Yale School of Management

‘Career Conversations’ Podcast: Sam MacAvoy ’22, NASA Internship

Season 3, Episode 22: Sam MacAvoy ’22

Sam MacAvoy ’22 spent his summer as an intern at NASA and the Ames Research Center. He is also an active duty member of the U.S. Navy. This episode is part of a special mini-series of Career Conversations focused on MBA summer internships where we ask rising second-year MBA students to check in from their experiences, where they are applying the lessons of their first year at Yale SOM. He is interviewed by Amy Kundrat ’21.

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Transcript


Sam McAvoy:
And I'm really hoping to bring the experiences that I gained at NASA this past summer back to the school to help share the space with others who are interested in going into aerospace or commercial space.

Amy Kundrat:
Welcome to Career Conversations, a podcast from the Yale School of Management. Each episode is a candid conversation between a student here at SOM and a member of the Yale community who is doing something that we're curious about. I'm Amy Kundrat, a member of the class of 2021.

Sam McAvoy:
My name's Sam McAvoy. I am a Yale SOM class of 2022 MBA candidate. This past summer, I was working for NASA's Aeronautics Research Institute located at the Ames Research Center out in Mountain View, California, specifically on the organization's convergent aeronautics solutions project.

Amy Kundrat:
Sam, thanks for taking the time to speak about your internship and SOM experience with me today. I'd like to start at the beginning. What first brought you to Yale SOM?

Sam McAvoy:
I've been in the Navy for the last decade and have got to enjoy the privilege of coming to SOM on the Navy's path. The elements and emphasis on business and society really spoke to the career history of service and public service that has been near and dear to my heart over the last few years. It added a layer of complexity and nuance that seemed removed from other programs. A lot more emphasis on business, a little less on society.

Sam McAvoy:
Beyond that, with respect to Yale, I just felt that it was just much more polished and put-together than some of the other programs that were out there. Everything between the admissions welcome package that they sent out, just showing that they're willing to go the extra mile for their MBAs, the efforts by the CDO to adequately prepare MBAs for the internship season that was more-or-less starting as soon as you hit the grounds during your first year.

Sam McAvoy:
And then all the efforts made by the school and the administration to facilitate hybrid learning over what was an incredibly challenging year in 2020.

Amy Kundrat:
So let's talk about first-year. What were some highlights for you from classes to professors and of course student clubs?

Sam McAvoy:
Sure. In the first year, it was really testing the waters of a variety of things that were available through SOM. I think I gravitated towards the technology club, as well as some of the more affinity-styled groups between the vets club and soccer club, but really found a foothold in the newly-minted Future of Mobility club. It was the Future of Mobility group last year.

Sam McAvoy:
Helped to host some events, I joined the leadership of the club and will be one of the club leaders going into next year. And I'm really hoping to bring the experiences that I gained at NASA this past summer back to the school to help share the space with others who are interested in going into aerospace or commercial space, just to name a few elements of the Future Mobility club.

Amy Kundrat:
Excellent. What were some of your favorite classes or professors in year one?

Sam McAvoy:
You know, in the Modeling and Managerial Decisions class I found truly eyeopening as it pertains to exposure to modeling concepts and the duality of leadership thought, one leaning into kind of the psychology of the human experience. And on the other side, really trusting the analytics tools that are available to us as business people, movers and shakers, what have you, in today's world and striking the balance between those two lenses.

Amy Kundrat:
For those that are not familiar with the Yale SOM Modeling Managerial Decisions, affectionately referred to as MMD, it's a team-taught course between professors Nathan Novemsky and Anjani Jain. Novemsky tends to take... Well, he takes the human behavioral approach, right? And Professor Jain takes the linear modeling approach. And it's something that every first-year student has to take in both the full-time MBA program and the executive MBA program.

Sam McAvoy:
I thought workforce was an absolutely dynamic exploration of human resources and employee relations. And most specifically it's Professor Baron, anyone that can make human resources and employee relations that exciting needs to be championed and applauded to the highest degree.

Sam McAvoy:
Just the depth with which he was able to bring excitement and energy into the topic, and then two, bring some really, really fascinating guest speakers into the course, just made it incredibly endearing. And I really applaud his efforts.

Amy Kundrat:
Okay, let's pivot to your recent internship experience. You spent your summer as an intern at NASA. What motivated your interest in the government space agency and how did it come about?

