Beware of the B-word—are you as busy as you think you are?
Having been the Chair of SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space)—a national nonprofit providing leadership and technical experience for young people passionate about space—for two years, I have met hundreds of very smart young people overflowing with potential. Yet I have been frustrated by almost as many of them for not utilizing that potential—not seizing opportunities sitting right in front of them. Time and time again I see students pass up opportunities, or not even recognize the opportunities they have, because they are “too busy.” They’re too busy with homework. They’re too busy studying for a test on Thursday. They’re too busy to do anything on top of work and school. They just don’t have time on top of it all.
When I was a participant in Square’s College Code Camp, an immersion program for young women studying computer science, the group of us sat down with Jack Dorsey for a chat. One student asked the question all busy people are inevitably asked: “You founded Twitter and Square, among the most successful tech companies in the world, and continue to run both of them on top of everything else in your life—and I’m sure you’ve got side projects too. How do you find time to manage all that?”
His response has guided me to this day. “I think of it like a trash compactor. All of these things just keep piling on, and then every now and then, you press all the additional stuff down under you and that becomes the new threshold. All that becomes the new normal.” It’s not like Jack Dorsey had some spare time on his hands after Twitter and thought he’d fill the void by starting Square. Elon Musk was probably pretty busy already when he started the Hyperloop project on top and established a new school, Ad Astra, for his children. Lori Garver went from being the Secretary for the National Space Society to being appointed by President Barack Obama as Deputy Administrator for NASA because she saw opportunities and she took them.
Students’ schedules are tight—you’re taking four or five classes, professors assign things as if you’re only taking one, you’ve got two or three exams on the same day sometimes. Certainly you are busy. In undergrad it is easy to get sucked into the deception that your grades directly correlate with your competence and level of intelligence, and that not having perfect or near-perfect grades will screw you in the long run. I have never once been asked by an employer about my grades in school. In fact, the most frequent question I get from people offering me opportunities is: “Do you have any side projects?” Literally no one cares that I got a C in Mechanics, and neither did I—yet I see students crushed by less than perfect grades.
Many students seem to think the space industry is this upper echelon that they can’t move and shake in until they finish school and get ten years of experience. But the space industry isn’t as exclusive or mystifying as it might seem. It is actually one of the most welcoming communities I have ever experienced, especially for young people because this industry is quite literally dying for young people. The space industry is recruiting like crazy, and nearly every organization, public and private, offers internships for students—and not just for aerospace engineers, but for scientists, economists, software engineers, communicators, mathematicians, nurses, and writers. There are opportunities everywhere, for all areas and levels of study. When I got my first internship at NASA during high school, the response from my classmates (and people to this day) was, “Wow, how did THAT happen?!”
How did that happen? I typed into Google, “NASA internship high school students”.
I spent three summers interning for NASA, then for Planet Labs as an embedded software engineering intern, where I’ve spent the better part of a year. How’d I get that gig? People ask me all the time… I applied through the Jobs page on their website. And don’t be fooled by the word “intern” —the best part about being an intern at Planet Labs is that you don’t do “intern work.” You are treated like any other team member, with responsibilities on par with a full-time engineer. On the Monday of my first week at Planet, I was setting up my workstation, by Wednesday I’d built more than 20 ground stations and radios, and by Friday I shipped code to more than 28 satellites. As an intern at Planet Labs I have been challenged and inspired—and gained more confidence in my technical ability—than during any other internship and my undergraduate career.
Now, there are countless private space companies offering internships in addition to the hundreds offered by NASA and “old space” companies. If you want to do something, you absolutely can find a way to do it. Not only are companies begging for your talent but nonprofits and organizations like SEDS, Space Frontier Foundation, and the National Space Society offer young people leadership positions and the opportunity to make an impact and realize your potential. If you feel like you’ve been turned down a lot, apply for more; reduce the ratio.
Students, don’t let “busy” limit your possibilities. Endless opportunities to make an impact in the space industry are there for the taking. So take them.