Leading the James Webb Space Telescope



Hi everybody, I'm Joe Cahill, Chief Customer Officer for Project Management Institute. PMI is the professional society for project professionals and changemakers. Today's podcast focuses on leadership of one of the most visionary and complex international programs, the James Webb Space Telescope. 

Listen to Greg Robinson, the Program Director of the James Webb Space Telescope. He's going to share his insights about this transformational mission that will reshape our understanding of the universe, our solar system, new galaxies, and exoplanets.


Hello everyone and welcome to PMI Center Stage, with today's guest, Greg Robinson of NASA. The James Webb Space Telescope will be the world's premier space science observatory when it launches later in 2021. 

Webb’s revolutionary technology will explore every phase of cosmic history, from within our solar system, to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe, to everything in between, where it will detect light from the first generation of galaxies that formed in the early universe after the Big Bang and explore distant worlds. It will reveal new and unexpected discoveries and help humanity understand the origins of the universe and our place in it. 

Greg has had a long and distinguished career leading our nation's most visible and complex projects for NASA. Greg also is faculty at Columbia University, Information and Knowledge Strategy, where he teaches a course on leading complex programs. 

Greg, welcome to PMI Center Stage. 


Thank you, Ed. I'm honored to be here. Thanks to PMI for having me. 


Well, it's gonna be fun talking with you. Can you tell us a little bit about the mission of Webb?


So, during the introduction I think you covered it quite well. Webb is a follow on to Hubble. Hubble has been around for more than 30 years, as most people know. It's given us tremendous new science and understanding of the universe and our solar system, but more so the universe, and Webb is 100 times more powerful. 

It's going to peer back into time, looking through the universe at hopefully two or three hundred million years after the Big Bang. When you're talking 14 billion years for the universe, 300 million years is pretty close to the beginning. So we'll see galaxies forming. We'll see new stars forming. Everything that you would see as part of new galaxies are taking place. 

One of the things you did not mention in the intro was exoplanets. When Webb was first conceived, exoplanets were being talked about but not really big. And of course in the past few years, we've found several thousand exoplanets. Exoplanets are planets that we call habitable or potentially habitable. And those are planets that are about the size of Earth. Their orbit around their star is similar to Earth and other characteristics of that planet. So Webb will allow us to actually better characterize those exoplanets, to help us understand the potential habitability. 

And of course, at a high level, astrophysics is all about “where do we come from, how did we get here, and are we alone?” So Webb will help answer many of those questions. And as we often say, it will actually rewrite our textbooks and physics books. So a tremendous mission with a lot of capability. 


And a lot of people are obviously familiar… when they think of NASA, they think of human exploration, and we're going through a period of the entrepreneurs going into space. It sounds like, with an understanding of the exoplanets, and the scientific information that Webb gets back, it also connects to a better understanding of how we can go to other planets in the future. Is that right, or am I making a leap that's too far?


No. Oftentimes, most times, when we talk about Webb, we talk about exploring the universe, other galaxies, distant galaxies. We don't talk a lot about what it does within our own solar system. And I talked about exoplanets. So Webb will allow us to look at Mars differently, to study Mars’ atmosphere. What's going on there in the environment, so we can better characterize Mars from afar. That's how powerful Webb is. 

And so we can do that with other planetary bodies within our solar system as well. So as we go to places like Europa, places like Jupiter, we can really characterize those much better. So as we make decisions for human spaceflight, Webb will certainly add to the portfolio of knowledge to help with those human spaceflight trips. 


So you have the title of program director for the James Webb Space Telescope. Aside from being a cool title, what is it that you do? What's the role you play as program director?


Well, as some of you know, in NASA, most of our missions executed through projects with project managers. Most of that's executed from NASA centers and out in industry and academic institutions, and even with our partners. 

At the program director level, this position was established in 2011 when Webb was replanned. The NASA administrator wanted someone reporting directly to the administrator's office, overseeing James Webb from the headquarters position. So the Science Mission Directorate established this position. 

And the primary role is to provide close, strong oversight of the project execution, how they execute the contracts and do all of the acquisition and get to delivery. And a big portion of that is communicating with internal stakeholders - the ninth floor as we say, the administrative suite - and also with our external stakeholders, at OMB, at the White House and Congressional stakeholders. 

