Kenny Harris, a NASA engineer named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Class of 2020, discusses his experiences as a young professional.
Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list is a selection of young, creative and bold minds the magazine’s experts view as living proof that the future will be exciting and profoundly different. Forbes evaluated more than 15,000 nominees to decide on 600 business and industry figures, with 30 selected in each of 20 industries. Harris, a senior engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, was selected in the magazine’s Science category for his work on the James Webb Space Telescope, one of five satellite missions he’s supported since starting work at NASA at age 16.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- How young professionals can achieve work-life balance
- The importance of setting goals
- The power of mentoring
Kenneth Harris II is a Senior Engineer on the Mission Operations Support Team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Harris currently serves as the Database lead Engineer for the NASA J2 Joint Polar Satellite System and is responsible for developing procedures and implementing processes between the Flight Team, Instrument Vendors and Spacecraft Vendors. Prior to this role, he served as the Deputy Lead Integration Engineer for the James Webb Space Telescope’s Integrated Science Instrument Module, ranking him at age 24 as one of the youngest African Americans in NASA’s history to lead an integration effort on a multi-billion-dollar satellite mission. Since starting to work for NASA at age 16, Harris has been involved in five satellite missions. He was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Class of 2020, a selection of young, bold and creative minds the magazine’s expert evaluators consider revolutionaries who are changing the course of business and society. Harris has a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a master’s in engineering management from Johns Hopkins University.
Kenny Harris: When I think of NASA, I think of cutting-edge, not only conversations, not only technologies, but ideas.
To be in a think tank where you’re able to bounce the idea off other brilliant people is a constant challenge, because what you’re doing hasn’t always been done before.
Deana Nunley (Host): We’re glad you’re along with us today for Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
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Today on the podcast, our conversation is with a NASA young professional who was recently named to the Forbes 30 under 30 Class of 2020, a selection of young, bold and creative minds the magazine’s experts consider revolutionaries who are changing the course of business and society. Kenny Harris is a senior engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and joins us now on the podcast. Kenny, thanks for talking with us.
Harris: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here.
Host: Congratulations on your selection for the Forbes 30 Under 30 Class of 2020.
Harris: Thank you so much. It’s a real honor to receive the award, and I’m more than happy to share the story of how it actually happened, because it caught me off guard, to be 100 percent honest.
Host: Did it really? Tell us more about that.
Harris: Essentially, how the Forbes list works, from my understanding, is someone nominates you, whether they are anonymous or whether they tell you. They submit it to the necessary people, and then those people reach out to you and simply ask for a photo, just saying, “Hey, I’m from Forbes. You’ve been nominated. May we have a photo of you in your professional environment?”
So, I send the photo to this gentleman, and I don’t hear from him for four to five months. Then on the day that the list is actually released, they send you an e-mail that says, “Hey, you’ve been featured on the list and welcome to the list.” They don’t tell you who nominated you, if they want it to remain anonymous. They just tell you all the things that come along with being on the list and they introduce you to your classmates.
We’ve got this cool app that’s basically like a social media network, but it’s a social media network for people on the list. So, it’s a way to network. It’s like a LinkedIn, but for Forbes listers. It’s pretty cool.
Host: That sounds so exciting and surprising that all of a sudden you hear back from them. How has the designation impacted you?
Harris: Honestly, it hasn’t changed my day-to-day life per se. It has helped get me that additional exposure that I’ve wanted for so long, just because outside of my role as an engineer, I do enjoy not only speaking at conferences and on the big stage, but I enjoy visiting classrooms very intimately and talking to students one-on-one, and really getting their questions answered in terms of, “Hey, what was undergraduate like? What was it like to be in grad school as well as be full-time at NASA? How did you balance both? How do you have a personal life in addition to everything else that you’re doing?”
My goal is to be a changemaker, and this has really helped me to get the additional exposure that I needed to do that.
Host: We’re going to want to talk more about being a changemaker as we go along in this interview. Give us just a snippet of that. What do you mean when you say you want to be a changemaker? What are some of those goals that you’ve set for yourself?
Harris: I truly want to impact as many lives as I can, whether it’s in my field or out of my field. I feel as though I had mentors and people that guided me along, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help of them. So, I feel like it would be selfish, it would be foolish, it would be very big-headed and conceited of me to say, “I got here by myself and I won’t then pour into the next generation.” So, I feel like it’s not about me. It’s really about what I can do for others and what I can do to help them along their journey.
