A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Tom Ingersoll, Managing Partner at Space Capital, former CEO of Skybox Imaging and Universal Space Networks.
The Space Talent Spotlight is our blog series focused on the leaders and builders at the intersection of space and tech.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
I spent 10 years in the Phantom Works at McDonald's Douglas, which was probably the best thing that I did for my career. I was involved in building the experimental Delta Clipper program and was one of the first people assigned to the proposal that we wrote to win the contract. I then helped staff and organize the project, was involved in the build and directed the flight test, I was a co-pilot, very involved in understanding how the whole thing came together. That was definitely a highlight of my career. I worked with brilliant people and now I see that many of the management philosophies that I've developed came from that project. I learned what it meant to actually fly hardware and what the hallmarks of success are. I did this by working with great people, understanding the value great people bring to a team, and seeing individuals come together on a project to accomplish extraordinary things. That was a huge step for me.
The next major accomplishment was Universal Space Network. I was CEO of a company that I started from scratch and we were a new type of commercial space venture. We had to develop a market, build the system, raise money, and get through the valley of death. Fortunately, we were actually generating cash, building a profitable business, and that provided us the opportunity to sell. That was again a kind of a soup to nuts experience.
Skybox Imaging was another significant event where we were able to build a very sophisticated asset, highly capable, cutting edge performance at 50x lower cost and do it successfully the first time. Google acquired us for a lot of money, we were pre-revenue, it was strictly on technical accomplishments.
Those were so far my top three career accomplishments and hopefully I have several more.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
I got the job at the Phantom Works through a family friend, so it was connections. I had outstanding grades and I think I was worthy of the opportunity, but I didn't even know about it. I just wanted to work with the smartest people, I wasn't that excited about aerospace and I wasn't that excited about Southern California, but they were clearly the smartest people and I wanted to figure out where I stacked up.
Over time, I got bored at McDonald Douglas being in a large company and I had several job opportunities to leave. And boy, am I glad I didn't, I'm glad I stuck it out and had scaling experience. I put together billion dollar budgets and managed teams of five to 600 people. So I saw the challenges in scaling and understood the changes you have to make in your management approach. I think scaling, especially someone who wants to be an entrepreneur, is critical. By sticking around, I was paying my dues, that was a great choice for me and made a significant difference.
I was also able to meet some great people that become outstanding mentors. Pete Conrad was a McDonald executive and an astronaut that walked on the moon, he helped me immensely in my career. I think people underestimate the impact of mentors because people that do really are supported by somebody who saw something in them at an early age and provided an opportunity. You look at pretty much anybody who's been successful, somebody stepped in and helped them get to where they are, vetted them, and provided a level of credibility that gave them access.
Then, you know, take some chances. When I went to Skybox, my wife and I had four little kids. I had a house payment, not a lot of savings, and I was on the fast track at McDonald Douglas. But I quit my job to go work for a startup. It was a little bit nutty.
In summary, do your homework, be prepared, but also be willing to take a calculated risk when an opportunity comes your way.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
I think you have to do well in school. You can skate through school and leave with okay grades but not learn anything. Then you come out and you're really not much use to anyone. I think it's important that you learn something and grades aren't always an indication of that. It’s also important to have summer internships so that you understand what you are learning and can contribute in a competitive work environment.
I chose to get a graduate degree in engineering management that at the time really helped me because it was the core MBA courses. When I was working at the Phantom works, for example, I could manage projects because I understood budgets, schedules, management techniques, marketing, and how to work with customers. I was able have a bigger picture and wasn't stuck doing the analysis or writing code.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
Working with great people is so much fun. I look back on my memories, it's not about the hardware or the event or the success. It's about the great people that I was able to work with.
The thing that I've enjoyed least was as a CEO, that financial pressure of making your numbers. Sunday afternoon would come and you could just feel the cloud, the pressures begin to set in, emails would start coming in from the investors, and messages from unhappy customers. I never really enjoyed that. I was able to do it and tolerate it, but that's the thing I enjoyed the least.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
Andreessen Horowitz has the thesis that software is eating the world. It's the interface between software and the mechanical devices that are servicing people where I see opportunity. We can't go to space on software, so you need an interface. You can't build a driverless car on just software, you still need the hardware. The field of Mechatronics is going to be increasingly important.
Also, finding ways to leverage machine learning to optimize the physical world. Historically, what's been really expensive. Finding ways to reduce the cost of those systems or the increase the utilization of those systems. For example, using driverless cars instead of having the car parked in your car in the garage all the time, utilization rate goes way up on the asset.
I think both of these opportunities will lead to some pretty interesting careers in the space field.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?
There's a couple of things that I think are important. You come out of college and think you know a lot and you really know nothing. You've got to pay your dues to learn your industry. You also need to build a network of people that you respect and conversely, they respect you. They want someone who's going to listen, who's got talent, who's got drive, who's going to work, who's honest, who's got integrity.
Make sure you put in the time to learn your craft and be the kind of person that people want to work with.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
There's a couple of trite adages that I've seen be true in the work environment. One is that you hire people because of what they know, you fire people because of who they are. I think that character counts and is something worth reflecting on. The other is self-awareness. Are you the kind of person that really sharp people are going to want to work with, are you kind, are you respectful, do you have positive energy, are you a contributor? Those things aren't necessarily taught in school, but have a huge impact on people's ability to be successful in any kind of work environment.