SMA Leadership Profile: Andrew Demo

SMA Leadership Profile: Andrew Demo

7-minute read
Andrew Demo

“I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world,” said author Mary Anne Radmacher. For Ames Research Center’s newest Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) Director Andrew “Drew” Demo, a lifetime of travel has taught him to appreciate diversity, exercise empathy and sensitivity, and build relationships — all essential building blocks to his leadership style.

Demo spent two years of his adult life budget traveling around the world to over 60 countries. He recalls meeting someone new from a different country, traveling with them for a week or two, then meeting someone else and repeating the process. He’d also stay at homes of families in other countries, from dirt floors to five-star accommodations, getting a taste of the life and culture in the process.  

“These experiences have helped me appreciate the diversity of thoughts and ideas and helped me see I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t know the right thing, and that to get people’s input is very important,” said Demo. 

He notes that both the Bay Area in which Ames resides and the center’s SMA organization itself are quite diverse, something he appreciates. He relates the lessons he learned from his travels to how he works with those around him:

“It helps me to build those partnerships and relationships with other directors across the center,” he said. “It’s about learning how to relate to people and learning to be curious about who they are.”

Get to Know Demo Off the Clock

In addition to being an avid traveler, Demo describes himself as “a dad who loves hanging out with his kids and coaching their sport teams.” While he admits coaching takes a lot of effort, he finds it all worthwhile when a kid changes throughout the season from misbehaving and difficult to being a role model for others on the team.

Demo is also passionate about landscape. He and his wife both enjoy landscape design and have spent the last few years perfecting their landscape and hardscape. Now, with so much time at home, he’s extra grateful for the retreat. He enjoys sitting outside for breakfast with his wife and ending his day with his family while enjoying the view.

“It’s been a refuge for us,” he said.

Prior to becoming the SMA director, Demo was the deputy SMA director at Ames. When he took on the deputy role, he scheduled a half-hour meeting with every civil servant and contractor in the organization. He told them he didn’t want their resume or work experience. 

He said, “I want to get to know you as a person. Where did you grow up? Have you lived elsewhere? What are your hobbies? Do you have pets?”

He then let them ask him questions because he wanted them to get to know him as a person as well. Now, as director, he’s continuing these one-on-one meetings with new hires. 

“I want the people to enjoy coming to work,” said Demo. “I want to get to know people and have them feel valued, not just as an employee but as a person.”

Demo’s drive to connect with people is evident in his belief that it’s important to pause and take the time to thank people for the work they do or acknowledge a job well done. With a very busy schedule — and currently without the support of a deputy — Demo is working hard to walk-the-walk.

“I‘m trying to fight that battle and win that battle to take the two minutes to write that email or to take the three minutes to make the phone call.”

In addition to his miscellaneous travels, Demo also left NASA for two years in 2000 to work with street children in Vietnam, another impactful experience that helped shape his world views and his empathy for others. 

“That’s another life experience that’s been very valuable,” he said. “To know what it’s like to be a minority in a country, to feel like people are always looking at you. I often describe it as being an elephant walking down the street in Vietnam. Of course, I missed friends and family, but what I missed most was the anonymity. It’s hard being a minority, and that’s helped me with sensitivity to people with whatever background they may come from.”

Plans as SMA Director

Demo acknowledges he comes to SMA with an outside perspective, something he believes will help bring new eyes to how the organization operates. 

“I am new to the organization,” said Demo. “I did not grow up in SMA; I come from Systems Engineering and the Chief Engineer’s Office, so I do have a new perspective. Rather than doing things the way they’ve always been done, I have the advantage of having spent 25 years looking at the organization from the outside. I’m trying to find ways to be more efficient because the budget isn’t going to go up and we have a very small staff to cover a wide array of responsibilities at the center.”