Host: The Forbes profile highlights your work on five different satellite missions since you started working at NASA at age 16. Let’s talk about your journey. How did you get started with the agency as a teenager?
Harris: So, my initial interaction with the agency came at a very, very young age, because my dad is an engineer at NASA Goddard. So, I would spend a lot of afternoons there, after school, because both of my parents worked full-time. So, I wasn’t able to leave school, get on the bus and go straight home. Sometimes I would get picked up by them and we would go back to the office. So, I spent a lot of time in Building 5, in kind of like the machine area – not in the machine area, but where the machine area is housed. So, I was exposed at a very, very young age to NASA and NASA culture.
When I got older, I was able to work at a summer camp, where we just helped younger children build model rockets, and really studied the really basic knowledge you need in terms of physics and rocket dynamics and things like that. Honestly, it was a summer volunteer opportunity, but I was really there to just watch my younger sister, in all honesty, because she’s 18 months younger than me. So, I was really there to more so keep an eye on her, but still was involved in kind of the NASA culture.
From there, I met a woman in the Education Department as a camp counselor. She thus encouraged me to apply for the High School Internship Program, or the HIP program. I was immediately accepted the following summer. When I was 15, I was accepted into the program, and we started that summer when I was 16 years old. I was able to work on the MMS mission. That was my first mission there.
Host: What happened next for you?
Harris: It just kind of kept going, to be honest. I started, like I said, at 16, as a sophomore in high school. The MMS mission that summer turned into a full year because I went to Eleanor Roosevelt High School, which is literally a two-minute drive from NASA Goddard. So, my mentor at the time, Anthony Sanders, was kind enough to allow me to come on center after school most days, and I was able to kind of continue the project.
I worked in the Radiation Effects Department in Code 561. We were basically studying the effects of radiation on different components of the satellite. So, he allowed me to come and continue my work from the summer voluntarily.
From MMS, I then transitioned to GPM, which is the Global Precipitation Measurement satellite, which is a combined project with JAXA. It was the same situation there. I started on that as a high school intern over the summer and it turned into a full year, so much so that when I got to my senior year of high school, I had finished most of my courses in high school, and I had a half day. So, I was able to go to school for the first half of the day, and then go to Goddard for the second half of the day. That’s how I finished up my senior year, before I went to undergraduate at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Host: What did you end up getting your degree in?
Harris: My undergraduate degree is in mechanical engineering, and my master’s degree is in engineering management.
Host: In 2018, you gave a TED talk about the power of mentorship at NASA and beyond. How important do you think internships and mentoring are for NASA’s future?
Harris: Internships and mentorship in NASA I feel is of crucial importance. Like I said before, I would not be where I am today without the mentors guiding me through the different steps of Goddard and through the culture of NASA as a whole, helping me navigate different projects and seeing a mission through its entire life cycle.
I feel as though internships specifically help to be that connection between students and their eventual career. Every time I go out to these schools and I speak at these conferences, and data shows that a student, specifically middle school students, are where the disconnect happens in terms of interest in the STEM field – or not only interest, but also confidence in the STEM field. It shows that when math changed from just numbers to numbers and letters, or when science changes from Mentos and Coca-Cola to stoichiometry, these kids are losing the confidence and the interest in the sciences, because it is difficult and because they might not have that support system to help them through it.
As we know, this is a difficult field to be in. So if you feel as though you don’t have a support system, and you feel as though you’re not confident enough to complete something on your own, a large percentage of those students will then lose interest in the field and thus choose something else to go into. So, I feel as though mentorship, internships are of the utmost importance, not only at Goddard, but across the board.
Host: How does NASA step in and help students to get that past that obstacle that seems to be causing them to want to go in a different direction because of the difficulties or maybe the lack of a support system?
Harris: NASA, specifically, I’ll say has a really good internship program, has a really good presence when it comes to trying to be active in the lives of younger students. I know individually, me and my other coworkers, like I said, will individually partake in career days. I know NASA sends out a team to participate in career days.
