Steve Rader is Deputy Manager of NASA's Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI). The centre focuses on the study and use of curated, crowd-sourcing communities that utilise prize and challenge-based methods to deliver innovative solutions for NASA and the US Government.
When I spoke to Steve, he was at his office at NASA’s iconic Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Why did CoECI first turn to freelance talent?
“In the early days, we ran pilot projects to address just that question because we are known for our innovation. When we looked at the results we found that we received ideas our own community hadn’t come up with and we saw this replicated over and over.”
“We worked with Harvard Business School to help us study why this was happening and how this was happening and what the dynamics behind crowd-based challenges are. One study involved solving really hard problems and they found that 70% of the time these successes were coming from individuals outside of the core discipline. If it was a chemistry problem, most of the time the innovation was coming from someone who was not a chemistry professional. They may have had some knowledge of chemistry but they brought another skillset from another domain. That’s a very powerful message.
“Even if you have really smart people, they can get into a bit of an idea bubble and you have to find a way to break out of that. True innovation often comes from diversity of thought. People with unique experience and expertise.”
What kinds of projects might a freelancer hope to get involved in?
“My group has run about 250 challenges over the last five years. It has involved everything from algorithms for pointing ISS solar arrays to application development and swarm technology ideas to air traffic control.
“People are always surprised by how well the crowd comes up with an answer. If you look at the numbers, it makes a lot of sense. By reaching out to platforms like Freelancer, Topcoder or Grabcad, you have access to a huge pool of talent, especially when you consider there are just 60,000 people working at NASA when you include all of the contractors. It’s a way to find ideas and expertise that you don’t have.
When you think of NASA, you think of some of the most skilled people in the world, so why not turn to them, or hire an employee to dedicate themselves to some of these challenges?
“We’re not replacing anything that we normally do. We have employees who do design work, engineering and all of these functions. This is a way of augmenting that. Diversity of ideas and innovative inputs can be injected into our design ideas.
“We run a full range of projects. On our larger challenges, those can be six months to a year. For smaller, well-defined projects, I can have a call at 8am and post it at noon. In terms of execution, that makes freelancers a perfect solution. A recent example involved designing a display to train astronauts on using torque tools under water and that project was turned around very quickly.”
“It gives us flexibility. Our job is to explore space, but we have a limited amount of funds and we have to maximise the return of those dollars in that goal. We also want to do that in a way that engages the public and I think what we see with the freelance world provides a bigger bang for your buck while bringing innovation and being flexible and nimble.
“NASA also has a clear mandate to engage the public in space exploration. And one of the ways we have traditionally done that is to get the word out, saying: ‘Hey, this is what space exploration is, this is how we do it. Isn’t it cool?’ And that’s great. A lot of people really respond to that. But one of the things I really love about our challenges is it allows us to engage the public in a real and meaningful way. They are actually contributing to the mission.
“We get a lot of participation. People really have a drive to be a part of our mission. I get messages from competitors all the time saying: “This has been amazing to work on, even if I didn’t win.” They’ve always had a dream of working for NASA.”
How does NASA decide which freelancers are selected to be the winners of the competitions?
“How freelance talent is selected depends on the competition being run . Sometimes we have specific requirements and design goals that we’re trying to hit, while at other times it’s more open.
“We often work with the curated communities themselves like freelancer.com. In this way, each community is incentivised by different things.”
Have any winners gone on to work with NASA again?
“It has happened. We have had cases with repeat winners, even when we look to a pool of 20 million pIus. And in some cases, it has led to further work with us, but it depends on how technical the project is.”
NASA is offering a fantastic opportunity to freelancers all over the world – to work for arguably the most famous space agency in the world. If you want to make the most of this opportunity, check the websites that Steve mentioned, including www.nasa.gov\solve, www.freelancer.com , www.topcoder.com and www.grabcad.com Competitions can be anything from designing a logo for a mission, to creating a robot for the Space Center. Good luck!