Where are you from?
I was raised in Livermore, Calif., but I have spent my adult life in San Jose, Calif., where I live with my wife and three kids.
Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
I was too young to remember the Apollo program as it was unfolding, but clearly it shaped everything that became NASA, both from within the Agency and the perception of it by the public. My first really meaningful, heartfelt space moment came when I got to see a shuttle launch from Cape Canaveral. I can still remember the feel of the thunderous roar and the very surprising high-pitched crackling sound as the rockets tore through the atmosphere. I remember feeling a deep sense of pride, not just as an American, but pride in what we humans can accomplish with focus and purpose. It took my breath away.
I view project management as helping a group of capable people get something meaningful accomplished.
How did you end up working in the space program?
While I was getting my bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, I was approached by one of my professors, who had been visited by a former student who was working at NASA-Ames Research Center (ARC). The professor explained to me that there was an opportunity at NASA for a controls/automation engineer and he recommended me for the job. I followed through with an interview and was offered an engineering position. The decision didn't require much pondering and I have never regretted it.
Who inspired you?
At an early age my dad, a physicist and tech hobbyist, got me interested in building and later programming. We would build various electronic kits and even a Sinclair computer where I got my first taste of programming. He helped me imagine all the things you could do with a computer. I found myself rushing through school work in order to try making objects appear on the computer screen. Once I mastered that I moved groups of objects. One thing led to another and I had programmed a home version of the arcade game, "Space Invaders." It also led me to conclude that I would need more horsepower from the machine ... a realization I would have over and over again in life. One thing led to another and I was wondering how this computer could control objects in the physical world. Soon I was imagining primitive robotics applications. I would later create automatic vertical blinds controllers, which enabled the blinds to track the sun and all kinds of car gadgets. On and on it went with devices, contraptions and open-ended imagination all inspired by those early days watching and learning from my dad.
What is a Project Manager?
The role of a project manager (PM) is similar to that of an orchestra conductor. A conductor does not play an instrument; instead his job is to look ahead on the sheet music and guide the musicians. The PM's sheet music is his project plan and he needs to make sure everyone is on the same page, while listening for necessary adjustments. He is always looking out for the best interest of the symphony and its performance.
I came to project management as an experienced engineer who had worked on teams many times before. Before I became a project manager I noticed that the people I enjoyed working for the most were the ones who allowed me ownership of my work and who cleared away obstacles so that I could do my job. This is what I consider to be true leadership. I did not have to always agree with the direction the leader was going, but I wanted to know my opinion was heard. I also needed to know someone had their hand on the steering wheel and would be decisive. This experience evolved my view of the type of project manager I should be: I view project management as helping a group of capable people get something meaningful accomplished. Some project managers take pride in being in front of the group, but I have a far more pragmatic view of it. All members of a project team have a role, including the project manager. All of us together are moving toward an end goal.
Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
Sitting in Mission Control at Cape Canaveral and sending the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) on its way to the Moon ranks pretty high as a favorite moment for me. But just as meaningful as the technical accomplishments are, I took great pride in watching the team enjoy their success and getting their much deserved appreciation at the team's "Family Appreciation" event. The event, hosted by NASA-ARC senior management, was about as good as it gets. The center director, deputy center director and the executive management team made speeches of appreciation to the family members of the LCROSS team who were present. All the family members were given special tours and special treatment for the evening. It was a moment of great pride to see all the people whose spouses/parents who had been working long hours on the LCROSS mission be given special thanks.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
It helps to have an engineering background to aid you with your decision making as a technical project manager, but not every engineer fits the project manager role. The key is to try project management on a smaller scale by leading smaller teams, working on relatively short projects and see if you find it rewarding to step back from doing technical work and organize a team toward a common goal. This will also give you the chance to improve/grow your project management skills.
What do you do for fun?
I enjoy hiking, biking and jogging. Our family makes a regular trek to Lake Tahoe in the summer to do miles of hiking on the granite. We take local hikes in the hills of northern California as well. Life balance is not always easy and sometimes you have to "move out of balance" for a while, but it is important to always to look to where you want to be and to actively steer in that direction.
If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
Broaden your technical knowledge. It will serve you later in ways you may not yet realize.