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Dave Mitchell - At Work or Play Determined to Give His All
December 17, 2013

[image-51]Name: Dave Mitchell
Title: Project Manager for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and Acting Associate Director of Planetary Science Projects Division
Formal Job Classification: Deputy Associate Director
Organization: Code 432, MAVEN Project, Code 430, Planetary Science Projects Division, and Code 460, Explorers & Heliophysics Projects Division, Flight Projects Directorate

Whether he is at work or at play, project manager Dave Mitchell is determined to give it his all.

What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

MAVEN is Goddard’s first Mars managed mission and will investigate in detail Mars’ upper atmosphere to determine what has happened to the climate at Mars over time. MAVEN will compliment work being done on the surface by the Mars rovers as well as by other Mars orbiters. As the project manager, my job is to oversee the technical excellence, safety, budget and schedule of the mission.

Additionally, I am the Acting Associate Director of the Planetary Science Projects Division, which allows me to help with new opportunities for planetary work at Goddard. I also support the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security - Regolith Explorer, which is an asteroid sample return mission. There are many similarities between the MAVEN and OSIRIS-REx missions, particularly with the spacecraft, and our launch dates are only separated by three years (2013 and 2016, respectively).

What makes an effective project manager?

It starts with the people and building the right compliment of people to execute the mission. In most organizations there are typically a wide cast of characters, which is a good thing. The key is how to get the various personalities working together as a team. We have five MAVEN partner institutions spread across the country including Goddard. So that requires being on the road, building relationships and rolling up your sleeves to help people and teams solve problems together. Every day is different.

You have to have the technical background to understand the issues and the wherewithal to see the big picture. You have to trust your people to handle the details, but you also have to know when to insert yourself in the process to help make the hard decisions. As project manager, the buck stops with you no matter who makes the decision, you or someone who works for you.

In addition to technical expertise, what other areas must a project manager know?

The agency is extremely cost conscious and needs us to meet our financial commitments. A project manager needs to pay attention to the costs and to the schedule. If you start bleeding schedule, your costs quickly escalate. You have to watch trends closely as things change so that you can address issues quickly before bad turns to worse.

You also have to be mindful of safety aspects. Pressures from technical, cost and schedule can sometimes push teams to cut corners, which can have very serious consequences, both to safety and to overall mission success. Be ready to stand up and say “Stop!” if something doesn’t seem right and build an organizational culture in which your entire team feels safe to do the same.

What do you look for in your team members?

I want people who communicate openly, who have a sense of urgency about their work and a commitment to seeing the job through. I want people who are passionate about their work and who enjoy working on a team. I also want people who are highly competent in their fields of expertise, be it engineering, budget, schedule, safety or other project support elements.

How did you become interested in space?

My father was an Air Force engineer and pilot, so I’ve been around aerospace my whole life. I went to air shows as a little kid. I always wanted to work at NASA.

What excites you about working at Goddard?

In my view, if you love aerospace and science in general, who wouldn’t want to work on a mission that is going to another planet? I wake up every day energized about coming to work. To me, I’m not going to work. In order to put in these long hours, you better love what you do and enjoy who you work with every day. I also love being part of a mission that I essentially joined at the beginning (during the proposal phase) and intend to stay with until we are delivering science data from Mars.

What path did you take to becoming a project manager?

Of course, it began with getting my undergraduate and graduate degrees. From there it was really about having some really good mentors and great work experiences. I have worked with top-notch project managers and project staff in the past who taught me many best practices. These were people who gave me the freedom and pushed me beyond what was in my standard job classification. They would let me completely run a segment of a project just like a project manager, but they would always be available if I needed help. It was not only empowering, it was on the job training that allowed me to fly on my own.

And you do the same with your own people?

Absolutely! For example, my observatory manager owns that portion of the project. He does all the day-to-day management of this very significant project element. He keeps me in the loop, but he is empowered to do that job—as he should be. The same goes with the instrument systems manager, operations manager and others. One of my two deputies entirely owns the budget. My other deputy owns the schedule and also manages the whole, intricate review process. Both come to me for guidance when necessary. I have complete faith in what they are doing.

One of the most important parts of my job early on was in picking the right people to lead the various parts of the project. I kept pushing to get the right group around me to make sure that we could execute the mission as planned. Because I was able to bring in the right people, everything that I just talked about fell into place.

What is the one thing you would tell a new project manager?

Pick the right people to implement the mission. Fight for the best. Don’t settle.

Is there anything else you would tell a new project manager?

Fight for sufficient reserves in terms of both cost and schedule. Don’t get pushed into a corner right out of the gate, because then you and the project will likely be in turmoil for the next five or more years. Also, avoid requirements creep. Adding new requirements beyond what your project was originally selected for can just kill a mission in terms of cost growth and schedule erosion.

What one word or phrase best describes you?

Determined. This applies to my work, my commitment to my family and friends, and when I’m having fun in general. Whatever is in front of me, I’m going to work hard to complete it successfully.[image-78]

Is there something surprising about you, your hobbies, interests or activities outside of work that people do not generally know?

In my younger days, I was a bit of a thrill seeker—skydiving, scuba diving, bungee jumping, white water rafting and the like. Today I still enjoy snow skiing, but I am just as happy to be standing in the surf in the Outer Banks of North Carolina fishing.

Do you have a favorite way to kick back, relax or have fun?

I’m a family person. I spend most of my time away from Goddard with my wife Madeline, our 15-year-old daughter Juliana and our 12-year-old son Alex. I tend to get to work early so that I can be home in time for us to eat dinner together as a family. We enjoy going to the ocean. We’ll also try to get out and catch a Washington Nationals or Capitals game on occasion.

What did you do on your last, big family vacation?

We went to the London Olympics. While watching the equestrienne medal ceremony in London, we had a royal sighting of Prince William, Duchess Catherine and Prince Harry, which meant the world to my wife and daughter. My son and I thought it was pretty neat too. The previous week, we went to Paris to see the last stage of the Tour de France cycling race. It took a couple years of planning to organize this vacation and it pretty much came off without a hitch. To us, it was really the trip of a lifetime.

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Dave Mitchell
Dave Mitchell with the MAVEN spacecraft model beside him.
Image Credit: 
NASA/W. Hrybyk
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The Mitchell family at the London Olympics
Dave Mitchell with wife Madeleine, daughter Juliana and son Alex at the London Olympics watching the equestrienne medal ceremony on their last big, family vacation.
Image Credit: 
Courtesy of D. Mitchell
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Page Last Updated: December 17th, 2013
Page Editor: Lynn Jenner