Managing Martians, Donna Shirley with Danelle Morton

Broadway Books, 1998, 276 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-7679-0240-8

Your reviewer is lucky enough to work as a technical specialist in a unit doing research as to how new ideas and new trends that will shape the way we will work in the future. One of the most fascinating current trends is something called Knowledge Management. It’s based on the idea that low-level white-collar work is becoming increasingly automated (no more typists, no more messengers, etc…) and that what remains is a type of office worker far more concerned with refined knowledge than raw data. Unfortunately, this knowledge, being intangible and formless, defies all previous theories of management.

Knowledge Management might be only a fad (only time will tell), but it is built on solid tendencies. Everywhere we look in this new economic context, it’s obvious that purely intellectual work is accounting for a substantial part of growth. It’s now a cliché that the nerds of yesterday are the drivers of today’s high-tech sector, but these nerds cannot be managed in the same way than the worker class has traditionally been driven.

As far as nerd projects go, you really can’t find better than space exploration. These “rocket scientists” are no ordinary workers, and their bosses must be no ordinary managers. Everyone applauded when NASA landed the Pathfinder/Sojourner probe on Mars on July 4th, 1997. A lot of effort has been expended in sending this little rover a few million kilometers away, and Managing Martians finally tells the pre-glory story from the point of view of the team leader of the Sojourner project, Donna Shirley.

Managing Martians is a book that attempts to do many things at once. It’s an inspirational story of a country girl turned pro scientist. It’s a business book on how to manage knowledge workers. It’s a techno-scientific work of triumph through engineering. And yet, despite its disparate nature, it’s an interesting account on all three viewpoints.

As a biography, it tracks Shirley’s life through the difficult career path of a woman in a male industry. Born in 1941 in a small Oklahoma town, Donna Shirley knew early on that she wouldn’t be just another one of the girls. Developing an early interest in aeronautics, she got her pilot license, went to college, found love, switched majors from engineering to English and found a job as a technical writer at McDonnell Aircraft. After finding out that this wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life, she went back to college, got her engineering degree and ended up at JPL. The rest wasn’t easier, as the whims of space politics decided where she would work.

Are good managers born or raised? Tough to tell, but Shirley’s unconventional career path would later reflect on her management style and though Managing Martians doesn’t claim to be a business book, it’s still a pretty good illustration -through concrete example- of the new challenges of knowledge work. “When managing brilliant, creative people,” she says, “at some point you find it’s impossible to command or control them because you can’t understand what they are doing.” [P.88] The story of Sojourner truly gives a good idea of the realities of space exploration in all its bureaucratic, nitty-gritty details. Not much preaching here, but more than a few examples.

Of course, the book truly shines when considered as the ultimate insider’s account of the whole Pathfinder/Sojourner project. Numerous technical issues are clearly explained and highlighted. Managing Martians succeeds at giving a sense of the quiet techno-heroism that’s the hallmark of most top-notch scientific endeavor. No superheroes, just regular people doing the best job they can. Even Shirley doesn’t try to claim undue applause, deferring often to the members of her team.

Hopefully, many people will read this book and get a sense of what it’s like to “be a rocket scientist.” Others will read it and learn a few things about how to run a high-tech business. Others will just enjoy the inside story of the Sojourner project. But all will get something valuable out of the book.

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