Heidi Herman

Business Administration Manager - NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory


Alhambra High School, Alhambra California

California State University, Los Angeles

B.S. Business Administration

What first sparked your interest in space and science?

I got into JPL by accident – it was purely an accident. In 1994, I was looking to switch jobs while I was in college. I told a best friend of mine, "I want to switch jobs. I'm going to have to look for a part-time job somewhere else." She told me, "You know what? There's this place called JPL [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory] in Pasadena. I just heard a guy who came to my class to do a talk about JPL. Maybe you should try it because it looks like it's a nice company." She is a civil engineer, so she didn’t know much about JPL. I said, "Well, okay, I'll try."

I looked up JPL, and back then, when you applied, there was no such thing as an online application. You had to drive up to the visitor’s center. I was this college kid driving up to the [JPL] gate, and I'm like, "Am I at the right place?" Because we didn't have Google at that time, I drove up and I told the guard, "I'm here to apply." He was nice enough to point me to parking and all that stuff. I just walked in and I told the woman at the front desk what I was there for. She showed me to the binder containing the external posting of available positions. It was a very fun experience compared to today. Back then, you had to look up the openings they had, write them down, fill out the applications – all handwritten and everything – then you submitted it to them right there at that time.

I was really surprised when I got a call for an interview and I said, "That's great." Right? And that's how I landed at JPL, and I love it.

Tell us about your job. What do you do?

Ever since joining JPL, I have loved it. I love the campus environment and I love working with the people. I started in November 1994, and I have been here since. There is a great work-life balance, and the people around you tend to become your family. Some of my colleagues I've known for more than 20 years.

I started as what they called an APT, which was an academic part-time student supporting a staff assistant or secretary. After college graduation, I stayed on, and I worked in the same section on entry-level, general stuff. Eventually, my job grew into an administrative role, and then a section business administration manager.

Now, I am a division business administration manager (BAM), managing all the business operations of my division. The job includes human resources-related items, facilities, finance, workforce, properties – everything that has to do with managing the business operations of a technical division. I'm also currently the acting business administration manager for 5X (OSMS) directorate. Right now, in total, I have 41 people reporting to me.

What advice you would give to others interested in a similar career?

I considered myself a perfectionist and that I had to do everything. After a while, you learn working with others and teamwork can accomplish the same level of excellence. That’s a skill that I've learned and developed and practiced over the years as I became a business administration manager.

I also would say you have to be humble, stay focused, and be willing to share your knowledge with your employees. And practice patience – patience to work with people, but also the patience to be at your job long enough to understand what your job is about before you become a manager. JPL is unique and we have certain ways of doing things. When you're in an admin role, and when you want to become a business administration manager, you have to have not just the breadth, but you also have to know the depth of your job.

It would be to the advantage of the individual who wants to work at JPL, especially in an admin role like mine, and to move up into the management level – to develop the depth. It would make it easy for you to move up – to understand how your people work, and how you can help them because you have the depth and the breadth of knowledge about the job.

What has been your biggest challenge, professional or personal, and how did you overcome it?

I think the biggest challenge would be the passing of my father. He passed away from liver cancer when I was in my third year of college. It was overwhelming. I had started the quarter and that's when we found out it was stage four cancer. He didn't go into hospice. He was at home. Seeing him deteriorate from this healthy person in just a few months was hard. I had to step back and say, "You know what? There's no way I can finish this quarter and be able to concentrate."

It was a hard decision to make because I wanted to be able to finish on time and I couldn't. That was the hardest thing I had to do, and, of course, watching him pass away.

I think having your dad pass away at the age of 60, and you're only in college – at that time, you're young, you think you're immortal, but when you see that happen, it's like, "No, you're not." We are not immortal and there is a limit to life. It taught me to live life to the fullest and to appreciate the people around me.

I did pick myself up and go back to school.

Who inspires you?

I would have to give appreciation for how my parents raised me. They had eight kids, and we immigrated from Vietnam. They were well-to-do, and when they came over to the U.S., they had to start all over. They worked really hard, and I think I've learned that from them – that no matter how life pushes you down, you bounce back.

What have been some of your favorite projects to work on?

In the late 90s, I was asked to put together an open house booth on research and development technologies for JPL's Center for Integrated Space Microsystems in support of JPL’s Annual Open House. I was there from the start to the end just to make sure things ran smoothly for the two days that weekend. Working at an open house was great, energetic, and motivating. It made me proud to work for JPL. It gives you a different perspective on how the public views us. Some of them [the visitors] were like, "Oh my God, this is cool – the things that you are doing."

What are some fun facts about yourself?

I like to play tennis. In my "pre-kids" days, I was the captain for several years on my women's tennis team. I don't think a lot of people know that. I was the captain of the women's 3.0 level at USTA [United States Tennis Association] Southern California – the San Gabriel Valley League.

My husband and I went on our honeymoon to Paris and London. We later took a family trip to Italy. It was great. We also took my kids to visit Taiwan, and I went back to Vietnam with my mom just to visit, a few years ago. One place I would really love to go would be to China and visit my dad's hometown. I could also visit his grave – I have not been to his gravesite.

Hubble Pillars of Creation
These towering clouds of cosmic dust and gas sit at the heart of M16, or the Eagle Nebula. The aptly named Pillars of Creation, featured in this stunning Hubble image, are part of an active star-forming region within the nebula and hide newborn stars in their wispy columns.
NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

What is your favorite space image and why?

Hubble’s Pillars of Creation. Just those clouds!

Where are they from?

Planetary science is a global profession.