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  Standing on the Shoulders of Giants:
What I Learned from Max Faget and Joe Allen

by Cliff Kurtzman
Chief Executive Officer, ADASTRO Incorporated.

October 19, 2004

"Even the smallest person can change the course of the future."

-- Galadriel, the Fellowship of the Ring

The past week has been a time of significant reflection for me. Max Faget, the engineer who designed the Mercury spacecraft, and oversaw the development of the Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle vehicles, passed away on October 9th, 2004 at the age of 83. Max was, simply put, a very great man. He was a key player in a team of people that came together in the 1960s to extend mankind's accomplishments and enable America's first footsteps into space and to the Moon.

The story of my connection to Max began in the spring of 1988, when I left Boston, a rather brash young man fresh out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a doctorate in aeronautical and astronautical engineering and little experience working out in the real world. My first job out of college was something almost unimaginably exceptional... a chance to work with Max and Dr. Joe Allen at a company called Space Industries in Houston, Texas. Joe Allen was a physicist who was one of the original scientist-astronauts selected during the Apollo era. Joe didn't fly on Apollo, but he later flew into space twice on the Space Shuttle. The first time was on the STS-5 Shuttle flight, which was the first fully operational Shuttle mission, and the second time was on the STS-51A Shuttle flight, in which Joe successfully completed the first space salvage attempt in history, retrieving for return to Earth the Palapa B-2 and Westar VI communications satellites.

I was the thirty-third person to join Space Industries, recruited through the connections of a fellow named George Whittinghill, a former M.I.T. Space Systems Lab colleague who had headed to Houston a couple of years ahead of me, with a shared dream of finding a ride into space. When George started working at Space Industries, he immediately began encouraging me to come join him when I completed my degree, and it really didn't take much convincing--despite the fact that my offer from Space Industries was financially a good bit less rewarding that what I was offered elsewhere, the opportunity to work with Max and Joe building an innovative space platform called the Industrial Space Facility was something I couldn't possibly pass up.

My training at M.I.T. had taught me well all the nuts and bolts I needed to do my job... I knew how to plan orbital trajectories and create mission plans... I knew much about how to engineer a spacecraft and analyze its components... but, with the exception of one excellent course provided by M.I.T. in engineering management, it didn't teach me anything about how to grow and market a successful company, or of the numerous difficulties involved in building a motivated staff and a healthy and profitable business organization. And so, from the moment I joined Space Industries, I became a sponge... sticking my nose into every aspect of the business that I could, learning everything I could absorb, while also never hesitating to challenge decisions which I thought were dubious, even if my experience on which to base such assessments was rather limited. Often my interests took me well outside of the scope of activities for which I was asked to perform. Looking back on those days now I know I must have been at times an incredible pain in the arse... but Max and Joe were not just tolerant of me, they often encouraged me.

One learns from both successes and failures, and my time working with Max, Joe and my other colleagues at Space Industries taught me a number of very important lessons. I'll try to share with you ten of the most important lessons that I learned in this edition of the Apogee:

  1. When I think about times spent with Max, he is forever in my recollections giggling over something curious that he observed or an interesting fact that he had discovered. I learned from Max and Joe that being passionate about your job and curious about the world around you is a wonderful, infectious attitude. So many people that I know today think about coming to work simply as a means of earning the revenue necessary to put food on the table and support their family... but at Space Industries, our job was never an eight to five activity-- excelling in our efforts and developing technology that would benefit mankind was core to our existence as human beings.

  2. I learned from Max and Joe how to think like a rocket scientist: to continually strive on a grand scale; to innovate and question established doctrine; and to develop meticulous process and sound analysis to execute on defined strategies. These are the very tactics that today are core to ADASTRO's approach to helping its clients, regardless of what industry they might be doing business.

