It was 8 o’clock on a Monday night and Teer 203 was packed. A crowd of largely Pratt Engineering students had crammed into practically every chair in the room, as if for lecture. Only, there were no laptops out tonight. No one stood at the blackboard, teaching.

SpaceX launches

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Dragon rockets in simultaneous liftoff

No, these students had given up their Monday evening for something more important. Tonight, engineering professor Rebecca Simmons was videoconferencing with six recent Duke grads—all of whom are employed at the legendary aerospace giant SpaceX, brainchild of tech messiah Elon Musk.

Eager to learn as much as possible about the mythic world of ultracompetitive engineering, the gathered students spent the next hour and fifteen minutes grilling Duke alumni Anny Ning (structures design engineering), Kevin Seybert (integration and test engineering), Matthew Pleatman and Daniel Lazowski (manufacturing engineering), and Zachary Loncar (supply chain) with as many questions as they could squeeze through.

Over the course of the conversation, Duke students seemed particularly interested in the overall culture of SpaceX: What was it like to actually work there? What do the employees think of the SpaceX environment, or the way the company approaches engineering?

One thing all of the alumni were quick to key in on was the powerful emphasis their company placed on flexibility and engagement.

“It’s much harder to find someone that says ‘no’ at SpaceX,” Pleatman said. “It’s way easier to find someone who says ‘yes.’ ”

SpaceX’s workflow, Seybert added, is relentlessly adaptive. There are no strict boundaries on what you can work on in your job, and the employee teams are made up of continually evolving combinations of specialists and polymaths.

“It’s extremely dynamic,” Seybert said. “Whatever the needs of the company are, we will shift people around from week to week to support that.”

“It’s crazy—there is no typical week,” Lazowski added. “Everything’s changing all the time.”

SpaceX Launch

Launch of Hispasat 30W-6 Mission

Ning, for her part, focused a great deal on the flexibility SpaceX both offers and demands. New ideas and a willingness to question old ways of thinking are critical to this company’s approach to innovation, and Ning noted that one of the first things she had to learn was to be continuously on the lookout for ways her methods could be improved.

“You should never hear someone say, ‘Oh, we’re doing this because this is how we’ve always done it,’ ” she said.

The way SpaceX approaches engineering and innovation, Seybert explained, is vastly different from how traditional aerospace companies have tended to operate. SpaceX employees are there because of their passion for their work. They focus on the projects they want to focus on, they move between projects on a day-to-day basis, and they don’t expect to stay at any one engineering company for more than a few years. Everything is geared around putting out the best possible product, as quickly as humanly possible.

So now, the million dollar question: How do you get in?

“One thing that I think links us together is the ability to work hands-on,” Loncar offered.

Pleatman agreed. “If you want to get a job at SpaceX directly out of school, it’s really important to have an engineering project that you’ve worked on. It doesn’t matter what it is, but just something where you’ve really made a meaningful contribution, worked hard, and can really talk through the design from start to finish.”

Overall, passion, enthusiasm and flexibility were overarching themes. And honestly, that seems pretty understandable. We are talking about rockets, after all — what’s not to be excited about? These Duke alums are out engineering the frontier of tomorrow — bringing our species one step closer to its place among the stars.

As Ning put it, “I can’t really picture a future where we’re not out exploring space.”

Post by Daniel Egitto