I'm Adam Steltzner, Engineer At NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, And This Is How I Work

I'm Adam Steltzner, Engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and This Is How I Work

Adam Steltzner is on a hunt for the truth. The engineer led the Entry, Descent and Landing team on the Mars Curiosity Rover project, and tasked with delivering a rover the size of a small car safely to the Martian surface, decided that the best solution for final descent was a flying rocket crane. It seems crazy, but it was the right kind of crazy.

That so happens to be the title of his book, The Right Kind of Crazy, co-authored by William Patrick. The book details his meandering path to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where he eventually helped execute that incredible feat of engineering when the Curiosity Rover successfully landed on Mars in 2012.

Designing such a complex system was a vigilant examination of the facts, risks and the connections between them over the course of nine years. And that’s the truth being sought every day by Adam and his colleagues at JPL: a clear understanding of absolutely every factor and their causal relationships. It’s the only limitation — a lucid picture of the truth. So how did they get there? The journey of a 225 million kilometres began on a whiteboard.

First of all, most of us basically live out of our phones these days, both in work in life, so I’m wondering what kind of phone you use. Are you an iPhone person or an Android person?

I’m an iPhone person. And a lot of my colleagues are.

For some reason I would expect JPL people to be really technical and thus use Android phones, but I guess that’s kind of a silly fallacy on my part.

There are certainly a set of people who are Androiders, but I would say the vast majority are iPhoners.

So does it also follow that you also use Macs?

I do, yes I do. And I think it would split 50/50 between Mac users and PC platform users [at JPL].

It’s crazy to think about the number of “to-dos” required in executing something like the Mars lander. So how to do you keep track during the day of what you need to get done?

For like 80 to 90 per cent of my day, my work involves speaking with other people. The act of discovering technical risks, and then disposing of technical risks through conversation, through sitting at a whiteboard and making an equation, by looking at a drawing of a part and talking about design. And so one of the most important tools I have is my calendar. And my calendaring is always a challenge, evidently. For us, we use Outlook. And I can’t say it’s flawless or even close to being flawless.

If you’re doing work on the whiteboard, how do you keep track of that kind of stuff — the stuff that’s written on a napkin?

Our iPhones are the capture mechanism. So there will be like three or four people working on whiteboards, drawing something, some equations, bullets of actions, and then a photograph will be taken, and it will be emailed out. And then depending on the bandwidth it will either be emailed out by itself or it will be emailed out with a text distillation of the actions.

Since it’s such a collaborative effort, what kind of workspace do you have? Do you have a private office or is most of the day spent in meetings?

Both — I have a private office that I sit in sometimes. Literally, a busy day, it will sometimes be 4 or 5pm before I get to my office. That is to say I’ll hit the ground running — I’ll have an 8am meeting, maybe 7:30 — but I’ll hit the ground into a meeting, and then just go back to back, back to back, go get lunch, bring it back and talk about more stuff, and then finally I’ll go and do some stuff at my office.

On one hand your work entails never taking a shortcut to solve a problem, and yet engineering requires a certain rationale that necessitates you to be minimalist. So I’m wondering how you save time without making compromises. How can you achieve so much in a reasonable amount of time?

That’s a balance, because quite frequently the answer lies at a level of detail that takes a lot of time to get to. And sometimes you have to remember you don’t need to take the room to that level of detail. So if we’re discovering a forward path — if we’ve discovered a risk or a challenge or a problem with our space flight system, and we have brainstormed a few solutions in the room together with whiteboards, you try to flesh out each of those solutions so that whoever is going to be the “belly button” can take each [solution] and run with it.

And if something’s really tight with time, we often work solutions in parallel — but you’ve got to flesh it out in the larger context with a number of people well enough so that we’ve really turned the soil over for each of those solutions and everybody understands what those solutions are and what they are not. And the person — who I refer to as the belly button — who is going to take one of those solutions and run with it has a really crisp understanding of the scope and what they’re going to go do.

But then! You have to stop. There’s a tendency — especially with me and with curious engineers — to want to actually start to do some of that solution. To flesh it out into further detail. And we joke at the lab that it means we’re having too much fun. So we’ll say, “We’re having too much fun here. This person’s gonna go and do this and that’s their fun.” They get to go run that down.

I'm Adam Steltzner, Engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and This Is How I Work

Curiosity’s Sky Crane Manoeuvre, Artist’s Concept, Image Credit: NASA.

I suppose it’s like managing any huge project — you have to faith when you delegate something to someone else.

Oh yeah, that’s absolutely essential for two reasons. We couldn’t operate if somebody tried to do everything themselves; there’s vastly much more stuff needed to be done. And two, I think all of us work at our best when we have a sense of personal ownership about what we are working on. So it’s very important that when you delegate, you delegate the ownership of that piece. It’s not a water-carrying job that you want to give out. You want to get it out with its creativity, with its uncertainty, and with its ownership attached.

What everyday thing are you better at, do you think, than anyone else? You’ve risen to a certain prominence without coming from a hard academic background. So when you think about yourself, what is it that has allowed you to get to where you are?

I’m uncomfortable answering that question because I don’t aspire to be particularly better than anybody else at any one thing. But I do think quickly and I am capable of using a wide range of my humanity to keep a group of people engaged, a little bit off-balance, curious and on the hunt for the truth. And what I mean by that is humour, surprise, you know, a wide range of myself I get to bring to my work as we go to figure these things out.

Yeah, in the book you mention that people still think of engineers in an old-fashioned sense of being robotic when it’s actually a deeply creative and human field, because you have to find creative solutions. So that makes a lot of sense. Aside from the phone and the computer is there any other tool or gadget that you can’t live without?

