Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Missing Pieces: What NASA’s Gen Y Keeps Missing

I invite you to visit this web site, and read where Nick Skytland, a Gen-Y civil servant at Johnson Space Center (JSC), posted a presentation from the PM Challenge conference entitled “Participatory Exploration: The Role of the User Contribution System.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Okay, now that you’ve read that, I’ll make some obligatory grumpy comments. These are being written in the spirit of constructive criticism, not "Siddown, kid, and wait your turn!" I'm looking at specifics in the presentations and so am asking/commenting about specifics.

I’ve met Nick once or twice at space-related events, and he’s a friend in Facebook. I'm not sure he reads this blog, but I might direct him to it just to provide him with food for thought for his next presentation. Nick is one of many under-30 contributors at the agency who’s trying to get NASA to think more like a dot-com (e.g. Google) and less like a command-and-control military organization. I wish him and his compadres well. Gosh knows all government agencies could think more quickly on their feet. However, being a Gen-Xer who’s spent most of my career in large, command-and-control organizations, I suspect that Nick has bigger challenges ahead than he realizes.

One of the gripes I’ve had about these types of presentations is that they are very brain-heavy. Here’s what I mean: despite the fact that, until the recent recession, America has continued to break records in the amount of manufactured stuff we export, media pundits and younger folks focused remain captivated by the "service economy" and the “information age."

Now admittedly a lot of our mass-produced products can be assembled, packaged, or shipped robotically, and that trend will no doubt continue. However, one of the largest contributors to America’s exports has been The Boeing Company, which depends on a large, skilled workforce capable of bending metal, installing wiring, turning wrenches, welding structures, and all the rest. All of this is still too complex for robots and likely will be for some time to come. These activities involve people doing physical labor, not just sitting in front of a laptop at Starbucks, sipping lattés. I don’t know what the specific percentages are, but I think I’m safe in assuming that not all of the people producing or building stuff—from farm goods to airplanes and spacecraft—went to college. Skytland is “privileging” (a favorite phrase of one of my grad school profs) intellect and symbol manipulation over physical labor. This is a mistake because not everyone can contribute this way, nor do they necessarily want to. Any future educational system—and any future space program—must find ways for individuals with mental and physical skill sets to contribute, because we will need both educated minds and skilled hands if we want to get to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Another issue I have with these Gen Y presentations—and I apologize now if Nick covered this, all I have to go by are the PPT slides—is how they emphasize collaborative technological tools but do not specify how these tools will enable people to make fundamentally better contributions than they might make through, say, face-to-face meetings, phone calls, or memos. I would also be interested to see what specific engineering or scientific contributions have been made in the aerospace industry using Skytland’s proposed new work environment. One example I can think of off the top of my head is the "virtual collaboration" Boeing has been doing to design and build the 787 Dreamliner at multiple locations around the globe. However, that plane is now likely to start deliveries more than a year late. Was that the result of--or despite--worldwide, international collaboration? That question should be answered.

Next on my nitpicking list: the global marketplace. It is one thing to have global “participation” in a robotic exploration mission (the standard example I’ve heard is allowing people to vote on “where to plant the flag”). It is another to have people from other countries reviewing and building the rockets--see the 787 example above. Since the dawn of the space age, rockets have been a critical national and strategic technology because of their ability to carry weapons. As noted above, if America has had one distinctive competitive advantage over the past 50 years, it has been in aerospace technology. This includes everything from materials to aerodynamic shapes or computer codes for analyzing flight paths to the guidance systems that allow a rocket to travel 25,000 miles per hour and reach a target millions of miles away with a margin of error measured in inches. These are all technologies that require United States citizens to produce them—at least if the United States wants to remain a spacefaring nation. There are some jobs that NASA and its primary contractors simply will not and cannot outsource to other countries because it’s the law.

We have a truly unique and challenging future ahead of us. I look forward to future contributions by Nick and others like him. I’d just like a little more organizational, cultural, and operational realism brought into the discussion.


Anonymous said...

