Kevin Klenk: From the Great Lakes to Outer Space

Outer Space
Kevin Klenk is the Principal Director of Core Computing Services at The Aerospace Corporation, a non-profit organization that provides engineering solutions and advisory services to national-security space programs

Klenk grew up in a small town in Michigan, but he always had big dreams. He earned a B.S. in electrical engineering, as well as an M.S. and a PhD in computer science and engineering, all from the University of Notre Dame.

Klenk’s early interest in computer science stemmed from his fascination with understanding how things work. “I received my first computer in 1980, and started programming soon
thereafter,” he said. Much like Matthew Broderick’s character in War Games, “I was one of the few people online in the mid-1980s.” Over three decades later, he is still an IT aficionado. “The [technology] field has remained interesting just because of the rapid changes over time.”

 From Processed Food to Computer Processors

Over the course of his career, Klenk has worked in a technical capacity for a number of blue chip companies, including Post Cereal, Dow Corning and Ford Motor Company.

“I helped automate part of the Fruity Pebbles production line at one point!” he laughed. “My first summer job was with a trucking company. Back in 1988, I configured a minicomputer-based system to automate the company’s entire financial operation. That experience was invaluable in learning how all the financial and operational processes work together in a small business.”

Klenk has also worked at three Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs): Los Alamos National Laboratory, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and now The Aerospace Corporation.

He explained, “At Los Alamos, I worked on a project called the Digital Village, which was a clear predecessor to modern social networks. At JPL, I supported missions to deep space. And at Aerospace, I am working with scientists and engineers on solving some of our nation’s most complex problems.”

Different Cultures

On the surface, Klenk’s positions at JPL and Aerospace seem similar. At both companies, Klenk’s primary responsibility comprised the implementation and operation of IT infrastructure for companies doing R & D on behalf of the government. In actuality, they couldn’t be more different. 

JPL’s role in bringing the Space Age into being and now its’s dedication to the robotic exploration of space makes for a culture of risk takers and free thinkers. “JPL could be described as a place where 5,000 entrepreneurs come together. That freedom means that IT needs to win over internal customers, one by one, mission by mission.”

In contrast, with the Air Force as The Aerospace Corporation’s top client, IT needs to work with many more constraints. “Our internal customers look to IT to bring innovative solutions into
the corporation more effectively and efficiently than they can do themselves. They want to use high performance computing systems to solve problems for our customers, and not worry
about uptime, security plans, or systems automation. We’re pushing cultural boundaries by encouraging sharing by default instead of by exception.”

Commitment to Technical Excellence

Klenk enjoys working at Aerospace for many reasons. “Everyone is really smart, we’re doing valuable work, and we’re trying to solve problems in a technically excellent manner.”

Aerospace’s integral role in the creation of GPS back in the 1960s is a prime example of the company’s dedication to technical excellence. “It was the most significant development for safe
and efficient navigation since the introduction of radio navigation 50 years before,” he said. “If you look at where GPS is now and how popular it is, that is an example of solving a tough problem and doing it really well.

Klenk continued, “We are a company of engineers and scientists solely dedicated to achieving mission success. We don’t have a motive for profit or for business growth. We just want our customers to succeed, and that attitude permeates the entire company.”

It all Comes Down to People

Despite the fact that he works with highly complex, cutting-edge technologies, the biggest challenges he faces are all people-related. “Right now our biggest challenge is recruiting the top
IT talent. We are seeking out the same individuals being sought out by every other company in LA, including startups and tech giants.”

So how does he plan to attract students eager to join the ranks of Silicon Valley tech giants? “We can’t just rely on the fact that we present them with the opportunity to work on problems
they won’t see other places.  Although that is a huge draw, it takes establishing a personal network and spending one-on-one time with the right candidates to make sure that we are
attracting the best of the best.”