2019-10-01

Congratulations On Retirement, Mom!

I had the great honor yesterday to deliver some brief remarks at my mother's retirement from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. As a curator of post-Apollo human spaceflight, Mom has had one of the coolest jobs in the world and I am incredibly proud of her.

The party was a lot of fun and gave me a chance to mingle with her colleagues, both those I have known most of my life and newer hires whom I was meeting for the first time. The room was packed to overflowing and many people - including current and former directors of the museum - took the mic to praise Mom for her career.

Some themes that emerged were how much she loved her work, how much she focused on people and relationships rather than just artifacts, and how she knew when to play up her Southern friendliness and when to be tough. I was pleased that most of the remarks - and private conversations I had with her colleagues - were about her character rather than about her specific accomplishments. It is clear that she has left her mark on the institution she has served so dutifully and that she will be missed.



Following are the remarks that I made when it was my turn at the mic:

Dr. Valerie Neal. Curator. Historian. Author. Editor. Department Chair. You may call her that but,  before she was any of those things, she was what I still call her today: Mom. So I'd like to share a few thoughts on her career from a slightly different perspective.

When I first set foot in the National Air and Space Museum, I was 10 years old. It was the summer of 1989 and we had just moved here from Huntsville, Alabama. We were living out of suitcases because we didn't have a house yet and we certainly didn't have childcare yet! So, until the school year began, Mom brought me in to work with her every day.

When I was that age, I had some friends who would complain about having to go into work with their parents - but I could not relate - I thought my mom had the coolest job in the world! That summer the Museum was my babysitter, my teacher, and my playground. I would spend all day every day working through the galleries, attending the shows, and browsing the shops. Can you imagine a more magical place to spend an unstructured summer during your formative years? It was like my own, private, self-directed Space Camp!

And it didn't end there; I practically grew up in the Museum. I wore my first tux at Mom's first exhibit opening. As I was getting into computers, the Museum's head of IT kept me supplied with adequate computing power. When I became interested in science, I used a school career day to shadow members of the Museum's Lab for AstroPHysics ("LAPH"). The Museum was the first place I found where a kid who was interested in science and technology could be nurtured rather than LAPH'ed at.

30 years later, as I have strived to leave my own mark on the world through a career in energy technology innovation, many people have pointed to my childhood immersed in Space as a source of inspiration for taking big shots at transforming the way we power society. While that's true, I think it's a little simplistic. If you dig a little deeper, I was - and continue to be - more fundamentally inspired by a young, single mother from a small town in rural America leaving everything behind - her friends, her support networks, her comfort zone - to make a greater impact on a bigger stage, in the nation's capitol at the most popular museum in the world.

So, Mom, I congratulate you on a career of inspiration.

A career of inspiration doesn't just happen, though. Mom is one of the hardest workers I have ever known. Growing up, many of my memories of us at home feature Mom at her desk - late at night, over the weekend - working away on an exhibit, talk, or manuscript. Once when I was young we were camping and she was telling me a ghost story as I fell asleep. Well, clearly she was getting sleepy because she started getting her facts mixed up. I will never forget how the protagonist of her story turned the corner in the haunted house and encountered . . . the Space Shuttle!

Indeed, Mom's work at the Museum was never far from her mind, but she always made the time and space for me. She came to every one of my football games. She copy edited every paper I asked her to. Despite her tremendous workload, she was always there as a strong, supportive, loving mother - and, for that, I am eternally grateful.

I have never been Mom's colleague so I don't know what it is like to work with her. Her younger sisters - my aunts - have been known to call her bossy. A younger version of myself might have even accused her of micromanaging as she stayed on me about my homework and chores! Your mileage at the Musuem may have varied. I'm also not a scholar in her field so I can't gauge the quality of her work product.

But I can state categorically that you will never find someone more committed or dedicated to her craft, to the point that, in our household, we use the expression "good enough for government work" ironically because the hardest working perfectionist we know happens to be a federal employee! She is the consummate public servant which, as a tax payer, I find gratifying!

