| "And exactly what do you
do for me?" asked then NASA Deputy Administrator, Hans
As was his custom, Dr. Mark was hosting a winter holiday
social for Cooperative Education Students from NASA Headquarters.
Standing in a corner of the room trying to appear inconspicuous,
I was feeling privileged to be one of the lucky co-op
students at the home of the Deputy Administrator.
But I nearly choked when I realized Dr. Mark was talking
to me. Before I could say anything, he put the question
in context for everyone there whose ears were now raised.
"I know why the other students are here," he said. "They're
all engineering students. I know what they can do for
NASA, but why do I need a psychologist on staff?"
Understand now this was almost twenty years ago. The other
thirty or so people attending the party probably forgot
the question shortly after it was asked. But for me it
serves as a small moment of truth and remains vividly
etched in my awareness all these years later.
First, it indicates the degree to which a professional
working in a behavioral field focusing on individual and
team development was at one time virtually invisible at
NASA. More important, it underscores what a dramatically
different place NASA has become.
In the early 1980s, professional development at NASA more
or less followed the traditional apprenticeship model.
Valued professionals, mostly engineers and scientists,
spent many years fine-tuning their skills within their
selective disciplines. When an opportunity to manage a
project came up, it normally was under the direction of
an experienced tutor, often more than one.
Professional development was once a slow process, believe
it or not, nourished by an organization of seasoned veterans.
Experience was acquired over a lengthy duration in which
the individual could experience all phases of a project.
The need for professional development was muted and at
Since then much has changed at NASA. We've gone from large
projects that generally take many years to complete to
smaller ones that happen, as we all know, Faster, Better,
and Cheaper. In keeping with this new paradigm, the apprenticeship
approach is gone, replaced by accelerated learning programs.
Myriad tools exist to prepare the modern project manager
-- web tools, career development models, intact team support,
benchmarking, coaching, simulation training, knowledge
sharing, university programs, formal mentoring, e-learning,
lunch symposiums, etc., etc. All of these came into existence
to quickly prepare managers to survive in an environment
of speed, change, and the rapid transitions that occur
around the borders of chaos. Is it better this way? That
question is for another article. For now, let's just say
it is how it is.
There's little doubt when Dr. Mark asked "what exactly
do you do for me," he had no idea how NASA was going to
change in the next two decades. The truth is I had no
idea myself how different a place NASA would become in
twenty years. But had I, and had I told all, you could
bet no one in the room would have dared believe it could
all come true.