Christopher Reichert, MOT '04, hits the big stage with Patrick Zeitouni, MBA '09, for the first ever live recording of Sloanies Talking with Sloanies. Taped during Reunion 2019, the two discuss the influence Sloan had on how Patrick approaches his work at Blue Origin. If you are interested in learning more about Blue Origin and what Patrick is working on check out this video.
Sloanies Talking with Sloanies is a conversational podcast with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Google, and Spotify.
Christopher Reichert: Welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies, a candid conversation with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. So, what does it mean to be a Sloanie? Over the course of this podcast, you'll hear from guests who are making a difference in their community, including our own very important one here at Sloan. I'm your host, Christopher Reichert.
Christopher Reichert: Welcome. Thanks everyone for coming to our first Sloanies Talking to Sloanies Podcast recording and networking launch. So we're going to do this ... We're going to have a conversation up here, but then at the end ... The session goes until 2:30, I understand. So we're not going to last until 2:30 up here, but we're going to have a conversation, get some thoughts out there, and then leave you all to continue your networking after that.
My name is Christopher Reichert. I'm a Sloan graduate of 2004, of the Management Technology program and also a member of the MIT Sloan alumni board, which was formed in 2014 with the Dean's approval. He wanted was to help bring some of the efforts that are going on in the school and get some help with that. So, to create a stronger alumni community, and a stronger school, and compete with other schools as well.
So we focused on knotty problems that the staff, administration, and the Dean don't have the resources for or are trying to unpack. So we spent a year working on various different things. And this podcast series is an offshoot of that work that we did. We found out there are a lot of great stories out there for Sloanies, so we wanted to really gather those and put them in a place where we could distribute.
And again, tell more of the story of what Sloan's impact is on individuals and also attract potential students as well. So this year for example, I'll be working with the Career Development Office to help them with their strategies, and processes to advance that side of what alumni care about but also what prospective students care about.
Has anyone heard of Shankar Vedantam and Guy Raz? Well, I apologize in advance. They're professionals, so this is my first live recording. But joking aside, today we're going to be talking to Patrick Zeitouni and his journey before Sloan, and since Sloan, and how Sloan played a part in shaping that.
And before I introduce Patrick, did any of you go to the Tim Talks yesterday at the Wong Theater? Those are amazing. I think that those are exactly the sort of stories that we're trying to tell for how Sloan has an impact and how being at MIT really brings people forward. And I think Uli did a great job and really raised the bar, so I was a little bit nervous last night.
Some logistical questions. There'll be a slide up here where you can submit questions to ask us. So what we're going to do is, we're going to do the podcast with a set of questions that I already have, but if you have questions that come up during the podcast itself, at the end of the podcast, we'll have those questions given to us in some sort of written format and then we'll go through those with whatever time we have left. So just bear that in mind as we're going through this.
So coming to Patrick and his work, and I was thinking about how … Did anyone catch Michael Bloomberg's commencement speech yesterday? It was amazing. He talked about, besides donating 500 million to help shut down coal plants in the environment, he really talked about the greatest generation, and how they stepped up to the plate 50 plus years ago, to take on the challenge of space.
So space has always fascinated humans forever, I think probably from the first sunset, and all of a sudden these things, these celestial bodies appeared in space. And the Greeks created really complex calculations on the movements, Ptolemy built on those and created his models for it. And so it's really been an endless fascination for humanity throughout. And I think that 57 years ago, John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech about we choose the moon, not because it's easy, but because it is hard. And I think that that's an ever present element to this, and that's an element of Sloan, which is to step up to these challenges where failure is ever present and there is no guarantee of success. But obviously we did succeed 50 years ago to land a man on the moon, and we take for granted a lot of the developments from there, whether it's GPS, even silly things like joysticks on games. There are a lot of benefits that we don't know about that are going to happen with this sort of big hairy audacious goal that we talk about at Sloan. The U.S. took a lap of victory back then politically over their political opponents in the Soviet Union. But I think now, fast forward to today, it's really shifted from the government taking the primary lead on that challenge, and also for sociopolitical reasons, we now have a greater urgency, which Michael Bloomberg mentioned as well, which is survival.
