not have to be an inventor to be an innovator. You just have to be willing to identify a need and follow through on what is required to meet that need.

My innovation story began with an interest in Apple’s mobile operating system. Apple released its coding to the public, making it possible for anyone to create applications or “apps” for Apple products. I did not have a strong foundation in computer programming, but I did have a desire to learn. I read books and watched tutorials in basic programming and application language. This learning process was not smooth. I struggled through coding errors in my early tutorials and projects, but I remained inspired to learn thanks to a quote by Steve Jobs. Jobs said, “Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.” This held true for me, as I quickly admitted to the many mistakes I had made. For me, innovation was already taking place, because I was learning from the mistakes I made. This learning process repeated itself, as I would learn: innovate, make more mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and so on. This was the process I used to learn basic computer programming.

When I finally learned basic programming, it was time to apply my newfound knowledge. I used my newly acquired skills to create an Air Force Fitness Assessment application so Airmen could use their iPod or iPhone to calculate fitness assessment scores. This was not a brand new concept. There were a few similar apps available, but none of them were offered for free. I felt I could take an already good concept and make it better by making a calculator that was available to Airmen around the world, free to download, and easy to use. My hope was to make it easier for Airmen to remain fit to fight. After I released the application, I came to realize the large impact even a small innovation can make. To my surprise, my PT Calculator has been downloaded more than 15,000 times. That is 15,000 opportunities for a fellow Airmen to understand their fitness level according to the Air Force standards, and the number of downloads grows every day.

In addition to learning computer programming, I also learned just how many adversaries there are to innovation. One of the worst adversaries I encountered came from glitches and bugs in my source code. Sometimes, it was something as small as a space in the wrong section or a character out of place. These types of things would crash the entire app, leaving me searching for what seemed to be a “needle in a haystack.” These errors reinforced the Air Force’s and 21st Space Wing’s lesson on attention to detail and disciplined action. Another adversary was time. Between the hours it took me to learn the basics and the hours I spent combing through pages upon pages of code, searching for my mistakes, my production time really took a hit. On the other hand, I don’t think there was a better way for me to learn time management than to fail first, being forced to find a better way. That is core innovation in itself — finding a better way.

To get to the core of innovation, we must not just be willing to learn, but rather be actively seeking a way to apply the knowledge gained. The Air Force has given us a common foundation of knowledge and leadership. What we build on that foundation can ultimately determine the impact we have on the future of the Air Force. Today, we should challenge ourselves, not only to be better leaders, but to lead with innovation.

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