At JPL, IT ‘dares mighty things’

Best Places to Work in IT 2019: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s tech workers are given tools to ‘solve difficult problems that no one else has solved.’

jpl lab with snow in mountains copy
JPL

The technology team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, a federally funded research and development center in Pasadena, Calif., is helping build the future of space exploration and answer big questions like, “Is there other life out there in the universe?”

“This is where we do one-of-a-kind work, where you have an opportunity to do things and be part of teams that are on the edge,” says Whitney Haggins, an IT communication strategist in JPL’s Office of the CIO, who described spending part of a recent workday examining NASA’s Mars 2020 rover.

For Haggins, working at JPL has been the fulfillment of a longtime ambition: She had wanted to work at JPL since she was 7 years old. But, having reached her goal, she doesn’t take it for granted. “When I come in here, I remember I work at a really great place,” she says.

JPL is the No. 18 large organization on Computerworld’s 2019 list of Best Places to Work in IT, its seventh consecutive appearance on the annual ranking.

It’s a well-earned distinction. The organization offers a range of benefits, from a work schedule with every other Friday off to multiple career development opportunities to the opportunity to work with other great technologists. And, of course, it gives its IT employees the chance to work on complex technical challenges using cutting-edge technologies to drive forward U.S. space exploration.

“Two things here are key: the work we do — explore space — and … how we work,” says CIO James Rinaldi.

jpl it expo under the big tent JPL

JPL’s annual IT Expo, sponsored by the CIO, showcases many of the latest IT services, applications and products at a daylong event open to the entire laboratory. The IT Expo features live presentations, hands-on demonstrations, cutting-edge technology and the opportunity for end users to network with the people who support, develop and manage the products and services.

IT workers at JPL have access to leading-edge technologies to “solve difficult problems that no one else has solved,” Rinaldi says, noting that employees leverage open-source technologies, artificial intelligence and the internet of things as part of their work.

They also work in a very collaborative, open atmosphere where their opinions are highly valued; IT workers at JPL play a consultative role.

“People have a voice; they can speak up, they can ask questions, they can suggest changes, and they can be a part of making changes,” Rinaldi says.

Robin Moncada, a business manager with the IT team, says workers respond to that level of engagement and responsibility. “Everyone feels like they’re part of the team — the successes, the failures, the missions. Everyone feels a personal connection to all that,” she says.

IT employees can work a regular 40-hour week or opt for 80 hours in nine days, with every other Friday off. They can take advantage of a campus where they’re free to work in multiple alternative locations — from specialized collaboration centers to the outdoors on JPL’s grounds near the Angeles National Forest. Workers can even use high-tech conference centers and telepresence robots that enable them to work from home but still be a part of on-site activities.

Rinaldi says JPL encourages its IT team to be innovative and curious, and as CIO he ensures that they have the training and technologies they need to succeed. He notes, too, that JPL’s mission attracts tech workers who are excited to be part of a creative, research-oriented environment where they’re expected to work together to drive forward overall organizational objectives.

“Every employee can contribute to that. And that makes the work very exciting, and that certainly helps draw people in,” he says, noting that JPL’s IT department has historically enjoyed a low turnover rate (no higher than 3% or 4% in any given year).

Other benefits also help sustain JPL as a great place to work, says Tom Soderstrom, the chief technology and innovation officer for IT. He points to JPL’s commitment to ongoing learning in particular, noting that the organization offers formal training programs, provides generous tuition reimbursement and invites world-class thinkers in a variety of fields to the campus to address workers. Speakers have discussed topics ranging from DevOps to the future of autonomous vehicles to the importance of storytelling (an important skill for successfully pitching ideas).

“We’re constantly challenging ourselves to learn and stay relevant,” Rinaldi says, noting that IT embraces the JPL mantra “Dare mighty things” as much as the rest of the organization.

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