A lot of that engagement includes the science community. I'm an engineer, not a scientist, so I certainly use my chief scientist to help with that. So it's a lot of engagement with stakeholders as I oversee the development of the mission. 


You mentioned in your role the importance of value delivery, which I think all of our audience can probably relate to.  What you try to do is provide value, as Webb is delivered, as it's launched, and as it collects data for decades. 

What are the challenges, what are the biggest challenges that you have and your team faces in ensuring value delivery for Webb?


So a mission like this… So this is the largest space science telescope ever developed. And there are a lot of complexities to how we have to develop it to keep it cold on one side in space, and keep it as dark as possible, in addition to folding it up so it can fit with inside of a launch vehicle fairing, which means it has to deploy in space autonomously. 

There are a lot of technical challenges, and I won't deal with those right now. Most of those – I want to say all, but I’ll knock on wood - have been overcome and behind us now as we get closer to launch. 

Some of the larger challenges over the years were around performance. And with projects, it's all about performance, establishing… doing really good planning, getting your requirements right, setting your team during development, and getting it done within your constraints. 

So with that performance, the team is so important. Do we have the right team, the right team makeup? Are we communicating properly, not just talking but communicating? Because we talk a lot, and the information is, as we talked about information and knowledge, information is not getting across. How are we communicating data, what does the data mean, what are the interpretations? 

So the communications from the project and down in the project, to me, to our senior leaders and stakeholders - a few years ago that was a big challenge. So I took over Webb about three and a half years ago, and that was one of the largest glaring weaknesses, that communication was not good at all. 

So that's one big challenge with large missions like this they development takes a long time. So a lot of the culture changes, some of that's good, some of it is in the opposite direction. So the biggest challenge was really getting the team focused not on the technical, but stepping it up a notch to make sure we were operating as one machine throughout the agency and with our stakeholders. 


Yeah, it's interesting, because your background obviously is deep in engineering. You're an engineer’s engineer. And yet you indicate we can figure out the technology, the tremendous technological challenges of a mission like Webb. But it's the communications, it's the people, it's getting the team focused, is what I'm hearing is the key challenge for value. 

What are your principles in a leadership position or when you're part of a team? What do you look for to create a team that's high performing and successful?


Well you want a good leader of the team, I would say at the project level, someone reporting to me. You want a good leader. That means a lot of things to different people. Someone who can look at the technical skills based on the work breakdown structure of the project. Do I have good technical prowess, technical leaders, good integrators, people who are not afraid of being challenged. 

The great thing about NASA's history, internally, we've always been able to challenge each other. There are some exceptions of course. And we tend to end up with a better product. And that challenge has to occur with performance in mind, not taking too long to get it done. So recognizing people who have that skill, or can go deep technically, who are not afraid of being challenged, and often communicate. 

In communications also we tend to talk technical language. And when we're communicating up and out, we have to talk layman's terms - that's not an easy skill. We actually teach some of that internal to the agency. So those are the things I look for in my teams.


I want to shift shortly into how projects are evolving at NASA. But before we do that, I think a lot of people would be interested in... You have a launch that's going to come up for Webb, when things are safe and ready. What's it like on the day of a launch, particularly one that you're in a leadership role for? What does it feel like? What is going on?


Oh my goodness. I often tell the story, on launch day, whether it's one of my missions or not, certainly more so when its one of mine - you have butterflies. You start getting the goosebumps. As you encapsulate the satellite in the fairing and you move it out, put it on a rocket, move it out to the pad, goosebumps increase. And during the launch count, the butterflies get pretty heavy. 

So there are three phases. One is the countdown through launch - you’re a little relieved once you get off the pad and you know you made it to orbit. Then you're waiting for all the signs that the spacecraft is working. You acquire the antenna for communications. The solar arrays come out so you know you can get power on the spacecraft. 

And then, in the case of Webb, in that first month, there are a lot of really, really critical deployments. So I talked about folding it up in the fairing and with deploy in orbit, that sunshield that's the size of a tennis court with five different layers, has to deploy perfectly. And it has 107 actuators that have to operate flawlessly for this to occur, plus some other things, too. And the telescope itself has to deploy. And there many other deployments during that first month. 

