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John Durning - Doing Extreme Work at Goddard and at Home
February 18, 2014

[image-51]Name: John F. Durning
Title: James Webb Space Telescope Deputy Project Manager
Formal Job Classification: Aerospace Engineer
Organization: Code 443, James Webb Space Telescope Project Office

James Webb Space Telescope Deputy Project Manager John F. Durning and his team are looking for the first lights after the big bang.

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

I’m the Deputy Project Manager for the James Webb Space Telescope. I attend a lot of interesting meetings about difficult but fascinating technical or scientific topics. People are always looking for decisions to be made by the project leadership.

The project is an extraordinary mission. Every day I appreciate being on it because the goals it sets for itself are to rewrite the fundamental understanding of the universe. It’s pretty cool. To be part of that is definitely an honor and a privilege. I love my job.

How does it feel to know that what your team is doing will eventually be in science textbooks?

I’m proud that our team efforts will have a tangible impact on society and our understanding of who we are and where we came from.

What do you expect to find?

What we hope to discover is the timing of the formation of the first stars and galaxies that came after the big bang, which is the origin of time as we comprehend it. Everything is measured against the big bang. We know what our theories tell us we should find. But, the real exciting thing is the anticipation of discovering things that we had no idea about. If the results of the Hubble mission are any guide, we should have a lot of that. We are launching in October 2018 from French Guinea. The first data will come in a few months after launch, but we won’t be able to make the first real scientific assessments until a year or so after launch.

Why did you become a manager?

I’ve been a manager for twenty-plus of my 28 years. I like the big picture. Each management position was further up the organizational food chain and provided a bigger picture. The immediate technical challenge is interesting, but I appreciate the end game and to know the end game you have to have the big picture.

How important is teamwork or collaboration with others to your being able to do your job?

Teamwork is extremely important to the success of the mission. Without it, we would be struggling to find our way. There are approximately 1,200 people around the world collaborating on this mission at any given time. NASA partners with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

Do you have a mentor? If so, what is the most important advice you learned?

Phil Sabelhous was my mentor. He was the project manager for James Webb until three years ago and I’ve known him for over ten years. He retired last year and was an experienced manager. He taught me the importance of staying focused in meetings. To stay focused, make sure that you have an agenda and a purpose and when the agenda is done, the meeting is done. Keep a running list of tasks or actions for yourself. If you don’t make a list, you are bound to forget something.

How do you manage meetings using what your mentor taught you?

It is important for the team to brainstorm, work their problems and exchange views, but the managers must move the project forward. We have to know when to nip the conversation and move on to the next topic. My role is to allow them the freedom to work their problems, but then to help them come to a conclusion and to move forward. Successful project managers know the right time to get the genius of the team as well as the productivity of the team.

How do you know the right time?

It’s a gut feeling. When I hear points being repeated, then I know that we have treaded this ground before and it is time to draw discussions to a close. It is important as a manager to make sure that everyone contributes and has the chance to make their points, even the more quiet members of the team.

Managing expectations is important to you. How do you manage them?

When we first start off on a problem or a challenge, we formulate a plan and we get everyone to buy into that plan. The plan is the plan until it is not. So people need to tell me if we need to adjust the plan. I hate surprises.

I use a tag line: “Help me manage my expectations.” The team knows that once we agree on a plan I will expect that they we do their part of the plan unless informed otherwise. At the same time, I am open to adjusting their work if they have troubles. I do not shoot the messenger. But, I need them to communicate to me—before the due date of their effort arrives—that adjustments to the plan are necessary.

As the hardware is being built and performing, you get the satisfaction that you have hardware that is working and that you are maintaining schedule and budget so your productivity is achieved.

Did you plan your career path?

I thank Phil for giving me the opportunity to work on James Webb, which is the coolest thing I’ve ever done. I got here serendipitously. I never laid out a career plan. I took a job, I did it well and I let the opportunities present themselves based on the merits of my efforts. I’ve been fortunate to have had very good opportunities land my way. But the moral is to be open to opportunities as they present themselves. You never know where they might lead. I started at Goddard as an instrument manager. I took on roles of increasing responsibility when they presented themselves. I’ve been very fortunate to work with excellent managers who helped to guide my enthusiasm.

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

I just started getting involved with competitive obstacle course races. I’ve participated in the Spartan series of obstacle courses which, for me, is five miles. Obstacles include running while carrying a 5-gallon bucket of gravel, which weighs about 80 lbs., or scaling a mountain side with a 40-pound sandbag, climbing a 30-foot rope, crawling under barbed wire and running through mud while going up or down a mountainside. My wife, daughter and I do this together, although now my daughter is at a higher level. I like the physical and mental challenge of pushing through the barriers.

If you and your wife were giving a dinner party, who would you invite?

Abraham Lincoln. Joan of Arc. Tich Nhat Hanh. Benjamin Franklin. Socrates. We would have a very philosophical conversation.

What one word or phrase best describes you?


What is your “six-word memoir”? A six-word memoir describes something in just six words.

Come on, we’re not there yet!?

Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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John jumping the fire pit during his Spartan race
John Durning taking part in a Spartan obstacle course jumps over the fire pit.
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Spartan Races
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Page Last Updated: February 18th, 2014
Page Editor: Lynn Jenner