So, Mom, I congratulate you on a career of dedication.

Hard work only gets you so far, though; at the end of the day, results are what really matter. As such, every exhibit opened, every artifact collected, every book published, every article written, every interview given - every opportunity to see my mom as an intelligent, confident, articulate, passionate leader in her field - has been a source of enormous pride for me.

The moments that make me especially proud are the times when my own friends and colleagues contact me to tell me how much they enjoy something she worked on - usually after a museum visit or having seen her on some program. During the 2012 media blitz surrounding Discovery's arrival at the Udvar-Hazy Center, my wife's boss said she had been really impressed by Mom's interview on a major talkshow. At first I was proud but then . . . I was perplexed. My wife asked her boss how she knew it was my mom; they had never met and Mom and I don't share the same last name. Her boss responded, "Well, I was watching TV and, all of a sudden, there was Bryan . . . in a blonde wig . . .  with lipstick . . . dropping all kinds of really interesting knowledge about the Space Shuttle!" I will take a comparison like that as a compliment any day!

In this Internet-enabled age, it isn't uncommon for someone I don't even know to tell me how much they enjoy Mom's work. A woman reached out to me on twitter a year or two ago to let me know that she had been moved to tears by seeing Discovery at the Udvar-Hazy Center for the first time - not just due to the sentimental value the artifact had for her and her family but especially because of the way it was presented. She likened it to the profound, nearly spiritual experience of turning the corner of the Accademia in Florence and seeing Michelangelo's David for the first time. That conversation was a poignant reminder that the work Mom does - that you all do - at the Smithsonian touches people's lives in significant and meaningful ways.

So, Mom, I congratulate you on a career of impact.

As you have written the book of your life, you have steered your career toward these three themes: inspiration, dedication, and impact. For that I congratulate you three times over. And now your grandchild, your daughter-in-law, and your son are looking forward to joining you in asking, "Where next?" as we explore your next chapter together.

2019-09-27

Enchanted By Ireland 6: Dublin

We spent the last few days of our Ireland trip in Dublin. Upon our arrival we had afternoon tea at House Dublin (where we would be staying the night) and then went for a run along the nearby Grand Canal. Even though we were in the most urban Irish environment yet, everything was still so green. The canal especially was canopied by dense trees with lush grasses growing up the banks.

Our 8th day in Ireland and first full day in Dublin began as many of you probably guessed it would: with a pilgrimage to the Guinness Storehouse! Is it a tourist trap? Sure. But it's my kind of tourist trap! We ascended floor after floor of exhibits about Guinness's ingredients, brewing process, history, marketing, and culture. Ultimately we reached the top, the Gravity Bar, and there we shared a few pints with a 360-degree view over Dublin as our backdrop - truly a bucket list item for yours truly!


We spent much of the afternoon walking around Dublin. With a huge, old, Gothic church on practically every corner, there was a lot to see along the way. We found our way to Trinity College, where we made a pilgrimage to their amazing library. Some of their artifacts, like the Book of Kells, were interesting but the endless rows of multi-story shelves full of books was the real attraction for me.

Our hotel was near St. Stephen's Green, which was a lovely little park for passing time between meals and attractions. We wrapped up the day at Sheehan's Pub, where we had a local non-Guinness stout and a tasting of several Powers whiskeys.

For our 9th and final day in Ireland, we checked into Clontarf Castle. It is an historic castle that has been updated as a hotel and event space but, despite its modernizations, it still felt very "castley." There were suits of armor everywhere - including hidden away in nooks and crannies and hallway dead ends. I loved it - it was like playing a Harry Potter video game in real life!


Clontarf had a lovely harbor-front promenade so we walked around a bit before settling on lunch at Moloughney's, which was lovely. I don't have any pictures between lunch and dinner so I suspect that we took a nap. During the entire trip I was taking a pint of Guinness with lunch - which was bad for my waistline but good for my soul - so a nap might have been just what was called for.

