Saturday, April 26, 2008

More Gasoline on the Gen Wire Fire

It looks like our friends in Generation Y have made yet another pitch to NASA. My thoughts are below.

Slide 3: As I've complained in a couple of places, Gen Y continues to harp on strategic communication. Yes, it needs to be addressed. But, again, they should be prepared for the cranky old dinosaurs to come back and say, "Fine, we'll work on our communication efforts. What are you going to do to contribute to the aerospace engineering NASA is doing?" Whenever this question is asked, Gen Y circles back to the communication thing: "How are we going to get interested in the engineering if you don't communicate better? Talk to us! Pay attention to us! We're important! It's all about me, Me, ME!" Okay, I exaggerate slightly. But my attempts to focus on Gen Y's potential engineering contributions have led to several of conversations like this. The young folks want to be listened to, the older folks want to know what the younger folks are going to do for them. There is little sense of reciprocity from these Gen Y presentations, and that is the biggest stumbling block to improving the dialogue.

As I predicted my generation has disappeared from their calculations entirely. Slide 6 differs from slide 30 of their previous pitch by eliminating Generation X. Instead of Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y, they now have only Baby Boomers and "Next Gen." Let's try this one more time, kids: despite Wikipedia's attempt to subdivide the generations, the Baby Boom Generation was born 1946 to 1961. Generation X was born 1961 to 1977. Gen X really IS different from Gen Y simply because we grew up without ubiquitous computing, nearly uninterrupted economic expansion, and electronic media until we were in our teens. Okay, the old guy needed his "ten miles to and from school in three feet of snow" rant. I'm good now. Moving on...

Slide 8 raised the following questions, which I will answer as I go along:

  • What is the value of Gen Y in creating a "sustainable" space program? Theoretically, they should have a better command of computerized productivity tools, which should enable them to improve not just communication but also functionality.
  • Is there a disconnect between NASA and NextGen? Obviously, or the conversation wouldn't have taken on such intensity.
  • What does the hiring and retention data tell us? That NASA is losing people, through budget cuts, retirement attrition, lack of interest, and lack of qualified applicants. The best and brightest aren't attracted to NASA, because they don't perceive NASA as being "cutting edge" enough, other businesses pay better, or the path to working on actual hardware is too slow for impatient youths.
  • Does Gen Y expect NASA to cater to them? In some ways, yes. I've beaten this horse enough that I should just let it lie there. However, I'll take another shot at it: insisting that NASA hire/promote you faster just because there are 70 million of you or because you can use MySpace better than the dinosaurs is not realistic.
  • Do better communication tools exist? Naturally. And Gen Y is much better poised to exploit them. These tools might even change the nature of communication at NASA to become more open and transparent. However, some of the young'uns still need a few lessons in national security, ITAR, and proprietary laws.
  • Why should NASA care? The reasons are already well known, but are worth repeating: Gen X and Gen Y will be the ones paying for, building, flying, and benefitting from the next generation of exploration vehicles and technologies. Or not. If these generations decide that the effort and rewards aren't worth the expense, then space exploration in America will die, and the Chinese, Indians, Russians, Japanese, and Europeans will inherit the solar system.

Slide 14: The following bullets are interesting.

We are asking that the focus on today’s urgent issues be balanced with the needs of tomorrow.
We realize that there is potential for increased risk on those projects but missions today must take the risk of raising young people and not just hiring already experienced people.

No argument with the first point. I am curious how Gen Y folks think NASA should go about hiring more of them when they're in the process of cutting 6,000 jobs in the next three years.

The next point is a little odd, either because they didn't have an English major on hand or because they had multiple purposes in mind: "Missions today must take the risk of raising young people and not just hiring already experienced people." The word raising amused me because it made me wonder if the presenters were looking to NASA as some sort of surrogate parent. But Gen Y also needs to face a simple, painful fact: few organizations are going to let you work on the very cool, cutting-edge, expensive stuff right out of college unless there are other circumstances driving the decision. In the case of the Apollo program, where the average age of folks working on the hardware was 26, the primary extenuating circumstance was John F. Kennedy's "before this decade is out" deadline. Otherwise, everybody starts at the bottom, doing small, thankless jobs first before they are given the opportunity to work on the bigger stuff. It was explained to me this way when I was starting out as a stock clerk at Osco: before I was allowed to be a cashier or work in the liquor department, I had to prove that I could sweep the floors, stock the diapers, and dump the garbage well. "Why should the boss trust you with more responsibility if you don't put in the work to do the small and simple things first?" It's called paying your dues, and everyone does it.