And so the vision that Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin have, if you've ever watched any of the videos that they've put out there is not just to get to the moon, but it's to create these communities in space to help us survive beyond the climate changes that we can argue all we want about, but are very real.
With that, I want to introduce Patrick and we're going to talk about his work. Patrick has three master's degrees and an undergraduate. Air Astronautics from USC, Electrical Engineering also from USC, a Bachelor's in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and of course an MBA from Sloan. Welcome Patrick to Sloanies Talking to Sloanies.
Patrick Zeitouni: Thank you very much for having me.
Christopher Reichert: So tell us about your upbringing and your family. What led you to pursue three master's and technology before we get to where you are right now.
Patrick Zeitouni: Sure, it’s one of those things where you don't get to pick your passions, your passions pick you. From the time I was a small kid, I was always fascinated with space. My parents got me a space shuttle when I was a little kid and I was just fascinated by, “What sort of environment will this crazy looking vehicle fly in?” And I just wanted to learn more and more. And so every book I could get my hands on, I would try to get it.
At one point, one of my uncles got me a telescope, that became my favorite possession ever, and again, I tried to just maintain that telescope for as long as I could. I actually was born here but spent my childhood both in Saudi Arabia and in Lebanon. So we'd go back and forth between the U.S. and Lebanon, and there were many times when I'd be carrying my telescope and trying to go up to the roof so I could go look at the stars. My parents were like, "Not tonight. There’s more shelling and more snipers.” Or something like this. Maybe can I take it easy?
Christopher Reichert: Wow, that's a different-
Patrick Zeitouni: Stay indoors, but also when you see all of these things happening around you, to be able to take a step back and say everything that's happening here is, in a sense, so inconsequential when you actually take a look at everything that is a possibility up there.
Christopher Reichert: You were in Lebanon in the early '80s, mid '80s?
Patrick Zeitouni: Yeah, in the '80s and then early '90s as well. Yeah, so it was a little dicey back then.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah, exactly. And then when did you come back to the United States?
Patrick Zeitouni: I came back when I was 18. When I was growing up, unfortunately, part of the result of a war is you have a lot of spent ammunition all around. We'd do a lot of things where I would take stuff apart and you'd build rockets out of remnants of all of these different things. It’s fortunate I still have all of my fingers, and eyes, and ears and that sort of thing.
Christopher Reichert: Wow.
Patrick Zeitouni: That was a lot of fun, but I knew that that taught me that I had to go to a place where I could get a much deeper technical degree, and Georgia Tech was this school that I heard of over and over that had this phenomenal engineering program. I'd had a couple of relatives who had gone there and had some family there, so I knew I was going to go there. And I was actually slated to go there as an aerospace engineer. Just before I started, my dad gave me a piece of wisdom. He's like, "Aerospace engineers, they definitely get to work on some part of the spacecraft." But he's like, "What do you think the rest of the spacecraft in the rocket is?" I was like, "It's mostly like computers, and electrical, and stuff." And he's like, "Exactly."
And so I ended up switching to electrical engineering because I figured a lot more of the brains, in fact, the hard part of base vehicles was more on the electrical side.
Christopher Reichert: And we were talking about your lapel pin earlier, I love my lapel pin, but that's really cool. Tell us about that.
Patrick Zeitouni: This is a Blue Origin's emblem so to speak. It's a feather and it's meant to symbolize humanity's quest for the perfection of flight. We've always looked at birds, when we were living in caves we always envied them for what they were able to do with their flight and their freedom. So this symbolizes our need to perfect flight if we ever actually want to get off this planet.
And this pin in particular has actually been to space on the New Shepard vehicle. So we build these suborbital rockets that are highly reusable, we use them like 5, 10, 25 times. And then on every mission, we have a small amount of payload that we reserve for employees and we all get to send certain things up there. So this is one of the things I got.
Christopher Reichert: Can I give you something?
Patrick Zeitouni: We'll see.
Christopher Reichert: When you're talking about business cards going up there.
Patrick Zeitouni: As long as they're not super heavy.