Bart, as usual your insights are invaluable. First and foremost I want to thanks you for sharing them. Here’s a few thoughts (sorry for the length, I tried to group by topic):

Re: Grumpy
I’m not sure I see your thoughts as “obligatory grumpy” comments. I actually really appreciate this type of feedback. If you are a guest reading this blog and have constructive feedback as well, please do share!

Re: “bigger challenges”
If you have any insight into what those “bigger challenges” are, I’d love to hear them. We’re actually going through a process of sorts right now to identify them and I’d really like to get you involved in those discussions.

Re: “brain heavy”
That’s an interesting point. I made this presentation in particular with the Digital Astronaut (DA) project in mind – which, is brain heavy. Academics, scientists, doctors, and all that stuff. I’ll give some more thought to your observation but one thought I have on this subject is even the folks “bending metal, installing wiring, turning wrenches, and welding structures” have ideas they’d love to share. In fact, those ideas are some of the most valuable ones you can get because they are the ones who are “doing it.” Where and in what situation I grew up in really makes me place a high value on input from everyone – especially those who “build stuff’ instead of “think about stuff.” Maybe it wasn’t eloquently visualized via the charts themselves, but one of the points of a user contribution system is to capitalize on the knowledge from people who don’t do what we do everyday. I think there’s a pretty big misconception behind the “Gen Y” label and how it’s been spun that’s its all about the technology and fancy web2.0 gadgets. That’s not how I see it for sure, and as a project manager, my goal with DA is going to be able to figure out how to utilize the functionality of collaborative technology without creating barriers for people to contribute. It’s a starting point, not an ending point, and something I know will take quite a bit of continuous iteration to get right. That will probably mean not using all the bells and whistles on whatever website we put up. It will also mean augmenting whatever we do with other ways of interaction. I definitely get that and it’s a big part of our plan. I’ll try to do a better job of spelling that out next time – heck, maybe that’s a whole other presentation in itself. Hmm….

I do really like the phrase you put out there of “privileging” intellect and symbol manipulation. What an interesting thought.

Re: Contributions
You talked about how these tools will enable people to make fundamentally better contributions than they might make f2f. That’s something that I flush out more verbally in the talk itself, and hopefully I’ll find some time to write those notes up into a post on sometime soon, but essentially… yes. Again, I’ll go back to the DA project. Even the team I work with is spread out across the country. I wish we werent’ because we all much prefer F2F meetings. Part of what we are building will be built out of necessity for us to collaborate on our own project! I think that’s great and will really help drive out the requirements, which will help us clearly articulate exactly what contributions we are looking for. We hope to have this flushed out when we launch a few months from now. But one of the major goals of the DA is to gather input from scientists, coders, doctors, students, academics, and people from all over the place. The contributions themselves can be in a few different buckets, including improving the actual code structure of the model, adding to the knowledge base behind the model, and building on the “hypothesis” of the model to run experiments and simulations and ultimately help us develop countermeasures and buy down the risk of sending humans on long duration space flights. Our eventual website will have the audiences clearly defined as well as what contributions we’re looking for. It will no doubt be a big challenge, but also one that would be immensely valuable if we can accomplish it because it won’t be just NASA funded scientists and engineers looking at the problem any more, but others as well. I’m convinced that broadening our scope of input will help provide better solutions in the end.

Re: Global Marketplace
I think DA is a good example of what this can look like for NASA. Not everything can be out their for external collaboration for the reasons you highlighted. But there is a portion of what we do that can. If we open up the items in our work portfolio that can be collaborated on publicly, it would help us leverage our already overworked internal resources. The DA is about human physiology and science. There’s a huge reliance on knowledge from the medical profession, which is an opportune thing to open up to an outside community of collaborators.

