“You have a feeling of success, to create something that works and that people can enjoy”

Frank Bignone

Martial artist, digital artist

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photo by Kageaki Smith

France is known for its rich food, historic landmarks, and influential culture; but the country is not so well known for its karate dojos or its Muay Thai boxing gyms. For Airbus Japan’s Frank Bignone, originally from Nice on the Mediterranean coast, these were places that defined his childhood.


“I started karate at 10 years old,” recalls Bignone, a former black belt. “First, I did the classic style, Shotokan; and then when I was 15, I started doing one called Shidokan, a rare style of karate. At the same time, I started Thai boxing.”

Bignone’s parents encouraged him to try a wide variety of different sports and outdoor activities, such as tennis, swimming, sailing and surfing. As a result, he has always put a high priority on being active and staying in shape. But his passion for combat sports began with karate.

“I was in quite a lot of tournaments when I lived in Nice,” he says. “There were one-on-one and team matches, but for me it was more about winning for your club than about personal victory.”

Although he has not done karate for several years, Bignone recently started Krav Maga, the self-defence system used by the Israel Defense Forces. He says he chose it because he wanted to learn new techniques and continue to challenge himself.

“They teach different things to different people,” he states. “It’s good for the body, and it makes me feel good.”

Bignone has learned a lot more than just fighting techniques through his years of doing martial arts.

“Karate has taught me to be very patient,” he says. “And it also helps with self-control. A lot. It helps you when you’re in difficult situations, to manage your stress well.”

This has been an asset in his work as Digital Transformation Leader Asia at Airbus Japan. It can be stressful coordinating everything at the offices he oversees, including those in Korea, China, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Bignone’s role requires him to think of how new technologies can be used at Airbus. One project he is currently working on is about applications for what is called natural language processing, a branch of Artificial Intelligence.

“We are trying to get machines to understand people,” he explains. “It could be used in the cockpit, a virtual assistant that can help the pilot in high-stress situations.”

Another project that Airbus worked on recently has been very successful.

“We used smart glasses — augmented reality technology — when workers need to drill a hole in the planes,” Bignone relates. “The glasses tell you exactly where you have to drill the hole, and make it easier to work.”

Then he adds: “I like what I’m doing very much. It’s interesting, and I think we’re doing something very useful for aeronautics.”

Unsurprisingly, Bignone also enjoys doing programming in his spare time. In his teens, he created games and software for different companies; and when he was at university — where he studied robotics and applied mathematics — he managed a group of indie game developers.

“Now I’m focusing more on how to do things in virtual reality,” he says. “I have helped a company in the US do what we call serious games, which is basically training people through virtual reality. For example, for industrial painting or carpentry.”

He loves coding because it allows him to create things — but, more specifically, things that work.

“You have a feeling of success, to create something that works and that people can enjoy,” he explains. “I’m a very bad artist. I can’t draw; I can’t paint or play music. So this is my artistic side, which is more in the digital world.”

In addition to programming games, Bignone also likes spending his free time playing both video games and board games — however, his wife recently gave birth to a boy, and taking care of his son is keeping him busy outside the office these days.

“Other people may think that I’m competitive,” he states. “But, at the same time, I like to teach people. When I lead a team, one thing that is important is to really pull them forward, so we can succeed and do better things.” 

Time spent working in Japan: Two and a half years.

Career regret (if any): No, I don’t have any.

Favourite saying: Live in the here and now. That’s what my zazen teacher always said.

Favourite book: Jack Vance, The Demon Princes. It’s a space opera. It has nothing at all to do with demons.

Cannot live without: A pen and paper.

Lesson learned in Japan: Japan is a very kind country — I’ve learned that it’s good to be considerate.

Secret of success in business: It’s very important to listen. Listen to your customer, listen to everyone.

Favourite place to dine: Food stalls on the street or at a festival.

Do you like natto?: I don’t like natto, but I do like Munster, a type of French cheese that smells like natto.

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