You Changed My Life, Part 6

>> Saturday, March 29, 2014

Rather than re-explain, if you want to know what this is about, see my first post of this set.

Five more entries:

March 22 - Whoever decided to include me in layoffs for Lockheed Engineering and Science Co in mid August 1993

I don't know who it was (as opposed to just forgetting a name) and I even understand how it happened. Not saying they should have laid me off - that was actually a rather stupid move - but I can see why I *looked* unproductive and a good prospect for excising.

I worked there a bit over four years. In that time, I was given a number of projects that had been given to various engineers and even teams of engineers over the years - all with little/nothing to show for it after "years" of effort - and turned them into actual hardware. I was queen of leftover tasks but I had two problems: one was that I did them too fast. Yeah, I know how that sounds, but I've only ever had two speeds - full speed and stop. Without anyone looking over my shoulder and having fun learning tools like Autocad and C on my own, enjoying the sense of accomplishment as hardware first built before I was born was modernized and made to function as it once had, it was hard to slow myself down.

When I redid the data handling system for Chamber B (design, overseeing techs tearing out the wiring/installing new and checkout), it took me three months. When Walt asked how long to do Chamber A, I said about three months because, though there were ~3x channels, I had templates for the drawings and wasn't replacing wire end-to-end but only some of it. Walt gave me four.

It took me two, which disturbed Walt since he didn't have another task for me for another six weeks. Robotics had moved to a different department and Bobby had gone with it so not only was Bobby gone but no longer in a position to give me more to do. Layoffs were coming (though I didn't know it) and (though I didn't know this either) Walt, who was close to retirement, had volunteered to be part of it.

Which revealed my second mistake. I had accomplished a great deal, but no one really knew the extent of what I'd been doing other than Bobby and Walt - and they were gone/leaving too. And not having enough to do meant I looked (and quite rightly) idle.

Well, I was pretty scared, took some time the day after I was notified to write up my resume (first draft ten pages, but I did trim it before sending it out) and I interview well (and am very lucky) so I was out of work a total of eight days.

Naturally, the flow of my life changed drastically. There's something about being discarded and having to find one's feet again that changes one's perspective (and I feel deeply for those who have been out of work far longer than did). I have changed jobs several times since then, but always voluntarily and always moving up.

Because I also learned a few lessons. First is, if I run out of things to do, I go looking (which has other repercussions, but I digress) because an idle Stephanie is dangerous. The second is I'm not shy about reminding people as far up the chain as I can manage about what I do. When I made the list (first draft of my resume) of what I'd done over the previous four years, I said to myself "They were damn fools to get rid of me."

Which is why, though I've stepped on quite a few toes in my time and have frequently been at odds with various levels of management, I've never been laid off again. I'm a pain in the butt, but I'm worth it. And I make sure they know it.

So thanks, whoever you were. As they often say, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, though it was disguised quite well at the time. And I certainly learned from it.

March 23 - STS-107

This, and this alone, will not be a person.

As you've probably guessed, even without the influence of Bobby and Walt and a few choice others, I tend to be forthright, opinionated, challenging, pushy. I was and am.

I also tend to be overbearing when it involves someone's safety, particularly someone else's safety. No one gets hurt on my watch. You can ask anyone I worked with: if they didn't have first aid kits before I got there, they had them after I arrived if I had to pay for them myself. Technicians working my paperwork frequently had me standing in their way if I thought what they were doing was too hazardous and I'd make sure I found a safer way if I wasn't comfortable with the "normal" route. It didn't make me friends, but I didn't have to go to funerals.

After a memorable but frustrating stint at the company (some of the smartest best people I worked with, hands down the worst management) that hired me right after I was laid off from my first job, I got a job that seemed tailor-made for me: I was hired by a subcontractor on the JSC safety contract. When I was interviewed, they asked me if I could stand up in front of important people and defend an unpopular stance. I told them that, if I thought it was right, I couldn't care less who was in the room and and I always told the truth, popular or not.

Not the least ironically, I was put in that position within 18 months and came very close to losing my job over it ("I can't believe you answered the NRC's questions. Do you know who was in the room?." "I told you I would when you hired me!" "Yeah, but I didn't think you really would.") The primary thing holding them back was that the data was on my side and they couldn't find a single thing technically wrong with my data or stance, which made it hard to find a good justification. (The fact that they had sent me there, with the admonition to "Stir the pot," but sent no one to back me when I called them didn't seem to bother them in the least). That and I had shown a positive gift for sifting through statistics and spotting out the smelly stuff - as well as using my own methods for grinding out quick and dirty estimates that, hey, turned out to be pretty close on the mark, so they were going to send me to reliability where I'd use formulas to quantify risk so people could know what risks to ignore, etc. etc. NOT something I wanted to do.