Christopher Reichert: Right, so tell me about the time before Sloan, so some of the work you did after college.
Patrick Zeitouni: For me, I was at Georgia Tech, not going into aerospace was never an option, so I knew from the get-go I was going to go into aerospace. And then I ended up joining a company called TRW, which at the time was known for many things, but one of the things that they were very much known for was they had built the lunar lander descent engine, if you know anything about Apollo 13. That engine was only supposed to take the astronauts the last 10 miles of the orbit down to the lunar surface. That's all it had to do. Very specialized work for three minutes and bring them down. And in fact that engine had to be used on Apollo 13 to basically course correct the astronauts, flip them around the moon and then burn faster to get them back. So it ended up being operated for like 10X what it was supposed to be, and all of the astronauts came out there and personally thanked every person who worked on that engine.
So they had this history of, besides all the really awesome classified stuff they did, this was the one thing they were really known for. I went out to Redondo Beach California, which is a beautiful part of the world to live in, it didn't suck. I got to work on some really interesting, very cutting edge military satellites. I got to work on some missile defense prototype satellites that could protect us from small actors that are perhaps a little irrational and doing some things like that. And then I also got to work on the first, or at least in my career, the first NASA return to the moon. So right after the Columbia accident in 2003, we had this idea. We knew we were going to shut down this space shuttle program and we were going to transition to returning astronauts to the moon, and so NASA created the program Constellation, and we were going to have people landing on the moon by 2014. At that time I was working on my 2 master's while I was working full-time, and this opportunity came up, and I said, "This is it, this is going to be my opportunity to actually get to work on something to return to the moon." So I got to work on that proposal, and we did a lot of work, and unfortunately, we were not the team that was selected to win. And then actually a few years after that, the whole program was canceled.
Christopher Reichert: Dissolved.
Patrick Zeitouni: Dissolved, yeah, around the 2010 time-frame.
Christopher Reichert: I think there was kind of a national ambivalence about space and whether this was relevant to-
Patrick Zeitouni: Correct, and then unfortunately, we go through these cycles where it's something that becomes extremely central to what we're supposed to do and then almost defining in our technological prowess. And then very quickly after when we realize how hard it is, we were like, "Ah, maybe we didn't quite mean to do that." And we dial back a little bit from that. And unfortunately, you see these cycles over and over and they happen in about every 10 to 15 years. They seem to come back up again.
Christopher Reichert: That's a transition to the private sector taking over some of those elements, right? With obviously the founder of Blue Origin being Jeff Bezos, somewhat unlimited resources, right? But certainly also a charismatic leader to be able to say, "We are going to take on that cause and that mission irrespective of all the political winds that change." How does that infuse with the work that you do at Blue Origin? And then I want to come back before Sloan.
Patrick Zeitouni: It's a great point. Our founder has been—I've been thinking about this since I was a little kid—he's been thinking about this since he watched the Apollo land on the moon when, I think he was five years old, so he's been thinking about this for a while, and when he was able to, he founded Blue Origin to basically think about how we can actually materially change the course of space exploration, and how we can work on putting millions of people living and working in space.
We're very much about working with everybody in industry and helping NASA actually get there much, much faster. The part that we're perhaps a little bit different, is we have ... our motto is “Gradatim Ferociter.” Which is “Step by Step, Ferociously.”
So the one thing that, with the thoughtfulness of our founder and how we're structured, we've been able to focus on is building the fundamentals of going to space and rocketry, and work towards what that would look like in the future. Rather than having to be expedient or skip steps in order to perhaps get there faster, but not quite to the right points.
Christopher Reichert: And so how do you unpack that challenge? I saw the video on the lunar lander, and I saw the one where there are two rocket ships. Blue Shepard is the newest one, is it?
Patrick Zeitouni: Yeah, so we have New Shepard and New Glenn. So the way we unpack it, there'll be many things to unpack in the future, but at the very beginning they're two things we're supposed to focus on: reducing the cost of launch radically, and then starting to use the resources of space—to actually use them in space. So the first one is what the company has been focused on for most of its existence. New Shepard is our suborbital rocket, it goes up to about 100 kilometers into space. There's a booster, there's a capsule, and they separate and they come down separately. We've been taking payloads and things like this excellent pin here, but we'll be taking astronauts hopefully by the end of the year up into space and bring them back. We're doing that so we can practice and we can perfect our ability to do these highly reusable, very quick turnaround launches.
