The Paula Gordon Show
Creating Martians

Donna Shirley

      . . . was Manager of the Mars Exploration Program at the California Institute of Technology‚s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which put the robot „Sojourner Truthš on Mars. Ms. Shirley is one of the world‚s best know aerospace engineers, the first woman ever to manage a NASA program for which NASA gave her its Outstanding Leadership Medal. Among her many honors is membership in the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame. She also makes it a point to have a life.

Excerpts3:37 secs

      If you want to get to Mars -- or any where else worth going -- you‚d do well to be as broad a person as possible, while holding firm to your passion. Donna Shirley, the aerospace engineer who was Manager of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Mars Exploration Program, practices what she preaches. The combination of broad and passionate got Ms. Shirley, her team and the robot „Sojourner Truthš to Mars.

      Ms. Shirley was the first woman to head a NASA project. The project earned her NASA‚s highest honor, but what millions know about Donna is that she was spokesperson for the widely celebrated Mars Pathfinder mission and the mother to the robot Sojourner.

      It‚s easy to compare a woman getting to the top of the aerospace engineering profession and into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame to landing on Mars. But the end of the Cold War has changed many things, according to Ms. Shirley. That includes the hierarchical style of management she believes is quintessentially military.

      Remember, JPL‚s work is doing that which has never been done before. If it‚s easy, JPL doesn‚t do it. In the final analysis, getting to Mars, according to Ms. Shirley, was a challenge in managing creativity. She‚s confident the task could not have been accomplished doing business the old way. Hierarchy simply was too expensive. „Faster-better-cheaperš is the new paradigm (easily lost,) at the heart of which is the KISS principle („Keep it Simple, Stupid.š)

      Along with faster-better-cheaper come fast prototyping, risk management and a new metaphor for how to manage people. Ms. Shirley chooses to think about the process of management in organic terms. She draws on the observations of others to flesh out her metaphor, comparing a project to a living cell. As leader, she‚s the membrane around the cell. It‚s her job to keep nutrients in and bad stuff out („bad stuffš includes micromanagement and theft of resources.) The people doing the work are inside the cell, where reactions go on. And those people don‚t need the cell wall to get involved until something goes wrong. That kind of thinking got Sojourner on Mars -- under budget.

      Ms Shirley compares Project Managers to Alpha Wolves. No wonder this manager of Managers takes vacations with her daughter, paints a little, writes a few songs, acts in plays from time to time and is very big on co-workers having lots of laughs and plenty of parties.

      So how is it when your lifelong passion and an interesting life land one on Mars? „Perfect,š says Donna Shirley. No confusion here.

Conversation 1

Donna Shirley describes to Paula Gordon and Bill Russell the difference between scientists and engineers and tells why the two have such a great relationship. Ms. Shirley gives vivid, even scary examples of how dependent our civilization and species have become on brilliant engineering.

Conversation 2

Ms. Shirley explains why the Mars Rover „Sojournerš was the smartest space craft ever flown. She describes Sojourner‚s kind of Artificial Intelligence, known either as subsumption architecture or behavior control. Ms. Shirley tells why rocket science really is „rocket science,š where the unknown unknowns are what get you. She distinguishes rocket science from rocket engineering and shows how both are complex. She makes sense out of „risk managementš and applies the ideas both to going to Mars and to daily life. She explains another approach she spearheaded, called „rapid prototyping.š She tells why there‚s a lot of humor at JPL and how metaphors lie at the heart of much of it. She gives life to the old engineering saying, „The better is the enemy of the good,š and begins to describe some of the principles she‚s winkled out of 32 years experience as an engineer.

Conversation 3

Relativity theory has its place along side Newtonian physics, Ms. Shirley assures us, giving as an example how critical calculations are when going to Mars. She explains what is means when the Martian atmosphere „bloomsš and how scientists working with her during the Pathfinder/Rover project predicted when it would happen. She gives a sense of why the Mars project was always fun but never easy -- if it‚s easy, the Jet Propulsion Lab doesn‚t do it because by definition, JPL is where things are done that have not been done before. She gives a nod to other parts of the aerospace industry that are also not easy. She compares working with Project Managers to working with „Alpha Wolves.š She expands on her own „cellularš metaphor for leadership. She offers one of Donna‚s Laws.

Conversation 4

Donna Shirley compares applying her organic management style to small teams and large Programs. She tells why the Mars Program at JPL simply could not afford the old hierarchical management style. She gives Donna‚s First Law, which is regularly violated. She expresses her concern that the space program has lost the better-faster-cheaper paradigm („keep it simple, stupid,š) as she believes the entire software industry has. She gives a series of examples of the dimensions of that loss in the space program and in everyday life. She applauds the role of debate in decision making, and distinguishes good debate from the unproductive.

Conversation 5

Ms. Shirley offers her view on how the repercussions from the end of the Cold War include challenges to hierarchical management, which she believes is fundamentally military. Now that 80% of new businesses are being started by women, small businesses now employ more people than the Fortune 500, and women‚s education continues to increase, Ms. Shirley describes opportunities she sees for experiments in new management techniques where there is room for all kinds of people. She carries her organic metaphor into the business world, along with other new approaches. She describes how best to hire people and what to avoid. She tells how she thinks the way people work together is affected by the way we evolved genetically and culturally.

Conversation 6

Donna Shirley talks about how critical it is to have a life, if you expect to do any sort of creative work. She describes her own life and that of people on her team. She champions people being broad, while remembering one‚s passion. She insists that really good engineers are, in fact, not narrow at all and concludes with how important bonding is to us all.


It is easy to see why Donna Shirley is effective -- her low-keyed manner, high-powered mind and quick wit make for a lively combination, which we thoroughly enjoyed. And she has the best toys on the block!

Donna Shirley
Managing Martians is published by Broadway Books
Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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