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Stephen A. Mitchell

Contract Technical Manager
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
California, USA

What is your current job title and what do you do?

I am classified as a Systems Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), but the function that I perform is a Contract Technical Manager or CTM.  I suppose if a contract were written to buy a car, I would be the person to make sure that we got things like the wheels that we asked for and the TV for the back seat.  Contracts can have lots of people working on them and not everybody is good at the same things.  We have people that know a lot about law, and people that know a lot about math, or maybe know a lot about Mars.  I know a lot about how to make sure we get everything for which we asked, on time, and for the price to which we agreed.

What type of education and experience did you need to get this job?

There is an official answer and a real world answer here.  Officially, I have a bachelor of science in business administration from the University of Southern California and a Masters of Business Administration from the University of La Verne.  A lot of other people doing this CTM job have engineering, physics and chemistry degrees.  We all have different things that we are good at, and the contracts that we manage are usually for things in which we have an interest.  I once had a contract to study what would be better for a rover to use on Mars, legs like a spider or wheels?  I had another contract where we studied how we could make different parts of a spacecraft out of balloons.  For example, instead of big metal wheels, why not big balloon wheels like you see on the old Mickey Mouse cartoons.  Well, I know a lot about balloons so I was glad I got to do that one!

This gets us to the real world part of this answer.  A degree is a nice thing to have, but it is only part of a bigger picture.  You will never know the best way to apply your education unless you have an interest, and knowledge, in a lot of different things.  A chemist might know how to make something that explodes, but might never think of applying his explosives experience to making a better rocket motor if he has no interest in rockets or space.  A doctor may know how to treat different diseases, but unless he knows that there is a need to discover a cure for a problem, he will never use his talent there.  Or if you don't know or care about what kind of plants live in a certain place, you may not be able to understand why the animals you love so much are having problems.  Lots of things are discovered by accident, like in 1889 when scientists Mering and Minkowski noticed that flies were attracted to the urine of dogs that had their pancreases removed.  Isn't it lucky for us that they knew that flies normally were not especially attracted to that stuff and were curious enough to find out why?  Do you know what they discovered?

Unfortunately, there are a lot of very educated people that cannot make a difference in this world because they think their education is going to be defined by what they learn in a classroom or degree program.  Conversely, there are a lot of very knowledgeable people out there that will never be given a chance to fully contribute because employers want to see those letters behind their potential employee's name like BS, MS, etc.

What were your favorite subjects in school?

I guess I liked history and geography and anthropology.  I used to collect and read old books and would think to myself that these people don't think like me at all.  Some of my books are over two hundred years old!  I also have schoolbooks that were used by my great grandparents in the 1880's.  They don't even have words in the dictionary like "automobile" or "atomic!" The map of the United States pretty much stopped at the Mississippi River.  When they were talking about the American Revolution it was only about 100 years before, and people were still alive that had actually seen George Washington, not to mention latecomers like Abraham Lincoln!  When they talked about going from place to place at a previously unimaginable speed they were talking about doing 40 miles per hour in a steam locomotive!  I have science books that talk about the possibility of making a flying machine, and experimenting with models that flapped their wings.  Now we may think that is silly now, but these very, very smart people simply did not know a lot of things that you already know before you get out of grammar school.  Their world is not our world.

The things I think are important now, they did not care about at all.  The things that they say and think, I may think are totally wrong.  Remember, some people thought the earth was flat, and some STILL think the earth is flat.  If you believe that the world is flat, there are a lot of decisions you will make differently than if you think the world is round.  I would try to imagine myself without cars and airplanes or even trains and radio or crayons and pencils!  I tried to see if I could understand the way other people thought and made decisions if they lived a different life in a different time.

What was your least favorite subject in school?

I hated math.  I just never seemed to get it.  But you know what?  I just kept working at it and one day it just started getting easier.  I still don't like it, but at least it's easier.  I eventually ended up tutoring a lot of math related subjects in college.  If you really want to learn a subject well, try to tutor it!  "I hear… and I forget, I see … and I remember, I do … and I understand." ~ Confucius

Don't you need to use math on your job?