[I rarely talk about my gender being a handicap but, in some ways, it was. Being stubborn, pushy, and know-it-all tends to come out more positive when applied to men: tenacious, assertive, informed. This was particularly true when I worked in safety, though the other toughest safety engineers I knew were also women. I guess we'd grown tough in adversity.]

Instead, I transferred to EVA (and all honor to my lead, Ron Cook, and my supervisors, Dennis Eads and Hayden Krueger), in seven years, they never tried to shut me up. I think they liked the excitement. And the fact we cared and people knew it (because it wasn't just me). BUT, the original problem I'd nearly gotten fired over, risk to damage on the RCC from orbital debris, had not faded from my mind. Whenever new information came in, I forwarded it to management, hoping someone was following, taking notes, noting trends, trying to do something. And, in between, I did my job, looking out for the safety of EVA crew (EVA is when they don space suits and go outside the ship).

STS-107, which had only contingency EVAs (those performed in emergencies), was my flight as EVA safety flight lead. When it was destroyed, I was devastated and angry, but mostly at myself. I had known there was something to be concerned about. True, I'd been worried about orbital debris, but the same solution for orbital debris (toughening up/instrumenting the RCC) might have saved Columbia if it had been implemented when I'd first started complaining in 1996. Maybe not, but I'd never know, never know if my being noisy might have made the difference, might have pushed the program to doing more, or at least being more aware of the danger. The smart money says it wouldn't matter what I said or how loudly I'd shouted, it would have been seen as too expensive and ungainly to be reasonably implemented. But I'd never know.

I'd never know because, even though I'd pushed it as far as I could without losing my job, I hadn't pushed it as far as I could. I'd let myself be silenced, be quieted, be sent to a corner and muzzled. For fear of my job, I'd never know if I had let seven people be killed, their families devastated by their loss.

The astronauts lost were: Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, and Laurel Clark. I must also note two others who died during recovery efforts: Jules F. Mier Jr. and Charles Krenek.

So, I swore I'd never be silenced again, never go silent if there was something worth saying, never let fear stop me from doing the right thing ever again especially when lives were on the line.

And if that meant I worked jobs where I had to ask "Do you want fries with that?" I could live with that. I haven't had to, though.

I should give at least some credit to the safety contractor I was still working with. I screamed and complained mightily to get more visibility for these issues after STS-107 and, if they weren't always encouraging, they never fired me either.

But I didn't get *heard* until I found my way to the company I work at now which is very much in keeping with my own thinking, that (no, seriously) values integrity over any single contract. In this company, we're hired to do exactly what I do best. Stay silent if all's well but dig in our heels (with data) and be noisy when things are not.

And, in the nearly ten years I've worked here, they've lived up to their reputation and I have done my best to do the same. And I haven't been shut up once.

But how I got here is another story.

I can't thank STS-107 for this lesson - I wish they had never died and it had never happened. But I'll do everything I can to keep it from happening again. I hope that's enough.

Two blog posts that touch on this who want to know more: 

Rocket Scientist: RS Classic: Remembering NASA's tragedies - Columbia Accident

Sunday Soapbox: Being a Team Player

March 24 - David Adlis

And this is the story alluded to in the previous post. So there I was, post-Columbia, heart-sick, angry, determined to be heard to make sure we learned from our mistake and we addressed concerns like orbital debris whether we wanted to or not.

I was still working and busy and still completely supported in my EVA safety role, but I was pretty much being passed from manager to manager in the safety organization on the other topics that concerned me. And it made me miserable. Made me feel helpless.

Cue my friend Barbara who suggested I interview for USA, the contractor who worked the Shuttle. I wasn't terribly excited about working on the contractor side (that made me concerned I'd have more pressure to follow the company line rather than less), but I knew I wasn't happy where I was. And it did open my mind up to the notion of looking elsewhere for work.

Cue David Adlis. David was working a company I'd never heard of, one that's key in the USAF space program impartial oversight/expertise to provide technical insight and scrutiny though the company had a relatively small spotlight at NASA. We had a meeting on EVA RCC repair, David, myself and several others, but only David and I showed up. Well, David, ex-NASA and sharp as a bag full of needles, didn't let the dearth of coworkers stop him and worked out the kind of organization that would be needed to provide assurance to the repair efforts current in work. Then asked me who would man the various positions. For most of the meeting, my line was "I don't know, I don't know, I don't know, but you could contact so-and-so and they'd know who would be handling that."

