Beth Beck Unabridged

Tell us your story (Unabridged Version)

I’m a social and behavioral scientist – which translates into “generalist” in an R + D organization. My undergrad and grad degrees are in government and public affairs/administration. I’m currently a PhD candidate, hoping to finish this summer or early Fall 2015. My dissertation topic is Innovation through Complex Collaboration based on the case of LAUNCH: Collective Genius for a Better World – one of the innovation programs I co-founded at NASA.

I came to NASA through the Presidential Management Fellows program in 1985. I expected to stay with the federal government for two years, and head out into the world to explore the unknown. As it turns out, NASA happens to be the perfect place to explore the unknown. The mysterious, magical place called space captivated me. Decades later, I’m still at NASA – a story I would never have written for myself.

Looking at my digital journey, I have to mark my first stop in high school in the 1970’s. It’s not a glorious beginning. In fact, it was a no-brainer job as a punch card operator at Texas State University – which paid triple the amount of any other job I’d ever had. I sat in a cold, dark room feeding a hungry computer boxes of punch cards, one at a time.

The next stop on the long and winding digital road was a coding class in grad school at the University of Texas LBJ School in the early-1980’s. Most likely, I used C programming language. Honestly, I don’t remember. What stuck with me was the content, not the coding. I wrote a program to allow linguists in remote locations to capture native language in the field, and the program worked. Side note: This one experience is echoed in recent conversations and interviews with women who code – often we care about the issues and outcomes, rather than the means. The means (code/technology) get us to where we want to go.

The first stamp into my digital passport at NASA was the location of my first office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Building 17, the 2-story windowless building that once housed the Apollo computers. The windowless design kept the behemoth computers cold and dark in the searing Texas heat. My first “laptop” at NASA was a heavy metal box with a pop-up black screen that displayed lime green DOS commands.

I came to NASA as a non-techie (with one coding class under my belt) in a techie organization. My career has been a series of positions where I’ve been asked to translate tech-talk into compelling storytelling to portray the “so what” of space to policymakers, legislators, budgeteers, international partners, external organizations, and global citizens. I’ve most often turned to cool tech, when available, to tell the story of what we do and why NASA matters. Right now, I’m in the job of translating why data is a valued asset within NASA, and why open data is a valued asset outside NASA to external constituencies. As the true “generalist,” I’ve jumped into whatever position offered me: policy, legislative affairs, budget, procurement, international relations, communications, and information technology. Not all have been good fits, but each position has given me valuable insight into different layers and perspectives of problem-solving – both good and bad.

In the late 1990’s, I took classes in programming, web design, photography, and software – not to be the expert, but to know what to ask for and to have a good handle on expected timelines and outcomes. When the web became a resource, I created the first Flash website at NASA, and I believe in the federal government. I created the first web-based video contest at NASA. As the Editor of, I experienced the transition from Dreamweaver to a sophisticated off-the-shelf Content Management System, forcing me to abandon the drag and drop visual process to a code-heavy backend in xhtml. As the Space Operations Outreach manager, I created NASA’s first data aggregator dashboard to display the social media buzz about NASA and space in one place – to give NASA managers a voice in the conversation. To enable real time notetaking at the innovator speed dating sessions between LAUNCH Innovators and LAUNCH Council, I worked with a team to create MindMapr to collect all the conversations (data) in one place to help create innovator accelerator plans after the LAUNCH forums.

Currently, I manage the open data program to make NASA’s data available and accessible to global citizens and encourage innovation around our data. When I was offered this job, my first thought was that I knew nothing about data. Then I realized I’d been creating data programs and tools for years before “data” became trendy. Now I have the distinct privilege of shepherding the International Space Apps challenge, which is a wisdom of the crowd program that convenes global citizens around NASA data to solve perplexing mission-related problems. I love that it gives us a glimpse into the future. One of the global finalist teams this year created 3D printed food, with nutrients determined by blood work from each astronaut, then food-on-demand printed with colors, shapes, and textures to their meet their individual tastes. Think Star Trek replicator. Awesome!

The biggest challenge facing us (other than identifying and tagging all NASA’s treasure chest of data) is providing tools and opportunities to increase the pool of individuals who can innovate with our data. This year, we’re focusing on Women in Data.

We’re developing programs to lower the barriers to entry so that more girls and women can engage in data science and problem-solving with data in unique and relevant ways. We added a Data Bootcamp to the New York City Space Apps main stage event with introductory content on coding, making, dataset retrieval and manipulation, problem solving, and storytelling. The event was livestreamed, and babysitting services were available in NYC the entire weekend.

We also created a new data engagement program called Datanauts to engage (and create) enthusiasts who innovate with NASA’s open data. In keeping with our focus on Women in Data for 2015, the founding class is comprised of female leaders from across the data/maker/tech communities with diverse skill sets who use data in innovative ways. We want to honor the work they are doing in paving new pathways and mentoring other young women to engage in traditionally male-oriented tech fields. The founding class will serve as a brain trust to help ensure NASA is providing data, tools, and challenges of interest to the incubator communities. As the Datanaut Corps concept matures beyond the founding class, we will open it up to the broader community to provide unique early opportunities to test datasets and tools, uncover new use cases for NASA data, and have their visualization, application or storytelling work featured by NASA.

My winding path placed me here at this time to open the digital gates for others to join us and make tech happen in the places where we live and around issues that matter to us. But, also to have fun! I would love to have Klutz books for girls with electronics – fashion electronics, light up fingernails, digital journals, wired potholders, and more. Take what girls like to do and add the digital/tech twist.

The Women in Tech campaign exists to help redefine what women in technology means in the 21st century. Started independently by a group of professional women who, after many impassioned discussions about women in tech knew we wanted to expand this definition beyond 'traditional' technology skills. To us, it includes most every current, emerging or evolving role within an organization. By featuring leaders and emerging leaders across industries who embody this we hope to collectively 'stand up', be proud of our place in the digital world and inspire young women or those new to the 'tech space' to get involved.