We stayed at the hotel for dinner and managed to reserve the table in the tower dungeon! The food was fine but the experience of dining in a dungeon really took the cake - the Guinness cake, even, which is what we had for breakfast at the Dublin airport the next day!

What can I say about this trip to Ireland? It was a magical, amazing experience. The castles, the lush green hills, the very nice people, the excellent food - what a place! We spent a week and a half there but only scratched the surface. I have so many more places to explore but Ireland is definitely on the top of my list for a return soon!

2019-09-22

Enchanted By Ireland 5

We spent the morning of our sixth day in Ireland driving west to Dingle. This took us over the Conor Pass, a local high point from which you can see for myriad kilometers inland in one direction and to the sea in the other. We parked at the top of the Pass and traipsed around the hills, enjoying the vistas more than the biting winds! There was sheep scat everywhere but it was a small price to pay for the breathtaking views.



In the afternoon we arrived in Dingle, a charming harbor village that seemed straight out of The Hobbit. Its rolling green hills, cute boats, and waterfront pubs and restaurants were quite idyllic. We spent the afternoon walking around and ducking in here and there - add Dingle to the list of places in Ireland to which we would like to return and spend a little more time.

Dingle also was the only place we saw a pub advertising an Irish stout other than Guinness - and it was Murphy's, another well known Irish stout. I thought that we would show up to Ireland and discover lots of hidden gem Irish stouts that they keep to themselves rather than exporting to the US but, nope, it's pretty much Guinness Island (with a little bit of Murphy's). We also did a spirits tasting at Dingle Distillery before departing.

As we drove through County Kerry to our final destination of the day, we encountered a herd of cattle in the road. We could only assume that these Kerry cattle were the source of Kerrygold butter so I am pleased to report that they seemed very happy as they ambled past our car to another pasture!



We would be spending the night outside of Killarney and the only place open for dinner was Kate Kearney's Cottage. It was a bit of a tourist trap (busloads of tourists in the parking lot) but the food was decent and there was live music and folk dancing during dinner. They sent us off with a very tender rendition of Danny Boy, which was the perfect way to wind down the evening.

After dinner we settled into our home for the night, Carrauntoohil Eco Farm. The farm practiced ecologically sound agriculture and hospitality. This had several implications, one of which was that the toilets were outhouses that used sawdust instead of plumbing - very hippy! Several of our party stayed in yurts for the night. Katie and I, being high maintenance glampers, opted for the "lodge" instead of a yurt. Well, the joke was on us because the "lodge" was a converted shipping container and decidedly less glamorous than the yurts! Ah well, we all had a blast, despite the torrential all-night downpour.


We awoke the next morning to mountains shrouded in fog. We made friends with the farm animals, packed up, and set off for our next adventure!

2019-09-20

Why My Toddler And I Participated In Today's Climate Strike

Today I took our toddler out of daycare (with his mom's permission!) and participated in the Climate Strike in downtown Chapel Hill.


It was a youth-organized, peaceful protest against climate inaction, featuring student and faculty speakers. The gathering started at Peace and Justice Plaza, where there was music, chanting, and some speakers. We then processed through campus to the Old Well, where there were more speakers and more calls to action.

Many journalists were there as well and I was impressed that they all asked my permission before taking my picture because I had a toddler there with me. One of them asked me why I was there and I gave her a pithy response. Here is a slightly more thoughtful summary of my reasoning:

Too long have our politicians, our businesses, and we as consumers been addicted to an energy system that is fundamentally unsustainable. Our elected leaders are either ignorant or bought and paid for by those telling them to look the other way. Our businesses are myopically driven by quarterly numbers that are rewarded by maintaining the status quo and externalizing long-term costs. We as consumers demand cheap, abundant energy to support our immediate quality of life without regard for long-term impacts. It is easy to point fingers but we are all complicit in this destructive energy chain.