Sam McAvoy:
So I think it was very early on during the first year that space really started to get on my radar, no pun intended. One, with the advances in commercial space that we've seen from the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, and the good work that they're doing to help broaden the space, for lack of a better term, to people and the public at large and make it something that not just government employees can gain access to, I found really fascinating as an area of growth.

Sam McAvoy:
Wanting to lean into my history of government service and open the aperture for what that looks like beyond just the Navy, NASA became a topic of a real interest for me. And it wasn't until maybe late October, early November, where I seriously started considering work that I could be doing for them over the course of the summer. Yale has, I would say, less than a handful of alumni that are currently employed at NASA, but I wasn't a trailblazer. So it was good to know that some had gone before me and found success in the arena.

Amy Kundrat:
What does that recruitment process look like for a first-year student looking at an internship, whether it's NASA or any internship, when did you start looking at it? And what did that interview process look for you?

Sam McAvoy:
The internship search specific to NASA was actually incredibly standardized. And there wasn't really a whole lot to it. NASA has an intern portal where you build a profile and effectively build a general application, and then you apply to a myriad of projects they've posted. Whether it's Mars reconnaissance and doing research into the landscape of Mars, it could be supply chain management from here to the International Space Station, or even helping to refine and restructure human resource organization at one of their research centers. So it spans a broad gamut.

Sam McAvoy:
That is to say you generate an application, you put your name in the hat for various projects, and then their mentors pick a handful of people, they reach out to you, they kind of do a sanity check of an interview. And you're on board typically in May and June for a course of 10 to 12 weeks.

Sam McAvoy:
My story was actually somewhat interesting. I think I had applied to about 10 of their various projects, didn't get picked up for any, and then just got an email out of the blue from the Ames Research Center that said, "Hey, you know, we recognize some real abilities and talents in your background that we think would be very pertinent to this work that we're doing and exploring wicked problems and organizational strategy and industry analysis. And we'd like to bring you on board as part of a larger group of graduate interns to explore the space over the course of the summer."

Amy Kundrat:
Fascinating. I was just going to ask you what project you focused on. Could you give us a little bit more definition around what it is you've been doing for the last 10 to 12 weeks?

Sam McAvoy:
So it was a 10-week team-based research effort that was aviation-tailored and emphasized fundamentals of industry and domain-mapping to include the practices and methodologies that are used within that context. Wicked problem identification and management. There was a little bit of forecasting, scenario planning, disruption recognition, and then kind of the implications for strategy development. And this was all done within the context and framework of, "What do we think aviation is going to look like in the next 30 to 50 years, and how can NASA continue to be a relevant driving force in shaping that future?"

Sam McAvoy:
I think it's lost on a lot of people that NASA is both aeronautics and astronautics. And we forget that there is a level below the stars where this government agency plays an incredibly important role. One, in public safety, air traffic management, development in hypersonic flight, as well as micro-mobility network management. Think like drones and cities.

Amy Kundrat:
One would imagine that NASA would have to grapple with a lot of wicked problems. What are some of the wicked problems that you explored during your time at NASA? You mentioned mobility. Would love to hear a little bit more about that or any other wicked problems you worked on.

Sam McAvoy:
Within the context of the work we did, it was building a general framework. And I think we leaned heavily into the COVID experience and the wicked problems that were generated as part of that. You know, obviously aviation was critical to help in fighting the spread of COVID, but also played an incredibly important role in the transmission of COVID. And so it's balancing the duality of the good and the bad with things like that.

Sam McAvoy:
But I guess what I would say is, as it relates to wicked problems, the group that I was working with at NASA, one, is looking to make aviation more accessible, you know? So how do you expand aviation offerings to people in circumstances and parts of the globe where maybe access to such transportation isn't readily available? How do you make it equitable to that degree? How do we balance the impacts of environmental damage that aviation generates along with the high consumer demands that there is for aviation? Implications of aviation risk make it both more safer as the volume of aviation-centric platforms and systems grows. And the advances in technology that we're seeing with automation make the skies busier.

Amy Kundrat:
You mentioned scenario planning, and I'm curious to know if you used that a lot in your time in the Navy. When I think of scenario planning, I think risk officers, financial planning analysis tends to take that on. But I feel as if I'm hearing a lot more about it, especially as sustainability issues, which really is a wicked problem, right, are becoming more pertinent to a lot of businesses' core strategy. So just wondering, what was your approach... Do you have experience in scenario analysis and how did you approach scenario analysis at NASA?

