My Job Description As an Elevator Pitch … and More.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a bit over the last few weeks, because a lot of people—including many friends!—don’t know what it is that I do for a living. Bryan wrote yesterday about elevator pitches, and that gives me the framework for this discussion. As such: my job description as an elevator pitch.

I am a project manager for a medium-sized aerospace company. We build unpressurized cargo carriers that NASA uses to fly replacement units like storage batters for the solar panels and the gyroscopes that keep the International Space Station aligned up to orbit in the Space Shuttle. These carriers have to protect the cargo from the structural loads of launch and landing as well as provide active heating and passive cooling on-orbit for up to ten years.

Admittedly, there are a lot of technical terms in there, but in those three sentences, you’re either 1) interested to know more, 2) writing me off as a nerdy rocket scientist, or 3) glazing over and hoping that your floor comes up soon. But hey, let’s pretend that you’re #1 …

I’m a project manager. What does that mean? Well, it means I’m frickin’ crazy. Okay, that’s really not that funny; my depression pre-dates my job. And presuming that you read my Twitter stream, you probably worry a little bit for my sanity. I do, too. This week’s been long—I’ve worked my forty hours, and I was in my bed today at 3:00 p.m. for what I think was a well-deserved and know was a much-needed nap—but it’s been good in many ways. Things are coming forward.

That said, none of that describes what a project manager is being like, in my sense. It boils down to this, in my role: managing technical issues with engineering drawings, materials and process specifications, and aerospace quality standards while keeping the customer happy and reasonably well-informed … while working to maintain cost and schedule. I work both cost-plus-fee and fixed-price contracts, and I’ve got a good reputation for managing both [or so I tell myself at 0445 when I’m not really wanting to get going that day]. Simply put, like many engineers, I solve problems—but my problems go outside the standard, “How strong can we make this beam while keeping it under twenty pounds?” decisions that aerospace engineers are forever making.

I work for Teledyne Brown Engineering, which is a systems engineering company with a manufacturing background. [The Brown is from Brown Tool and Die.] I never, ever presume to speak for my employer, although I believe that I try to represent them well. I’m part of a small team that does this for the company, and we have a pretty solid reputation with our NASA customer.

Unpressurized cargo carriers are as weird as they sound. I started off in pressurized, rack-stored payloads—what you think of in your mind’s eye when you think of astronauts floating around inside the Shuttle or Station, in front of a floor-to-ceiling assortment of drawers, bins, and lockers. This lasted a couple years, and then we got busy working for NASA in building these carriers. I was a co-op then, and they needed someone detail-oriented who could figure out scheduling. My boss handed me the task to keep busy, and I got good at it. Too good, actually—I know am fairly intuitive with scheduling [to the point that I don’t put in as much time with Microsoft Project as I should], and once I showed an interest in the business side of this job, I was done for. Heh.

We’ve built carriers for: the big ISS batteries that store electrical energy captured by the solar arrays; the Control Moment Gyroscopes that the ISS uses to align itself without firing rockets all the time, various electrical boxes that do battery charge/discharge and current switching, and a bunch of other things that are harder to describe. Most all of these units are in the size range of “not really small enough to fit in a compact station wagon”, and weigh between 100-400lbs. They’ve got odd shapes and are delicate [especially the batteries], so you have to coddle them. For us, that means stiff, strong metal components that provide structural integrity while not weighing very much. [When Apple made big news about their unibody laptops, I was thinking, “Um, wow. Hogging out aluminum. Do that every damn day, y’all.”] And when it comes to active heating and passive cooling, these are the visible, non-structural things: black-anodized heating plates with thermofoil heaters glued to the back side, with big, thick, bright-white blankets around everything. [Ever notice that everything on orbit seems to be painted white? You gotta reject that heat when you’re in the sun, or you’ll cook.]

That’s my job, in a nutshell, as of early 2009. I’ve been doing the project management gig since late 2006 and the cargo carrier stuff since early 2002. I’ve touched countless items that have later flown in space: just today, I held a thermostat that probably cost the government more than my company pays me in a year. [Yes, it was in an ESD bag, and yes, I had a wrist strap on.] My job is fun, crazy, and maddening … and I love it most every day. [AND WHEN I DON’T MY FRIENDS HEAR ABOUT IT ON TWITTER BECAUSE OH MY GOD I HAVE TO VENT OR I WILL KILL SOMEONE.]