  3. I learned from Max and Joe how one can take pride in their accomplishments without being arrogant about them. They both knew they had accomplished great things and had tremendous confidence in asserting their viewpoints within their areas of expertise. But at the same time, they were never boastful about what they had accomplished and were always receptive to hearing new ideas that challenged established viewpoints and practices. Turning space industrialization into a commercial endeavor was going to require radical innovation, and Max and Joe recognized more than anyone that it would take a lot of thinking "outside-the- box" for our organization to become an economic success.

  4. I learned that too many chiefs and too few Indians staffing an organization doesn't work. I remember a day early in the history of the organization where I drew a facetious organizational chart up on the wall... It had a circle of 35 chiefs each with an arrow pointing inward at one lone Indian. There needs to be appropriate balance at all levels of an organization--you generally can't build a company entirely from the top down, nor can you build it entirely from the bottom up.

    I also learned that you need to staff your organization with an appropriate balance of individuals who are dreamers, builders, and realists. These are very different personality types, and you can easily test employees and job candidates to see which category they fall into. Realists are very practical, and have a talent for taking a vision and exploiting it. Dreamers are great at creating vision--they like to stray from the beaten path, and often see things that others can't. Builders (which is the category that testing indicates that I evidently fall into) see in a 360-degree fashion what others miss in the gap between the realist's practical point of view and the dreamer's vision--they are the peacemakers and symphony conductors, and often the creative ringleaders. Putting together teams of people from each of the three categories can be a very effective strategy. But you have to maintain balance overall, and in an engineering company an optimal mix is most likely going to have the majority of the staff being realists, augmented with a smaller number of builders and just a few dreamers.

  5. Space Industries was an organization which was initially comprised almost entirely of former government employees (ex-NASA managers) along with a handful of college fresh-outs like myself. The organization didn't have many employees with significant real-world experience at operating and managing for-profit corporations. We were all often finding our way as we went. I learned that sometimes a lack of experience is a weakness that you can compensate for by utilizing appropriate consultants for advice. Other times, it can turn into a strength, because by thinking like a rocket scientist you can sometimes find innovative solutions to problems that are better than what might be standard industry practice.

  6. I learned that building an organization by hiring the best, brightest and most ambitious people you can find means that everyone continually generates great ideas. This can be both a blessing and a curse. There are times for brainstorming and exploration, when everyone should have an equal voice and an equal opportunity to contribute ideas--and there are times for execution, when everyone needs to march in the direction specified by the chain-of-command. Knowing how to clearly differentiate these different phases can be a difficult skill to acquire, by both management and staff.

  7. Selling the dream and vision of your organization is critical. You need to think big, because a big vision can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. At the same time, you can't become a victim of believing your own PR. You need to always stay grounded in understanding the difference between what has been accomplished and what still needs to be accomplished to meet your big objectives. You need to be sure to continually build your skills and capabilities so that when circumstances come together to allow you to reach for the stars, you have ability to implement your plans. A marketing facade built around smoke and mirrors can survive for a while, but in the long run it leads to a dead end.

  8. I learned that there are times when you need to radically change the game you are playing if you are going to survive and grow. Space Industries was formed in an economic climate that was highly favorable to innovative space ventures. By the time I left the organization in late 1993, the political climate had shifted and the opportunities for growing a commercial space company no longer looked as promising. To have kept pursuing the same dream in a changed economic climate no longer made sense.

    In 1993, the senior management of Space Industries (which had about 110 employees at the time) went out and did something quite radical... they acquired a 2700 person engineering services company that was not in the space industry. Over time, and through additional mergers and acquisitions, the company shifted its focus to information systems security technology, and eventually went public with a successful IPO under the name Veridian. Veridian was subsequently acquired by General Dynamics in 2003 for one-and-a-half billion dollars. Max Faget stepped out of his role in running the company when these changes occurred, while Joe Allen and David Langstaff, who had been Space Industries' Chief Operating Officer during my tenure at the company, continued to run Veridian right up until its acquisition by General Dynamics. Joe was a physicist and David was an MBA and financier--to the best of my recollection, neither of them had any appreciable background or love for information systems technology... so it took real guts for these individuals to shift their mindset as the economic climate changed with time. They used the assets at their disposal to mold a success story in areas which where likely well outside of their comfort zone. In doing that, they were able to deliver a profitable exit to many of those that had invested in their success along the way.

