SMA Leadership Profile: Rick Nybakken

SMA Leadership Profile: Rick Nybakken

6-minute read

Sometimes, being on the outside provides perspective. That’s the case for Rick Nybakken, director for Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

“My career path has really helped to shape me: I’ve been at JPL for 35 years, and I’ve probably been in SMA for eight of those years,” explained Nybakken. “Working with Safety and Mission Assurance as a partner helped me understand the value since day one. That contributed to my desire to eventually work in SMA and gain a greater understanding from the inside.” 

Nybakken worked in the SMA Division Office for five years in the early 2000s as part of a rotation prior to joining the Juno Project in 2006.

“It turned out to be an exceptional experience because then I had seen SMA engineering from the outside and the inside and that had a profound benefit to me on Juno when we had to deal with the challenging environmental requirements during development and operations,” he said. “After successfully completing Jupiter Orbit Insertion and the actual science mission was well underway, it just seemed logical to cycle back into SMA management.”

He notes that this sort of rotation is very common at JPL and the lab finds the experience particularly effective as it brings people with flight experience into SMA — and sometimes eventually back into the flight projects. 

‘It helps give people the proper perspective about how SMA personnel can be used and employed on our projects,” he said. “[As a result], they’re better able to make that partnership work because they have a more informed perspective and greater appreciation for how SMA technical expertise contributes to a mission’s success.”  

Another shaping factor for Nybakken was his on-the-job training.

“My early experience was on the Magellan, Galileo and Cassini projects, and during that time I received what I would say is exceptional on-the-job training with full access to Subject Matter Experts both within the telecommunications engineering organization I worked in and with the SMA engineering organization as well,” explained Nybakken. “And that had a big effect on how I view the world because the emphasis was on technical excellence and technical rigor, while still meeting our cost and schedule commitments. It’s such an important part of mission success and it influences how I manage the organization.”

Maintaining this balance is an area of great importance to Nybakken as he dives into the SMA director role he assumed this summer. One of his additional responsibilities is to ensure that employees receive the proper safety awareness training to keep both personnel and the project hardware safe (Occupational Safety and Systems Safety, respectively), while the teams work through the often hazardous activities associated with flight project development, launch and operations. JPL’s safety organization also includes the Environmental Affairs Office, so his team also manages technical compliance for hazardous waste management, chemical management and water quality. 

While the scope of the organization is broad, the foremost priority is providing critical engineering and assurance support to the lab’s flight projects. The JPL SMA staff is highly technical and has significant expertise in Quality Assurance; Reliability engineering; environmental engineering and assurance; parts engineering; test, materials, and parts radiation testing; failure analysis; mission assurance, and Risk Management.

 “There’s also some unique terminology we use at JPL,” he said. “Our SMA Technical Authorities on the flight projects are called Mission Assurance Managers, while at other centers they are more commonly referred to as Chief Safety Officers.” 

The Technical Authority (TA) function of the Mission Assurance Manager (MAM) role is hugely important as every flight project has both an engineering TA and SMA TA and they are typically involved in every technical issue on a project. 

“The MAM position is both one of the best jobs you can have a on a project and also one of the most challenging,” said Nybakken. “One of our more important goals is to help our SMA TAs at JPL develop the full skillset to be a senior member of the project staff on every project they are on. That goes right to the heart of training and development because those roles not only have strong technical components, but important management and communication components. There are lot of fun and interesting angles to being an effective Mission Assurance Manager. In the end, we not only need to provide the training needed to help our MAMs succeed but also to educate the project development teams on how to effectively work with and engage the SMA expertise within our organization.”

“Some of the other challenges that we’re dealing with are adapting to loss of senior technical talent and the threat to technical excellence that comes with cost and schedule pressure,” he continued. “In addition to that, there are also the cultural and training challenges associated with significant numbers of new hires. These are not just challenges that JPL is dealing with but also the industry as a whole.”

Nybakken also sees adaptiveness and evolution as the solution to the challenges facing the SMA community and NASA as a whole.

“We not only need to meet our current commitments with our existing processes and tools, but we also need to keep a long-term perspective on where we need to take our organization in the future,” he said. “There are a lot of things changing around us that we need to adapt to. Technology changes that affect our processes, tools and technical standards. Greater autonomy in our missions. Greater complexity in our missions and instruments. And, use of more complex commercial parts in space and how to effectively integrate them into high-reliability missions. I think we have to be open to looking at things differently. We’re not going to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s mindset. So, we have to be willing to do the work to understand the core things that make our missions successful, while also allowing for innovation and change around those core aspects. 

Whether it’s his beliefs on the importance of training and technical excellence or his motivation to build stronger bridges between organizations, Nybakken’s focus is on his people. 

 “I believe that when we succeed, its’s because of the team,” he said. “When we fail, it’s because of management. Leading to me is about finding people for the team that are exceptional and then establishing the common vision. And then, in many cases, enabling them or getting out of their way.”

“The other thing that’s hugely important is collaboration,” he added. “And what I mean by that is encouraging and creating an environment where people work well together. There’s always going to be tough times, but people need to be constructive and collaborative in how they deal with each other. I value an organization where we have each other’s backs and we enjoy working with each other because that gets you through the challenges. And there will be challenges; there will be tough times you’re better able to deal with as a team than as a collection of individuals.”

He encourages people to build relationships with coworkers by going to lunch or getting to know them outside the job itself. And while he values these work relationships, he also fully supports a work-life balance.

“Years ago, I asked a senior manager what he did when his son had a little league game and he had a big meeting, and he said, ‘I stood up and walked out of the meeting,’” shared Nybakken. “Of course, it depends on what meeting or review it is, but it’s an important paradigm we try to employ with all our teams. If there is a family issue or something with their children, we always encourage people to please go do it. It’s important. Those opportunities won’t be here for forever. So, we try to flex as a team to give people those opportunities to focus on the personal part, the family part, of their life as well. And we always try to walk the talk on that one. We would do it ourselves. We always try to make sure everyone understands that’s a top priority.”