During my time in college, I had the honor of working at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. As a mechanical engineering student, it was my dream job. I would get the chance to work in the space industry, something my 7th-grade science teacher had inspired me to do. It was an opportunity to go to adult space camp. And boy was it fun! Where else do you get a chance to meet career astronauts, train on the shuttle simulator, and sit in mission control where the famous words "Houston....we have a problem" were spoken? And even though I gained a wealth of amazing and memorable experiences, the one that stands out the most was learning how to influence without authority. Of course, back then I didn't know what it was called—but now I understand clearly what lesson I gained from my internship experience.
You can't get things done without people
One of the things you learn very early on as an engineer is that it's a team sport—much like marketing. You simply can't finish projects working in a silo. Can you imagine how many engineers it took to build the International Space Station (ISS) or the Mars Rover?
In business, you typically "own" an aspect of a project and work with others to make it happen. Most projects in a business environment are consensus-driven.
I got the chance to work on testing the joint seals of the ISS to make sure they wouldn't let air in while in space. It was a complicated testing setup that required me to ask for help from many colleagues from different departments.
As I approached the middle of my project, I realized that I needed to have parts made in the machine shop. I was quickly warned that it would take forever to manufacture the parts and that I ought to take that into account for planning purposes. When I asked why that was, I was told that the machine shop workers belonged to a union and simply took their time. I was not satisfied with that answer.
A little respect goes a long way in building relationships
I was on a deadline because I had to return to college, but I had to figure out something about the parts because I refused to leave my internship without a completed project.
During my free time, I went to the office of the manufacturing facility manager. I explained that I was an intern and wanted to learn more about how the facility worked and how my project would come to life. He was shocked that I had asked, and surprisingly, he was more than happy to show me his domain.
What I learned from that tour was invaluable. One welder told me "You must be a new engineer. The others never come over here." And it was then that I not only gained respect from the crew in the machine shop, but also understood that in order to get things done, I needed to make my projects personal—not just a job number from some random engineer.
You have to understand how to execute the tactics to set the right strategy
From then on, I went to the machine shop on a regular basis. Sometimes I just said "Hi" and other times I asked the crew to teach me how the machines worked. I was not only building relationships with the people that I depended on to manufacture the parts I needed, but also learning exactly how the parts that I had designed on paper were built.
I was starting to understand the connection between design and product. By the end of my internship, my project was completed ahead of time. What's more surprising, I was able to get some of my projects pushed through faster than senior engineers simply because I went down to the machine shop floor and asked for a little help.
Marketers operate in a world that requires building consensus and getting people to do things without being their boss. It's a delicate balance of driving strategy and preserving relationships. It also requires the ability to communicate clearly and articulate your vision so that others can understand what you and the team are trying to accomplish.
A key aspect of creating strategy that many marketers miss is understanding the tactical implications of their decisions to the front line; in other words, understanding exactly how their ideas will be executed. While working at NASA, I learned a valuable life and career lesson. I now understand the importance of being able to work with people to achieve breakthroughs for the team.