NASA exec keeps rocket science out of project management

Ronald Phelps would be the first to admit he’s not an IT guy. But the NASA executive does know a thing or two about the strategic role of information technology in the launching and control of space missions.

He also knows there’s no need for rocket science in managing an IT project. Project management must be kept simple, says Phelps, who pegs the success of IT-supported initiatives on one overriding principle.

“Before I started this position I probably couldn’t even spell IT,” says Phelps, who has been with NASA for 37 years and is now project manager for the shuttle business office at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center near Orlando, Fla.

Phelps notes that when it comes to IT applications and systems, the most important factor in that equation is the people who are running and implementing those systems.

“The key to successful project management is having the right people,” he says. “Project management means bringing the right people to not only do the work, but to also identify the requirements.

“You have to manage schedule and cost…you’ve got to make all those things come together, if you get behind on the schedule, then you have to improve that by either increasing cost or increasing the people doing the work.”

Not having a traditional IT background doesn’t seem to have hindered Phelps in any way, a career path he attributes to two factors.

“I’ve stayed out of the nitty-gritty details of IT,” says Phelps. “I also do a lot of advanced technology development for our directorate…I’ve found that I can take my project management background that I’ve used there and actually apply it to software.”

Phelps describes his background as mainly on the operational side: taking care of the many various tasks and processes required to prepare a space shuttle for launch.

He adds that about 10 years ago, NASA formed a project office, and requested that some of the personnel working on the operational side be involved in assisting with that formation.

“That’s where I got my feet wet as far as IT goes,” says Phelps.

In an ongoing relationship, Phelps worked with New York-based Information Builders Inc. to develop a series of applications, referred to by his office at the Kennedy Space Center as their Insight System.

Phelps says his office needed the capability to gain insight into what their contractor was doing, because the contractor processes the space shuttle for most of its activities.

“NASA isn’t really involved in direct processing, so we had to have some kind of capability to be able to go out and monitor how well a contractor was performing their job,” he adds.

Phelps notes they initially built a metrics application which they could use to evaluate the performance of the contractor. He says that as business processes changed over the years, the applications became a series of tools, which could then be used in shuttle processing by NASA staff.

One of these tools was an application called e-log (electronic log system), which provided engineers with the capability to go online and document the work they were doing, as well as document problems they were experiencing.

Phelps says his concerns are more about developing the requirements, getting the application developed on time, and ensuring that the right people are involved in the process.

“I don’t claim to be a software person; I’m more of a project manager person with operational experience,” he says.

“A lot of this stuff isn’t really rocket science; it’s sitting down and ensuring everybody agrees and understands, and then implementing it in a timely manner.”

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