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Gen Y SMC Pitch Feedback

By Keith Cowing
April 30, 2008

Editor’s note: Comments? Send them to Comments below.

Reader note: “Mr. Cowing, A couple of things regarding the Gen Y pitch you posted on NASAWatch on 4/25/08, just for the heck of it.

First, I found this item “Why Generation Y is broke” linked on InstaPundit earlier today – you may find it interesting if you haven’t already read it.

Second, something in the above item made me think about the real message of that Gen Y NASA pitch, so I re-read that pitch. My conclusion – Gen Y is all about Gen Y, even the NASA Gen Y folks. Except for one bullet, the first sub-bullet on Page 20 (by Adobe Reader’s count – don’t they teach Gen Y folks about page numbers, especially on LONG presentations?), the thrust of the entire presentation seems to be: What can you old farts do for us? [ Editor’s note: Editor’s note: This is my fault – I converted this presentation to pdf from Powerpoint]

Sure, us old farts can do a lot for the Gen Y folks. But what can they do in return other than help provide better inter-center communication and so forth? Not that I EXPECT them to do anything special. But I didn’t start working at NASA by expecting to be given project management responsibilities my second month on the job just because I was young and a lot of the folks at the time were already semi-close to retirement!

Maybe I’m way off base in my reading of the message those folks were trying to send, but even if I am, a little more humility and a realization that you do have to pay your dues, even in the 21st Century, would be welcome.

Oh well…I just hope those kids don’t think they already know it all and that they do get the opportunity to work on some stuff that will actually FLY. I once had hopes I could work on Mars projects or at least lunar projects before I retired, but as it stands, I will have started (in 1977 as a co-op) after the Shuttle was already designed and the last few years of my career (if I retire when first eligible) will be spent helping with the last 10+ Shuttle flights while simultaneously shutting it all down.


Houston (JSC Civil Servant, 30 years, 10 months Civil Service time)


Could you post the following under the Gen Y SMC Pitch Feedback? Also, please include my name with the post, as I’d like to be able to hear directly from anyone who would like to discuss these issues.

I’d like to share a little about my background and my perspective on the SMC presentation. I’m a Flight Dynamics Engineer at Goddard (civil servant) and started here as a co-op in 2001. I’m lucky – I’ve had the chance to work on 6 different missions that have already launched or will launch within the next year. Right now, I’m swamped, as I’m working on LRO, and we’re in the midst of preparing for a launch this fall.

My name can be found amongst the list of contributors to this presentation. All the time that I’ve put into this effort has been my own personal time.

So why do I care so much? We do amazing things at NASA and have the capability to do even more. Yet, I’m also worried about our future. I’ve seen projects almost fail because people didn’t communicate, because the technical expert was out sick, because engineers were focused only on meeting deadlines. We have an incredible amount of knowledge at NASA. Our biggest challenge is not that we can’t solve the technical problems, it is making sure that everyone can and will communicate, that people are being effectively trained by the current experts, that technical folks can see how their work fits in with the big picture.

This presentation is not about Gen Y. This presentation is about preparing NASA so that we’ll be a world-class organization for the next 50 years.

Rivers Lamb

Editor’s note: With regard to comments by Rivers Lamb, I am totally confused as to how anyone could say that this presentation is “not about Gen Y”. It is filled with direct references to one generation or another and closes with “We propose to engage the current workforce in cross-generation discussions at every center, cross-center discussions at the agency, and connections with the American Public.”

Indeed, the titles of both presentations clearly suggest that the focus is on Gen Y/Next Gen issues i.e. the first presentation from March 2008 is titled “Generation Y Perspectives”. The April 2008 presentation is titled “SMC Next Gen Presentation”.

Hi Keith,

I’ve been following this Gen-Y presentation campaign since your first posting on the subject. To be fair, I must admitt that I am a member of Gen-Y. I also have mixed feelings about the value of these presentations. However, my attention has been diverted away from the content of the presentations, and more to the reactions.

Perhaps these presentations have more value indirectly. What I am seeing is the that these presentations seem to be revealing a thought process of “us vs. them” thinking within the agency. I’m sure this goes beyond just NASA. The obvious reaction to these presentations is that the older generations strike back with what they believe to be a rebuttal to an offensive message. As I said, this response is to be expected.

What inspired me to write this comment to you was one reader comment that I saw that seemed to show another division that extends beyond generations. It’s a division that I have actually seen more prevalent than any differences between Gen-Y. That division is that of technical staff (engineers/scientists) vs. non-technical staff (business, project management, politicians, administration, etc.) I believe this to be far more crippling to productivity, progress, and image than any division between generations. However, it is in the same category.

