Back to Top

ASK OCE — September 20, 2006 — Vol. 1, Issue 14


How can an organization create an environment for project management or systems engineering development that gets beyond the sink-or-swim paradigm?

Claire Smith and Ron Johnson of Ames Research Center (ARC) have asked themselves this question many times over the past several years. “Everyone can say you learn on the job,” Smith said. “But just saying that doesn’t make it so.”

Johnson and Smith are two of the driving forces behind the creation of the Ames Project Excellence development program (APEX), a professional development program for project managers and systems engineers.

APEX, which now has twenty participants in its pilot year, did not happen overnight. “In the late 1990s and early 2000 we were pretty successful at getting new research and technology projects here at the center,” Johnson said. “And we had a lack of critical mass of project managers. We were taking people who were primarily researchers and putting them in the position of managing projects.”

Johnson, Chief of the Systems Management Office, and Smith, Deputy Program Manager of APEX, held a series of workshops across the center in 2000-2001 to gather feedback about how to address this issue, and when they briefed the center’s senior management on their findings, one of the top recommendations was to establish a project manager development program at Ames.

With the go-ahead to develop a model for a program, Johnson and Smith cast a wide net for ideas and information. “We did a center-wide needs assessment, we did focus groups, we did surveys,” Smith said. “We came up with a proposal for what a program would look like, tying in what we knew about APPL (now the Academy for Program/Project & Engineering Leadership, or APPEL), what we’ve seen at other centers, what other centers have tried. We were always checking to make sure our program mapped to APPEL. We also looked at the PMI (Project Management Institute) model, INCOSE (International Council on Systems Engineering), CMMI (Capability Maturity Model Integration), you name it.”

“We had a lot of conversations with JPL and Goddard,” Johnson added. “We saw those Centers as models for what Ames was aspiring to be in terms of a center for managing spaceflight missions.”

Their research confirmed something they already knew-that strong practitioner involvement would be critical to their program design process. “APEX is for the practitioner by the practitioner,” Smith said. “They have to be a part of designing it. Otherwise there’s no way we could design a program that meets their needs.”

At the same time that they worked at the grassroots level, they also solicited feedback from the center’s senior management. “We recognized that in order for anything to succeed here we needed to have a champion at the center management level,” Johnson said. “You have to have champions, and you have to listen to what the senior managers are saying. They have their own ideas.”

In the case of APEX, one of those ideas fundamentally reshaped the program. “When we originally started it was a project management development program,” Johnson said, “but in our meeting with our center director, he said, ‘Project management is important, but we also need to strengthen our systems engineering.’ So we basically added that component to the program based on what he wanted.”

The APEX program begins with assessments in leadership and technical competence to measure a participant’s baseline capability level. Once the assessments establish this baseline, Individual Development Plans are designed so the participant can attain the next level of capability. APEX participants must demonstrate a measurable increase in capability in order to complete the program successfully.

The program itself includes on-the-job training, mentoring, and coursework, and employs APPEL’s Performance Enhancement team to deliver the leadership development and coaching services.

“APEX is designed and driven to help people do what they’re supposed to be doing right now, do it better. We consider their project work one big OJT (on-the-job-training) assignment,” Smith said. “The process is designed so that development happens in a continuous loop. Experiences and knowledge is generated via project work. Those experiences are discussed and reflected upon in the mentoring sessions, and then those new insights and sharpened awareness are then taken back to the project work. And so on.”

Each APEX participant has 4-6 hours per month of one-on-one mentoring as well as monthly team mentoring sessions with their cohort of project managers or systems engineers. “The mentoring program had to be at least semi-structured,” Smith said. “People getting together to shoot the breeze is not mentoring.”

With the pilot program roughly two-thirds over, Johnson and Smith believe that the Ames community as a whole has a better idea of what APEX can become as it matures. “I think the idea of (what constitutes) a development program is a lot more conscious, and there’s a lot more consensus around it,” Smith said.

Learn more about APEX (PDF).

In This Issue

Message from the Chief Engineer

Leadership Corner: Rickover on Doing a Job

This Week in NASA History: JFK Challenges U.S. to Reach Moon by Decade’s End

First-Person Perspective: NASA History

Reaching for the APEX at Ames

Government Brief: FAA Publishes New Commercial Space Safety Standards

Copy That: Progress in Rapid Prototyping

A View from Outside: Russia and China to Collaborate on Mars Mission

Archimedes Archive: The Turtle

About the Author

Share With Your Colleagues