j.j. toothman

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Daring to be great at NASA

For almost a year, my LinkedIn profile has been headlined with the phrase “Looking for a dare to be great situation.”  And while that was partially me drawing more career inspiration from the wisdom of Lloyd Dobler, who doesn’t want greatness as part of their job?

Now, you can interpret greatness in a variety of ways. And over the years I have.  Some jobs have had great technical challenges.1   Or great people.2 And then there are those jobs that daring to be great is truly part of the cultural fabric and organizational mantra.  NASA is that kind of place.

And after two and a half years away, that’s one of the major reasons I’ve decided to return to NASA and work at Ames Research Center in Mountain View.3

It’s certainly not the only reason.  But it’s a big one.  When I was working with Ticketfly, I enjoyed working in a place that was thinking big.4  There are few places that think bigger than NASA.  What could be more daring than putting human beings into space?  This organization has sent people to the Moon.  And now NASA is pointing to Mars. 5

What I’ll be doing at NASA Ames

Well, my title is “Web Strategist.”  And my work will build upon what I did from 2001 to 2007.  I was involved in migrating some of our web solutions to open source.  And even launched Ames’ first official public blog using WordPress.  I actually helped define the requirements for the server that ended up hosting the content for the NASA iPhone app.  But what’s up first for me now is to come up with a strategic roadmap for the web at NASA Ames.  I’ll be taking a look a the overall web landscape at Ames and NASA.  Everything from the guts of the infrastructure(its actually fairly solid and bulletproof) to collaborations tools (big problems here – there aren’t great ones) to the user experiences (again good ones are few and far between).

So no, I’m not in astronaut training.  I doubt they’ll let go on one of the last few shuttle missions. 6  And I’m not designing rocket launch software or involved with aerodynamics testing.  But everyone involved with NASA has a part to play.  And all those parts feed into the various NASA missions.  My part is helping the NASA community utilize everything the web has to offer it.  As well as help the NASA community enrich the web so that it can offer back something back for others. 

Why it’s the right time for me to come back

OK. So I actually started two weeks ago.  It’s taken me a little bit to get my feet wet and truly feel like I’m back.  Onboarding new employees isn’t exactly this place’s strength.  I’m actually surprised that I wasn’t asked to pick a lock with a safety pin in order to start using my nasa.gov email address.  

I left in 2007 after 6 years of working in (mostly against) government bureaucracy.  At the time, I was feeling a bit jaded about NASA and needing a change of scenery.  Furthermore, I was finding it difficult to work on the progressive types of web projects I was interested in.  The web was exploding with new tools and APIs and I really wanted to tinker with them.  Working for 18 months at Stanford and the past year with startups allowed me that opportunity.  In the meantime, NASA – and particularly Ames Research Center – has evolved in many positive ways.  Some new leadership in the technical areas has emerged and those leaders had as much to do with my return as any.  The Nebula cloud computing initiative is one representation of the new forward type of thinking that has emerged in the NASA tech landscape.

The Obama administration is changing that landscape as well.  Come to think of it, it was about a year ago that I actually had a phone conversation with a White House official about working in the new media team of the executive branch.7  There’s clearly an evolved environment to try new things and break the status quo.  To be honest, that wasn’t always there before.  Things like OpenGov are refreshing to see. 8

Here’s a picture of my new “second home”.

  1. Still haven’t found the job that allows me to sit on the drink and drink vodka tonics all afternoon.  That would be pretty great, right? 

  2. OK, hopefully they all do.  One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the work environments without great people working in them are destined to crash-and-burn miserably 

  3. Full disclosure: I’m not a government civil servant.  I’m a federal government contractor working for Dell government services. 

  4. In Ticketfly’s case, they wanted to take a big bite out of Ticketmaster. 

  5. Yes, there’s a ton of controversy going on right now with the human spaceflight program.  Obama doesn’t want to go back to the Moon.  And plenty of people are pissed off about that. 

  6. Skyrocketing to the top of my bucket list: take my children to Florida to see a shuttle launch this summer. 

  7. At the time, Jude was 8 months old.  Honestly, a move to D.C. was the last thing on my mind. 

  8. NASA’s OpenGov plan is at http://www.nasa.gov/open/ 

Leaving NASA

“This has all been wonderful, but now I’m on my way…” – Phish

Has it really been six years that I’ve been working at NASA Ames Research Center? Wow. That’s a long time to be doing anything. If I think about the things I’ve been doing for six years or more, the list gets short real quick after breathing and eating.

Let’s see. I started at Ames in August, 2001…

  • I had just started dating Keturah (who is now my wife)
  • I was sharing an apartment with Chris (who is now my brother-in-law) in the South Beach section of San Francisco.
  • I had never been to Europe
  • The Red Sox still hadn’t won a world series since 1918
  • I came to Ames as an accomplished web programmer who knew his way around code, web servers, and Adobe Photoshop.

And, of course, that was the pre 9/11 world

Fast forward to October 2007…

  • Keturah and I have a 14 month old son(!)
  • We live in a house in Half Moon Bay
  • I’m about to take my third trip to Europe
  • The Red Sox actually won a world series in 2004
  • My interests with the web have grown from a web production guy into a web strategist focused on helping people use the web for communicating and sharing knowledge

My years with NASA have provided me a wealth of learning opportunities and professional growth. For that, I am most grateful. There’s a ton of people I’ve enjoyed working with and getting to know personally. I’m leaving knowing that there are some excellent (& positively disruptive) people in place to stir the drink. Quite honestly, there’s plenty of shaking and stirring left to do. I wish them all the best.

So what’s next for me?

I’ve accepted the position of Senior Web Technologist at Stanford University. I will be helping Stanford utilize the web to achieve its mission of “to teach the world” with a particular focus on Stanford’s relationships with their alumni. For the record, I wasn’t actually in the midst of a job search when Stanford gave me a call one afternoon. And I didn’t even read the job description until after my third meeting with them. But it wasn’t until I made the decision to move on that I realized just how much I need a change of scenery. Six years at NASA has worn me out in some ways and my enthusiasm and energy levels were reaching some low points. For me, it’s definitely time to for a new scene and new challenges.

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