Rocket Science And The Channel: What VARs And A Mission To Mars Have In Common


The channel and rocket science may have more in common than you think, Adam Steltzner, lead engineer of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, said in an opening session of the XChange Solution Provider 2014, hosted this week by CRN publisher The Channel Company in Los Angeles. Steltzner said that the lessons he learned in helping develop the landing system for the NASA Curiosity robot, which is known as one of the most difficult and most likely to fail components of a rocket launch, are transferrable to solution providers, who also are looking to develop new solutions in high-pressure environments. Take a look at the four messages he said he took away from the rover landing, and how they might be applicable to the solution provider business model.

1. "If you embrace risk, you can really open up opportunity in your business, and that risk embracing may be your pivot opportunity."

When you develop a rover to be flown to Mars, there is a huge risk of failure, including the many rovers that didn't survive the trip, meaning millions of dollars and staff hours lost. With those failures, and an increasing pressure to cut back on costs, there was a massive opportunity to pivot and increase innovation, Steltzner said.

[Related: Channel Chief Cook: Dell As A 'Startup' Brings Opportunities To Channel Partners]

The opportunity to pivot the process comes with a log of challenges, he said, and one of the biggest lessons applicable to solution providers was to not make assumptions in the innovation process. Steltzner gave the example of how the Mars rover team tried its best to predict every possible outcome because, when landing a rover 100 million miles away or more, there's only one shot to get things right. Steltzner said the team took into account winds, terrain, atmosphere density, but they forgot to take into account one thing: gravity. While the team was lucky in that the gravity anomaly in the crater where the rover landed provided a softer landing than they predicted, it could have been disastrous if the gravity pull had been stronger than anticipated.

"It was a good lesson in humility," Steltzner said. "We need those constantly -- and on checking your assumptions, which is maybe the cheap thing that’s transferrable."

The way to avoid the assumptions when pivoting toward innovation is to question everything, he said. If there's an aspect about the project that you aren't talking about or haven't revisited in a while, make sure you bring it up, he said, even if it seems obvious. That way, he said, you can help minimize the risk, and maximize innovation and opportunities.

"That’s something that we'll do more of in the future, and it's likely something you can think about doing with your own teams," Steltzner said. He is currently working on the next project to put a rover on Mars and is already working to question all of the assumptions involved, he said.

2. "When you love your people, really love your people, you have a better time and they do better work."

The more than 3,000 people who worked over 10 years in multiple locations to put the Curiosity rover on Mars were one of the main reasons that the project was able to ultimately succeed in its mission, Steltzner said.

However, the team mentality didn't come on its own, he said. Especially with high-pressure projects with millions of dollars on the line, it can really take a toll on the team, he said. As a manager, he said that he worked to free up his team by putting the pressure of failure on himself, allowing them to innovate without fear of failure.

"Certainly, you may be in a business that’s not for the faint of heart," Steltzner said. "It does take a certain set of emotional faculties to be able to navigate that ... so one of the important things that I found was to take the pressure of that life or death off of them."

One way of taking the pressure off was what Steltzner called "Lunch with Enrico," which he modeled after Enrico Fermi's practice of hitting pause on the company's development of nuclear fission and taking a one-hour break for lunch. Steltzner said his teams took a lunch break every day so team members could eat together, or do whatever they chose, to step away from work and strengthen their trust.

"When we love our people and take the time to appreciate one another and find something in each of your people that you can love, human beings can respond to that," Steltzner said. "All of a sudden, you've got trust and a capacity to work at a level you never had before."

Talking about the team-building aspect was the most important part of the keynote for his own business, Jamison West, CEO of Seattle-based Arterian, said.

"The part that I took away most was how they're trying to do something bigger and with a purpose," West said. He said that he will "absolutely" work to bring those team values back to his own company. 

NEXT: It's OK To Be A Little Curious