To be clear, I'm not demonizing energy. Energy has been transformative in elevating - and continuing to elevate - billions of people around the world to higher standards of living and quality of life. As Nobel laureate Dick Smalley said, if we can solve energy, we solve the other major challenges facing humanity essentially for free. We have not yet solved energy, though, and the repercussions of our toxic energy chain are already being felt: the Earth is warming, ecosystems are dying, and extreme weather events are becoming more severe and numerous (As I write this, Houston just experienced its second 1,000-year rainfall event in . . . checks notes . . . two years.).

I am also not demonizing capitalism. Capitalism is the mechanism that used energy to improve so many lives and I believe in it as a strong force for good. It isn't perfect, however, and it can run society off the cliff if it receives the wrong price signals as inputs: garbage in => garbage out, as they say. A role of regulators and policy makers is to ensure that our free market has accurate, comprehensive price signals and here we have so far failed. We allow dirty energy to be produced, distributed, and used artificially cheaply (subsidized, even!) by not capturing the cost of cleaning up the mess left behind. In essence we have been mortgaging those costs forward to future generations but the bill (which has been accruing lots of interest in the meantime!) has come due.

Maintaining the status quo is a path to economic and social catastrophe the likes of which we haven't seen . . . ever? We the people elect the political leaders and we the people buy the products that keep the businesses profitable so change must start with us. It is imperative that we demand action with our votes, with our dollars, and - on days like today - with our voices.

I'm actually very optimistic that we will solve energy. Humanity is incredibly effective when we unite around common cause, whether it is putting a person on the moon or defeating the Nazis. We have many of the solutions we need to combat climate change already and I know we can develop the rest. In fact, I believe solving energy will be the greatest economic opportunity we have ever created! It won't happen by itself, though, and time is running out; we need action now.

As many of you know, I have devoted my career to helping solve energy. It was the thesis of my first ever blog post and it is what I spend my day doing at Smart OES. So why strike? Shouldn't I be back at the office working hard on solving energy? Well, I think it's important to let others know that they are not alone in demanding this sort of change. Moreover, I wanted to demonstrate critical mass to politicians and business leaders who may be watching.

Most of all, though, I have been really inspired by this group of young climate activists. Older generations are failing them on climate change and, rather than just giving up, they are taking matters into their own hands. People claim that younger generations are lazy and entitled but what I witnessed today was the opposite; they are motivated, hard working, and effective - so I especially wanted to come out today to support them.

But why bring my toddler? After all, at 16 months old, he isn't going to remember it. That's true, but this is the most significant issue that will affect his life and I want to show him that his parents do care and are dedicated to creating a better life for him. I don't know if we will have righted the ship by the time he is an adult. I'm nearly the age now that I was when my dad died so frankly, I don't know when I will leave him or whether I will leave him anything more than a broken planet. One thing I can leave him, though, is a sense of empowerment and a feeling of duty to stand up and fight for what is right. One day when he is old enough to remember, he will look at old pictures and see himself exercising his civil rights to peaceful protest. As he builds the narrative of his life, one of his early chapters will include publicly, demonstrably doing what's right and that is why I brought him today.

As someone who has always been moved by Les Misérables, which is centered on a small group of young activists protesting against an unjust establishment, I feel like I've been training my entire life for this Climate Strike. I'm not sure exactly what it will accomplish but the experience was moving. The power of human voices and collective action is real.

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of the people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

2019-07-26

My Entrepreneurship Principles: Leadership

In my first piece on Mindful Entrepreneurship, I laid out several principles to optimize the entrepreneurial process.  In my second piece, I argued that culture is extremely important to startups. In this final (?) piece I will now examine how leadership can create an optimal startup culture and execute the entrepreneurial process.