    In late 1993, with a major acquisition just completed and with senior management of the organization relocating to a new corporate headquarters in Washington D.C., I came to determine that my opportunities to keep learning and growing professionally within the Houston office had become limited. I realized it was time for radical change of my own, and I spread my wings and used what I had learned to found Tenagra, the first company of my own creation. Space Industries was again extraordinarily supportive of my entrepreneurial efforts, and was a major client of Tenagra during its first year in business. Again years later, when the economic climate under which Tenagra's business model had been based had changed, I looked to my lessons learned from Space Industries to develop a plan that would take my business activities to a new level, and thus ADASTRO was founded in early 2003.

  9. A conversation I had with David Langstaff at the time I tendered my resignation from Space Industries is still quite clear in my mind. He warned me that I didn't realize the grief I was getting myself into in starting my own company. My road was in some ways even more difficult than what Space Industries had faced, because Space Industries had been funded by substantial venture capital during its earliest years, while my company was going to be funded solely out of my own fairly meager resources.

    Of course, I wasn't ignorant of what was ahead of me... I had learned well from my mentors, and knew, at an intellectual level, the difficulties that were in store for anyone attempting to start their own venture, especially without any substantial financing. Yet at the same time, I knew that David was absolutely correct-- until you have lived through building a business with it being your own responsibility, you really don't know what it is like to go through the struggle of making payroll every two weeks, with employees and their families lives depending upon their paycheck to get by. You don't fully appreciate what it is like to have to lay off a good and loyal employee because there is no way to use them to bring in the revenue to pay their salary--knowing that if you don't let them go, the financial drain could cost other employees their jobs too. Until you have lived it yourself, you don't know what it is like to have an employee that has been treated with extraordinary kindness and has been given exceptional opportunities for growth turn around and engage in wrongful conduct that harms the organization and their coworkers and enriches themselves inappropriately. David had lived through all of those heartaches and knew what I was in store for... and he did his best to warn me. But in the end, I had to continue to grow as an individual and was confident in the belief that the course I was taking was necessary in order to pursue my own path of learning.

  10. Max Faget was quite diminutive in stature (around 5' 6" in height), and extremely soft spoken. He instantly reminded people of Master Yoda of Star Wars fame, both because of his appearance and his wisdom. Joe Allen is of virtually identical height to Max. At the services for Max held this past weekend, Dr. Allen celebrated Max's life with a series of anecdotes and recollections. In one such story, Joe told of how Max had been on the NASA board that had interviewed him in 1967 when he had first applied to become an astronaut. Max liked the fact that Joe was of similar stature to him, not because it was good to be in the company of someone else that was the same size, but because it meant there would be less mass to lift into orbit if Joe became an astronaut. Joe then went on to describe how Max had rated him in the selection process at the top of the scale by using a measure he had invented called "specific IQ." An individual's specific IQ is determined by taking their actual IQ and dividing it by their mass (weight). Having a high specific IQ matters very little in most of life's journey, but it is very important when you want to have very intelligent people as astronauts, but at the same time each and every pound launched into orbit is extremely costly.

    Yet in spite of their diminutive statures, both Max Faget and Joe Allen were real giants in my life. From them, I learned so many of life's lessons, including what it is like to really be a rocket scientist. Isaac Newton once wrote that "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." I will always treasure the fact that, for five years of my life, I truly had a chance to stand on the shoulders of giants.

P.S. The name "Kurtzman" has German roots and translated into English literally means "short man." I stand about 5' 8" tall, and am about the same height as my father, Al Kurtzman, another giant whose shoulders I was privileged to stand upon so many times during my years growing up as a child in Los Angeles.

For more about the fascinating life of Max Faget, please see:

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