In every job I have had, and most of my hobbies, I needed to know math to one degree or another.

I rebuilt an engine in my truck once, and as part of that process I bored out the cylinders.  This made the engine bigger because there was more volume in the cylinders.  This meant the carburetor was no longer big enough to provide the proper volume of air to the engine.  So I had to figure out the size of the carburetor I needed which is expressed in cubic feet per minute.

Just the other day I had to take a price quoted to me in Euros and convert it into dollars.

In contracts I have to be able to look at the cost I am experiencing as of today and use the mathematics of statistics to predict what my cost will be at the end of the contract maybe years away.

I once worked for the Saudi Arabians and everything I specified for them had to be converted from the British system of measure (inches, feet, miles etc.) into the metric system of measure.  In fact, we once made a mistake at JPL because someone failed to notice the measurement system that we were using did not match the system that our spacecraft contractor used.  As a result, the Mars Climate Orbiter (1999) attempted to enter Mars orbit at too low an altitude and burned up like a shooting star in Mars' atmosphere.  Mistakes can be costly, but human beings sometimes need to make mistakes to learn important things.  Making a mistake is not a failure.  Not learning something from your mistakes is.  The scientists and engineers at NASA have added many "risk reduction actions" to safeguard future spacecraft.

We have a discipline here called "Reliability."  This is important not just to JPL, but also to you and me because when we buy a bicycle, or a TV, or a dishwasher, we want to know it will serve our needs for a minimum amount of time.  You can figure out how long a bicycle chain will last, and how long the handlebars will last, and how long a spoke will last by experiment.  But you use mathematics to figure out how long a whole bicycle, including those parts, should work before it breaks.  This is a real science and fairly accurate because everyone has had something break the day after the warranty expires.

What was your first job?  What types of jobs did you have while you were still a student?

I mowed lawns.  I washed dishes.  I was a box boy at a grocery store.  [The person who bags the groceries for the grocery store checker today is called a "courtesy clerk".]

Have you always been on the same career path?

No. I have done so many things.  I have sold insurance and vacuum cleaners.  I have delivered papers and kids (as a bus driver).  I have sold carpet and electronic equipment.  But the most fun I ever had was working for a crane company.  These people would come to me asking for parts to their old cranes that were 100 years old in some cases and load hooks the size of cars.  I would have to figure out what they needed to replace the old part, sometimes engineer the part, figure out how I was going to make it and who I was going to have to help me build it, and then figure out what I would have to do to the part to be sure it lasted a long time.  Did you know that someone has to figure out how hard different parts of an assembly should be so you don't have to spend a lot of money to fix it next time?  You want the part that is easy to replace or cheaper to replace to wear out first, like the brake pads on your parents' cars.  That was part of my job.  I was also responsible for setting the price so that I could cover all my costs and still make a profit.

Which subjects prepared you best for some of the jobs you have had through the years?

Believe it or not, English and Phonics.  You can be the brightest person in the world and if you cannot express yourself, no one else will appreciate how brilliant you are.  People will also make judgments about how smart you are based on your ability to spell.  I once received a proposal from a PhD, who was obviously very well educated, after all he had PhD after his name!  I started counting the spelling errors after I had noticed at least ten per page.  My opinion of him as brilliant went down to, "how did this guy ever get a BS (Bachelor of Science degree), much less a PhD (doctorate degree)?!"  I also figured if he was this careless with his language, I was really going to verify that his estimate was well supported.

I also had a speed reading course (in fourth grade!) that spent a lot of time on Latin and Greek word roots.  It is amazing how that has helped me figure out the meaning of words I had never heard before.

What do you do when not working at your job?

I do a kind of massage therapy called "neuromuscular therapy" which relaxes places in the body where the muscles can compress nerves against bone or other muscles resulting in pain.  I do several massages a week.  It relaxes me and it is totally different from my CTM job.  I can usually see the results of a good job right away, whereas as a CTM, if I do something well, I may not know how well I did for months.

I also play lead guitar in a band.  This is another job where I can relax and get immediate feedback on how I am doing.  But you know, there is a lot of science in setting up a band to sound good.  For example, did you know that low pitched sounds do not travel at the same speed as high pitched sounds?  I have speakers that project low, medium, and high pitched sounds to the audience.  All those different pitches need to arrive at the ear at the same time or the music will sound off.  So we have to adjust the timing of each group of frequencies.