So that will be the next phase of really serious butterflies. A lot of technical work has gone into that, a lot of care. And of course, for six months… we turn on the instruments, we cool down the spacecraft, we send it out to L2 a million miles from Earth, and we start operations. 

Once we get those first images, that's when the butterflies will start to subside. So, for all missions, I kind of go through that phase. And I can't control it to tell you the truth, even if I try, and I have. 


Once the launch happens, you're still nervous, it sounds like, for six months, until you get the value from additional images. 
One of the things that you had mentioned is that Webb is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble is iconic, and there are some people who think it may be the best mission that NASA has ever done.

Where we're seeing entrepreneurs in space, there seems to be a demand for speed and innovation. How has project management changed in the last 10 years, from your standpoint? 


So, as you mentioned the newer companies coming on board, entrepreneurs. When you go way back when, we were youngsters and before that, with the new companies, the TRWs and the McDonnell Douglasses, and then the list goes on… Those were entrepreneurial companies back then. So that was a phase of what we're seeing today, although I think far more back then. 

So, at that time, it was a response to the need and the market of the country, and in some cases, the world, but certainly the country. And they went on to become major, major corporations, as we see today. So what we're seeing now is similar to then. That's the way I see it. 

And back then, project management was a lot more nimble. Of course funding was different. There were some imperatives going on in the country at the time that we had certain needs, particularly around defense and national security. So it’s a lot more budget available. Of course today we have a lot more billionaire so they bring a lot of money to the table, although they rely on investments as well, and contracts. 

So they were a lot more nimble back then and as we started building up that industrial base for defense and then as NASA came on board, and when human spaceflight became more mature, we became, I believe, a lot more conservative. 
So, project managers, and project teams, started to try to drive out all of the risk. When you drive and all of the risk, it costs you more money, it costs you more time, more challenges… versus design, build, test, and fly, design, build, test, and fly. And you need money to do that approach. 

So, as you as you've seen with the newer companies, many of them are doing that. You're hearing about a lot of test flights, I mean multiple per year. So they've set up a program where they can do that. And as you know, the quicker you go through a lifecycle of design, build, test, and fly, you learn much quicker. You can take those lessons you can put them back into the front end of the next design and build and test and fly. 

So today the missions are much longer. In most cases, they’re a lot more conservative. And so, the emerging companies, they have more risk tolerance, I'll put it that way. So they get to market much quicker than we have over the past 40 years. 


It's an interesting point that you made that that was within your answer, which is that you're suggesting that in the earlier years of NASA and of space, or at the beginning of your career, it was more nimble, and there was more of a sense of we're having to learn things, and you learn by doing it. 

Would you say that NASA and space activities were more agile 30 years ago, 40 years ago? And are we having to relearn that, or am I making a leap again?


Forty years ago was certainly more agile, but we didn't have that terminology back then. At least we didn’t use it the way that we use it today. But yes, certainly so. Of course, we've always had a supply chain, a  supply base out there, but a lot of work was either done in house within a corporation, in house within a NASA center…  

I used to go over to - I’m using Goddard Space Flight Center as an example - building five where they did a lot of the mechanical work, and you can get a sheet of paper and just kind of draw what you want, with the technician there next to you. 
In most cases they were as smart if not smarter than engineers. They can go into the shop and fix you a part in pretty short order, and you don't put a whole lot of tolerance on that. And you can make adjustments after the part is developed. If it’s not exactly what you want, they can go back and fix it or build another one pretty quick. 

We've turned that into a very long process, where the engineers and technicians are not working closely together to make that happen. Everything is through paper, throwing it over the fence and getting it done that way. So that's just one example of areas where I think we can make some significant changes. 


Yeah, it's kind of interesting, because again, we think that the world today is learning agile, and yet the origins of much in aerospace came from that, the experimental approach to taking chances. The adaptive responses to things, so that’s an interesting perspective. 

I want to switch, before we go to the future, issues of work… you're having obviously a remarkable career. How did you quickly get to NASA? how did you develop into such a successful leader?


