Beth Beck

Tell us your story.

I’m a social and behavioral scientist – which translates into “generalist” in an R + D organization. My undergrad and grad degrees are in government and public affairs/administration. I’m currently a PhD candidate, hoping to finish this summer or early Fall 2015. My dissertation topic is Innovation through Complex Collaboration based on the case of LAUNCH: Collective Genius for a Better World – one of the innovation programs I co-founded at NASA.

I came to NASA through the Presidential Management Fellows program in 1985. I expected to stay with the federal government for two years, and head out into the world to explore the unknown. As it turns out, NASA happens to be the perfect place to explore the unknown. The mysterious, magical place called space captivated me. Decades later, I’m still at NASA – a story I would never have written for myself.

Looking at my digital journey, I have to mark my first stop in high school in the 1970’s. It’s not a glorious beginning. In fact, it was a no-brainer job as a punch card operator at Texas State University – which paid triple the amount of any other job I’d ever had. I sat in a cold, dark room feeding a hungry computer boxes of punch cards, one at a time.

The next stop on the long and winding digital road was a coding class in grad school at the University of Texas LBJ School in the early-1980’s. Most likely, I used C programming language. Honestly, I don’t remember. What stuck with me was the content, not the coding. I wrote a program to allow linguists in remote locations to capture native language in the field, and the program worked.

I came to NASA as a non-techie (with one coding class under my belt) in a techie organization. My career has been a series of positions where I’ve been asked to translate tech-talk into compelling storytelling to portray the “so what” of space to policymakers, legislators, budgeteers, international partners, external organizations, and global citizens. I’ve most often turned to cool tech, when available, to tell the story of what we do and why NASA matters. Right now, I’m in the job of translating why data is a valued asset within NASA, and why open data is a valued asset outside NASA to external constituencies.

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What advice to you have to share with other women and young girls?

My overall advice: Be the best that you can even when your work goes unnoticed (because someone will notice), take classes/challenging assignments if you see something that interests you (because you never know when it will come in handy), jump at opportunities even if they seem orthogonal (because you never know what’s around that bend in your career that this experience can leverage), and enjoy every day (because tomorrow’s too far off to wait to enjoy it).

Pass it on!

I’ve been at NASA for a very long time, so it’s hard to provide a list names without leaving out major influencers. Here are a few who’ve significantly shaped the direction that led me to this point in my journey. I have a brain trust of creative, innovative individuals who I turn to when I’m noodling with something new. We got to know each other through the LAUNCH program: Todd Khozein and Carrie Freeman of Second Muse, James Parr of Imaginals, Jeff Hamaoui of Further By Design. In fact, my dissertation research is a direct result of thoughts they implanted or articles they shared when I was writing my dissertation proposal. Ben Slavin of Bolster Labs helped design and develop a number of innovative interactive user experiences for me and knows how to turn my crazy ideas into reality. Robbie Schingler of Planet Labs, formerly of NASA, introduced me to the concept of sustainability and collaborative action, and co-founded LAUNCH. Nick Skytland of NASA is a partner in crime for the early days of social media at NASA, and recruited me for my current job as Open Innovation manager. He actually snagged @NASA on Twitter and nurtured it for a year before the powers that be at NASA took over management of the account. Early in my career at NASA Dr. Hum Mandell saw in me what I didn’t know about myself. He gave me opportunities to excel and allowed me to speak for myself, rather than speak for me. His belief in me created a safe space for me to blossom. I’m thankful he gave me a jumpstart at a time when I needed it most.

The Women in Tech campaign exists to help redefine what women in technology means in the 21st century. Started independently by a group of professional women who, after many impassioned discussions about women in tech knew we wanted to expand this definition beyond ‘traditional’ technology skills. To us, it includes most every current, emerging or evolving role within an organization. By featuring leaders and emerging leaders across industries who embody this we hope to collectively ‘stand up’, be proud of our place in the digital world and inspire young women or those new to the ‘tech space’ to get involved.

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