Network Security

Black Hat: NASA engineer who oversaw Mars expedition tells security pros to think big


What does a man who has led a successful spacecraft mission to Mars have to say to a group of the security industry's most innovative minds?

Be a risk-taker and show no fear.

Brian Muirhead, chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., delivered a keynote address to Black Hat conference attendees on Thursday to inspire them to venture into the unknown in their own professional endeavors without worry of failure.

According to Muirhead, who helmed the July 4, 1997 landing of the Mars Pathfinder rover by overseeing the design, development, testing and launch of the space probe, said NASA researchers are in “an inherently risky business,” similarly to those in the information security community.

The engineer, who has worked on many spacecraft projects since joining JPL at the California Institute of Technology in 1978, drew parallels between the potentially volatile environments attendees aim to secure on a day-to-day basis with his own career, including navigating and landing a spacecraft through the 1,600 degree atmosphere of Mars (YouTube video of mission).

He explained to the audience how they, too, could successfully take risks through their innovation and research.

Muirhead enforced the importance of the testing phase when “you are doing things one fault away from failure.” He also highlighted how effective communication among team members is necessary to succeeding and keeping a group's efforts on track.

Primarily, Muirhead emphasized how he believes that "EQ,” or emotional intelligence, serves as a major indicator that a potential hire would be a good addition to the team or work environment.

“Emotional intelligence is their drive and resilience,” Muirhead said. “I'm looking for EQ. I can find high IQ anywhere." 

After the keynote, conference attendee Sami Koivu, 36, told that he found the talk refreshing.

The software engineer at Oracle, who works on the company's Java vulnerability team, said that emotional intelligence was “very important” in his field where he often sees professionals focused on “wanting to prove themselves.”

“I think people [in our industry] are very intelligent, but not so good with dealing with other people,” Koivu said.

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