The People Behind the Scenes

The shuttle. It is very big.

A couple of weeks ago, we took a short family trip to Los Angeles. We live in San Diego, so even factoring in LA traffic, a short trip is feasible. The main purpose of our trip was to see a friend who has recently moved up to LA, but we fit some sightseeing in, too. One of the things we did was stop at the California Science Center to see the space shuttle. My husband geeks out about space things, and I humor him, because I think rockets and space shuttles are pretty cool, too. Not as cool as cells and proteins, but cool enough to go see.

As it turns out, this visit had something for me to genuinely geek out about, too. The space shuttle exhibit includes a video showing how they transported the space shuttle from LAX to its home at the Science Center. The video is sped up so that you can watch the trip in just a few minutes, but even so, I was just blown away by the sheer scale of that project. I kept leaning over to my older daughter who was sitting next to me and explaining how much work had gone into making this trip happen. She is only 8, but she has her eye roll and “Mom, you are such a dork” head shake perfected. Fair enough, she has two extremely geeky parents so she’ll need to figure out how to distance herself from us in order to survive high school.

But progeny-embarrassing enthusiasm aside, it was a remarkable feat of logistics and project management. And I’m just talking about the project to get the thing from LAX to the Science Center- not even the amazing feats required to get the thing built in the first place. If you think that was pure engineering genius with no logistical and project management genius to get it all organized, you’re reading the wrong blog. But even I find contemplating the scale of a project like “design and build a space craft that can fly into space and return” a bit daunting. In some ways, it is easier to look at a smaller project, like “fly a space shuttle to one of the busiest commercial airports in the world and then navigate it through a bunch of city streets to a new home.”

When you watch the video, you see the things like the just in time tree-trimming and the careful escort of emergency personnel. But you don’t see the people studying maps to plot the best route. You see the people lining the streets taking pictures, but you don’t see the people doing risk assessments to figure out how to let the public enjoy this amazing sight without accepting a high risk of someone getting hurt. You don’t see people figuring out the staffing plans and drafting contingency plans. You don’t see the people coordinating notice for the power outages required to take down power lines, or plotting detour routes so that the folks who still needed to get to work that morning could have some chance of doing so. And you don’t see the people whose job it was to keep a handle on all of these disparate threads of what needed to get done and when it needed to get done, making sure that the essential things got done and signing off on proceeding even without some of the lower priority “nice to have” tasks completed. In short, you don’t see the people who figured out how to make this whole operation work.

Those people are used to being invisible. I’ve spent most of my career as one of those people, behind the scenes, figuring out how to make other people’s work fall into place to create a project. We are, for the most part, used to being invisible except for during our failures, when things go wrong. Then we’re judged by how quickly we can put things right- even if the root cause of the failure was something entirely out of our control. So we develop a certain sense for contingencies, and risks. We’re the sort of people whose gas tanks are never less than one quarter full, and we can list off the risks that lead us to keep them that way.

(True story: I was once sitting in a departmental meeting, waiting for one of the other group leaders to arrive. My boss, the department head, made some offhand comment about how is car was almost out of gas. One of the other group leaders, who was in charge of IT said that his tank was never less than a quarter full. Our boss looked incredulous. I- the person in charge of the databases and protecting our scientific data- admitted that mine was never less than a quarter full, either.  A few months later the great power outage of 2011 happened and people were stranded because they ran out of gas and the gas stations couldn’t pump more. The head of IT and I felt quite vindicated, although if I’m honest, the actual risk that leads me to keep my tank at least one quarter full is wildfire. The chance of some technician accidentally shutting off power to my entire region hadn’t really crossed my mind. But that’s how this works: sometimes the mitigation for one risk comes in handy when another risk comes to bear.)

Since starting this blog, I’ve been trying to articulate some of the most important parts of what I’ve learned from over a decade of being the sort of person whose job it is to figure out the logistics to make it- whatever it is- happen. I want to help other people get their own projects done. I’ll get back to writing those sorts of posts soon. But tonight, I just want to take a minute to celebrate the other people like me. They are everywhere, in every aspect of life. They are the ones who figure out how to make ideas into reality. You don’t notice them until something goes wrong, but maybe every now and then, look around and see if you can see them when everything is going right. And say thank you.

A big “thank you” to the people who figured out how to get the space shuttle to the Science Center. My kids thought it was cool to see such a big spaceship. And my husband, of course, was pretty excited, too.


  1. Brock said:

    Hey — I am a JIT guy. Besides Jo keeps the van full of gas.

    September 5, 2015
    • Melanie said:

      Ha! And if there is ever an emergency, you’ll leave in the van. More room for your stuff, anyway!

      September 5, 2015

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