Happy Hopemas

So I’m sitting on the couch, post present-opening, when the lady who stays with my grandmother brought me the Obama memorial coins she’d bought. I looked at them, handed them back, and told her, “Unlike the rest of my family, I actually voted for the guy.”. I then proceeded to turn to my mom, sitting next to me on the couch and say, “We won! Y’all lost!” while shaking her arm. She just laughed.

This is the only time I’ve gloated. But it was worth it. 😉


I feel compelled to explain why I’ve just not made many tracks on the Internet lately, but … I guess that if you’ve followed along, you understand why.

I think that, like the rest of my family, I just feel pretty wrung-out right now. The hard part for me, I think, is that I’m usually such a verbal person, and when not verbal, I write. Words are how I deal with things and how I think things through. [Just yesterday, a colleague of mine—who is, himself, notoriously verbose—asked me to “use shorter sentences”. This was on a teleconference, so the co-worker on my end and I had a good laugh at that.] My way is certainly no better than any other; it’s merely what works best for me.

So when I’m at a point when the words don’t come easily, things are definitely sucking.

I think that part of the issue lies in the fact that I feel like I have to dam a lot of the flood of things going on in my head. I mean, for my brother’s sake, I should shut up and stop verbalizing all this crap, because, on the scale of things, we all know that his life’s been far more rocked than mine. And as with the passing of any family member, the absence of Cindy in our lives merely reveals the flaws in all other relationships, as those relationships become strained as we all struggle to cope with this new existence. But as with many such things, the strain also strengthens things. [You can take the boy out of mechanical engineering, but you can’t take the mechanical engineering out of the boy.]

But in the midst of everything else, well, my sleep pattern is radically off. I put some of that on environment—I never sleep well away from home—but that surely can’t be all of it. All I do know is that my body really struggles to know what time it is right now. [At work, all it knows is that it must be quitting time somewhere.] That’s just sapping anything else that I’ve got going, and it’s making me damnably ineffective at anything I try my hand at. Of course, that’s always a dangerous spiral, because I have this weird conception that, if I’m not any good at something, I just don’t do it. But right now, that’s being a bad negative feedback loop—not coming up to par on anything that I’m doing, I don’t feel like doing anything. And that, well … that’s bad.

So I’m trying to take it a step at a time—writing it out a bit, and also seeking to take some better care of my sleep habits with the idea that being rested will have positive benefits. Here’s hoping. [And if you’re saying, “Yeah, he wrote himself out of this even as he talked about writing out of things,” you’ve gotten the point. This is far more for me than it is for you. It’s probably only for you if you have to put up with me. :)]

An Update on the Jan 2007 Resolutions

Well, I’m officially breaking my make-to-be-broken resolution tonight; I’m behind enough on laundry that I won’t be laying anything out tonight for work. It’ll still be in various states of being laundered when I go to bed [an hour fast approaching, honestly]. In fact, it’s a strong possibility that I’ll be 0-for-3 on the resolutions, but … that’s okay. Doug called Dad and I “my right arm and my left arm, and most days, my right leg and my left leg” the other day. That’s enough for me. Silly resolutions pale greatly in comparison to being there when your family needs you. And boy, did we need to be there.

I take it as a matter of faith that y’all will respect the radio silence around here. I’m still finding words for the thoughts going around in my head. And all this feels very cheap to write, because, well … you know, I’m not Doug right now, who has a far heavier burden to bear. He’s not bearing it alone—thank God for that, quite literally—but it’s a heavy burden.

God? This sucks. But you didn’t promise us a bed of roses.

Bowling Insanity; Doug’s Here

Well, Doug’s going to sleep in my room tonight because it’s quieter back here, so I’m pecking this entry quickly before he crashes. He got up at 2:00 a.m., worked a normal shift, then drove six hours here. Then, he put up with all of us. Damn. I mean, I used to do shit like that, back when I was, oh, 17. That was six years ago. Appropriately, Doug’s six years older than I am.

Palindromic, isn’t it? Kinda like today’s date: 10/02/2001 — I noticed that today when I signed for some hardware at work. [Doug tells me that in TV, they call that a segue. Damn mad racecar, Mom.]
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