Re: moving forward
If you’ve been following the discussion as Bart and I have, you hear a lot of feedback given that we need concrete examples of what this looks like at NASA (versus just talking about it). Although I do think there is a lot of education and awareness that also needs to be done (hence the presentations), I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, its not as easy as just being able to implement some of this stuff for the average joe at NASA for a host of reasons. Luckily, I’m in a place now that I really have an opportunity (and authority) to share a knowledge asset (the computational model that is DA) with the world and work with others on further developing the body of knowledge and digital analogue for all to use. My hope is that not only will NASA benefit, but that people around the world will benefit by using DA as an “innovation incubator” of sorts. I see the government’s role as one of an integrator of knowledge and a facilitator of collaboration – ultimately providing the right ingredients to enable innovation and keep pushing science and exploration forward. The idea of a lone genius, sitting in his office cubicle, coming up with “the great idea” is mysterious and romantic, but maybe a bit unrealistic. True innovation happens when you have knowledge brokers taking even old tried ideas, and applying them in new ways. I’m hoping the DA helps make that happen.

Anyway, this was a really long response, but as you can probably tell, one that I’m passionate about. I’d love to talk to anyone who has any thoughts, in particular about how to create an online, open-source, computational model of human physiology (digital astronaut).

Bart said...

Great comments, Nick. I'll meditate more on this, and give some thoughts here later. Glad to be part of the conversation.


rack88 said...

Very interesting and intriguing. Thanks for the link on twitter, Nick (this might be some proof to the older generations that crazy things like twitter may be worth something).

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I'm just another grumpy old man, but sometimes these Gen-Y inputs sound like folks who demand to be respected before they have paid any dues that can be respected. While it takes smarts to come up with a good idea, it takes wisdom to know how to get it implemented in a large, political bureaucracy. And while we can complain and wish that NASA wasn't a large, political bureaucracy - the reality is what it is, and the odds of it changing are low. But does that mean we give up? Or does that mean we use our smarts to work the politics in our favor?

Unknown said...

I decided to write down some of my thoughts about this topic. As a person who falls right in the cusp between Gen X and Gen Y, I thought I would take a pragmatic starting point, based on experience, for the application of participatory tool sets and expand on that a bit. Hopefully that helps to further the discussion in some way.

Unknown said...

Despite being past the Gen-Y cutoff by a good bit, I get irritated on their behalf every time someone trots out the tired canard of "dues paying" to dismiss someone's ideas about changing the culture. It reeks of somebody deathly afraid that someone might actually get ahead without the same years of pointless toil.

It sucks that some people toil for years without respect or recognition. It seems ridiculous to hold this up as a desirable status quo for anyone that wants respect. If the idea is good, it deserves respect. It doesn't matter if the person that came up with it went through the same 10 years of soul-crushing boredom and personal unfulfillment. "Dues paying" is an obsession of the mid-life crisis crowd dissatisfied with their own professional status.

Anonymous said...

Color me grumpy, too. I haven't weighed in on this issue before, but it's reaching my tipping point. I grow tired of classification at times, but I suppose I'm a late baby boomer, since my Dad was a veteran of both WWII and Korea. I've spent a career in a field that traditionally "eats its young." I'm a broad-based logistician, but greater than 95% of the people who started with me ended up doing something else over the years. Logistics is one of the big challenges that most people assume will be there. While we in the profession have worked to ease the turbulent nature of the work, to develop standards and certifications, and to bring a younger group to the table, very few young people have the patience to work through the dozens of fields it takes to gain expertise in broad-based logistics. The largest part of any system's cost is in its support, because no design is perfect or takes every environment into account. Consequently, we end up getting people who have: 1) Narrow experience; 2) Only an academic background; or 3) 1 year of experience repeated X number of times. The nature of my career has moved me between technical and management jobs. When I've been a manager, I've given people opportunities to expand their skills, and allowed them to leave only after talking to them about how to come back to a framework for developing as a logistician.

I agree with the point that there are transitions from planning to execution (yes, I also spent a career in the military, the Army of Excellence, a path similar to what Gen-Y is approaching) that are difficult to understand at increasing levels. When I was an Army officer, I used to tell lieutenants 2 things, first to never be afraid of admitting mistakes, and second, to remember their mission and a larger mission have to coexist (even if you're up to a particular part of your body in alligators, the mission is to drain the swamp). To improve on an old saying, lieutenants study tactics, generals study strategy, and great generals study logistics.

