Adam Steltzner, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, led the team that landed the Curiosity on Mars in 2012. Curiosity is a 2,000 pound, $2.5 billion, car-sized robotic rover that is exploring Gale Crater as part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission. Landing the rover on Mars required ten years of effort and thousands of people working in close teams. This is the story of that effort, as well as Steltzner’s personal story of how being curious led him to become the point-person for the design of this amazing craft.
The book includes Steltzner’s ideas about leadership, but it’s not a leadership book per se. It’s more of a memoir about his life and what he has learned along the way. If you are an engineer or a leader who’s responsible for managing engineers, it will probably be invaluable, because it presents intriguing insights about how engineers approach problem solving. And, if you’re interested in space exploration, so much the better. Mars is currently a hot topic, and Steltzner shows us the inner workings of teams that dedicate years of their lives to getting to the red planet. Because of the inherent risks of space travel, serious pressure is part of undertaking such a project, and Steltzner discusses how he handles the pressure (drinking and running), as well as many other topics relevant in today’s business world.
Steltzner barely graduated from high school, and probably would have continued working in a health food store and trying to imitate Elvis Costello if he hadn’t become interested in why and how the stars appear to move. He tried to take a class in astronomy at his local community college, but the prerequisite for that class was a class in physics. He had passed geometry in high school with an F+, and that was after failing it the first time, so he was understandably nervous about the mathematics involved in a physics class. But he passed the class, and then went on to finish college, get a master’s degree, and eventually a Ph.D. in engineering. He attributes his achievement to his insatiable curiosity about the world.
The book isn’t limited to describing Steltzner’s personal story. He expounds throughout on the leadership techniques and philosophy that have worked for him. He states numerous times that he believes the only essential ingredient for success at work is an environment that’s structured to encourage our innate drive to wonder, question, and explore.
Here are some of his ideas that were most meaningful to me.
“The trick is to exhibit leadership—lead—without having to claim leadership or subjugate others. This is leadership really as a service function, as a gift to the group.” In other words, leaders only exist to facilitate the performance of a collective group, and leadership is always in service to the group. And “if you offer your direction to the group for their endorsement, you are not imposing your will. You are simply gifting your thinking of how the group should attack the problem.” He seems to be talking about leadership by suggestion rather than edict.
Another interesting idea is: “There are two forms of decision making; fear based and curiosity based. In fear-based decision making, we find ourselves wanting the answer as fast as possible. In curiosity-based decision making, we use one of the core traits of our species to pull apart, examine, and wade into the open question. In my experience curiosity-based decision making yields much better solutions.”
He also talks about the importance of finding one thing to love about every team member, which will help you connect with that person and smooth your working relationship. And how to stand patiently in what he calls the “dark room,” which involves not knowing how your solution will work, and sometimes not even knowing if there is a solution to your problem. And that understanding the connections between data points is even more important than seeing the data points themselves. Good leaders need to constantly strive to understand the connections among different functions.
These nuggets of experience and wisdom are tucked inside paragraphs about other topics. To find them requires close reading, but it’s worth the trouble. I have to admit that my eyes glazed over at some of the details about designing the spacecraft, but I’m not an engineer. Some of the Amazon reviews suggest that he could have gone into much more detail and those readers would have been happier. So, read the book and decide for yourself.
After you’ve finished you might want to watch “Seven Minutes of Terror: The Challenges of Getting to Mars,” which I found on YouTube. It shows the components of the craft as they are described in the book and how they worked. The whole thing seems absolutely crazy. But it’s the right kind of crazy.