NASA Proves Aiming High Pays Off

By Eric Lundquist  |  Posted 2004-01-12

NASA Proves Aiming High Pays Off

There is nothing like a big, complicated, high-profile mission to shine the light of public attention on technology. No, Im not talking about Microsoft once again trying to get Windows to be the centerpiece of the home network. And Im not speaking of the latest anti-spam software, either. Im referring to NASAs Mars mission. Not only is it a vast, complex project, it is successful—so far—as well.

After traveling 300 million miles, going through a difficult descent, landing and sending photos back from Mars, the NASA Spirit proved that giant efforts can yield amazing rewards. Within a week, the photos of the surface of Mars went from grainy black and white to vivid color, and the story proved even more popular on the Web than Britney Spears walk (and retreat) down the wedding aisle in Las Vegas. By Tuesday of last week, Web visitors to the site had downloaded nearly 15 terabytes of information related to the Mars mission.

The two great drivers of technology in the mid-20th century—World War II and the space race—laid the foundation for many of the technological developments we enjoy today. During the last few years, companies have been reluctant to embark on big projects, but as the Mars mission demonstrates, it is those big leaps that produce the biggest results.

The second big government-backed project in the news was the start of an ID system for many foreigners entering the United States. While much of the public focus was on the fingerprint scanners and digital cameras that are due to become part of every U.S. port of entry, the database back end that will match entry and exit data for an estimated 24 million visitors per year is the bigger achievement.

It is a challenging, complicated task to match scanned data, check identifications against federal terrorist and criminal watch lists, assure privacy, and keep the process within a 10- to 15-second wait time. The scanning project is just beginning, but in its first days, the system seemed to be working as expected. It is noteworthy that, when many are proclaiming the end of the big IT project, the year has started with two large technology undertakings, both driven by the government.

Do two federal projects point to a trend that will carry into the private sector? I wont go that far, but an improving economy and renewed global competition will lead companies to expect larger productivity improvements, faster product development and more rapid entry into global markets.

Next page: Learning to Achieve

Learning to Achieve

Learning to Achieve

The space race spawned a wave of education reform, particularly in the teaching of science in the nations schools. For the IT executive thinking about his or her future in an era of outsourcing, rapid technology change and little tolerance for failure, it is time to consider whether education can enhance the skill set you bring to the table.

I received good advice recently on what your portfolio of competency should include during a lunch with Jack Wilson, interim president of the University of Massachusetts system, and David Gray, president of UMass Online, the online companion to the UMass system. While running a state university system in a state as politically and educationally sensitive as Massachusetts may rival the NASA Spirit project in complexity, Wilsons blend of business, technical and educational background puts him in a particularly strong position to offer advice to the tech exec thinking about his or her career.

"You have to understand your companys business needs," including the marketing and financial aspects of your company, said Wilson. Leadership, ethics and marketing skills are as important to develop as expertise in technology areas, he said.

The ability to develop those skills via online education is coming into its own era at this time, said Gray.

Their advice makes sense in the current climate of professional uncertainty due to corporate restructuring and outsourcing. While technical skills can often be transferred elsewhere, the employee who understands how technology meshes with business strategy can recognize new opportunities and capitalize on them. That insight cannot be outsourced.

In projects and in skill development, the bottom line: Aim high.

Send e-mail to Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist at

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