Actually, I spent the hour mostly feeling like a fool.

So, imagine my surprise when, a few days later, I get a call from David asking me if I wanted to work for his company. I told him I'd never heard of the company. Bless his heart, he didn't let that stop him.

I researched his company. They don't make hardware so they don't have conflict of interest. They are known for their integrity. They are not for profit. They are wall-to-wall experts in nearly every space bailiwick there is with their primary function to give impartial technical insight into issues, changes and concerns. It was perfect.

If only I was qualified.

I interviewed anyway, explained my history, my unwillingness to shut up on command and that I couldn't be paid to lie. I explained that the organization they were hiring me to support was the same one I was leaving (none too happily). I explained that I wasn't even much of an expert. I'm more a dabbler, taking leftovers and running with them, learning enough expertise on the fly to question the experts and (frequently) make them reexamine things, sometimes unwillingly. {Note, for the record, David wasn't the one hiring.]

Not only that, I only had a lowly bachelor's degree (LOTS of PhD's and Masters at my company), so, though I wanted the job really really badly, I wasn't desperately hopeful.

They hired me anyway. And it was there at that company, at last, my concerns and arguments (and several others that fell out of tasks I worked) were voiced to the top levels of NASA. I can't say the top levels always did what I wanted, but it wasn't because I was silent. And, that, I could live with.

Since working here, I've done a huge and diverse range of tasks, taking on the leftovers as I did working with Bobby Davis 20 years previously. I've published papers on topics that were near and dear to me (and was paid to do it). I've learned more on more topics than I ever had the chance to before and rubbed shoulders with some truly great minds. I've worked with experts who have turned ideas into experiments, sometimes within minutes. I've had and am having a great time here, which is particularly wonderful given that I'm an engineer purely by accident and always wanted to do something else for a living. But, if you are going to be an engineer anyway, this is really the best possible place to work.

If you're going to be a single engineer with two special needs children, having flexible understanding management that is willing to work with your schedules and limitations is beyond price.

David is now my boss and as capable in that role as he was in talking me into coming to his company. And, truthfully, I'll always be grateful he saw something worthwhile in me when I couldn't even see it myself and brought me here to work in the best company I've ever worked for.

So, thanks, David. I owe you, um, a few.

March 25 - Alexander Barr

Being born was enough for Stephanie Loyd, though she did many many things that changed my life. But Alex, though every bit as precious, precocious and life-altering with his birth, did something else, something that really helped me grow as a person.

Stephanie was challenging as all intelligent children are, but I could *reason* with her. She learned to speak early not just because she could but also because she knew exactly what she wanted and was smart enough to know I wouldn't figure it out unless she told me. If I didn't want her to do something whether or not I was watching, I'd explain why. If I could convince her of my position, she'd "not do it" without prompting (and tell her friends not to either). She might twist things so she could do something else, but that's the price for creative children.

Alex challenged everything I knew about parenting. He wasn't mean or difficult; he was stubborn. For years, I thought he didn't bother talking because he wasn't that picky. He'd want something, I'd guess and eventually he'd shrug and say (to himself) "Eh, close enough."

Turns out, he's not really unpicky. He likes things a particular and exact way, perhaps more than anyone I've known. He is desperately stubborn, very exact, easily frustrated, and more than a little OCD. But I didn't know that for years because Alex confounds me like no one else I have ever known.

He's smart, very smart, routinely outsmarting me, but I have absolutely no idea how his mind works. My son, for those who don't know, is autistic. He is also one of the sweetest and happiest children I have ever known (something I hear too infrequently when people speak of autistic children). And I love him to bits. There's a certain amount of restructuring that goes with autism, or at least there has been in my case, and very much living the "pick your battles" life because, if you can't outstubborn him, you will not win.

But it's just as obvious that he wants to love and be loved, that he wants to be accepted rather than tolerated, that that is key to his happiness and his hugginess (he is a touchy-feely child, sometimes too much so, especially if you're a pretty girl). His general peace of mind is that we love him as he is. That he doesn't have to be something else to be accepted.

As a scientifically minded person, I've really not bothered, in the past, with things I didn't understand. If I couldn't explain it, I tended to leave it alone. No sense worrying about it. Now I have to, and I always thought it would be the hardest thing.