Entrepreneurial Leadership
  • Culture starts at the top; in a startup, all eyes are on the founders and the management team. Mission statements, declarations of values, and pronouncements of "our culture" have little effect on a venture's actual culture, which is determined much more by the actions of its leaders. If a company claims to have a culture of psychological safety but everyone sees a software engineer getting reamed out by the CTO for not doing things his way, then that culture is not actually safe. It is crucial that that startup leaders walk their own talk; however they act, that will be the culture.
  • Bring the right people onto the team. Startup hiring can definitely be a challenge; finding people who are not only good but will also succeed in a less stable context isn't easy and many of the hiring best practices used by larger organizations fail at a startup. The best advice I can offer here is to seek out candidates who exhibit both humility and curiosity. These attributes are a perfect storm for contributors who thrive in the highly uncertain, rapid learning environment of a startup.
  • Hire for diversity. Recall the effectuation principles from my first post: I was brought into a rapidly scaling startup to talk about how to apply those principles to leadership. One key take away is to prioritize the additional means that new hires bring to the team. Hiring for a very specific skillset is folly at a startup, where everyone wears multiple hats and what you think you need changes on a daily basis. Rather than evaluating candidates purely based on some pre-fab job description, give weight to all the additional skills, experiences, and perspectives they bring to the table.
  • Encourage divergent thinking. Instead of asking your employees, "What is the right answer," ask, "What is possible?" Follow up with, "What else is possible?"
  • Ask questions. Rather than barking orders, ask employees how they think problems should be solved. This serves the dual purpose of empowering employees with agency while also reinforcing a culture of skepticism. "Why?" "Why not?" "Is that a fact or a hypothesis?"
  • Foster collaboration. It can be tempting in a startup to divide and conquer as much work as possible. Remembering that groups make better decisions in the face of uncertainty than do individuals, though, it is beneficial to reduce employees working in isolation as much as is practical. Use techniques like pair programming, team huddles, and strike forces to increase collisions among team members.
  • Push employees out of the building. It is also important to increase collisions between team members and the outside world. Bring internal staff along on client visits. Provide incentives for employees to give talks (tech or otherwise) in the appropriate domains of the community. The more your team interacts with the outside world, the higher your venture's chances of benefiting from serendipity.
  • Maintain a constant feedback loop. It is hard for startup employees to take big swings if they aren't standing on solid ground. Use 360 feedback to ensure that employees always know where they stand, how they are perceived, and how they can improve.
  • Put the fish on the table. Feedback need not be limited to anonymous tools and it is important that it be provided - sensitively - in person. We use the term "fish on the table" to motivate team members to share open, honest feedback with each other. If there is a rotting fish kept under the table, it will start to stink. If it is brought up above the table, however, it can be dealt with. When a team member asks to put a fish on the table, others listen and try to accept the feedback openly because they know it is for the good of the team.
  • Be a secure base. As babies learning to walk, we know that, if we fall, Mommy or Daddy or another care giver will be there to pick us up. We develop the confidence to take risks through reliance on these secure bases. This circuitry persists through adulthood such that, if you want your employees to take risks, you need to be a secure base for them. Let them know frequently that you will still love and value them even if they fail - show them rather than just telling them. A major role of being a startup CEO is also being the CPO - Chief Psychology Officer! Joining a startup is scary; being a secure base to your employees emboldens them to be fearless.
  • Create meaning for your team. Working at a startup can be daunting. The work can be hard, the hours can be long, the pay and benefits can be below market . . . remind your employees of the purpose of their work. Mission and meaning are like secret weapons for startups; they make up for many other shortcomings so you can't let anyone forget about them. At my startups, we have very visible indicators of our progress toward meaningful metrics and periodically bring in speakers who have been impacted by our mission.
  • Keep your integrity. Startups are hard and there is temptation to cheat in some ways even just to keep your venture afloat. At the end of the day, though, the only think you will take with you from one startup to the next is your integrity. If you fail, people will forgive you as long as you were honest. (I know an entrepreneur who lost all of an investor's money but did so honestly and transparently; that same investor then backed the entrepreneur's next venture as well.) If you are dishonest, however, your reputation will be trashed forever. 
  • Never stop learning. Leadership is like other skills: it can be practiced. It can be improved. It can be developed. Just as a startup organization should never stop learning, neither should its leaders.

