Hold on to your curiosity as you grow older, and learn to embrace change.
by Alecia Archibald
November 21, 2019
Adam SteltznerAdam Steltzner is a frequent speaker and a Ted Talk presenter. (Image courtesy of NASA)

Adam Steltzner, one of the United States’ leading rock star rocket scientists, began his adult life as a dropout musician.

The trajectory of Steltzner’s life was reset one night when he noticed the stars. After a gig, he saw that the stars above were in a different place than they were when he went in. “I missed the whole earth spinning on its axis thing in school. I signed up for an astronomy course and had to take conceptual physics along with it,” he said.

He was surprised and delighted to learn that not only can we understand things like the appearance of the night sky—we can predict what will happen to them. He became fascinated with the order of the universe, which led him to his role as the head of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab’s Mars Rover landing team, and now chief engineer on the Mars 2020 Project. That will be mankind’s next step in robotic exploration of the red planet.

As an engineer, Steltzner understands the particular challenges of developing new products and motivating teams of collaborating engineers.

“There is a lot of creativity in system design. Physics drives product design tightly. There is an opportunity for larger space use in system design—similar to building architecture. It presents a chance to be very innovative and very smart and to show more creativity,” he said. “The systems approach is a more fun way to do it. I see it as a broader palette to be creative. There are wider constraints.”

The word “engineer” is derived from the old French, and means to “be ingenious.” “Keep in mind with every additional requirement foisted upon you, it’s an opportunity for creativity,” Steltzner said.

Steltzner offered the following advice to design engineers and others who wish to work in a collaborative environment and encourage creativity.

  1. Stay in the Chartreuse
    When you use stoplights (red, yellow, green) on projects as a way to show progress, avoid the green. “You shouldn’t ever really be in the green, because you may be leaving something on the table. When you operate closer to the yellow, you are open to improvements and other ideas,” he said. In chartreuse, you will learn and grow more rapidly. Failure will occur sometimes, but the world will be filled with more opportunity. “Viva chartruese!” Steltzner said.
  2. Understand Change
    Change is hard. Change is inevitable. Both in our industry and in our lives. “For eons, humans have agreed that there is no constant save change. You can hate it—but don’t,” he said. Change is going to happen, and it offers you two choices. “One, you embrace it, and you may be the author of it. You could control and direct it. Or two, you resist it. And then it can control you,” he said.
  3. Follow the Wu Wei
    Wu Wei (pronounced wu way) is a Chinese concept that means inaction. Steltzner said that “what it really means is to take action that is so in harmony with the natural order of things that it seems effortless.” In engineering and system design, it means creating a system that operates naturally at the best efficiency point (BEP) or at its overall best, with little vibration or required maintenance. “If people say, it looks too easy, you must be cheating, you are on the Wu Wei,” he said.
  4. Be Humble
    This point is especially important for leaders. “If you are going to be your best, you must be vulnerable. Be vulnerable to the truth: you can do better,” he said. If you think you can improve and you are open to understanding the deficits of your work style, while looking for ways to embrace solutions, good things will naturally follow. It requires honesty and the decision to hear what members of the team say about where you can improve.
  5. Hold on to Curiosity
    We are curious from the beginning of our lives—even before we can speak. “As we get older, a curious mind stays agile, innovative and competitive. If you create a culture of collaboration and focus on your curiosity, there are few limits on what we can achieve,” he said. Use curiosity-based decision-making, not fear based. And, he says, avoid the sins of omission as much as possible. “Continue to roll the question around in your mind’s eye. Hold on to the doubt. What did we overlook? What did we miss?” On the Mars landing project, Steltzner and his team ran 8 million computer simulations. “But none can protect you from what you forgot,” he said. Another important notion is to separate the ideas from the people who brought them. Value the ideas on their own—good ideas can come from anywhere. Use sound engineering, he said, and then “let the ideas battle it out until the best one wins.” Even the best idea may still fail. And that is OK. Failure is “emotionally challenging” but you learn so much from it. It is essential to the process.

Steltzner says he learns from each failure, and he appreciates how his life has come full circle. “I grew up on the space race, in the jet age. What you think is cool has been established since you were a child,” he said.

This is why hiring the next generation of engineers is proving difficult for employers across the industry. The next generation grew up with different expectations and ideas of what is exciting to work on. But, Steltzner recognizes the compelling nature of the pumps industry and says it should be a selling point to new recruits.

“The people who are hiring need to clearly articulate the virtues of the field,” he said. “There are opportunities for vast innovation,” and for making a difference in the lives of those in your community and far beyond.

His advice for those young engineers and tradespeople?

“There is an honor in the meditation and quiet study of apprenticeship, whether formal or not. It requires you to learn on the job. You have to see people doing it to do it yourself. I think it’s a great way of life,” he said.

Steps from Idea to Launch

Jeff Bergman­—director, sales & marketing water/wastewater segment at ABB—talked to Pumps & Systems about the creative process in product development.

How long does it take to fully develop a new product from idea to fruition, including the production of marketing literature?
It takes five to 10 years for a typical product to go from concept to market. For an update—especially for software—it could take one to two years or less.

Where do ideas come from?
Some ideas come from the team­—like the issue of buildup on pumps caused by nonflushable wipes. We sat around and thought, what if the drive could sense it? Then turn things backward to clean/discharge as part of the regular cycle? Ideas can come from end users. They may tell you they need something, but is it really the thing they need? You need to know the root cause. What is the real problem? Ask a lot of questions. It is critical to really listen to what people are saying.

How do you decide which ideas to pursue?
Ideas are on a list. There may be up to 200 projects on that list at any one time. Those ideas must be prioritized. We have more than we would ever get to.

What is one key to team success?
Diversity is great for the team. The team is a melting pot using people’s experiences in life and work and training. The more diverse the views, the better potential there is for really thinking it through.

What happens when something fails?
Failure happens. It is very important to learn from previous mistakes. In development, so much happens that can’t be forecast. Sometimes you get to the end and realize a glaring mistake was overlooked. You have to be flexible throughout the development process.

For more about product development in the pumps industry, please visit pumpsandsystems.com. The January issue will also include more on innovation.