Sam McAvoy:
With respect to my Navy career, I didn't have a whole lot of scenario planning responsibilities or duties. But as part of the career progression, junior-grade and mid-grade officers that are in the Navy go through what's known as joint professional military education training, where we do exercises in scenario planning. And so I had a little bit of exposure there.

Sam McAvoy:
But with respect to NASA, it was less to do with actually building scenarios and more just building kind of a buffet of scenario planning methodologies and tools that are out there used by other organizations. Probably most notably the Shell petroleum company and the US Coast Guard both have incredibly introspective and complex scenario planning mechanisms that they use to really build the foundation of their organizational strategy.

Amy Kundrat:
Were there any large takeaways you have from the buffet that you built of the scenario planning and the wicked problems you looked at? Are there any tangible takeaways for most business that you will take away with you from the summer?

Sam McAvoy:
Fundamentally, to execute effective scenario planning, one, that really digs deep at addressing wicked problems, not that you're going to solve them, but you might be able to mitigate them to a degree, untangle them and unpack them such that they're manageable, is a balance of data science, environmental contextualization, user and stakeholder engagement, as well as consistent iteration of whatever practice it is you're doing, whether it's scenario planning and forecasting or domain mapping, such that you are able to express real validity in the products that you're putting out and that you can make adjustments for future iterations going forward.

Amy Kundrat:
I wonder, were there any classes or concepts or themes or cases that you explored in year one that helped you inform some of the work and the ways that you approach problems during your internship this summer?

Sam McAvoy:
From the broadest perspective, Yale's focus on business and society really helped to frame and contextualize this work in a manner that I thought was really well-aligned with the goals of this project. As it pertains to coursework, the competitor curriculum played right into industry analysis, highlighting mechanisms and tools that really gave me a good baseline to work off of. Innovator was incredibly pertinent to recognizing the value of collective group divergence and then convergence to flesh out those ideas that seemed to have the longest legs, if you will. The use of design thinking and building understanding of market disruption and transition methodologies or mindsets, that'll help you key into those things early, before they happen.

Sam McAvoy:
And then lastly, state and society, just providing and getting some insights into the implications of organizational activity on society that reverberate to second- and third-order effects that those decisions have on a diverse group of publics, and how you, you can do your best to plan for what those might be. But at the least, it's important to be cognizant that you're probably going to affect or impact someone that you didn't plan on.

Amy Kundrat:
So I asked you what from SOM has informed your internship, and I would love to also ask you what from your internship will inform year two at SOM, your time at the Navy, when you graduate. You mentioned a little bit about your key takeaways from scenario planning. Would love to hear any other macro thoughts you have about what you're going to take away with you from this internship.

Sam McAvoy:
I think separate from the very tangible outcomes of the project itself was just the incredible culture that NASA emphasizes consistent with enterprise-wide professional development events and the multipliers that they serve to really increase group or organizational cohesion, innovation and satisfaction for employees.

Sam McAvoy:
Over the course of my 10 weeks, we'd have two or three guest speakers come and talk to the entirety of the Ames Research Center, or maybe even the agency at large. And these were the director of global space affairs from the UN. This was the administrator, Senator Bill Nelson giving us high-level perspective of what's NASA's ambition, goals as it aligns with the country's strategic objectives. It was research scientists that are building micro-mobility networks and trying to have drones communicate mid-flight such that they don't run into buildings and can anticipate traffic and what have you. And so to that extent, I really want to bring back that impression that the more you invest in the professional development of your workforce and the more engagement opportunities that you provide, one, the more informed they'll be, the broader the exchange of ideas, and the greater fostering of innovation that you'll have in your organization.

Amy Kundrat:
Such a great takeaway. And I'm sure Professor Baron would approve that takeaway if you were to take workforce again and work that into some sort of case analysis. That's great. Thank you. So, anything else about your internship you'd like to share that I didn't ask you?

Sam McAvoy:
NASA is looking for MBAs. That was a big takeaway out of the organization. I think it's very rare that they see people come out of channels like this, and they were kind enough to take a chance on me. And they're really trying to broaden the portfolio of perspectives that they have within the organization. There are opportunities there for MBAs and business types to take advantage of that are, one, really pushing the boundaries of science two, are incredibly impactful, both for the nation and for the world, and three, offer excellent opportunities for professional development and growth within the organization.