Whiteboards. There’s a whiteboard in every meeting room where we work, and there’s a whiteboard in every office for thinking and communicating with visual analogs. We even speak in “plots” — so you’re going to explain an idea and you might be explaining an idea on an XY axis, graphing your notion of what a solution looks like to help describe whether it’s a superlinear or sublinear process.

I believe all of the things that humans do — that the doing of them is a collaborative effort. Very few great works come [from an individual]. The ideas might come from an individual, but the product, the 99 per cent perspiration as Edison would put it, comes in a collaboration. And what does that mean? That’s means we have to have groups of people who have alignment and similar understanding of what we’re doing. That frequently requires all sorts of different essentially pedagogical aids to get everybody aligned and really understand what can be an abstract, difficult, and complex idea, but understand it clearly. So the whiteboard is essential in that.

I'm Adam Steltzner, Engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and This Is How I Work

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) shortly after the successful landing of Curiosity. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Do you ever listen to music while you work or is that a distraction when you really have to focus?

For me, very rarely, essentially never. I love listening to music; my home almost always has music playing. But at work, mostly the music is the sound of human voices in discourse.

Out of curiosity, are you currently reading any book or novel that you’re particularly interested in?

Lately, like literally the last five years, I’ve been on this riff about early explorers of the US and my favourite book in the world is Death Valley in ’49, the memoirs of William Lewis Manly. But right now I’m reading Death Valley and the Amargosa by Richard Lingenfelter. It’s a remarkably academically complete. This guy has combed small, private libraries throughout the desert Southwest to assemble a history of the exploration of the deserts of the southwest, and the sort of illusory search for gold. Amazing human stories of deceit and ambition and ruin, all within the setting of this great beautiful wilderness.

A lot of people probably think of you and your team as explorers in your own right. Along that same train of thought, how do you recharge? Just thinking about the Sky Crane practically gives me a panic attack, so how do you stop thinking about it?

Not as often as I want but when things are good I take my family and we go camp in the desert. We go explore some place new and different. It could be low and hot, it could be high and cool in the mountains — the Sierras are here — so that is definitely a way in which I recharge.

American whiskeys, ryes, bourbons, also aide at times.

Of course. What kind of sleep routine do you have? Are you a night owl working at 2am or do you keep a regular schedule?

I’m not a night worker. But when the game is afoot I do not sleep very much. Like five hours a night. And there can be long strands of time when I sleep eight hours, but in the heart of Sky Crane work, I would wake up at 4:30 or 5 and start thinking. If I have to do some thinking when I’m not in the office, it usually happens in the very early morning, pre-dawn hours.

So do you keep a notepad next to the bed so you can write down your late night thoughts?

Yes I do keep a notepad but it’s actually not by the bed; it’s on the kitchen table, and I will wake up, make a cup of tea, and sit there while it’s still dark out and think.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

My good friend, mentor, and fantastic engineer Gentry Lee — actually, he’s also a science fiction author, and television producer, as he produced the Cosmos series, wrote science fiction with Arthur C. Clarke, and was the principal of the Viking missions — he said when he looks back across his life, the things that really stand out are the great highs and the great lows. He admonished me to never let the fear of the great lows stop from pursuing the great highs. And he said if I were to conduct myself that way I would never find myself looking back in regret. And I have, and I don’t.

If you wanted to ask someone these questions about how they work and how they manage everything they do, who would you ask?

I’d ask a songwriter. A songwriter whose songs are difficult for me to fathom. The one that springs to mind is actually Elvis Costello, because stylistically over his career, man, it’s been all over the map. I could ask this of any songwriter but I’m always intrigued at the creative process for especially popular music because it has to be grounded, in the end. It has to be approachable; it can’t be too abstract.

And the reason I would pick Elvis Costello is because his stuff is always at the edge of being too abstract. I frequently get the gist of the lyrical content of one of his songs, and I can attribute 30 per cent of the lyrics to actually telling me that story. The other 60 per cent or so, I don’t totally get those references. Or even if he’s gone totally abstract. So that idea of being at the edge of too abstract to attract and yet somehow successful in telling a story is intriguing to me. And I wonder how somebody births such a tune.

I was actually thinking about this too this morning because I was listening to Leonard Cohen, who is so deeply poetic and I can’t fathom how he does that.

Leonard Cohen would be another great example. These poems that become songs and the relationship between the poems. Was it a poem first? Was it a song first? Was it a just a piece of poem or a piece of song? It’s easier for me to think of a poem first and putting music to it but sometimes they coevolve together.

You’re kind of a public figure now because of the attention on the Mars project and the book. So to people that look to you and aspire to get to where you are, is there anything you’d like to tell them?

I would tell them to follow Gentry Lee’s advice. There isn’t an arc. For me, I look at my life and I’m kind of sometimes blown away [because] I’ve been tremendously, ridiculously lucky. Right? That is true, but I’ll give myself a little credit: I do have a capacity to recognise an opportunity and follow it, and make that Gentry Lee leap and go for it. And that cannot be undervalued.

I’m not saying hunt for the opportunities or let that hunt distract you from the work that is right in front of you. That’s the most important thing: you’ve got to do the work. Just do good work, do good work, do good work. But keep your nose open to the smell of opportunity and then if you can avail yourself of it, do. And then get right back to doing the good work. That is the only thing I’ve done and it’s worked out for me.

Some people might map out a grand strategy but that’s not me. Just focus on the here and now, doing good today, and if an opportunity comes knocking, listen to the door and open it up.

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