SDM: NASA’s

Next Frontier

By Abigail Mieko Vargas
November 7, 2003

In 2000, NASA teamed up with the System Design and Management Program (SDM) at MIT to create the Agency’s first-ever Accelerated Leadership Option (ALO) program. ALO enrolls outstanding NASA project leaders in the SDM program, then puts them into one-year developmental assignments (positions that help build on the SDM education in tandem with the Agency’s mission). In the years since, fifteen NASA engineers have gone through the program, each chosen carefully for his or her exceptional promise. With SDM, these people are making their potential a reality.

The ALO program was designed by Dan Goldin, who led NASA for nearly a decade before retiring in 2001. He developed the program to bring more talented engineers into NASA’s management ranks, at a time when able leaders with technical expertise were scarce. NASA didn’t need merely a few more MBAs; NASA needed technical leaders equipped to understand and to manage complex systems. To Goldin, SDM was key. “Your future will be unbelievable,” he said in a 2000 speech to LFM-SDM students. “There will be a tsunami of technological change across the planet. MIT is at the leading edge, and the students in this room will help lead that change.”

It just might be impossible to find a participant who doesn’t agree that SDM is the perfect choice for that edge. After all, where else could highly trained engineers focus on complex systems in a management science context? Tim Flores, SDM ’01 and now program assessment manager at NASA Headquarters, explains, “The SDM program is exactly lined up with Agency initiatives… SDM was it. This was not a by-chance thing. NASA researched other programs and determined that SDM gave us what we needed.”

Keith Britton, SDM ’03, (still in his developmental assignment) says the advantage of the SDM program comes down to “a better set of tools. One analogy was that instead of being equipped to administer first aid, we’re almost equipped to be surgeons, so we’ve gone to that much of a higher level.”

Whether thirteen-month on-campus students or twenty-four-month distance-education students, the ALO participants spent their MIT months as part of the full SDM community—not as an isolated group, despite their common bond of a NASA home base and regular meetings with Goldin. Those who chose the popular distance-learning option were virtual members of the full cohort, whether during semesters on campus or via off-campus classes and forums. In every case, all students were part of the usual learning process, gaining both engineering depth and management breadth.

After graduation, they moved on to apply their learnings in developmental assignments and looked forward to expanded opportunities as the Goldin-proclaimed future leaders of NASA. So far, they haven’t been disappointed.

“The SDM program was a very influential piece in helping me to attain my current position…,” Program Manager of the Advanced Human Support Technology Program Mark Jernigan, SDM ’02, says. “Completion of the program also allowed me to piggy back with our center’s leadership development program; that facilitated the interview for the position I am currently in.”

NASA hasn’t been disappointed either. For one impressive example, look to their current assistant space architect, J.C. Duh, SDM ’02. Of course, several participants have only recently finished their SDM training, such as Bryan Smith, SDM ’03, chief of the Project Management Branch, Space Transportation Project Office. His view is just as bright, adding that SDM’s positive role is “without question. The SDM, Sloan and MIT communities and experiences have all uniquely contributed to…greater performance in the workplace.”

The ALO program also puts the students in a special position. “Where it’s going to take me in the long run, I don’t know. I do see from senior management, they’re attempting to utilize their new resources for return on investment,” Flores says. “They’re keeping us aware of opportunities as they become available. It’s up to us to earn them, but they’re telling us when the positions are there.”

The program, however, is more than opportunity. “The ALO and the SDM programs both are really a commitment to…lifelong learning,” Britton says. “Just because we’ve left MIT or we’re finishing up the program doesn’t mean we’ve learned all we need to know and have developed all the skills. It’s a lifelong process.”

The ALO participants do this, in part, via monthly teleconferences—something that fits so smoothly into the SDM education, they see it as a natural transition from MIT into NASA life. Russ Wertenberg, SDM ’03, chair of a Source Evaluation Committee and data network engineer, says the telecons “help us in our day to day… I would heartily recommend all organizations consider continuing to build and reinforce their SDM cohorts.” Systems Management Office Manager Freddie Douglas, SDM ’02, agrees that value of reinforcement is clear: “It has become a forum to highlight and discuss opportunities to bring the investment in each of us back to the Agency. It has become a place where the participants can go to get help from known resources.”

Fellow ALO participants concur, and not just because of what they learn in the conversations. The monthly interactions emphasize the sense of community that is so central to all of SDM. Agency boundaries disappear—and so can those between government and academia, and even industry. Flores loves this sense of community: “Some people say the networking—MIT with the professors and everything—it’s wonderful, but it’s also in the student groups. The students groups are made of seasoned veterans from industry, and that’s a powerful part of SDM.”

With their SDM education, the ALO participants are extending that community and their networking power beyond MIT, throughout NASA and industry. They’ve created what Britton describes as “a borderless, centerless team” and what Goldin originally envisioned: a young, elite cadre of systems thinkers who are not only technically adept, but skilled leaders, communicators, and community builders.

It was with this vision that, in an early meeting with the SDM-ALO members, Goldin dubbed them the future leaders of NASA. That future is still being made, but one thing is for sure: the ALO engineers are an exceptional group—and they are making, and will continue to make, an exceptional contribution to NASA’s future.