Lessons from Corporate Innovators

Peter Hughes — Chief Technologist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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Episode 15: Peter Hughes — Chief Technologist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

This is something a little unique for Agile Giants. I was at the IRI Conference and got just a few minutes to sit down with Peter. As you’ll hear on the interview, Peter’s part of a team at NASA that has quite an ambitious mission: to get people back to the moon and then ultimately to Mars.

I’m sure when you think about the projects you’re working on in your organization, they may be characterized as “moonshots” but probably not literally attempts to get to the moon.

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Sean Ammirati: 00:08 Welcome to Agile Giants, lessons from corporate innovators. I’m Sean Ammirati, your host, co-founder and director of the Carnegie Mellon Corporate Startup Lab, and partner at the early stage venture capital fund, Birchmere Ventures.

Sean Ammirati: 00:22 Each week I’m going to talk to guests who are experts at creating startups inside large corporations. I believe, fundamentally, a startup within a company is the same as one inside the proverbial garage, a group of entrepreneurs trying to make the world a better place using new ideas and inventions. However, I also believe some of the techniques and processes are just inherently different. This podcast is going to explore those similarities and differences.

Sean Ammirati: 00:57 So, this is something a little unique for Agile Giants. I was at the IRI Conference and got just a few minutes to sit down with the CTO of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Peter Hughes.

Sean Ammirati: 01:09 As you’ll hear on the interview, Peter’s part of a team that has quite an ambitious mission, to get people back to the moon and then ultimately to Mars. I’m sure when you think about the projects you’re working on your organization, they may be characterized as, quote-unquote, ‘moonshots,’ but probably not literally moonshots.

Sean Ammirati: 01:28 While Peter didn’t have a ton of time, we did have a quick, but I think meaty, conversation around how an organization like his approaches innovation, some of the challenges they have around integrating different technologies, that I think will ring a bell for a lot of the folks listening to this episode from more traditional corporate innovation functions, as well as how he rallies his teams around that overall mission and vision that they’re laying out.

Sean Ammirati: 01:52 So, while it’s a short episode, I did want to quickly bring this to you, as well as another note from the IRI conference when it was in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago. Hope you enjoy this week’s episode of Agile Giants.

Sean Ammirati: 02:14 All right. Welcome to another episode of Agile Giants. Again, this one is from the IRI Annual Conference. I’m here today with Peter Hughes from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Peter, maybe you can just quickly introduce yourself and let people know kind of how you got to what you’re doing today.

Peter Hughes: 02:28 Sure, Sean, pleased be here, and be on this podcast, to share some of the innovations we’re doing within NASA as we move on to explore the moon, and have footprints on the moon in 2024, and also execute a very rich portfolio of science missions.

Peter Hughes: 02:42 As the Goddard Space flight center’s, center chief technologist, I have responsibilities to identify some the leading edge technologies, reduce the risk of these technologies, to get them into our missions without affecting their risk, both technologically, technically, and financially.

Peter Hughes: 02:59 One of my core responsibilities is identifying these emerging technologies, and assessing them, and understanding how we could use the capabilities for whole new mission scenarios, new missions for this exploration.

Sean Ammirati: 03:12 That’s great. So, the rate of change is only increasing, right? And so, I’m curious, how does an organization like the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center keep up with this increasing rate of change across a wide breadth of industries?

Peter Hughes: 03:24 Yeah, that is a real good question. One of the key things we want people to realize is: how the technologies work, not only understanding the discrete technologies at a component level but how it affects the system context. We want to make sure that they understand the bigger picture, or the context that that system plays, both now and in the longer term. We want to understand what risks that offers the mission, and therefore how we beat down those risks so that we could leverage the unique capabilities or properties of that technology.

Peter Hughes: 03:54 But I don’t think we’re addressing it uniformly across the Center, necessarily. There are pockets of it that were really strong in sensors and detectors, and some advanced materials, let’s say, and some guidance, navigation and control, maybe communications. But all too often we’re so focused on delivering our product, which is priority one, that we lose sight of the need, the imperative, to always innovate.

Sean Ammirati: 04:18 That’s awesome. And I think, in that way, I think you guys are probably very similar to lots of other organizations with this kind of tension between the now and the future, right?

Sean Ammirati: 04:27 But there are certainly some ways that are different, I think, about innovation at a place like your organization versus, you know, a more traditional tech company, or even a more traditional industrial company. We’ve been here at IRI the last few days, where you’ve been around a lot of traditional industry folks. How do you think NASA is similar and different from those groups?

Peter Hughes: 04:45 We’re similar in the sense that we have people that are highly qualified technologists, highly qualified engineers, that are passionate about bringing improvements to the mission. Where we’re different is the quality level we had to have in our missions and the that we avoid any risk, so there is no failure.

