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‘I’ll do it’: how a former spacecraft engineer said ‘yes’ and launched great things

Microsoft employee Cindy Healy talks about what she learned working on the Mars Pathfinder and how to make a successful mission wherever you are

Editor’s note: We sat down with Cindy Healy to talk about her time at NASA and the moment she took a scary risk. She tells our writer her story in her own words.

While working on the Mars Pathfinder mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, I came to a fork in the road. It was a moment when I had to decide whether to move out of my comfort zone and take a risk.

NASA was putting together a 25-person launch team that would temporarily move from California to Florida near the Kennedy Space Center. All of my best buddies were going to be on this team. I knew it was going to be a “work hard, play hard” scenario, and I really wanted to go.

Up until that point I had been working as the lead for the simulation software that was used to prepare for the mission. At one point, a colleague and I were tasked with fixing the flight simulation code, including the star scanner—the eyeball of the spacecraft. The flight simulation code fakes out the spacecraft so it thinks it’s flying to Mars when it’s really sitting in the lab in Pasadena. The work had fallen nine months behind schedule, and my teammate Miguel and I had been given eight weeks to complete the code. Neither of us had ever written this kind of code before, but failure was not an option.

In one way, the entire Pathfinder mission was a risk—it was an attempt to reinvent space travel, an experiment to see just how cheap and how fast we could put a spacecraft on another planet. And we didn’t want to disappoint America.

Cindy Healy at the Kennedy Space Center in October 1996.
Cindy Healy at the Kennedy Space Center in October 1996.

Working night and day, we got the code written and meeting performance targets, and then it was time for some folks to head to Florida to prep for the launch. I really wanted to go. But, I wasn’t on the list because my role was not critical to the Florida operations.

My coworker was the UNIX system administrator, and he was on the list. But, he and his wife were having a baby, and he didn’t want to go.

In one moment, I had to make a critical decision: would I take a risk? I had no idea how to do the job. But I love a challenge, and I really wanted to go to Florida.

I raised my hand and said, “I’ll do it, just teach me how to be the UNIX system administrator.” As if it’s so easy.

So my coworker trained me, and I was just writing everything in a notebook, scribbling down as much as I could. Those notes were all I would have to help me do the job.

Check the connections

To go to the launch prep site in Florida, I had to pack up all these computers, wrap and bundle cables, crawl on floors, and get all of this gear together. This, I learned, was the glamorous life of a UNIX system administrator. Then when we arrived, I had to unpack the boxes, lay the cables, hook up all the test equipment, and format all the UNIX machines. It was dirty work, but I was happy to do it. I was at the Kennedy Space Center, so my mission was accomplished.

Fast forward to the night of Pathfinder’s launch: I was a few minutes late because I had stopped near the launchpad to take a picture with the rocket in the background.

When I arrived, everyone was looking at me panicked, like, where have you been? I was confused, thinking, what’s wrong? That’s when I found out that we had no connection back to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It was a job for the UNIX system administrator.

My imposter syndrome threatened to kick in. I knew only what my notebook said, and the mission was waiting. It turned out that the first thing the notebook said was to make sure everything was connected.

With all eyes on me, I crawled around and, sure enough, I got to the router and one plug was just a little bit loose. I jiggled it back into place, and we were back online. I was a hero!

Hearing each station say “go for launch” just like in the movies and then going outside and watching Pathfinder take off into the night sky was an amazing experience. We all had a huge sense of accomplishment that day.

Get curious, stay curious

What I learned from the Pathfinder mission is that I thrive on challenge. A lot of times, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did it anyway. One of the things I love about our current culture at Microsoft is how we are now embracing taking risks. Things have changed since I got here 12 years ago—we’ve learned that everything doesn’t have to be perfect to make forward progress.

I kept that in mind when I took on a project to create a single sign-on experience for Microsoft extranet applications for our partners. A big issue was that there were so many entry points for business-to-business operations—users might have to go to 50 different sites, using five different passwords, to do their business. In a single week, I heard a partner and a vice president complain about this problem. But people weren’t sure who should fix it or how. So I thought to myself, I’ll do it.

A near-term solution seemed to be a password keeper that simplified the login process. I wrote a white paper about it, sold it to leadership, and worked with the Azure team to use their B2B Access Panel as the solution. It worked: the single sign-on access panel is a big success story. Because of that, I won a Circle of Excellence award in 2016, the highest internal company award that an employee can win, which was a huge personal goal I had put on my vision board many years ago.

I’ve been inspired by how we’ve embraced a new approach of curiosity here at Microsoft. We have a more iterative approach—not everything has to be launched at scale. It reminds me of Pathfinder, where there really was no competition; we were all just working together and were united behind a common purpose.

Launch your own mission

It’s been very interesting working as a woman in engineering and technology. I grew up lower-middle class in Anaheim, California. I had no one pushing me to go to college. College was not an expectation in my high school or in my family, especially for women—it was more about learning how to cook and taking home economics. I worked in an arcade after high school, in the cashier’s booth. My lead recognized that my change drawer was always accurate, and she suggested that I go to college and major in computer science.

I applied on a whim and was accepted. In college, it was sometimes very lonely in my classes. I’m extroverted socially, but most of my classmates were not. I decided to stick with it, and I started liking it more and more; by senior year, I was really engaging in the work.

It’s been a disappointment that the number of women in tech has not improved much since I was in college. As much as I can, I try to help cultivate women’s professional development and advocate for STEM education. I had a big “aha” moment at Grace Hopper when I heard someone speak about how we often think to fill a role with someone who looks like the person who just left or who looks like the rest of the current team. It takes conscious thinking to say we’re going to hire someone different. If we don’t, we’re missing out on new perspectives, and we risk getting stuck in “group think.”

A few years ago, I started a DigiGirlz day camp program, sponsored by my organization, to help give young girls opportunities in STEM. And last year, I helped put on a “Shark Tank”-like event for women, where leaders offered to mentor or sponsor people whose ideas they liked. All four ideas got sponsorship, and three got implemented. This reinforced the fact that sometimes you just have to create your opportunity.

It’s amazing what can happen when you set a clear mission for people and get out of their way, and when you allow for experimentation. We just had a 20-year Pathfinder reunion this past summer, and one thing we all spent time remembering was that spirit of empowerment and embracing risk. Pathfinder was an attempt to reinvent space travel—people were doing things that were completely out of the box. We did something that had never been done before. I am so proud to be a part of this little piece of history.

I have seen what can happen when you keep your mind open to new ideas and continually take on big challenges. I try to keep that front and center at all times and inspire others to do so, too.