Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Few Observations

I have mentioned to a few of you that, before I got into information technology as a career, that I did graduate work in physics (no surprise there) and also, later, in social psychology (possibly a few raised eyebrows). While in both fields I also became first an exceptionally good photographer and decent writer. People in the ballet world claim I could have been a successful ballet photographer if I had chosen that path.

I'm going to put on my social psychologist hat now and make a few observations about things I've seen and learned both while working in aerospace and have read before and since full time work in our field.

I will use Mike Griffin as an example. From what I can tell, he is a good man, exceptionally intelligent and accomplished in aerospace. He does have some shortcomings as do we all.

Mike Griffin was born in 1949 according to his NASA biography. When Mike was a little boy back in the 1950s, people were already taking note of the estrangement between scientists,engineers and the general public. Too few people, it was thought, were choosing technical careers. Outsiders viewed technical work as important – think of how technology shaped World War II and other fields in mid century – but viewed technical people as “weird” and “not like normal people.” One response to this mindset was for technical people to draw apart from the societal mainstream. Who wants to associate with people who view you in some ways negatively? Psychologists call this phenomenon negative reinforcement. When you couple it with the positive reinforcement of hanging with people like you who think like you do, you can get a subgroup that interacts with the larger society with increasing difficulty.

Sputnik was launched when Mike was 8. That served as a wake up call to the United States. Scientists and engineers might be “weird” but they did important things for the nation. Technical education was given a boost – a positive reinforcement. Our first attempts to compete with the Russians were failures. If this string of failures had continued, I do not know what would have happened to technical endeavors. Instead, though, initial failure was followed by quick success. Vanguard 1 failed. A few months later, Explorer 1 was a success. Other failures were followed by quick successes. A different model came into play. In 1941 the United States was surprised by Pearl Harbor. There were other defeats early in the war. But these defeats were followed by successes and eventual total victory over particularly negatively viewed opponents. The early years of the space race seemed to replay this scenario.

By the time Mike was 13, the United States had successfully launched men into space. People who did this were praised – another positive reinforcement – and rewarded financially – more positive reinforcement. Programs were expanded. Demand for technically trained people increased. By the time Mike entered college, the space field had heated up to a great extent. The first lunar landing happened while Mike was in college. This, obviously, was still more positive reinforcement to continue in technical fields. There were also some interesting things occurring in fields a bit removed from NASA. The film “2001: A Space Odyssey” came out. It has proved to be an enduring classic. It projected major future triumphs for the space field – space stations, commercial travel to space, passenger vehicles operating between Earth orbit and the Moon, a Moon base, even a manned mission to Jupiter. Technological optimists like Gerard K. O'Neill and Peter Glaser predicted giant cities in space and solar power satellites providing energy to Earth. These things were supposed to happen within our lifetimes.

After Apollo, however, the nation turned its attention to other matters. Budgets were slashed. People in the space field thought it was because outsiders didn't fully understand the tremendous potential of the field. Education and outreach efforts were launched. Some attention was initially paid.

Triumphs, while slowed down because of budget cuts, kept on coming. When Mike was in his twenties, Viking landed on Mars and Voyager began its journey through the Solar System. The discoveries made by these craft excited techies – and some of the public. There we see still more positive reinforcement of pursuit of technical fields.

The launch of Columbia in 1981 happened when Mike was 31. It seemed like the first step to the visions of space stations and regular use of space.

In short, we see Mike – and any number of contemporaries – positively reinforced for pursuing technical careers. The fact that there were setbacks makes the reinforcement only partial. But partial reinforcement can be quite powerful. Just think of gambling. Over the long haul, players lose. But their losses are broken up by wins. Let me note here, though, that gambling has major and critical differences with aerospace. While in one sense we are “playing against the house”, i.e., nature, our wins are lasting and build upon previous wins. The only way “the house” can win is if we slip into a dark age. One must note, though, that even the collapse of the Roman Empire did not lead to a permanent victory for nature. There was just a truly major delay in what we call progress.

Now let's compare Mike – and his contemporaries – to someone who was born in December 1972 after the last manned landing on the Moon. Their contemporaries tended to see techies as weird – and not nearly as important now that the Space Race had been won. While there are a few triumphs while these people are small children, the triumphs are not met with the same applause as the early triumphs in the late 50s and early 60s. In short, the positive reinforcement is less in both amounts and frequency.

Remember how Mike saw stunning triumphs by the age of 13? Shortly after their 13th birthdays, our younger colleagues saw Challenger blow up on television while they were in school watching the “Teacher in Space” take off. Talk about negative reinforcement... Not only was a shuttle lost with a crew, problems with the shuttle program surfaced. Many people stopped viewing the shuttle as a success and a step toward the Pan Am shuttle of 2001. Some people stopped trusting NASA. That's another negative reinforcement.

Hubble was launched in 1990 – with flawed optics because engineers basically screwed up and didn't do appropriate testing. Our first post Apollo generation hits college. Yes, Hubble was eventually fixed, but the initial screwup is vividly imprinted on our post Apollo generation. This is another negative reinforcement.

There was a successful Mars probe – complete with rover – in 1997. This, unfortunately, was followed up by a few real screwups with successors.

Our post Apollo generation hit their 30th birthdays in December of 2002. On February 1st, 2003, Columbia burns up on reentry. That same year a damning report about the failure comes out. Instead of being positively viewed role models, the older generation comes to be seen as dysfunctional and failing.

This can be pretty daunting for members of our younger generation who are enthusiastic about science and technology. Their peers, who are not really interested in science and technology, see those going into science and technology not as “weird, but important” but as just plain “weird” and to be avoided if not dominated and controlled. The failures and scandals serve as justifications for cutting funding for things like aerospace. This constitutes even more negative reinforcement.