Although Demo has been in his new role for only a little more than two months, with his fresh perspective in mind, he’s identified a few initial goals:

  1. Hire a deputy
  2. Build a tool to monitor all center SMA activities, actions and due dates
  3. Grow partnerships within Ames
  4. Set strategic goals for the organization

The first goal is straightforward: Demo needs to find his right-hand man or woman to help guide future initiatives and day-to-day work. He expects to hire a deputy in the coming weeks. The second goal will be a longer endeavor. 

“There’s probably five to 10 databases with information and action items in them,” explained Demo, referencing everything from project milestone reviews, to Corrective Actions from Office of Safety and Mission Assurance audits, to Corrective Actions identified from mishaps, to internally driven actions, to name a few. “I would like, if possible, to have a dashboard that pulls from all of them. With so many things happening around the center, we can’t just keep running from fire to fire, we have to build a system and that’s what I’m trying to do now, is find or develop a web-based tool to get on top of these actions and upcoming reviews to enable a more proactive approach to management rather than reactive.”

He acknowledges that this dashboard may have to be managed manually, at least initially, but feels a single-page view of the center’s status with regards to its various SMA actions would have a huge impact on efficiency. 

As a first step, Demo reached out to his fellow SMA directors across the agency to benchmark what others are doing. He surveyed them on their organizational structure, center tools and budget questions. So far, he’s found the SMA community to be very responsive and engaged. 

“One of the things I’ve really appreciated about coming into SMA is Terry [Wilcutt, chief, SMA] has these quarterly face-to-face meetings, and the other SMA directors and deputies have been so welcoming,” said Demo. “I’ve been a part of a lot of agency Systems Engineering communities, which are welcoming, but the SMA community I’ve found special.” 

He notes that every time he reaches out asking one or multiple centers for help, the response from other centers is detailed and timely. 

“It’s made me I feel like I’m coming into an SMA family that really wants to support each other in a way I haven’t experienced since I came to NASA from industry in 1992.” 

Demo’s third goal is to build more bridges between different areas across Ames and also continue to shift SMA’s role in supporting these areas and projects. 

“Another main objective is trying to bring more partnership with other directorates around the center,” he said. “I’m trying to move us to a place where projects see the value in getting the support and engagement of SMA at the beginning of the project’s life cycle,” he said. “As we show value in terms of helping projects safely achieve mission success, projects will be self-motivated to involve us early on and not view us a purely regulatory in nature. I see a lot of this already going on within the org. and I want to find ways to move us even further along that path.”

“We’re trying to do things faster, cheaper and hopefully better,” Demo continued. “We need to help projects early on tailor the requirements to right-size them to the acceptable risk of those missions.”  

Finally, Demo wants to develop a strategic plan for the Ames SMA organization. Once he finds a deputy, he hopes he or she, along with the associate director and two division chiefs, can develop a plan. 

“I have some ideas for the vision of the organization, but I don’t want it to be my vision alone, I want it to be our vision,” he said. “Collectively, I want us to come up with a strategic plan with common goals for where to take the org., along with some near-term tactical actions to move us along the path to reaching those goals.”

Demo acknowledges that under current world circumstances and with Ames widely teleworking as a result, SMA is facing unique challenges. 

“It’s a really challenging role trying to keep people safe at the center, especially during this time of COVID-19, which is brand new for everybody, while also keeping the projects focused on mission assurance, and then there’s the constraint of budget.”

Budget constraints mean that the Ames SMA organization is unlikely to grow to accommodate an evolving workload. For example, one division chief has seven contributors on the team, while the other has 27 — a very large group to manage without a deputy division chief. As such, Demo is focused on finding the most efficient solutions to current work and looking for creative ways to organize the divisions with proper oversight without the burden falling to one person. Part of the strategic plan will ideally be identifying long-term and near-term solutions. 

As Demo faces these challenges and begins work on his short- and long-term goals, his passion for diversity of thought will serve him well. When asked what drives him, Demo responds simply:

“It’s often said, it’s about the people.”