Actually, no, I should be honest. I've always been very matter-of-fact with physical handicaps and abnormalities. It happens. But I've been uncomfortable around people suffering retardation and other mental disabilities, not because I thought it was catching or that those people were disgusting but, as a creature with no merits that aren't tied to my intellect, I couldn't imagine a worse fate that having a brain that failed to function properly or one that did but couldn't communicate. Trapped in a brain that didn't work: what horror! I didn't think I could handle it without pity, which isn't a healthy thing at all.

Then, along came my son, living the life I feared so much and it turns out I don't pity him at all. He's not pitiful. He's fabulous and clever, in between being frustrating and infuriating. But not pitiful, never pitiful. He is ten now and still doesn't talk but he's damn good at telling me what he wants. I know when he's frustrated, when he's angry, when he wants something specific, when he's really upset about being chastised. Just like I know when he's buttering me up, when he's lonely, when he's gleeful. He doesn't get everything he wants, but he does have a modicum of power on how his life is.

In the end, he's like every other child, who needs limits and love and attention and support and patience and punishment and forgiveness. Sometimes, he gets to do thing his ways. Sometimes I outstubborn him and he does things my way. He *wants* to make me happy if I can let him in a way he accepts. And I would never have learned all this if he'd been just like everyone else, if I could have understood him.

I'm sometimes shocked when I hear parents speak about their autistic children (no one I know personally but some I've seen on shows) discussing their child's state as a tragedy that has ruined their lives. Really? How horrible to see it that way.

Alex and his condition isn't a tragedy. Alex is, as far as I can tell, just doing his own thing, uniquely and irretrievably his own sort of self. Which I don't understand in the least. But I love him just the way he is any way.

And I would never have opened that part of my mind I didn't even know was closed if he hadn't been, well, Alex.

So, thank you, my son, for all your uniqueness. And for letting your OCD take you in the direction of cleaning up after your sister. I'm grateful for that, too.

March 26 - Roxanna Barr

Roxy, much like her brother and her sister, adds immeasurably to my life in more ways that I could possibly elucidate. Choosing one key way she's changed my life is actually challenging. But, in the end, it's kind of tied to her brother, just as she's been attached at the hip with him just about since birth.

See, Roxy has done more to help me understand (and curb Alex' less appealing characteristics) than you'd ever expect in one so small (currently six). She is tiny, until recently talked only a little bit, and was at least as stubborn as Alex. She was also a ball of incontrovertible and manipulative charm.

Even when she was a baby, Roxy could stop Alex in mid-fit, could talk to him in baby talk and get him to do what she wanted. She'd make a mess, but he's the one who'd get upset when she'd get in trouble. That's how Alex moved from being part of the chaos to trying to reign it in. She'd spill; he'd find something to mop it up (including his own clothes, curtains, whatever) in the hopes she wouldn't get in trouble.

She's still a chaos agent, but I've noticed she often specifically targets things he ENJOYS putting back in place (like my manga which Alex takes pleasure in returning in numerical order). She owns him. She hasn't figured out the lock on my bedroom door or (I think) the baby gate at the head of the stairs, but, without a word she can get Alex to open the gate and, if she feels it's important enough, he'll break into my room (he has to have a good reason - he doesn't want me to know he can do it). But if Roxy really wants it, she gets it.

When she was sick and curled up on my easy chair, I was trying to shoo Alex, who was hovering, when I realized how careful he was being, that he was snuggling her because she was precious to him.

But it's entirely mutual, because she totally gets him. Even if he's in trouble for being pushy with her, she won't stand for it, will shout someone (especially me) down for getting him upset. She knows how to manipulate him, but she knows how to manipulate FOR him, to get him what he needs when he's not successful in getting it for himself.

She also took on many of his characteristics (she's been diagnosed as autistic, as well, but I'm less convinced she genuinely can't do things rather than using the tactics her brother uses on to get his way, but we'll see) and, as something between the great bafflement of Alex and the general understanding of Stephanie, she helps ME bridge the gap.

And that's the thing I'm giving her credit for. If I don't get Alex, and I don't, she totally gets him, while totally getting me because she manipulates us both apparently without effort. (And now Tina Simmons, too). She's desperately adorable on her own, but she's also the glue that holds the rest of us together and opens my eyes into hers and Alex' world while charming the socks off me.

With the possible exception of her father, I have never been so thoroughly controlled by anyone before - only I'm delighted rather than frustrated and unhappy about it. That's how damn charming she is.

Kind of makes me wonder why I'm thanking her, but I kind of have to, don't I?


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