There have been other changes since Mike was a little boy growing into a young man. Schools have shifted to a more top down bureaucratic model than existed in the 1950s. High schools have doubled in average size since the early 1970s, from about 1200 to 2400 students. There is some evidence that humans have real difficulty in dealing with large numbers of people. Some people are now advancing the idea that high schools should have only 600 to 900 students. Some experiments which have broken up large high schools into multiple academies – still in the same building – show better learning and healthier behavior in such environments. One way of coping with too many people is to withdraw into a subgroup much like oneself. This can hurt communications with people different from oneself simply because one gets much less practice at it. One way people who administer such schools have changed is that they now emphasize control more than their predecessors did in the 1950s and 1960s. Some people also have raised questions about some other changes in the way we bring up our young. For example, sports have been raised in importance much beyond what was normal in the 1950s and 1960s. One consequence of this phenomenon is that some teenagers are now being roused out of bed as early as 4 AM to participate in sports. This causes significant sleep deprivation which makes high level critical thinking much more difficult.

So far I have emphasized the negative. I have done this to get people's attention. I hope most recipients of this attempt at discussion have read this far. Believe it or not, I am keeping this short.

So – is the aerospace industry doomed to collapse in the United States? No – not at all. Change, though, is needed. Some people are already responding well to change. Some others have weathered the storms of the past decades and can be positive role models for the future. We can learn new things. Even old people – much older than the middle aged people who are most of the recipients of this message – can and do learn new things.

What's the first thing we can do? Believe it or not, admit to failure. This might sound weird, but respect, even esteem, by others increases when people admit to mistakes. In part this happens because it shows a recognition of reality. It also communicates to others a recognition of their own worth. Even a partial agreement says to the other person(s) “You have something to contribute because we don't know it all.”

We can also learn from role models – and praise such role models. One such role model among the people to whom I am sending this little piece of analysis is Jon Malay. Back when he was president of the American Astronautical Society I sent him an e-mail praising a column he had written for Space Times and suggesting an expansion of his ideas. He responded thoughtfully. Simply listening to others when you have a leadership position is positively reinforcing for said others. The fact that Jon agreed with my observations only increased my positive reinforcement. When Jon stood up at the AIAA Regional Leaders Conference in 2005 and said “I'm probably the most right brained person in this room” I had two thoughts. The first was a friendly “I might be able to give you a run for your money on that.” The second was here was a man somewhat like myself who could be a friend and from whom I could learn quite a bit. When I joined AIAA and started showing up at Baltimore Section events and trying to help, Tom Milnes – along with others – was friendly and encouraging. The section welcomed my efforts as webmaster. They followed my lead on Congressional Visits Day activities. They even – to my complete surprise – chose me as Vice Chair for a year. The last was a real surprise in large part because I thought it was too soon. Still, though, even that was positively reinforcing.

Since then I have gotten to know people better in the AIAA, especially the National Capital and Baltimore sections. All of you that I have gotten to know have demonstrated significant leadership ability, including the willingness and ability to listen to others. Can one say such things about everyone in aerospace management? I will not discuss people whom I have had little opportunity to observe. Unfortunately, I have personally witnessed people with extraordinarily poor leadership skills in management – even some with major management responsibilities – who have done significant damage to their organizations. I will not discuss these people in this short note.

There are other people who, if reports are to be believed, are serving as positive role models. One person is Simon “Pete” Worden, currently director of Ames. People who work at Ames praise him. Another is the recent Noble Prize winner John Mather. A few months ago I had the opportunity to discuss Mather with a good man that I personally knew from my time at Goddard who works with Mather. This man had nothing but praise for Mather, describing him as a leader who listened and who gave credit where credit was due. That squares with my own necessarily limited observations.

Why haven't I mentioned Mike Griffin? Mostly because I have had little opportunity to observe the man and because some people with at least some credibility have raised some issues about his leadership. In short, I know too little about him. What little I do know is generally positive.

There are other positive things going on. The younger generation does have a favorable view of the work on space tourism – things like Burt Rutan's Space Ship One. While people in their twenties might not be much interested in watching a handful of astronauts take a many year trip to Mars, the possibility of taking a short excursion into space themselves does attract support. They also are quite interested in the discoveries made by the probes on Mars. They can watch that work and participate at least a little bit. In short, the younger generation is not interested in simply sitting and watching but wants active involvement.

The work that NASA and NOAA are doing with regard to understanding climate change and other environmental concerns also attracts support. Once again, this is selling people things that they can benefit from themselves. The computer industry did not achieve its current success by selling computers to the government on contract but by selling tools that people in all kinds of endeavors could use to make their lives better and help their organizations succeed.

What else can people in AIAA – and, for that matter, our friendly sister organization the American Astronautical Society – do to promote healthy, responsible leadership? One thing people can do is to start learning about a dimension of leadership that draws too little attention these days in many circles. The dimension is the democratic-authoritarian. The two styles are markedly different. In some circumstances, the authoritarian model is entirely appropriate. In others, democratic leadership – leadership which listens and tries to develop consensus and is flexible enough to respond effectively to surprises works better. Oh – democratic leadership does not mean taking a vote on every decision. That is an incorrect perception that some people have.

I will recommend a particularly good book for people to read – DeMarco and Lister's Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. It is well researched and is consistent with what I learned while in social psychology. People who are considering business school should also consider an emphasis that includes some social science work. The social sciences are not as hard and fast as, for example, aeronautical engineering, but they have made genuine contributions to understanding. At least graduates of such programs will not be completely surprised when something fails because of some human social factor comes into play. They will also be more able to clean up the resulting mess.

I think that is enough for now. I've written over 2600 words.

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