NASA Employee Plans Retirement 3 Years in Advance, Leads Successful Knowledge Transfer
For years, Jean-Marie Lauenstein has been the sole Subject Matter Expert (SME) in Silicon Carbide Wide Band Gap (WBG) Power Device Radiation Hardness Assurance (RHA), which is critical to the advancement of technology within NASA. Because of this, Lauenstein had to be more forward-thinking when planning her retirement. She provided her three-year retirement notice in 2018, giving both herself and the NASA Electronic Parts and Packaging (NEPP) Program managers enough time to prepare to transfer knowledge and find a reliable replacement.
“I truly did have a three-year countdown on my whiteboard,” Lauenstein said. “I knew I was going to leave a hole and had conversations [with leadership] about how to backfill. As a professional, you just know you can’t walk away and leave everyone to struggle.”
Currently, 45% of NASA Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) employees are eligible to retire in the next five years. Federal agencies recognize the workforce is aging and that as experienced employees retire, they take critical knowledge and skills with them. Lauenstein hopes her retirement plan will help prevent these challenges when she leaves.
For the past decade, Lauenstein spent her time learning about and determining how to protect WBG semiconductor power devices from galactic cosmic ray radiation, a newer technology that would enable projects to have more power and capabilities. Now, her main focus is teaching all that she’s learned to Jason Osheroff, who will be the new SME for WBG RHA.
“I have this huge body of knowledge that comes from experimental work,” said Lauenstein. “I’ve probably tested more of these parts than close to anyone else in the world. It’s challenging to transfer that kind of knowledge.”
When Osheroff was brought in to the NEPP program, he was given the choice to direct his own area of specialization. He was unaware that such a significant part of his job would be learning how to fill Lauenstein’s shoes upon her departure.
“A couple months in [to my new role] and a few times after that, she did give me an out,” said Osheroff. “She said, ‘This is something we’re trying to do, but you’re free to pursue your own passions within the group.’ My response to that was, ‘I want to follow you, Jean-Marie.’ She helped cultivate the passion for the topic within me, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other topic now.”
“Well, he didn’t know that behind the scenes I was telling everyone else that Jason was mine and not to give him anything that would entice him,” Lauenstein joked. “In seriousness, I think to have a successful transition and a healthy group, you have to match people’s jobs with their passions, talents and interests. My goal was to make this seem like the most fun, exciting thing in the world to Jason.”
Over the past 2.5 years, Lauenstein involved Osheroff in every aspect of her job. She included him on all email communications so that he saw the original questions and her responses.
“I underestimated how frequently people bug Jean-Marie for something as the expert in that field,” said Osheroff. “Slowly, some of those emails have started coming to me or to both of us — people from all these different departments, agencies and industry asking for input.”
Osheroff underwent what he describes as “intense shadowing,” where Lauenstein invited him to meetings and informed him on who all the participants were, why it was important to talk to them and what the connections were. There, he would watch her give her presentation and network.
“For a long time, I did a lot of sitting and watching and asking questions,” said Osheroff. “Then, slowly we started to do things together — juggling things back-and-forth — and I could always go to her to ask questions.”
When taking on this role, Osheroff expected to learn the engineering and technical aspects but was surprised to find out just how important the program and agency interaction and industry engagement was going to be.
“Now that I’m engaged in these organizations, I see how she’s built up NEPP as the intersection point to go to find this expertise in this particular area,” said Osheroff. “I think that this, along with the technical mentorship, is one of the most valuable things I’ve learned from her — to better see the big picture and truly service the agency in the best way possible and ensure going forward, NASA has the tools it needs.”
Unfortunately, in the midst of their knowledge transfer, the pandemic hit and disrupted their plans. Before the agency implemented travel restrictions, Lauenstein took Osheroff with her to test devices. From the hands-on training, Osheroff learned the testing process and how to make decisions based on the data coming back from test articles. Having that knowledge will allow Osheroff to write best practices and test standards for how others should perform experiments.
Though those lessons were cut short for Lauenstein and Osheroff, it gave Osheroff time to learn the fundamentals, so when he did return to testing devices in 2021, he was knowledgeable enough to make those decisions himself.
“It gave him exposure, but really I think this year, being able to go back and do some more testing really helped bring it full circle,” said Lauenstein.
Lauenstein also attributes the successful transfer of knowledge to the incredible support she’s received from the NEPP Program. NEPP Program leaders gave Lauenstein funding to develop an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers course where she presented 75-minutes’ worth of her own knowledge combined with international knowledge current at the time of the course creation. From there, she was able to shorten the course and rework the material for a designer and manufacturer audience and then present a third time for a Reliability audience.
“By NEPP giving me the space to take the time to do that kind of work and to do it several times meant that Jason not only has a resource to refer to, but he heard it in a sort of a triplicate format,” said Lauenstein. “It’s that repetition I think that helped to reinforce the technical learning.”
“NEPP made this investment where they consciously and willingly supported us both to do some parallel work, where in the beginning not only were they supporting Jean-Marie and me, but I was without a doubt slowing her down because she had to take time to explain things to me,” said Osheroff. “I think they’ve already started to reap the benefits of that where now, when you add us together, we are more than one SME.”
Because of the interruptions in teaching caused by the pandemic, Lauenstein decided to delay her August 2021 retirement date. She plans to transition to a part-time position for one year starting January 2022.