The best career advice I ever heard was from the famous computer scientist Dijkstra, who said, “Do only what only you can do”.
An IIT-Mumbai graduate, Rajeev worked in the US at AT&T and Compaq for several years, taking an education sabbatical at the University of Texas, to pursue an M.S. and a PhD in the mid-to-late 90s. In 2003, Rajeev joined the Laboratory for Reliable Software at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where he is a Senior Engineer to date. Rajeev was a member of the flight software development team for the Mars rover Curiosity and, since landing, has been supporting the surface operations team. For his work on Curiosity, Rajeev received two JPL Mariner Awards (2011 and 2013) and the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal (2014).
What sort of formal education is an absolute essential for your profession? Also, could you share with us the kind of internship or experience that would be helpful for a young person considering this line of work?
A strong background in Math (especially discrete Math) and computer science is essential. And when I say computer science, I don’t mean how to program in a specific language, but rather a deep understanding of data structures and algorithms.
Early in one’s career, I would encourage working in different areas, so you gain a breadth of experience; there is enough time for specialization later. In other words, avoid internships where you will be doing the same thing you did last year.
If you simply had to draft that elevator pitch for your profession, what would it be?
I would show a picture of rover wheel tracks on the surface of Mars, and ask, “Wouldn’t you like to be a part of the team that makes that possible?”
What are the new trends you notice that are changing the complexion of your profession?
There are two key trends: the first is that spacecraft are growing more autonomous, so they can function for longer periods without being directly commanded from Earth. As a result, software becomes more complex, since an autonomous spacecraft has to handle all kinds of contingencies and failures by itself. The second is that responsibility for performing different spacecraft function has been shifting from hardware to software.
Both these trends result in a lot more software on board, much of it mission-critical, so making sure the software works correctly (has very few “bugs”) has become a key challenge.
Show me the money! How do you see this profession faring 20 years down the line?
In the future, it will become cheaper to build and launch spacecraft and then we’ll be building a lot of small spacecraft, many of them operating mostly autonomously. To make this cost-effective, we will need to learn to design reusable building blocks that can be put together in different ways to build spacecraft that perform different functions.
What do you do when you are stuck with a problem?
Go back to first principles. Try and reformulate the problem all over again – perhaps from a different starting point. Question all assumptions – often I’ve found that the constraints you imposed on yourself are not as rigid as you first thought, and relaxing them (or trading one constraint for another) makes the problem a lot easier.
When we’re in school, we’re told cheating is bad – ‘Don’t talk to each other, don’t discuss.’ And then as we come out of it, we begin to realize that there’s something called “collaborative thinking” and it’s not bad! What’s your opinion?
It’s true that in most professions, much of the work you do is of a collaborative nature. But when you’re learning a subject, it’s also important to work alone; this exposes gaps in your understanding and teaches you how to overcome hurdles by yourself.
As an educator, the challenge is to develop assignments of both types – to be solved alone and in collaboration with others. Quizzes and short problems are great for solving alone; large, multi-week projects are good for collaborative efforts.
How do you overcome roadblocks in your profession?
It’s important to keep trying out new things as you go through professional life. In other words, once you realize you’re able to perform your existing role fairly comfortably, seek new opportunities for doing something outside your comfort zone.
And above all: don’t be afraid of failure. Accept that you will fail more often than you will succeed, and you will succeed more often.
Accept that you will fail more often than you will succeed, and you will succeed more often.
Did you ever want to change the world?
Not really – I mostly just wanted to do something I enjoy that someone is willing to pay me to do. The best career advice I ever heard was from the famous computer scientist Dijkstra, who said, “Do only what only you can do”. (Think about that one for a minute; Dijkstra always chose his words carefully.)
Describe a typical (business-as-usual) day and an atypical (screw-up-fairy-lives-here) day at work.
A typical day consists of roughly: 25% team meetings (discussing design ideas, solutions to specific problems), 10% interacting with people (phone, email, teaching), and the rest, working alone (typically programming, but sometimes writing).
An atypical day is, for instance, when there is a spacecraft anomaly. Then, I’ll be closeted in a room with a small team, trying to figure out what happened and how to recover the spacecraft, with occasional tag-ups with the entire project team to report on findings and status.
What would your advice be to a young person at the start of his or her career and confused about pursuing passion versus being pragmatic?
Don’t worry about money – it’s much more important to do something you are passionate about. If you’re doing something that you’re not passionate about, you will likely not be as successful. Think of looking back at your career when you retire – What life would you rather look back upon?
If you could do some time-travelling and go back to meet yourself at 17, 25, 35, what would you say to your selves then?
At 17 (when I was in high school): Focus on writing skills (I was already reasonably good at math and science). As you grow older, you realize the importance of the ability to communicate effectively.
At 25 (when I was doing my PhD): Do internships in different areas, with different companies. (It turns out that I ended up doing this, but it wasn’t entirely by design.)
At 35 (when I was working as a researcher): Seek opportunities to work with people you haven’t worked with before, in areas you are not so knowledgeable about.
What are the pitfalls of your profession and how do you mitigate them? Did you have any fears when you were just starting out about this line of work, and were any of them justified?
As an engineer, the biggest worry is complacency: Both in the short-term (not thinking about all the ways your design can fail) and in the long-term (settling into a rut and no longer trying out new ideas). For the former, you just have to train yourself to be paranoid and think of all the things that can go wrong, and test, test, test. For the latter, you have to keep pushing yourself to take on challenges you haven’t solved before.
What is the kind of supplementary informal learning that will give you that edge on this job? Is there any specific reading that you engage in, any other resources?
I attend conferences and talk to people about what they are doing and read research papers. I also like to teach – I fully subscribe to the cliché that you don’t understand something until you try and teach it.
What is most rewarding about your job?
Mostly the intellectual satisfaction that comes with finding an elegant solution to a problem that seemed complex and messy a week ago. A bonus is the knowledge that your work contributed to a spacecraft that is out in space, making new scientific discoveries.
Do you still have days when you think, ‘What the hell am I doing with my life?’ How do you get over that, if you do?
Not about my profession as a whole. I do periodically ask if I’m growing too comfortable in my current role, and need to try something new. When that happens, I start talking to people to find out about other interesting projects they are doing to which I could contribute.
What’s your advice for a resume that’s just about to enter circulation? What are the musts it should have that recruiters look for? And the absolute don’ts, if any?
Your resume should describe the projects you’ve contributed to, the areas you are interested in, honors and awards you’ve received. Be as specific as possible.
Make sure your resume looks professional (focus on layout, use clean fonts, check spelling and grammar); if you’re doing a sloppy job selling yourself, that’s a red flag to most evaluators.
Create a LinkedIn profile (or standalone web page) and put a link on the resume.
How does one network in the beginning to get that initial presence felt, in this profession?
Attend lectures, conferences, and talk to people (online and in person). Try and get to know people at the same stage in their career as you – find out what they’re working on and why. Volunteer to help organize events (conferences, workshops, summer schools).