I think the thing NASA is having a problem with now, and I know specifically Goddard and some other centers might have as well, are those people who are already in their field, established in their field, it’s more difficult now than it was several years ago to actually get an intern. Let’s say there’s not enough funds to go around. So, there might be less interns at a center, or there might be less mentors willing to go through the process of trying to get an intern.
Host: Why did you want to become an engineer?
Harris: My desire to be an engineer is rooted in two things. One is my dad. His entire career has been in some hands-on engineering type field. For as long as I can remember, he’s been at Goddard. I know he had jobs before that, but for as long as I can remember, he’s been at Goddard. So just having that constant influence in your life.
And going back to support systems, going back to feeling as though I was able to do it. Even when people said I wasn’t able to complete either classes or different assignments on a mission or things like that, I had that support system and thus I had that confidence to be able to continue in that.
The second thing is as a young kid I was really into art and design and things like that. I remember my second internship on GPM. I walked into my mentor’s office on the first day and he asked why I was there. I basically said I wanted to be able to build Transformers, not the components we all know, but I mean an actual Transformer like Optimus Prime. That was from my desire to do CAD drawings and to sketch things out and stuff like that.
When I was young, I used to go to my dad’s office and draw Pokemon or different shows I was watching. Thus, I made it more scientific. So, I like to bring the art side to the sciences. I feel as though that’s why I really started to love engineering specifically, because there is a beauty to it, specifically in the design, the process, which I think is why I ultimately went the route of mechanical engineering.
Host: That’s fun. What are you working on now?
Harris: Currently, I work on the JPSS mission, so the Joint Polar Satellite System. It’s a series of weather satellites that we not only use to collect weather data around the world, but to also monitor natural disasters. I know a specific instrument on JPSS monitored the most recent hurricane, Hurricane Dorian, as well as the Amazon rainforest fires and the Australian fire. So, currently, I work on that project. I’m currently working on the database aspect of it to work with spacecraft and their ground vendors, instrument vendors to produce the most efficient database possible, so that we are able to control and operate the satellite while on orbit.
Host: Is it scratching your itch for all the things that you wanted to do when you were younger and deciding to become an engineer?
Harris: It’s a new experience I’ll say. My previous experience on James Webb was what I’ll say to be the peak of my career at Goddard because it was amazing. I was able to work in the clean room. I was able to lead a team. I was able to do that documentation aspect, but that was only about 25 to 30 percent of my job.
I was traveling. I went to Johnson Space Center with the telescope, right before it went into the thermal chamber. Most importantly, I was able to be – you know, to be around a satellite that’s that large and to not just see it in a book or to see it online, it was an amazing experience to be under the telescope, to be hoisted up next to it, to make sure components are torqued to the right value. It was an amazing experience.
Host: Yeah, that sounds like a great experience. Are there any other favorite moments of your career so far that you’d want to share with us?
Harris: One of my favorite moments at Goddard was during my time on GPM. I was working as an intern under Alphonso Stewart in Code 543. His style of mentoring is something that I’ve really taken as my own, and I use it on my mentees to this day and they absolutely hate it. But I learned so much from this style of mentoring that I had to take it as my own. I had to duplicate the process.
So, one day, it had to be my second or third week on this project. I come into the room and Alphonso basically says, “We have this problem. It needs to meet these three criteria.” So we had the solar array panels or the boom deployment system for GPM. He said, “We have to design an elbow hinge that completes these three requirements,” and he walks out of the room. He just leaves me to my thoughts. He doesn’t give me hints. He’s just like, “Use your resources,” and he walks out of the room.
So, for me, that really challenged me to, again, not only use my resources, because at this time, the Goddard Library was great. We had different documents and stuff. He had taught me how to read engineering designs. So really, I had taken all of the knowledge I had from my past internship, as well as those first one to two weeks of the internship on GPM, and he is now challenging me to basically figure it out.
This isn’t to say, “Figure it out, and then develop it and move on with it.” It’s to figure it out, come back and have the conversation. That, to me, was so challenging. It allowed me to learn so much, just from the experience, that, again, I just had to duplicate it.
And they hate it. My mentees will say, “Hey, are you going to help me with anything else?” My response is basically, “No. We’ll figure it out. Just give me your take on it first.” They’ll come back and I have questions, questions about the design, questions about materials to use, questions about just a host of things, and we have a really good conversation about it. I think I’ve learned – well, I know I’ve learned a ton from that method that I still use to this day.
