The Value Added Q&A: Here’s how one rocket scientist engineered his hiring process

Thomas Heath
Reporter December 15, 2013

My recent trip to Orbital Sciences, the rocket and satellite manufacturer located outside Washington, was so interesting that I decided to devote another column to the company.

It took several years to get the interview with Orbital’s chief executive and co-founder, David W. Thompson. The 58-year-old rocket scientist had a lot to say about the business of space travel, and about how to keep the excitement pumped up at a hit-driven company built on space exploration.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

Orbital, based in Dulles, has $1.4 billion in annual revenue. The company has existed for about 30 years, 22 of them as a public company. Half of the company’s 3,600 employees are rocket scientists or engineers. About 2,000 work in the Washington area.

Thompson has a bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a master’s degree from the California Institute of Technology, and a master’s from Harvard Business School.

A big chunk of our 90-minute interview focused on what he looks for when recruiting employees, where he finds them and how he competes with Wall Street for the math whizzes who are critical to sending rockets into space.

You have several former astronauts on your staff. Why do you hire former astronauts?

The same reason we like to hire kids from MIT and Georgia Tech, Michigan and CalTech. They’ve already been pre-selected. They have a strong interest in our business, and they’ve made it through some other gantlets.

Astronauts go through a lot of gantlets. These days it’s not so much that they’re the best test pilots, although many of them are, but they’ve got to be pretty smart, pretty highly motivated and pretty well-rounded people.

They’ve got to know how to be leaders. For instance, Frank Culbertson, who sits right down the hall. Frank was a naval aviator, test pilot, became an astronaut. But he had to know how to lead people under adverse conditions and be well spoken. He had to have good technical background. He had to really understand, particularly in Frank’s case, intimately, what the human space flight market is really all about.

Frank commanded several space shuttle missions. He was the only American alive at the time who was not on planet Earth on 9/11. He and two Russians were on the space station. He was the second U.S. commander on the space station.

We’ve got three or four or five [astronauts], I guess.

How do you compete for people who could make millions running algorithms for Wall Street hedge funds?

It’s not really that hard.

The stuff we do is what those kids like me have wanted to do for a long time . . . t he excitement of being able to build something that’s going to explore the universe or connect up most of the people around the world with one another, or help defend the country and do so with projects where they make a real difference.

Maybe a small fraction of them decide they don’t want to be in this industry and decide they’re going to go to Wall Street to make algorithms for hedge funds.

But most of them want to be in this business. So we get more than our fair share, and it’s because things move fast here. If you go to a big company and work on a big satellite program, you’re going to be working on that program for seven or eight years before you see something coming out at the other end of the pipe.

Here, you come here and you work for seven or eight years, you’ll go through three complete cycles of conceiving, designing, building, delivering, helping a customer learn how to operate a satellite or doing the same thing on a rocket.

So the pace is faster. The team that you’re going to be part of is smaller, so what you do has a bigger impact.

Do you hire right out of college?

Yeah. Quite a lot. There are probably 3,000 to 4,000 kids that graduate [in the United States] every year with aerospace engineering or very closely related degrees.

What universities do you recruit from?

At the top of the list are MIT, Georgia Tech, Purdue, University of Michigan, CalTech, University of Colorado, Texas.

Once you get in, what qualities are necessary to be a success here?

You’ve got to have pretty good engineering or scientific skills. But you’ve also got to have pretty serviceable interpersonal characteristics. Most of what we do, we accomplish through small teams.

So we would generally shy away from a lone ranger who doesn’t play well with others.

We try to encourage technical people to have a little broader view of the business than just their immediate assignment so they can see how everything connects.

So we teach an internal [course]. We call it the Orbital Academy.

For instance, we teach a class on spacecraft design and launch-vehicle design, but we also teach a class in business fundamentals and finance, accounting, things like that. So people get a little broader view of what it is that we do and why we do some things . . . why we make some of the decisions we make.

A lot of your success is hit-driven: the next big rocket, the next big satellite. So your people have to always be shooting for the next big thing. How do you keep that spirit of vitality and urgency?

It’s tricky.

There is no one big secret. There are multiple terms in the equation — from the kind of people we recruit to the way we’re organized to the kind of suppliers we work with to the design of the product.

Earlier this year, we teamed up with and were selected [by] and are being funded by a small company that Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder, set up to develop a really big version of [the Pegasus rocket] that could launch people one of these days into space.

The company is called Stratolaunch. They are in the process of building the world’s largest airplane out in California.

This super-Pegasus, which we figured is 12 times bigger than the current one we developed, would go under the airplane. This airplane has a wingspan of about 350 feet. So basically, if you lined it up with the Capitol Building, it would stretch the whole length of the Capitol Building.

Do you think it’s going to work?

As long as Paul keeps putting money in it.

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