I think NASA needs to re-evaluate this project. It should not focus on “what can Gen-Y” do for us. It should be, “how can NASA better unify itself to utilize it’s diversity to the maximum extent.” Let’s face it, without engineers, there is no spaceflight. But, without non-technical personnel, there might not even be projects for those engineers to work on. There might not be somebody to make sure they get a pay check. There might not be communications personnel working hard to show the general public the importance of what the engineers are creating, and what the project managers are planning.

Without Gen-Y, there is nobody to take the torch of the earlier generations. Without the earlier generations, Gen-Y has to learn all over again, and progress is lost. This project needs to be re-structured to show how NASA can better itself by using its vast diversity of people and talent. We’re all in this together, and we will not succeed without each other.

Hi Keith,

Finals are today and there’s still research to do, so I’ll try to be brief.

First of all, let me thank you for the excellent coverage you give of NASA for the NASA community and the public at large.

Second of all, I found that MSN article on why Gen Y is broke to be quite superficial and unfair. Sure, my generation is broke right now, but that’s an obvious observation that any person of below average intelligence could make. Much of my generation have recently graduated from colleges public and private with substantial loans and many don’t go into fields (such as engineering *cough*) that allow and expeditious offset of that debt. However, I reject the assertion that we’re less financially savvy than the older folks, and the article itself does a poor job of comparison. My father of 50 is going into bankruptcy and here I am as a young graduate student making a paltry sum living completely self-sufficiently and still able to put money away for retirement and investments. Oh yeah, I also graduated from college debt free with a little hard work.

Third, I’m tired of hearing the defensive comments coming from people about the Gen Y presentation. It’s supposed to speak to you on a visceral level, and in that respect it did an excellent job. If you try to analyze the presentation itself on a behavioral or reflective level, you’ll be sorely disappointed. It’s supposed to get you to think about NASA in its changing social environment. It’s supposed to be a catalyst, not the answer. And please don’t think that we think of the older folks as old farts puttering around the halls of this agency with hearts as ticking time bombs. Virtually nobody thinks that, at least virtually nobody from my generation that you work with every day. I’m sure generations older than you accused you of the same type of behavior and you thought it was ridiculous as well.

I can see why this writer came away with this impression, but I definitely got a different impression of it. I thought the message was more like stewardship — not “daddy buy me a car now” but “teach me what you know about driving”; that the great things NASA has accomplished cannot persist into the future unless hiring, mentoring, and mettle-testing opportunities are emphasized, sometimes at increased risk. The current workforce is aging, and their reinforcements are not being adequately fostered. I think their numbers generally supported that message.


Let me tell you, I passed on those two stupid Gen Y presentations to several of my “Gen Y” coworkers (myself included in that area) and about the only thing that thing fostered was a sense of how utterly stupid and a waste of time that presentation was. First off, look at the job descriptions of those listed. Notice that none of them had the description of Engineer in their job title, they all (with the exception of one) were project management types, who normally aren’t on the front lines of what’s going on. What they fail to realize is that the vast majority of work in space isn’t performed by NASA, but is really doled out to various sub-contractors to do most of the work with NASA doing the oversight, and more importantly, that within those subcontractors, the number of “Gen Y” folks has a heavy presence. In my one group alone of about 25, about half of us are only two years or so out of school. Other groups around KSC have also been hiring lots of young people. From Florida Institute of Technology (my alma mater), usually a solid portion of the Aerospace and Mechanical Engineers end up either co-op’ing or getting picked up fulltime by USA.

Now, this next statement may seem somewhat biased, but the attitude among all the engineers where I work at and KSC, including us “Gen Y’ers” (God I hate that phrase) is a pure “get the job done” attitude. We don’t discuss ways to blog about our job, we don’t complain about how we don’t have a word in every management decision. We have a job, we have a deadline, and we get that job done in that deadline, and I feel that’s an honest assessment of how all engineers (and technicians and machinists as well) feel, regardless of age or generation. From the list of described contributors, the only KSC person specifically mentioned was a budget analyst. Why didn’t whoever picked that panel bother to get an engineer on the NASA side and not some front office person? Probably because the engineer’s too busy getting us ready for launch. I know several of them on both the Shuttle and Constellation side, and they’re opinion on things is totally opposite of that presentation. Sure they notice an age gap, but regardless of age, its how you do your job that earns you the respect and the equality, not some sense of age affirmative action that that presentation pushes for. If you’re an idiot, you get treated like one. If you’re smart and a hardworker, your older colleagues treat you as an equal.

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.