I wish I could write that down. And I often say I'm going to write a book one day, but I’m not sure what to write. So, as a young engineer, you're assigned to projects. You try to be as good as possible to get the job done. Try to be a good collaborator.
In addition to all of that, I think, when there's time to shine - whether it's around a review, or launch, or whatever it may be - you have to find ways to shine. We all have our own methods of doing that, we learn, we’re taught some. 

Mentoring is a really big deal. A lot of a lot of people mentored me. We didn't even call it that at the time, but I reached out to other senior leaders, and basically saying, sure in different words, “I want to be like you one day when I grow up.” Certainly in NASA people are extremely open to helping you and teaching you little points. 

Another area that came along a little bit later, we've talked about this one before, the soft skills, which I did not appreciate early in my career at all. As a matter of fact, I would say you have them or you don't, and I was against going to training for soft skills. I took some class that was put together at NASA, and I was sold from that class on. 

So I made sure I continued to develop my social skills through training and other types of development, kept the mentoring going, built networks within the agency. So the name and the face and the paper when they come together, people really know you. So make sure those three were always out there, the face with the name with the paper. 

So a combination of apprenticeship with senior leaders, mentoring, and training and development and networking. I think those were the key. And I continue to work on social skills today, believe it or not. 


You mentioned NASA preparing for the future. Obviously you're focused on the major program of Webb, but is there anything you can share in terms of, how does NASA go about building its capacity to be successful for the future? How does NASA learn and prepare for the next generation of missions and people?


From a learning standpoint, we try to collect lessons from successes and failures. Where we can, where it makes sense, we try to codify that into policy or practices or procedures. That way it can be common across the board. But as you know, that's a real challenge to do that. 

Of course, we have excellent training programs, training classes, development programs. We're constantly reviewing those, because in some cases, there's a lot of good stuff and there's some other cases we can do better. So we're constantly looking at that. 

We also look at programs where we can put people on what I call a fast track to project management. That's through experience, experiential training, classes, mentorship. Put them in a different environment. Let's say someone has been designing all their life, perhaps you would put them in a manufacturing shop, or maybe you put them in an IT environment. 
So they can look back and say, “Geez if I was designing this thing like I often do, I would never do it this way because it's hard to test it this way.” So we try to get that kind of cross learning in there. 

And our recruitment now, as I mentioned earlier with the future of work.... When we put out an ad for a position and we say that position is in Greenbelt, Maryland, at the Goddard Space Flight Center, certainly we get a lot of applicants. But if we re-run that ad and say, “You can work from anywhere,” the numbers just explode over the first ad. Because people do want to feel more whole. Not everyone wants to travel, not everyone wants to move their family to the big city. Now, not every job you can do that with.

So those are some examples of trying to be a lot more open to the needs of people versus making everyone fit a rigid system. I think that's critical for the future, especially with younger families. I know after 9/11, some of the folks that worked with - I was younger then too, but they were younger than me - had young families. Many of them left big cities and moved close to where they grew up, and smaller places to be closer to family. They just felt a, as I say, a call to home. I think someone wrote a book with that title as well.

So, the more whole you become, the more open we are to allow that wholeness, I think we end up with a much better workforce, a more efficient workforce. And you still have to grow managers and leaders to make all of that come together, which is still a challenge. 


Yeah, again it comes down to, from a NASA perspective you're describing a place that's really focused on trying to attract the right people, so making it easy for people to work where they need to work. Creating a sense of purpose and I’m sure meaning comes from the missions, but also a place that allows people to grow as they as they move forward. 


Absolutely, and you think back, certainly 30 years, how difficult it was for a lot of women in the workplace. Again, young women have kids, worrying about child care, worrying about pumping milk for the baby, not being at the eight o'clock meeting every morning because of child considerations. 

So why does the meeting have to be at eight o'clock if we know somebody on a team cannot be there at eight o'clock, which really stresses their life, so they won't be productive when they're there, or when they're racing home. So, we have to build these workforce systems to be a lot more accommodating and with good leaders you can get there. But we have to make sure we have good leaders to do that. 

Yes, it's an exciting time, but obviously it comes down to creating a environment that accommodates and encourages diversity of people to be able to contribute to the mission and to the work. 