Slide 16 is interesting, and explains a lot about why Gen X doesn't have a large presence at NASA: right around the time a lot of us were graduating (1986 to 1994), NASA underwent a series of hiring freezes. As a result, a lot of us went into the dot-com business instead. Or, in my case, the service/hospitality industry.

Slide 20: Another one that deserves to be answered respectfully, since the presenters are at last offering some suggestions.

We’re asking to create an environment where all NASA employees can leverage their strengths to push the limits of science and space exploration by:

Providing the current NASA workforce with infusion of fresh ideas, methodologies and technologies.

Providing the Next Gen NASA workforce the programs and experience today that it needs to be the leaders in the future.

Enabling enhanced communication and collaboration between NASA centers.

Getting more young people in the door.

Regarding "Providing the current NASA workforce with infusion of fresh ideas, methodologies and technologies," fine. Which ones? And NASA doesn't just want to hear about YouTube and MySpace. What about engineering software? Materials research?

Re: "Providing the Next Gen NASA workforce the programs and experience today that it needs to be the leaders in the future." I'm glad they included this. Maybe it's a sign that they get the "paying your dues" and "starting out small" concepts. Of course programs like this are vanishingly rare, and the NASA budget doesn't show many signs of unlimited growth. These kids need to vote, something people 18 to 30 historically have not done. If they did, Congress might pay more attention to them. I could add that they need to vote for presidential candidates who have an intelligent platform that supports space exploration and need to avoid candidates who just make them feel good; however, then I would deprive Barack Obama of one of his primary voting blocs.

Re: enhanced communication and collaboration between NASA centers. Yes, that would be nice, and it does happen. However, it does not occur at all levels, not at blinding speed, and not always with the same degree of cooperation between all individuals.

Re: getting more young people in the door. Again, NASA is about to cut 6,000 jobs in the next few years. What do the presenters suggest?

Slide 24:

We propose to engage the current workforce in cross-generation discussions at every center, cross-center discussions at the agency, and connections with the American Public.

Great! Looking forward to it.

Slide 29 recaps Slide 20 to show that they did, indeed, have concrete recommendations. Okay, great. And now what? The agency is not going to be changed by a couple of PowerPoint presentations, though I confess it's been awhile since I've seen two presentations have such impact. The old folks need more details and specifics. What kinds of new technologies? What types of programs do you recommend? Whose jobs shall NASA cut in order to make room for you? And if NASA does cut those jobs, how many experienced people are going to be around to give you the mentoring you want and need? These are some of the political realities the agency faces.

My Recommendations

While I've spent most of this posting busting Gen Y's chops, I'm not disregarding what they said. Far from it. I believe NASA needs to respond constructively in some fashion. The presenters, again, have made their concerns known. Great. Now NASA needs to sit down, honestly thank these folks for bringing these concerns to their attention, and then explain a few facts of life to the presenters. Next, NASA needs to engage in that cross-center, agency-wide dialogue consisting of multiple age groups, specialties, hierarchy levels, and technical backgrounds. This dialogue needs to have a concrete deliverable as a goal/output: a plan for integrating both the 21st century workforce and its technologies. Perhaps this will require two different plans:

  • A technology improvement and integration plan. This should address both communication technologies (internal and external) and engineering and hardware tools.
  • A workforce integration plan. This should address NASA's future workforce needs, by skill type and workforce size, as well as training plans for transferring institutional knowledge to new employees.

Who knows? Someone might even take these ideas seriously. Of course to be taken seriously, NASA would then have to act on the plans. But after that, once the doors are opened, it will be Gen Y's time to stand and deliver.

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