Peter Hughes: 05:05 And we need to introduce these technologies earlier to beat down the risk, to understand and characterize the technology, and bring it into our product line, bring it into our systems early when there’s lower risk to the overall mission accomplishment.

Sean Ammirati: 05:17 I think another thing that other organizations can learn from you guys is how you think about all these different external organizations that you can work with, right?

Sean Ammirati: 05:28 So, I think a key question that I’d love to get your insight into how you think about is how do you think about, you know, what you should buy, what you should build, what you should partner and also when you should do those activities?

Peter Hughes: 05:40 Sean, those are really tough questions, and we constantly are urging the technologists to not only be aware of their specific technology, but who’s at the cutting edge, and who’s really performing well with these technologies, try to partner with them with possible, try to leverage their capabilities, bring them in, part of the team and only innovate, only really designed new innovations where necessary, because that introduces new risks.

Peter Hughes: 06:05 And it’s this tension between looking for it on the frontier technologies, and bringing that into our mission set, is really a challenge. There’s a lot of emerging technologies that are exciting out there. You know, we have things like AI machine learning. We have things like integrated photonics, we have advanced materials.

Peter Hughes: 06:23 All of these things bring unique new capabilities to our missions, and people constantly ask which of these technologies are most important? Is it optical com? Is it quantum technologies? And my answer is it’s really not any one area, it’s the integration of these would bring in whole new capabilities we can’t even envision now. And that’s what we’re looking for, innovators to look across the spectrum of technologies looking for the full life cycle, and across the full product line, to bring in new capabilities.

Sean Ammirati: 06:49 So I suspect that the audience right now is leaning in, like, yes, that is exactly the problem that I have in my Fortune 500 company as well. What advice would you give a company in another, sort of a colleague in a different industry as to hey, you could learn a couple of techniques, or tips, or processes from the way I attack that problem, you know, maybe not, they may not be aware of, but you guys have done well.

Peter Hughes: 07:14 What we try to do is get those technologists to look beyond their current assignment, and look where some of the big pain points may be five, 10 years down. It is very difficult. We always are focused on the near term, the real challenges at our feet, but we had to look up on the horizon.

Peter Hughes: 07:30 We need to go for new paths further downstream. We need to create new paths, in some instances, because there’s a great old saying I love that there’s no old roads to new directions. We need to create those. We need to understand what those roads are, and understand the risks and perils are, but in order to advance, you need to create these new paths and be at the forefront with these technologies.

Sean Ammirati: 07:54 I’m curious, you’ve been at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for a while and you have seen, I think, the good and the bad in innovation — the challenges and the good in it. Like, why do you think innovation in large organizations is so difficult?

Peter Hughes: 08:07 Well, partly because it’s not always clear where it fits in the bigger picture. We often have, I often call it the middle management has a lot of difficulties.

Peter Hughes: 08:15 Some people may label them as that permafrost of the organization, but they had the most difficult decision to translate between the current activities, the longer range investment areas, if needed, and meeting those obligations or to the strategic direction from above, and taking care of these marching armies.

Peter Hughes: 08:35 I think it’s imperative to identify where we think the long-range direction is, and unleashed these lower level teams, especially in cross-functional teams that are empowered to do things differently. But, being brutally honest with, if there’s a failure, how they have to be accountable for that and try to address it. It really is a new mindset, as opposed to the old discipline based innovation, but looking across these disciplines, interdisciplinary teams, I think we’re going to have the best chances for innovation.

Sean Ammirati: 09:03 Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. How do you try to communicate that to your team that bigger mission?

Peter Hughes: 09:09 That’s the challenge we’re facing right now in trying to … Some of the projects get it, and they really move out on it fast, but just, we’re trying to delay the baseline in technologies as long as possible, when we get a better risk profile around those technologies.

Peter Hughes: 09:24 So, a real exciting time now, with the new imperative to return men to the moon by 2024 that then that senior administration has put together for NASA. I’m really honored to be part of it.

Peter Hughes: 09:36 It’s going to take substantial changes, but fortunately we have a congress, who are granting this, probably the strongest budget we’ve ever seen in the agency and we are dedicated to do this, because we know we want to explore the moon so we could exercise some of these technologies to understand how he could go to Mars, have women and men on Mars in just a few decades.

Sean Ammirati: 09:55 That’s incredible, and I think a great note to end on. Thanks, Peter!

Peter Hughes: 09:58 Thank you!

Sean Ammirati: 10:08 I hope you enjoyed this episode of Agile Giants. If so, consider sharing it with a friend, and if you think it’s worth five stars, which I hope you do, please go to iTunes and rate it so that others can find this content as well.

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