Host: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Harris: So, challenges I faced along the way, in terms of education, there was a time in my education career where I was advised to stop my pursuit of engineering. Again, full circle back to that confidence and having a support system. I feel as though I actually would have changed my major if it was not for the help of those mentors I had, the support system I had in college at the time, and just being confident in my abilities.
That’s not to say that I didn’t take the advice of the person that said, “Hey, you should change your major.” I looked through different majors that my credits would transfer to. I did a host of different things. But, at the end of the day, I’m exceedingly happy that I did not change my degree.
In terms of career challenges, I’ll say that when you think about NASA, you automatically think space. Then when I think of NASA, I think of cutting-edge, not only conversations, not only technologies, but ideas. To be in a think tank where you’re able to bounce the idea off other brilliant people is a constant challenge, because what you’re doing hasn’t always been done before, and what you’re doing, you’re always trying to improve and make it as efficient as possible, not only for monetary reasons, but also in terms of schedule, and also in terms of just the data you can get from it, because we all want as much data as possible, so that we can understand these different galaxies and universes and planets and stars and whatever else we decide to study. So, I’ll say the challenges are exceedingly rewarding.
Host: You mentioned that there was some suggestion for you to change your major. What was that about?
Harris: Within my education career, for my undergraduate degree, there was a course that I struggled with pretty bad during my junior year, which is arguably the hardest year for any engineering major. Like I said, it was a class I really struggled with, and I had a bunch of other classes that I was taking that I was doing fairly well in.
So, my academic advisor, basically after taking the class once and needing to retake it, he just said that, “Engineering might not be the best route for you to go. There are alternatives routes you can take. You should drop out of the mechanical engineering program and maybe switch to a different major that accepts the credits that you have.”
Like I said, I was really discouraged because this wasn’t the first time I faced academic struggles, but it was one of the worst academic struggles I did face while in my undergraduate degree. So that was something that I feel was ill-advised. Like I said, without the network I had and without the confidence I had, I feel as though I would have actually taken the route and taken the advice of that person.
Host: But you persevered, and you were able to succeed in getting that degree.
Harris: Oh, yeah, 100 percent. In my TEDx, I had to say that I pursued a second engineering degree after that, because I don’t like to back down from challenges. So, I did; I took it very personally. I took it as a testament to that person’s confidence in me. I took it as a testament to that person’s opinion of my level of skill.
I harnessed those emotions and they pushed me forward constantly. I not only take it as a lesson for myself, but I try to use it as a lesson for everyone else. Thus, I constantly encourage anyone I come in contact with to say, “Hey, you’ll face challenges. You’ll face struggles. But it’s not the end of the world, and there are bigger problems out there than the one that you’re facing right now.” So, I took it as a lesson, and I took it as a lesson and an opportunity to teach others as well.
Host: What do you think the characteristics are that make you successful?
Harris: That’s a good question. I’d say, from the outside looking in, I’d say one characteristic that I like about myself is the desire to make an impact on others. Again, so many times throughout my career I’ve had the opportunity to do additional things that seemingly will put me on a pedestal, but every time, consistently, I have to make the argument or I have to say the statement of it’s not about me, because I don’t want people to focus on me. I want people to focus on how they also might have amazing careers. They might also have done amazing things, and the world needs to see that.
A younger student needs to see that and they need to see not only the work you’re doing, but the willingness you have to reach out and impact them. So I think that more than anything, we need to focus on impact, not only for the younger generation, but me specifically, I feel as though I’m in a great spot in terms of I can reach back to the younger generation, encouraging them, using my story to be a mentor to them and encouraging them to get additional mentees, and encouraging them to get through their studies and college and high school and postgraduate, but also to reach forward and touch the generation that came before me, encouraging them to reach back and to get a mentee, to pour into them, to encourage them to find a replacement for them when they eventually leave the workforce. Not only that, but, again, to encourage them to tell their story, because so many of them have gone through adversity. So many of them have gone through different challenges that we don’t have to go through today.
