The Parking Lots at Night

James A. McDivitt, a retired brigadier Air Force General and one of the most admired pioneers of the semi-centennial Apollo program, not to mention a proud Michigan Wolverine, gave a talk a few months ago as part of the award ceremony for a NASA Ambassador of Exploration award. Jim gave a speech that was interesting, and full of insights from a truly wise engineer and explorer. He summarized some of the most interesting life lessons about risk, discovery and success that I have ever heard.

There was one part of this talk that has stuck with me, and I remembered this week when I visited NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Jim suggested, “the most important difference between NASA today and NASA in the fifties are the parking lots at night”. In his statement Jim implies that the core differences of NASA then and NASA now is not with regard to technology, but, with the dedication and commitment of the people that work with that technology.

I have since often thought about this statement. Can we in fact judge the status of an engineering project by observing the parking lots at night? Why do people work at night? Of course, we are not talking about bartenders, night-guards and emergency room nurses. We are also not talking about people who just rather live in the time-zone of Japan, even though they work in Michigan – they are typically not the most social bunch. I am talking about people who extend their working time from day-time into night, people who add a second day’s work within 24 hours, and continue to do so over a long period of time.

Let me address the second question first: why do people work at night?

From my personal experience, I know that there are at least three answers to this question. I have personally experienced all of them.

People work at night,

1) … because they don’t really work during the day.

I am one of the only people in any place that I ever worked who knows all the night staff. As a graduate student in Bern, I knew that the cleaning personnel started at 6 am, that they immediately opened all doors to the street – and then went for a coffee. I was also friends with the local police department because I helped them arrest drug-dealers and thieves who mistakenly tried to do their business in front of my office window.

However, in retrospect most of the night-time work was an absolute waste of time. I worked late at night and almost every Saturday and most Sundays – only because I did not really work during the day. Sometimes I did useful things during day, but there was tremendous waste and my day-time efficiency was very low. Success, I learned pretty quickly, for most people, is pretty much proportional to the product of time spent multiplied by the work efficiency – it’s not just the time spent!

2) … because they have a bad plan or a bad manager

Everybody that ever worked with me knows about my never-ending optimism about what’s possible. Many times, this is a blessing. But sometimes, such optimism leads to expectations that are far from any reason or possibility.

I still vividly remember the last 6 weeks of writing my PhD thesis. The whole thing was miserable. I worked for 8 hours, and slept 4 hours for weeks on end. It’s tough to start your shift at 2 am – but I did it. This had nothing to do with me being lazy, but all to do with a bad plan I paid for.

There are also times where it is impossible to stop such a fire-drill from happening. However, I have come to despise managers who plan their employee’s schedule to include night-time work during holidays, especially if they themselves don’t come to work. Leadership is about “follow me” not about “go ahead”.  The worst part for me is that I know that – for whatever reason – I have made bad plans for others.

3) … because they would rather work than sleep

This is what this post is really about. Work is so captivating that sleep just does not make sense.

I have experienced periods like that on a number of occasions. I would rather work than sleep because I doing something extremely important or so exciting to me that I just cannot think of stopping now. It’s the potential of success that motivates beyond boundries – time seems to become irrelevant. It’s like flying – some other force is taking over. You can feel how your entire mind is starting to work in an entirely new way and with tremendous efficiency.

In my opinion, this can only happen if three conditions are met: there is a tremendous sense of purpose; there is a sense of empowerment; and there is an environment of success. I would never put in a lot of time if I don’t understand why I am doing this. I need to know that success depends on me or my team. But, I think the last piece is perhaps the most important. Gratitude or acknowledgments are crucial.   Sometimes a simple “thanks” or pat on the back, a mention in a meeting, a cup of coffee – success wants to be acknowledged, or it dies!

So, can we in fact judge the status of an engineering project by observing the parking lots at night?

Absolutely – go look at their parking lot at night, and go visit them in the middle of the night. You will know immediately whether the place is going somewhere!

Comments (8)
  • Omar A Tavarez

    January 14, 2009

    I agree fully with the third reason, but there remains one question is there something out there that can captivate us and truly challenge us like the engineers in the 50s. I look around today and all I see is people in love with the idea of money not developing their passion. Are we a generation in danger of destroying ourselves or are we just waiting to discover the fire and passion that previous generations had?

  • Thomas

    January 14, 2009

    So, I did some polling around. Virtually all entrepreneurs – especially the ones that get rich from it – do what they are doing for passion not for $s. It is extremely futile to focus on $s first – the record of becoming successful like that is almost 0. Most successful entrepreneurs do what they love, they follow the passion. And then success follows!

    I think the energy challenge today is almost more exciting or potentially similarly disrupting for the US as the Cold War!

  • Tae Hwa Lee

    January 14, 2009

    I agree with all of the reasons given above. I see a lot of those people who work all night in the library, some of whom have been working all day but would not sleep, and others of whom has been slacking off all day and are trying to finish them off at night. I think though, all three reasons for staying up too late are bad for each individual’s healths… human beings need sleep.

  • Justinder Mahal

    January 14, 2009

    I think today’s political and social environment in this country offers numerous areas that young entrepreneurs can invest their thoughts in. If you think about the biggest problems the U.S. faces at the moment, what can come to mind are the worst economic woes since the Great Depression, the largest job decreases since WWII, and the failing big businesses and infrastructure. I think now more than ever is a chance when people, especially students, can discover a “fire or passion” for something that can have big implications on the future. With a new political administration about to be sworn in that emphasizes government presence and regulation, the ability to be an entrepeneur in a country leading to stabalization, I feel, opens doors to many people willing to go with the changes. The large unemployment figures today are something entrepeneurs can really take advantage of, as many new jobs are needed in a country where older, lost jobs have become replaced or unnecessary. Entrepeneurs can choose to provide the catalyst for large-scale projects when it comes to creating a country, or even a world, that offers solutions to many considerable problems such as updating the infrastucture of American roads and electric grids, designing and manufacturing more energy efficient and environmental friendly transportation, or incorporating simple time-saving technology (checking email on one’s phone) in our day-to day lives given technology’s ever increasing presence in our society. I really think a template for innovation is being set for those passionate enough to make a difference with the problems we face today.

  • Omar A Tavarez

    January 15, 2009

    Agree 100%! The passion and fire are there waiting for us the develop it and evolve it but one question remains will we do something about it, or will we sit there and wait for someone else to “fix” it for us? “The hunger” as many people put it is no longer there, so where did it go?

  • Albert

    January 15, 2009

    The animal planet recently did an experiment with a wolf and a domestic dog they trained the dog and wolf to go for a piece of meat they both accomplish this task easily. Next they tied the same piece of meat to a fixed location (a cage) and commanded the dog and wolf to retrieve the meat the dog gave-up after a few tries while the wolf continued (even went as far as to open the cage and attack it at another angle) until the trainer called her off. So my question is with all our readily available information and resources have we become the dog and just give up one something becomes hard or does not give us the result we where after? One thing remains dogs are docents of wolfs and as such can tap into that drive they have forgotten, but can we?

  • Simon Hefti

    March 13, 2009

    Of course, you would like to replace “parking lot” with a “log-in status” in your preferred online collaboration platform. Meaning: knowledge workers are not necessarily bound to physical presence, as large open source projects demonstrate.

  • Pingback: Unleashing Michigan Innovation with MCubed ~ by Thomas Zurbuchen « CFE Blog

Leave a Comment

* required