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.]