The day I left NASA, and the reasons why

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” – Henry David Thoreau

For an inaugural blog post, I feel as though one should start at the beginning.

I’m sure you’d like to know what motivated me to leave my job at NASA. In fact, maybe some of you are reading this blog just to understand why on earth anybody would leave a secure job from an exciting, loved organization. And it’s true - I’m a classic NASA-geek. I will always be a huge supporter, and am incredibly proud of the work I did during my time there.

So why leave?

Entrepreneurial Training

Because I was trained to be an entrepreneur, not an employee. 

In the “About Courtney” page of this blog I go into my “training” to some extent, describing how I was brought up homeschooled. My day-to-day life was different – I had no routine. Each day, I went somewhere different, studied when I had time, and learned through experiences, not just books. Without knowing it, my mother was training me to have an entrepreneurial spirit - to learn and work differently.

This training spilled-over to my college career. Once I made it to a “traditional” educational institution, the first thing on my mind was: “how can I do this differently?”. I found I was passionate about what I did outside the classroom (robotics projects, research, conferences) and was always looking for something new and different. So who would expect my mentality to change in the workplace?

The Start(up)

I found an opportunity to start a company while I was in college. 4 years and 5+ people later, the company is pushing along through the quintessential startup-“valley of death”. Just as exciting as it is, it is equally terrifying. Finding funding at this stage of development is difficult, and timing is everything. Market opportunities come and go.

The Realization

Days at my NASA-job would go-by, and while I was excited about the projects I was working on, I was still antsy. I was carrying a burden with me day in and day out, and my mind would wander-off to the startup, thinking: “what could I be doing right now for the company?”. I thought about my business skills, the type of work I was truly passionate about (which I've discovered can be boiled-down to: enabling talented engineers to do their job with minimal bull $#!%), and how I wish I had more experience to lead the company effectively. But how does one do that? I considered an MBA….for about a week. I thought about going part-time, or leaving my job, but like all other recent-graduates, I needed a steady income. Perhaps you’ve faced the same dilemma.

My homeschooled days taught me well. Always be on the lookout for opportunities, and never discount something just because nobody else is doing it that way. In my experiences, I’ve always found the things that intimidate you at first such as publishing papers, presenting at conferences, running a marathon, starting a company, or entering your first fast-pitch competition actually aren’t so bad once you get going. The key is just getting started, and sticking with it..

So wouldn’t you know, one such opportunity came about for me. My startup was looking for firmware-development help, so we reached-out to local consulting firm. It turns out that at the time, we couldn’t afford the companys help, but wouldn’t you know it, social media kept me in contact with the CEO. Around October, this same CEO messaged me on LinkedIn and asked if I had some spare time to help out as an engineering manager. I had the same reaction most (sane) people would: “Hah! Leave my secure government job for a part-time position at a small consulting firm? Who does that?”.

Initial reactions from family and friends were negative – “how can you take that kind of risk?” The interesting thing I’ve learned is that life, in general, is much riskier than people think. Stock markets crash, the government has furloughs. You can attempt to avoid all risk in your life, but chances are, you’ll waste more time worrying about minimizing risk then going out and living your life. For me, at some point, the decision became clear:

  • I wanted to learn how to run a small company – here was opportunity for me to do that.
  • I needed an income – here was a way for me to continue to live comfortably.
  • I wanted to have more time to spend on my startup – here was a way for me to gain 20 hours of my work-week back.

Contrary to popular belief, I had just discovered that no, you don't have to dropout of school/become homeless to start a company. You just have to keep your eyes open for the right opportunity at the right time, and for goodness sake, be a little patient!

“Breaking Up” with NASA

So I did it. For some reason, when I went to tell my boss about my decision, I had the same feeling you get when you break-up with somebody. You know how it is. I was a good employee, and I knew they didn’t want me to go. I also really loved the group of people I worked with, so it wasn't an easy thing to do. (“it’s not you, it’s me!)

To my pleasant surprise, the whole process went significantly smoother than I expected. The reason is very simple – I have always been honest and upfront about my entrepreneurial endeavors at work. I find that many people try to “hide” their side businesses. What they’re really doing is writing a death sentence to either their side business or their main job, because you can’t have both (insert an analogy to relationships again). So I broke it off with NASA, no hard feelings. In the end, it was a mutual agreement, and we wished each other our best. Too bad all breakups don’t go that smoothly. ☺

New Beginnings

And so, here I am – 3 weeks after diving into the deep end. I am absolutely overwhelmed, and am absolutely loving it. I am busier than I have ever been at a job, have more personal responsibility, and am learning something new about business every day. It’s akin to taking at least 8 or 10 MBA-classes all at once…but no reading, only class projects (the homeschooler in me is loving it). I am wearing three hats: engineering manager, project manger, and even a little bit of sales (but those details are for another blog post!). And of course, I have ample time and energy to devote to my startup.

Just what I wasn’t looking for (but wanted all along).