If we play in a room with hard walls and glass, the sound will bounce around a lot more so we use less power, and less of our echo effects (reverb).  What do you think happens if we play near water?  Water can move and change shapes, so we get all kinds of reflected noise that is changing pitch when it bounces back to us.  Have you ever talked or sung into a fan?  It sounds weird.  Also, some room (or stadium) surfaces reflect some frequencies of sound very efficiently while other surfaces absorb certain frequencies.  Fixing the problems created by different rooms is one of the purposes of equalizers.  We enhance sounds that get absorbed and attenuate sounds that get reflected too efficiently (sometimes causing feedback!).

We also have to worry about something called the coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE).  If I tune the guitar in the afternoon when it is 80 degrees Fahrenheit, I know that the pitch of the strings will change when the sun goes down and it gets colder.  Can you guess which way the pitch will go?  The pitch goes up.  This is because as it gets colder the string shrinks and gets tighter.  My drummer reminded me that this is a big problem with drum heads also.

I like to garden, but haven't had a big one in about three years now.  I also like to study trees, birds, insects, and animal tracks and have books on these subjects to help me.

I also like to collect old books and research my ancestors (called genealogy).

I used to do a lot of camping, tennis, and fishing, but my other hobbies just don't leave me enough time for them.  I guess I'll take them up again after I retire!

What kind of education and training does someone need to become a massage therapist?

In my case I have over one thousand hours of schooling.  If you are more of the clinical type of therapist (dealing with pain relief) than the "feel good" (relaxation) type of therapist, you will require a lot more knowledge of anatomy.  This is a people-oriented job.  It is really nice to be able to take a stressed person or a hurting person and have them snoring on your table after an hour because they are so relaxed.  It's a gift you can give to someone, even if that person is a stranger.  You also see people in a different light than when they are on the street.  You know that no matter how good they look outside of the therapy room or how confident they seem, no one likes the look of their own body and most people feel very self-conscious.  It has helped me become a lot less critical of my own body, because there are no perfect people with perfect bodies, and I have also learned not to be critical of how others look.

How did you get started playing guitar?  How long have you been in a band? What do you like best about being in a band?

My first guitar was hand-made by my grandmother's brother and it was about 70 years old at the time I got it.  My first song was the Batman theme.  I have played guitar off and on since I was in high school.  I would quit for a couple years and then pick it up again.  I have played probably seven out of the last ten years.  The best part of being in a band is you learn a lot more about music with a group of people than you will ever learn sitting alone in your bedroom practicing once a week.

With all your different jobs, how many hours do you work per week?

Let's see.  40 at my main job, 11 to 20 with the band, maybe 8 doing massage.  I also spend about 4 hours per weekday commuting to my job.  Can you figure out how much spare time I have left for sleeping and other things?  If I am teaching at the University, I have to cut back on something, either band rehearsals or massage.

What do you do in your spare time?

I get acquainted with my dog so he won't bite me when I come through the door.

If you could pick any other job in the world (that you haven't already done), what type of job would you like to try?

I would like to be a pilot.  I have taken some lessons and it peaked my interest.  I love to travel, but have never had a chance to do much of it. I would also like to be a coroner, the ultimate puzzle solver like Quincy.  [Quincy M.E. was a television show about a medical examiner (coroner) who had to figure out how people had died.  It originally aired from 1977-1983 but is still seen in syndication around the world.]

If you could change anything about your school years, what would you change?

I probably should have done more homework.  It makes taking the tests SO much easier.

Do you have some favorite quotes that inspire you?

"There are no boring jobs, just boring people."

"It is no sin to be ignorant.  The sin is staying ignorant." (my great grandfather)

What advice do you have for students?

Don't watch much TV.  Get a part-time job.  Any time you read or write something, keep a dictionary close by.  Don't let a word go by (or use one) that you do not understand completely.

Steve responds to questions

~ 7 May 2002


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Last Updated:
26 May 2002

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