Amy Kundrat:
I believe you have a couple of weeks off before classes begin again. What are you going to be doing with this free time between internship and first day of classes for year two?

Sam McAvoy:
Definitely enjoying some time resting and relaxing. Had a chance to get up to Maine this past weekend and enjoy Acadia National Park. Have really enjoyed working on my tennis game over the course of the summer. Not a whole lot of tennis experience but helped to build kind of a casual beginner tennis community here at SOM. It's been a great way to get some physical activity in and socialize. And then lastly, whenever the surf's up in New England, driving out to Rhode Island or Cape Cod to catch a few waves.

Amy Kundrat:
That's great. Yeah. I did read that you're a self-proclaimed Yale SOM surfing explorer extraordinaire. I wonder, have you ever made it to New Hampshire for that little slice of coastline? Have you caught a wave in New Hampshire yet?

Sam McAvoy:
No. No. I haven't made it to New Hampshire. It's on the bucket list. Waves just feels so hit-or-miss here. And half of the year, it's obviously too cold to get out there. I will say I was a bit surprised by the plethora of Great White warning signs that litter the beaches of Cape Cod. But Rhode Island has been nothing but hospitable and offered up some tasty waves on the weekends.

Amy Kundrat:
That's great. So you're from San Diego. So is that where you learned to surf and those are your home waves?

Sam McAvoy:
Yeah. That's the home break. Had the chance to move to San Diego in my mid-twenties, as part of the Navy career. Spent five years there before coming here to Yale and have really enjoyed the environment, the culture and the community that San Diego offers.

Amy Kundrat:
So last few questions are really about what you're looking forward to in year two. Year two is mostly electives for second years. How have you assembled your year two when it comes to electives and how you're going to spend the last year of your time at SOM?

Sam McAvoy:
Sure. So I think from a very practical sense, being in the blue cohort has conditioned me to those early classes. So I'll be rising with the sun to get off to class. I'm most looking forward to just that being back in the classroom and exploring the elective curriculum in particular, competitive strategy, advanced business analytics, and then the digital and marketing strategy courses. This summer internship has really impressed on me the importance of organizational strategy and it's something that's really informed and influenced the direction I want to take in the second year. And then lastly, just getting the chance to reconnect with the second-year MBAs that have been out of the area over the course of the summer, and then getting to meet the class of 2023, share lessons learned and hopefully socialize a little bit.

Amy Kundrat:
And I'm sure jump back into club life. And so for the Future of Mobility club, which you're a club leader this year, what can we look forward to from that club? Any speakers or activities that we should be on the lookout for?

Sam McAvoy:
I don't want to give away too much, but am hopeful that we'll be able to bring in some of the connections I made at NASA to help provide some space perspective, but also looking at insights into electronic vehicles. I know they're not super prevalent here, but in the major metro areas, the scooter networks that are out and about, the technology that's behind all of that, it's really a massive sphere with a lot into it. And along with my fellow club leaders, we hope to unpack that, educate a little bit, and then shed some light on some opportunities that are available out there for people to take advantage of.

Amy Kundrat:
Well, Sam, that's a great note to end on. I really appreciate your time and sharing your internship experience at NASA. And of course what you're up to at SOM. And I hope it's inspiring a lot of other active duty folks as well as veterans to come to SOM. I know we have a really great community of veterans here, and thanks. And is there anything I didn't ask you, by the way, that you wished I did or anything that you want to share, whether it's internship-related or club-related or Sam McAvoy-related? Is there anything that you wanted to add?

Sam McAvoy:
It's been fantastic being on the podcast today. You know, I hope that this maybe nudges some people in the direction of space and literally shooting for the stars with whatever their post-SOM professional journey might be.

Amy Kundrat:
You've been listening to career conversations, a podcast from the Yale School of Management. If you like what you heard today, please subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, or however you take your podcasts.

Amy Kundrat:
Our producers are Amy Kundrat and Emily Kling both members of the class of 2021. Our theme music was arranged by Dakota Stipp and Liam Bellman-Sharpe. For Career Conversations, I'm Amy Kundrat. Thanks for listening, and we hope you'll tune in again.

About Career Conversations

In this podcast series, SOM students sit down with alumni for a series of candid conversations about career paths, industries, opportunities for MBAs, and discussions on various career topics including work-life balance and creating a meaningful impact in business and society. This series is produced by and recorded at the Yale School of Management.

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