Late in my tenure at BP Exploration – Alaska, I had one of the most surreal meetings in my life. It was a one-on-one meeting scheduled with my manager, two steps above me (my boss’s boss), It was scheduled for just a half hour but was suggested it would run shorter than that. I walked in, sat down, and he pulled out a letter. He then told me he was directed by HR to read me the letter then hand it to me — which is never good, but bear with me here. The letter read, “Congratulations, you have been selected as a Supplier Quality Specialist.” The thing was, my title at the time was Supplier Quality Specialist. Confused, I started asking questions until it became clear – they were congratulating me because layoffs were happening, and I would keep my job. Mind you, it wasn’t the first time I survived a layoff — hell, at Cessna my last two years alone I survived 12 rounds of layoff. For nearly 18 months prior to that meeting at BP, our organization with the intent to reap the wheat from the chaff; though they made it sound like we were helping to design a better organization. In the end, it felt like something out of Office Space the movie – where people who think they know what you do are asking you ‘what do you really do around here’. A couple months later, I left BP – this wasn’t the nail in the coffin, mind you, but it was the symbol of how blind a company management could be.
So, needless to say, I get a little squirrelly when people ask me what I do for a living.
I got a few of those questions recently as I started to share more about what’s coming up at JPL. Some of it asking what my role is on those missions. Others questioning if I do anything at all. Some going the other direction and just assuming that I do things with these missions that I don’t. So maybe it’s time to clear the air.
My title is Procurement Quality Assurance (PQA) Engineer. I’ve held that title since starting at JPL, though the role changes from time to time. PQA has a team of about 10 people with varying functions. We all report into a larger Quality Assurance team with a couple hundred people. Quality Assurance is a part of a Directorate called The Office of Safety and Mission Success (OSMS). For nearly two-thirds my career, I’ve been in a role of Quality or Quality Assurance and nearly all that time in a role similar to a PQA Engineer – though under different names (Supply Chain Quality, Supplier Quality, Purchasing Quality, etc).
Before I go into the specifics of the role, it’s important to know a little about quality in general. As I say often, Quality isn’t rocket science, but you have to learn it to break your preconceptions. Many people assume Quality is just the process of inspecting to ensure only the good gets through. That’s close but insufficient. I like to say Quality is really about Risk Mitigation – Quality evaluates a part or process or system and looks for those situations that could eventually be a risk. From there a plan is developed to overcome that risk either through improved planning, improved design, or improved detection. Some say Quality is the last line of defense to a successful outcome; I believe that is true but the effective quality system is always pushing the line of defense further and further ahead of where failure can’t be an option.
With JPL, my line in the sand is probably as far in front of the last line of defense as you can get. We look at the suppliers who provide us hardware to make sure they meet the minimum expectations of their quality systems. Much of the time, we are looking at companies before they start work, and the rest of the time it is before they finished the work. While a certain amount of the suppliers we work with are found acceptable by established 3rd party certifications, many times we validate the supplier through audits. Quality audits aren’t like financial audits; we are looking for compliance and opportunities for improvement. Commonly we say we partner with our suppliers, moving them down a path to improvement. These can be comprehensive across all aspects of the company’s workmanship and management, or they could specific to a single process. For instance, a majority of my time at JPL, I’ve been involved with validating electrostatic discharge (ESD) protection at our suppliers — which the day I arrived at JPL, I couldn’t even spell ESD and since then I’ve done nearly 50 ESD audits. Since you can’t do an audit at your desk, I spend a fair bit of time at suppliers.
While I deal with hardware suppliers, I have no interaction with the actual hardware … usually. As the hardware is built, other QA team members guide the inspection points, testing, and buy-off. Others evaluate hardware as it is received. Even more, walk the hardware right up to launch. It’s so rare that I actually see flight hardware that I geek out a little bit.
Something that working for JPL that is different than my past employment is that we are Federally Funded. This means a more direct line of sight between what you do and how you get paid for what you do. If you work on a program or project, your time is charged to that program – which means the program must allocate your time from their budget. Since our specific team works in a service center role, most of my funding looks like overhead, but it originates from funding from projects.
One thing it’s worth noting is that it takes a long time for a mission to reach launch. From a concept stage through the proposals, design, engineering models, building instrument, then full assembly, and loads of testing even the most complex missions could take years to complete. Then again, a mission may not launch until once that is done since launch windows are a thing.
An example of all of this and how it plays into my role would be InSight, a Mars lander launched last summer to study the red planet’s geology. InSight was built by Lockheed Martin, who (without sharing details) needed little oversight by our PQA team at all. Our QA team did have to be there through most of the build and deal with the testing, but it wasn’t in my specific team or role. Due to hardware issues, the lander missed its launch window and when you are heading to another planet that means delays of years. After sitting in figurative mothballs for a couple of years, it finally flew and is having a good go of it up there. So in summary … InSight was built before I started at JPL, by a company that didn’t require me to support if I was there. I had nothing to do with InSight.
Editorial Note: The last paragraph is a contradiction to a published newspaper article from the town I grew up in sighting an unnamed source and stating that I not only was on the InSight project, but I was also involved with the landing operations – something so outside of the scope of work that I do that I had to self-disclose to HR and Public Relations. (#notkidding). Yeah … I’m calling you out again, Dad.
Enough about the projects I haven’t worked on, let’s talk about those I have. My role can touch many if not all missions in their early or mid stages of the build. Last week I wrote a blog about Mars 2020, a rover set to launch next summer. I estimate I spent about 10% of my time at JPL supporting that project directly. While that might look small, it is the largest of all currently. Missions like Europa and Psyche may need more of that when all is said and done, and I have had some cross-over with others. The first mission launched that I had any time (albeit about 4 total hours) was Grace FO launched last summer. Cold Atom Lab (CAL) launched a couple months ago for installation on the International Space Station … again maybe 4 hours at most with that. Like I said, I work on things early on in the build, long before launch, so if something has gone up it’s not like I spent time on it. Heck, I didn’t even know about MarCO until the day it launched.
That’s what I do … at least currently (or at least up until a couple weeks ago, but not going into that yet). My role isn’t the sexist, but it’s what I love to do. So, if you want to congratulate me for that, feel free.
2 thoughts on “What is it that you do here?”
So, if you were playing the “Badly describe your job” game, what would your be?
Mine is this: “Keep doing math until the buildings don’t fall down.”
I get people fired at companies that mine all in the name of science.