The difference that makes the difference
Last week I attended two very interesting and significant events.
In the morning I attended the commemoration of NASA Ames Research Center as an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Historical Site, honoring all the great work that has been accomplished at that world-renowned facility. Work in the areas of aeronautics, astronautics, computation, spacecraft and satellites, wind tunnel research, to name just a few of the technologies.
As the chair of the San Francisco Section of the AIAA, I was honored and pleased to have been invited to make a short presentation.
For those of you who don’t know much about the NASA Ames Research Center, it has been the pre-eminent NASA research facility on the west coast for many years.
NASA’s Ames Research Center has been in existence since the early 1940s and has been involved in wing deicing systems for early aircraft right through to modern-day spacecraft.
Ames was initially known for wind tunnel design and testing, flight testing, and supersonic and hypersonic aerodynamics. The center conducted pioneering research in rotorcraft and vertical flight aircraft. Then expanded into spacecraft engineering, supercomputing and information technology, air traffic control, thermal protection for re-entry vehicles (the Apollo ablative shield was developed there), astrobiology and space life sciences, and Earth and planetary sciences. Ames led the development of simulators for human factors research, and has made major improvements to air traffic management.
Even with this great history, several years ago, there was some question as to whether NASA Ames would remain open or be closed. Budget cuts were placing in question the future of the facility.
It was clear that NASA Ames needed to adapt. To not only bring in more technology but to be more than technology. The world had changed. New relationships had to be developed. New ways of doing business. As I like to say it, “a new way of moving through the world”.
With a plan for keeping the best of technology and people, coupled with a plan for changing their relationship with the outside world, several years ago, NASA Ames was told that it would not be closed.
One of it first assignments was to build a new building.
The building plans began to develop along a typical path. The building envisioned was a 20th century building. It was just another building.
Enter new leadership and management in the latter part of 2008 regarding the building. One of the first orders of business was to scrap the “first” new building plan. Management then challenged the team to come up with a building that was a 21st century building, one that was completely sustainable. One that didn’t use more energy than it produced. One that used geothermal energy sources; recycled all it’s water; and used the environment to cool and heat the building. One that was a net-zero energy building. A building that was the most sustainable government building in the United States.
When the astronauts of Apollo 11 landed on the moon Neil Armstrong named the landing area Tranquility Base. The new sustainable building has been named “Sustainability Base”. The ground-breaking event took place last week and when completed, this building will be the most energy efficient and most sustainable government building yet built. It will set the standard.
NASA Ames didn’t close; it didn’t lose it’s job. It kept it’s job.
NASA Ames not only didn’t have to close, but has become a reinvigorated organization that will set the standards for many sustainability technologies going forward.
A lot like people.
In a very significant way, NASA Ames is a lot like people. NASA Ames is a lot like engineers and technology managers and leaders.
We love our technology. When the world around us changes we think the best thing to do is to be “better” at our technology. But very often, the world wants something different from us. The world wanted something different from NASA Ames. The world didn’t want NASA Ames to abandon all of its technology. The world wanted it to add something it didn’t have to the technology it already had.
The same holds true for engineers and technical managers and leaders. Your organizations don’t want you to abandon your technology. They want you to add to it. And 99% of the time, what they want you to add is the ability to communicate effectively. They want you to be able to integrate yourself and your ideas into the ideas of the team.
They want you to be able to have a wide variety of conversations with a wide variety of constituents. Your communication skills, your management and leadership skills (which ultimately also boil down to communication) can be the determining factor as to whether you get laid off or keep your job.