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Meet: Michelle Eshow

Photo of Michelle Eshow in front of her computer

Branch Chief
Ames Research Center

Who I am and what I do:
I am a Branch Chief at NASA Ames Research Center, which means that I'm at the starting level of NASA management. My branch does research and software development related to automating the air traffic control system of the U.S. We have developed software tools that help air traffic controllers manage airplanes as they take off, fly across the U.S., and land. Our tools help the controllers use the airspace and runways more efficiently, so that delays for passengers are reduced.

In my job as Branch Chief I lead a group of engineers and software developers to assure that they are all doing high-quality and timely work for our customers. I also do some of the technical work myself, including computer programming and software design. In an average day I handle and respond to a lot of email, write or review software, have informal meetings with my Branch members, and meet with my boss, customers and people from other organizations who are involved with our work.

Areas of expertise:
This position requires a combination of technical, management, and inter-personal skills. The technical skills are needed to make sure the group is doing good work and so that I can provide guidance and advice when needed. The management skills are necessary to organize all of the work according to the incoming requests and funding. The inter-personal skills are needed to maintain good working relationships with the people who work for me as well as my peers and bosses. It's also very important to have good written and oral communication skills, since even engineering and software development jobs require one to communicate effectively with others.

How I first became interested in this profession
I started reading science fiction books at a young age, and ever since then I've been fascinated by space, space travel, and airplanes too. When I was ready for college there was a shortage of aerospace engineers, and I thought it would be a great way to have a solid career and be surrounded by things that interested me as well.

What helped me prepare for this job
First, doing well in school up through high school prepared me for the hard work of majoring in engineering in college. Then once I started at NASA I got a lot of on-the-job training in engineering, technical writing, and project management as well as getting my Master's degree in engineering. I worked as an engineer then as a group leader, and all of this prepared me to be a manager when the opportunity arose.

My role models or inspirations
In high school my role models were the astronauts who had flown for NASA starting back in the early days of the Mercury capsules right up through the Space Shuttle. I noticed that many of the astronauts had majored in aerospace engineering, and that helped me decide to do so as well. The Wright Brothers are also my role models, because they were such exceptional engineers, experimenters, and inventors. Their care and brillance enabled them to succeed in the making the first powered flight on Earth!

My education and training
I got my B.S. degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Once I started with NASA and realized I would be working in the flight controls and guidance area, I got an M.S. degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Stanford, which was paid for by NASA. The Masters degree gave me the extra education I needed to carry out world-class research in helicoper flight controls, before I moved on to air traffic control. While at NASA I've taken many other courses, from Java programming to project management and technical writing, and they have all been important to my success. It's very important to have an attitude of life-long learning and, when necessary, be willing to re-train yourself for the workplace.

Career Path
I came to NASA right out of college, and worked first in our piloted flight simulation facilities, helping to program them to fly properly for many different experiments. Then I became a researcher in the rotorcraft area, developing technologies to make helicopters easier to fly, especially in bad weather. As part of this work, I got to fly in helicopters many times and even got to fly in the co-pilot seat and take the controls a few times. I was the lead system engineer on a project to develop an experimental fly-by-wire system for a Black Hawk helicopter so that we could study even more improvements. Then I moved on to the air traffic control automation field and became the lead software engineer for our large suite of controller automation tools. Finally I was promoted to Branch Chief of the branch that does the software development, testing, and deployment of those tools. I've been Branch Chief for four years now.

What I like best about my job
My favorite part of working for NASA has been the sense that we are doing things no one else is doing, taking risks to develop technologies that will really make a difference to the country. Years ago as a young engineer I liked that I was given a lot of responsibility and the chance to make big contributions and to write research papers and go to conferences to present my work. I also like that I work with a lot of smart people, and that we all learn from each other as we work together. NASA has had a great working environment where good ideas can be pursued and sometimes result in big breakthroughs. I also like being a manager because I can help others do good work and promote their careers as well.

What I like least about my job
Sometimes as a manager I miss the old days of doing my own technical work all day, but it's satisfying to see other people carrying on with that work, and I try to help them as much as I can in my role as a manager. Plus, I do make time for my own research so it works out well.

My advice to anyone interested in this occupation
Before choosing a major, I would make sure there is a demand for graduates in that major. It's very disappointing to work very hard on a difficult major like aerospace engineering only to find out that NASA and private industry aren't hiring very many aerospace engineers! NASA is going through a lot of changes so my main advice would be to stay well informed so that your expertise matches up well with what NASA wants. At the same time, choose something you're really interested in because you'll be doing that work for a long time!

I have a private pilot's license but I don't use it much these days. My main hobbies are photography, science fiction books and television, and reading of all types. I also like softball and the gym, and I've recently taken up bowling in our NASA league. I do some computer programming for fun, including programming a science fiction website. I also love visiting and going out with family and friends.


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