Gwynne Shotwell first became hooked on tech at age 15, when she went to a local Society of Women Engineers event with her mother to hear a mechanical engineer speak. “I was immediately taken by this incredibly smart, well-spoken woman who was doing really critical work,” Gwynne said. “And, the 15-year-old cheerleader in me loved her amazing suit and incredible shoes!”
Gwynne knew forging a career path in tech would require a lot of hard work, but she was inspired to do so nonetheless. She studied hard in school, and later graduated from Northwestern University with degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mathematics. Now, Gwynne is President and COO of SpaceX, managing day-to-day operations as well as all customer and strategic relations.
Although Gwynne has experienced her fair share of challenges throughout her career, she always views them as opportunities to grow. “I’ve found that growing and learning from our past, rather than focusing on our failures, is the best way to get through challenging times,” she explained.
Turning Challenges into Achievements
One of Gwynne’s biggest challenges at SpaceX came after the company’s second anomaly with the Falcon 9 vehicle. “Launch dates were slipping for our customers, and morale was low,” Gwynne said. “But I realized that this was an opportunity to become smarter, to make the rocket stronger, and to figure out how to be more efficient.”
Taking the lessons they learned from Falcon 9, Gwynne and her team were able to develop the Falcon Heavy vehicle.
“I was very proud the day we launched the Falcon Heavy vehicle and those two sibling boosters touched down side-by-side on landing pad. That was an amazing day for me and our entire team.”
Gwynne was also able to turn another major challenge into a success: the sales of SpaceX rockets. “I think my biggest achievement would have to be selling those first few rockets after we’d had three anomalies and hadn’t yet launched again,” she said. She knew she had to build a relationship with her customers and be able to address any technical concerns they may have. To do that, she would need to focus on sharpening her communication skills.
“I learned that it’s so important to focus not only on the technical side of being an engineer, but also on the so-called ‘soft skills.’ Communication is by far our most powerful tool, and I think that sometimes it can get lost in the science.”
Raising the Bar
Despite her many achievements, Gwynne is always pushing herself to do better. “As humans, we have an infinite capacity for growth, but only if we keep moving, keep pushing ourselves, and keep demanding greater achievements from ourselves,” she said. “I’m a big believer in celebrating your successes (ideally with Champagne), but success is just a step in the right direction; it’s not the final goal.”
Gwynne revealed that Elon Musk, Founder, CEO, and Lead Designer of SpaceX, likewise encourages his employees to always set new and higher goals.
“What’s amazing about Elon is he presents the team with an ‘impossible’ challenge, and just when we’re about to achieve it, he raises the bar. I’ve come to understand that if you arrive at your goal and stop at that destination, then you’ve lost all your momentum and you have to rev back up.”
So just how can people keep overcoming “impossible” challenges?
“Leveraging our diverse backgrounds is the best way to find solutions to our most challenging problems,” Gwynne answered. She encourages people to attend events such as the Grace Hopper Celebration, where women in tech can network with and learn from thousands of diverse technologists from around the world.
“We need places to come together to meet each other, to brainstorm, to trade successes and failures, and to inspire each other,” Gwynne said. “You never know when you’ll meet a brilliant woman in an amazing suit!”
If you’re attending #GHC18, you won’t want to miss @spacex President Gwynne Shotwell’s session “Launching Our Future” on Friday, September 28 at 12 p.m. She’ll discuss the importance and challenges of rapid innovation, the principles used to achieve success, and leveraging diverse backgrounds to find solutions to our most difficult problems. Register for this session now.