My dad always tells me a story about when they used to use punch cards. I have no experience with punch cards, but that level of dedication to be so engrained in your work that you will take the time to use punch cards. If you fumbled them and they fell out of order, you have to then put them back in order manually. So just those stories not only give you an appreciation for who came before you, but it encourages you to also tell your story, because in 10 years, my use of a – you know the giant TI-83 calculators. I don’t think most places use those anymore. I don’t know. Each person’s story is unique, and I encourage them to tell it.
Host: With all the demands on your schedule as a young professional, how are you able to achieve work-life balance?
Harris: Time management. Time management is the key to that. Being a young professional, being involved in my work, being not only that, but attempting to do other things, just like having a social life, being married, it’s a lot I’ll say, but I think time management is most important. You cannot give all your time to your work. Your work is important. Your work is life-changing, but you have to make time for yourself.
I see so many people getting burnt out because they put so much into their work, or they put so much into their personal life that then they don’t have time for their work. So, I think it’s all about work-life balance.
My mom used to tell me something coming up, “There’s a time to work and there’s a time to play.” That’s something that I live by. Either you dedicate – you dedicate your eight or nine hours to work each day, throughout the day, and then you go home and that’s that. I don’t believe in really taking your work home with you after the day, unless for some reason you have fallen behind and you need to catch up on something. But I feel as though those things can wait, unless they have really, really hard deadlines.
That’s to protect your own health, your own mind and your own body. I feel as though that is the best way to achieve work-life balance, knowing when to cut things off.
Host: You’re a big proponent of goal setting. What are your thoughts on the importance of setting goals?
Harris: For me, I think setting goals allows me to have tangible targets for things that I hope to achieve. For example, there was a speaker that came to my high school. I believe I was in either tenth or eleventh grade. He challenged us to – you know, all of us had our bookbags with us. He just said, “Hey, take out a sheet of paper. It can be scrap paper, as long as it’s blank on one side.”
He challenged us to write down every goal we hope to achieve in the next three years. So, we wrote that down. Then he asked us to write down every goal we expect to achieve in the next 10 to 12 years. And I wrote that down. He challenged the young ladies to put the note in their purse. He challenged us to put them in our wallets or our bookbags or what have you.
I still have that sheet of paper with those goals on it. Each time I have completed something along the way, I just go in my wallet and I’ll check it off. I’ll add additional goals as it comes along. But it helps to have those tangible goals that you’re able to hit along the way. Not only that, it’s great conversation and it helps you to know where you’ve come from and where you’re going. So, I’ll say that goal setting, and particularly writing down your goals and tracking your goals is of utmost importance.
For the last thing, it also, again, helps build that confidence. As you see yourself checking off these goals, and as you see yourself accomplishing these things that you said you’ll accomplish, you build the confidence that you’re able to do it. The gentleman that spoke actually challenged us to write some outlandish goals on there, and I’ve achieved some of those things. It’s great to see that I had that confidence in myself at such a young age that I was able to still accomplish those goals.
Host: What’s your plan for the future?
Harris: My plan for the future is to constantly pursue challenging work. I’d love to get on the next big project at Goddard and contribute my skills from the last five missions I’ve been on to the future of Goddard. I’m currently waiting to hear back from the Astronaut Corps. I submitted my application in March, when the application pool was open. So, I’m excited to hear back about that.
It’ll be my first time applying, so fingers crossed, but I wanted to take that chance and apply for it, because that’s been a dream for me since I was a young child. Who works at NASA and really doesn’t want to be an astronaut? So that’s another one of my goals for the future.
I hope again to be a changemaker. I hope to impact as many students as possible. I hope to continue to speak at these conferences. I hope to encourage the next great person in the field of STEM or just in any career. I hope to encourage them and use my story as an example of what you can accomplish.
Host: Kenny, this has been so much fun and inspirational. It’s been a great conversation. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.
Harris: Thank you so much for having me. It’s really been – like you said, it’s been fun. It’s been an experience. I’m so happy I was able to share this story with you, and I can’t wait to see what comes in the future.
Host: Any closing thoughts?
Harris: More than anything, I want everyone to know that it’s up to you to impact the next generation. It’s your choice. So many other students out here and so many of the people already involved in their career need to hear your amazing story, and need to hear lessons you’ve learned, and need to hear just the things you’ve been through, to encourage them to be great as well.
Host: You’ll find links to topics discussed on the show along with Kenny’s bio and a transcript of today’s episode on our website at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast.
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