What do you find most exciting about the direction of missions and work, and how do you prepare yourself…  We've talked about NASA and teams… How do you prepare yourself for that future?


I think the country, in general, and certainly within NASA is looking to be a lot more diverse, to increase diversity in the workforce, and you know, almost every study you've seen says that's positive for the organization. But we still tend not to do that. We fall back on our security blankets. 

So that's a huge push and pull today to make that happen. So I would say in 10 years I expect to see a lot more diverse teams, a lot more diversity in project management and senior leadership. I think that's a plus. Years ago, certainly 30 years ago, all of the project managers I knew then were pretty old. Not that that's a negative. We're starting to see much younger project managers now, certainly an industry, a lot younger. 

If you have those skills, you show the right leadership, you get the right mentoring... Of course some experience helps. But I go back to the design, build, test, and fly. We have to allow some opportunity for failure. So we started to do some of that as well. Certainly as we build cube sats. We're starting to allow a lot more of that as we do Technology Demonstration Missions. It's okay to fail as long as you learn something that can get you accelerate the next system. 

So those are the things that really excite me, and again the younger workforce.... And we certainly need organizations like PMI to build a very strong foundation, across the country and across the globe, of what I call the principles of project management. And then of course all organizations need to add that leadership component on top of that, once have the base. So, a lot to be excited about from my standpoint. 

And lastly, there are a lot more small missions popping up now. I've mentioned cube sats, a lot of small sats. Now we are building smaller rockets. Out in industry, these emerging companies that have emerged, they're launching major critical payloads for science and for the country.

And who would have thought 10 years ago that that would be happening? So the future is changing, but I always say the future is now. We create the future today. And I see a lot of that occurring. 


Yeah, it’s very interesting. You talk a lot about culture, and I don't know if you have one, do you have a favorite book on NASA or space that captures kind of the feelings and the emotions and the intelligence that you've been describing?


No, I don't have a favorite book on space. I’ll tell you to two books that I really like. Lion Taming, that's one of my favorite ones. You know, all of us are born lions, right? And do you want to be a lion or the lion tamer? Which one has the most power, and how do you become that? A lot of underlying stuff in that. 

Another one is a book, Warren Blank, 107 Skills of Natural Born Leaders. And it talks about, the question is, are leaders born or are leaders trained? Very fascinating. I'm really big in the leadership part of things. So those are my two go-to books, I talk about both of them all the time. 


That that focus on leadership really comes through. Final question, how do you stay engaged and motivated? It doesn't sound like that's a problem for you, but how do you stay motivated?


If you're not motivated every day you wake up with our missions, you probably need to check the pulse.  I tend to work with really amazing people. Many folks focused on the same outcomes. Of course we have different ways of getting that, and so the mission really drives me. 

The other thing, I really enjoy teaching. I feel like I'm giving back, but I think I get more from the class that I give them. As we get into discussions and working cases, the interaction is just tremendous. I think I go in nice and dry, I leave sweating. Really, in some cases literally, it really fires me up. So, that connection to giving back and getting something from the class, plus the mission, it just doesn't get any better than that. 


That's a wonderful way to close. Greg Robinson, thank you very much for taking time to talk to us on PMI Center Stage. And of course, best of luck with the James Webb Space Telescope mission, we're all cheering for you and the team. Thank you all for listening, and until next time take care and be well.


Hi, this is Joe Cahill again, wrapping up the podcast. So, Greg Robinson's interview highlighted some key points that I want to re-emphasize here because I think they're really important. 

First: James Webb Space Telescope is an example of a program that literally will change our knowledge of the universe. It's amazing. 

Number two: The key role of a program director is to ensure effective relationships to handle the technical challenges, team performance itself, communication, and successful stakeholder management. 

Three: There are butterflies and goosebumps at any launch. So many factors need to be working flawlessly, that there are butterflies for many months as different accomplishments are achieved. Once the first images come back those butterflies start to subside.

Number four: To be a leader, you have to find ways to shine. You need to find mentors and people who will help you. And you have to find ways to continuously learn, and particularly maintain a focus on social skills. 

I hope you've really enjoyed the Center Stage podcast, and you'll continue exploring the future of work with us. Thank you.