March 31, 2020

Lessons from Astronaut Mike: Teamwork Makes the (Drone) Dream Work

For our first off-site, the crew at Exyn wanted to learn from arguably the best team in tech ... NASA.

By Nader Elm, CEO

In this rapidly moving tech industry, we love to talk about pushing the envelope, blazing new trails and going further than anyone has ever gone before. Our team at Exyn is all too familiar with this kind of thinking, and I’m proud to say that through our collective hard work and perseverance it’s served us well thus far. It’s humbling and rather extraordinary that the outcome of all our efforts -- namely self-piloting autonomous aerial robots -- is not just a game-changer for our customers, but the realization of some of our wildest, geekiest, science-fiction fantasies.

That said, coming together as a team has not been without challenges -- especially since we’ve been growing at breakneck speed, more than doubling our employee count from 14 to 30 people in the last six months of 2019. This has been one of our most critical inflection points to date because while growth is objectively a good thing, it also comes with an important set of growing pains. I decided the best way to galvanize this old-meets-new-blood team was to initiate our first-ever company off-site adventure.

A view of Exyn's old offices in 2016

As I brainstormed ideas for this, a thought occurred to me: who better to give us a real perspective on harnessing the power of teamwork to “go further” than … an astronaut? Astronauts work under the most rigorous circumstances, physically and mentally, in order to achieve seemingly impossible feats. And while they absolutely deserve their share of the glory, they also represent the pinnacle of human teamwork.

It takes hundreds of people thousands of hours to plan, prepare, design, create, and launch astronauts into space for a mission that may ultimately take just a few hours to complete. In many ways, I saw parallels with what we were doing: working in a technology-intensive domain to crack near-impossible problems in isolated and remote environments.

I wanted our team to hear from someone who had relied on this kind of teamwork in order to operate and survive at the very frontiers of human experience, where the stakes (and risks) could not be higher.

Enter: Astronaut Mike

So this is how we all came to meet and learn from Mike Massimino, former NASA Astronaut, and all-around inspirational rock star. There is no shortage of things to admire about Mike, from his incredible adventures in space repairing the Hubble Telescope to his role as a professor at Columbia University, teaching undergrads about the basics of human space flight. And of course, Mike is an unstoppable dreamer with big aspirations and an even bigger heart.

Astro Mike in space (photo courtesy

In speaking to our company, Astronaut Mike emphasized that it’s not enough for a team to have the brightest, most capable, or more experienced individuals. Unless they are able to work together to overcome shared hurdles, all of that talent and hard work can easily go to waste. With his guidance, the Exyn team embarked on some meaningful and key conversations, designed to help us collaborate better as a company.

Finding Common Company Ground

We began by workshopping our “mission values” -- that is, defining our vision for the company, our big-picture goals, and values that mattered to all of us, such as respect, transparency, making a positive impact, and fostering diversity and inclusivity. The openness of the dialogue and encouragement of equal participation set the stage for some wonderful ideas to take shape. Our robotics engineer, Denise Wong, for instance, vocalized her passion for engaging Exyn with both local and global communities promoting women and minorities in STEM -- an initiative that everyone on the team enthusiastically supported and rallied behind.

Denise Wong (3rd from the right) and team celebrate after successfully testing a previous model of our aerial robot

The workshop gave us the opportunity to bridge the worlds between old and new Exyn employees and establish a foundation from which to build a unified sense of momentum. The veterans of the company shared our history with the newcomers, provided some context on where we’d come from, and reflected on what had worked well and what hadn’t. Together with feedback and ideas from the newcomers, we were able to synthesize a shared understanding of our company’s identity, process, vision, and approach to strategy.

Onward and Upward...

This experience has reinforced for me the idea that, just like its individual members, a company is a living, breathing entity that must constantly adapt if it hopes to conquer ever-changing challenges and needs. It’s like a garden that must be cultivated, shaped, fed, and watered so that it can continue to grow and overcome the variable conditions that might otherwise stunt it (or very well kill it!).

Our current aerial robot platform, the Exyn A3R

Astronaut Mike set the bar sky-high for our first company off-site, and I’m excited to continue the tradition of team activities that challenge our perspectives -- both individually and collectively -- and remind us that there are always opportunities for us to become better, faster, and stronger together.

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