When I finally got a job after graduate school, it was after many months of struggling. Naïvely, I had simply sent out resumé after resumé, and made cold calls each day after searching the want ads in EOS
, The Economist
, Chronicle of Higher Ed
, etc. etc. etc.
The job offer was as a result of one of those friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend deals. My friend Mike knew Martin, who worked for something called the Universities Space Research Association, or USRA
. Martin did a lot of work on managing the UARS satellite for NASA Headquarters, which was nearby (but on the other side of the railroad tracks). Martin was able to convince Lisa, an official at NASA, to have lunch with me. She and I talked about many things, but all I can recall clearly is that she asked me to produce a piece of writing for her, and that I had the good sense not to order a beer with lunch. She picked out one of the themes from our conversation as the topic for the paper: Colombia.
What resulted was my piece on Pablo Escobar, The Cathedral at Envigado
, which I have posted previously. Some time after my sending it to her, she let me know that the folks at NASA HQ would like to talk to me, and we set up a visit.
I remember visiting with Lisa and with another person who has ended up tangled in the warp and weft of my life, Dixon B. While apparently my writing about Colombia's woes with drugs was enough to convince Lisa that I might be worth some consideration, it was the fact that I owned a NeXT computer that impressed Dixon. More on my computer selection prowess (or lack of) in another post.
In the end, USRA brought me on as a Visiting Scientist, and I worked for Lisa on international and social science issues and for Dixon on data system issues, including intellectual property. You might think this was a strange assignment for someone with a degree in marine geophysics, but as I have gained experience in the job market, I have learned that your degree specialization in widgetry is really only of marginal importance unless your job ends up being "design widgets."
One of my first assignments was to deliver news that eventually resulted in the firing of several hundred people. I didn't need a degree to do that, but I did need courage. A lot of the people this was to affect had just been hired, so I couldn't help feeling strange about it. I travelled out to the mid-West and told the managers of a program that they were to be cut from $55 million per year to $18 million.
In the end, they had to fire most of their graduate students, programmers, and junior researchers. People just like me, recently starting out in their careers - the interesting part was that the program itself was not bad. Their problem was their history - they had been rammed down NASA's throat by the local Congressman, and for their first few years, had produced not much more than shiny pamphlets.
In fact, Martin's predecessor had lost his job over a comment he made at a press conference a while before, where he was asked if NASA considered this particular program to be "Congressional pork." He thought he was being sufficiently delicate by replying that NASA preferred to think of it as "finely sliced Danish ham
," but he was on the street the very next day, looking for another job.
By the time I came along, a new director had put this program on track, and it was well on the way to producing a lot of very interesting information. But the damage had been done, and there were a lot of axes being ground in Washington. The Congressman had just died, and NASA jumped at the opportunity to get the spending under control.
"Hello, my name is Paul. You are all fired."
Labels: NASA, Washington DC