With space, and specifically with Constellation, this is really hard to keep in mind. Multiple projects make contributions to Constellation under ESMD, then pass their work over to SOMD, who chooses to use or discard any operational improvement integrated into the design. People forget that there are other projects to come that will naturally increase the support workforce, but at a rate that takes into account improved operational aspects of the systems. People in the projects tend to concentrate on their systems, to the exclusion of others. Organizational momentum in NASA pulls priorities to a Center influence argument. Without some kind of hierarchy, no decision is possible, so indecision sometimes rules. Getting flat sometimes supports indecision more than it supports open communication. There's an excellent management film that's in the JSC Library, I believe, called "The Abilene Paradox," that explains this problem well.

I disagree with the discussion about the weakness of virtual design, and the assertion that the B-787 is the only example. The ISS is a great example of a beginning at NASA. Those of us who worked in the program office know that coordination among all the partners and participants and their manufacturing and sustaining base was a huge virtual effort, without the benefit of some of the tools available today. In an agency that specializes in remotely operating vehicles from LEO to beyond the boundary shock, virtual communication should be an easy transition. Industry does it every day, too. I've worked coast to coast on multiple projects for the last ten years. It has its difficulties. Without solid program management, keeping schedules and guiding the right work at the right time, it can be wasteful. Without total commitment to meeting schedules and getting things done right the first time, it can become risky. When it comes to cutting and bending metal and turning wrenches, there is no substitute for personal presence, even if you are building robotically. People are people, and you get work done with a range of skills available in groups of people, strong to weak, expert to novice.

I've got very talented Gen-Y children, so I completely agree in the principle of enlightened empowerment, but my experience says that I need to mentor and accept mistakes to develop that generation. Gen-Y needs to realize that they will make mistakes, and it's a lot less taxing, both personally and professionally, to have a good mentor than not.

Some of us, regardless of our generational classification, remember and regard our good and bad experiences as waypoints along a journey and try to use them to help our fellow travelers.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

There is a good reason why these generational issues are coming to a head right now. There is a shift happening as the living generations move between their social roles. Millennials are entering young adulthood where they get to assert their values. Gen X is moving in to midlife where they manage organizations and people. Boomers are entering elderhood where they can direct organizations. This is a painful transition made more difficult by our current crisis. The conversation here is something I have heard again and again recently in many different circles. It is critical that we start really understanding the strengths of each generation so that we can work together to solve the world's problems. I have been writing a lot about these topics on my blog at: and would welcome your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Hey Doc - perhaps I've used a loaded term that I didn't intend with reference to "dues paying." I really meant accomplishment. Ideas are great, but the bottom line is the result. There's a lot of smart kids bringing home C's on their report cards. And in my house I see that a lot of the new "tools" - computers, internet, cell phones - can be as much of a distraction as an aid to collobration. I welcome the new generation, we absolutely need their energy and enthusiasm to accomplish the mission. And yes we should encourage everyone to share their thoughts and ideas and be open to innovation. But those who come in and immediately want to be the "idea man" for others to implement, and seem not that interested in getting their own hands dirty doing something other than producing powerpoint charts, I'm hard pressed to respect. And I don't mean this as a global indictment of an entire generation, there's plenty of diversity of thought and deed across every generation. Not every Boomer was a dope-smoking hippy either.

BaboWebProf said...

I think that the crux of your skepticism is reflected in this comment: "Another issue I have with these [proponents (I've omitted the generational and ppt vs. non-ppt differences, as I'm a proponent aged 60) is that they] emphasize collaborative technological tools but do not specify how these tools will enable people to make fundamentally better contributions than they might make through, say, face-to-face meetings, phone calls, or memos." To me, this is the real question. A co-research and I are exploring this through case studies of innovations that owe a large portion of their development success to Web 2.0 collaborative tools, including social networking and virtual worlds. We've just begun this research and are still looking for cases, but we've already learned there does seem to be some validity to the claim that these tools can be beneficial. I hope to be able to report back in a few months with a few examples. Steve Gordon (