2019-07-17

Rocky Mountain High Colorado

Katie had a conference at Copper Mountain in Colorado so our toddler and I tagged along. Copper Mountain is where I learned to ski when I was four years old so it was a fun "homecoming" of sorts for me.


We arrived in Denver Friday morning and spent the day in Boulder, where I had meetings with some startups that I advise - it was great to see them in person rather than over Skype for once!

Friday evening we drove up to Copper Mountain, where we had a spacious condo all to ourselves. I didn't sleep well Friday night due to the sudden change in altitude (~3,000 m / ~10,000 ft) but I was greeted the next day by gorgeous views regardless.

While Katie participated in her conference Saturday, our toddler and I explored the village and hiked around a bit. Copper Mountain is clearly primarily a Winter ski destination - many shops and restaurants were closed for the offseason - but I thought it was just wonderful during the Summer. The cool temperatures were a refreshing change from the heat and humidity of North Carolina and they did a great job of creating activities more appropriate for the season. Saturday all day was a three-peak cycling race called the Triple Bypass and Saturday evening there was live music in the village center.

Sunday, after an early morning hike, we made our way back to Denver, stopping at Red Rocks for lunch with the same family that taught me to ski 36 years ago. It was lovely to see them again and fun to introduce them to the next generation! The stunning red rocks reminded me that Colorado isn't just alpine but actually features a great deal of landscape and architecture more reminiscent of the American Southwest.

Monday morning we hopped on our flight back to North Carolina. This was a very quick trip but it reminded me how much I enjoy Colorado. It seems to be about the closest thing I can find to Switzerland here in the US - but with more direct flights. We may try to visit more often - and especially during the Summer, when we are seeking refuge from the heat and humidity!

2019-07-03

Is Vinyl Better Than Modern Media?

A friend recently asked what was going on with the recent popularity of vinyl records. Is vinyl "better" than more modern music media? Or is it just a hipster fad with no base? I am far from an expert but, as I have a fair bit of experience with vinyl (~100 LPs and a jukebox full of 45 singles), I weighed in with the following take.



Vinyl can be "better" (a very loaded - and subjective - term!) than newer formats for older music:


  1. When a song was originally recorded, mastered, and stamped out to vinyl, that was how it was "supposed" to sound (barring disagreements between the artists and the production/engineering staff, disagreements within the band, limitations of production technology of the time, etc.).
  2. When the music is transferred to digital formats, some sound quality loss necessarily occurs. Digitization samples the original audio many times per second to create the new, digital signal. If it samples more frequently, the audio is higher quality; if it samples less frequently, the audio is lower quality. Practically speaking, the human ear probably can't tell the difference but hardcore audiophiles care about it.
  3. During early digitization, ie to CDs, many filters were used during the digital transfer process to remove pops and other imperfections that are often found on vinyl (and that vinylheads find endearing - a feature, not a bug!). Those filters, though, often filter out more than the imperfections and the music loses some of its top end and/or bottom end sound.
  4. During digitization, "remastering" sometimes happens as well; someone remixes the tracks, plays with the volumes, applies filters, etc. to make the the music sound "better" in the new, digital medium. Occasionally this works out well, like the 50th anniversary re-release Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (performed painstakingly by the original engineer and his son!), occasionally it is disastrous, and usually it is a mixed result. Regardless, it changes the music from the original standard.
  5. For most digital file formats, e.g. mp3, after digitization of the original analog music, there is also compression to save space; the compression further distorts the music. This is probably imperceptible to those who aren't looking for it but, again, hardcore audiophiles care about it.
  6. For streaming media, digital files are further compressed and altered, especially when bandwidth is low, further reducing the quality of the audio.

So what does this all mean? Firstly, vinyl pressings of modern music that has been digitally recorded offer no real benefit other than a cool physical medium. For older music, recorded on analog tape, there are indeed differences between its vinyl format and its conversion to more modern media.

Whether the vinyl is "better" depends on a number of factors and is highly individualistic. Not all digitization efforts are equal and neither are the preferences of the listener. Whether vinyl is right for you really comes down to personal taste.