Then from that we go to New Glenn. New Glenn is our newer rocket, it's orbital. It's just slightly smaller than the Saturn V rocket, so it's just a giant big rocket. And because it's so big, we're actually building it in Florida, so we're building a whole other facility, whole other launch pad to launch this rocket that’s going to be able to take tens of metric tons of payload into space.
Christopher Reichert: And the cost of those compared to the Saturn V before that-
Patrick Zeitouni: Dramatically lower. And so we know there'll always be opportunities to get even lower just from where the existing market is, these effectively are going to be market leading or market shaping in terms of where they're positioned. And again, because we realize if you don't ... This is literally step one. If you don't reduce the cost, you don't get to go to space, you don't actually get to do all the fun things we want to do because everything has become so expensive, the business cases don't close.
And then the second piece is we’ve got to start using the resources of space. So right now, every time we want to go up into space, we take all of our water, we take all of our food. In many cases we take the thing that we're going to live in, and it's not necessarily the most efficient way to do things going forward.
So the example I give is imagine you're going to Paris on a trip and you decide you need to take all of your wine with you, and your croissants, and your water, and then you are also taking a tent because that's where you're going to be staying. And so not only would that be a very unpleasant trip, but it would also have to be, by its nature, a very short trip and probably an expensive one.
Christopher Reichert: Pretty onerous.
Patrick Zeitouni: Exactly.
Christopher Reichert: It's like back in the old days when they had the 15 trunks, remember they would take on the train trips.
Patrick Zeitouni: Exactly.
Christopher Reichert: ... to Venice or whatever it was?
Patrick Zeitouni: And porters carrying them for you everywhere, yeah. Not the most efficient way, so we’ve got to learn how to use the resources of the moon. We now know that there's water ice there, which is going to be huge because now you can make your own oxygen and make rocket fuel on the moon, that sort of thing. And we can also use the soil of the moon itself. It has a lot of aluminums and other metalics, iron and a lot of silicates as well. So there's a lot of things you can use to build stuff on the moon or in space. So that's the second thing that we're focused on and part of what my team in particular is focused on is building this very large lunar lander that can land very big things on the moon so we can actually start deploying infrastructure on the moon and actually using all of that, build the really interesting things in space.
Christopher Reichert: How big is that lunar lander compared to the one that landed on the moon in '69?
Patrick Zeitouni: Interestingly enough, it's larger because we've chosen to do something a little bit differently than how Apollo did it. In some ways they were more efficient than what we do now, because they were using manufacturing techniques that we almost just don't use anymore that involve chemical processing of all these metals. They would go down to mils of thickness that we just don't accept anymore. Like if you dropped a screwdriver in the lunar module, it would literally go through the skin.
Christopher Reichert: It's like aluminum foil.
Patrick Zeitouni: Yeah, our risk tolerance is lower, we're not quite ready to put our astronauts in that kind of environment as an industry. And so, if you just wanted to replicate that today, everything would actually be a little bit heavier. We've actually tried to go back and push it, we're using hydrogen as a fuel, which they use as storables.
Hydrogen actually forces you to go to a bigger lander, but you can land more payload. But it also allows you to start using water ice on the moon. You can break it up, make oxygen and hydrogen, and then eventually refuel the lander on the moon so you can reuse it over and over. And that's something they couldn't necessarily do in the '60s.
Christopher Reichert: If you have an opportunity, at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Museum here in Boston, I guess the splash down capsules. I don't know what they call those things, the ones that return to earth.
Patrick Zeitouni: The command modules, yeah.
Christopher Reichert: Tiny, tiny, absolutely tiny. I wouldn't fit—you would fit, but I wouldn't fit in that thing. I don't know how they got into it, but it looks very rustic compared to what I'm seeing you guys working on.
Patrick Zeitouni: And what is amazing is you look at that command module, and the compute power on that computer is probably like 1/100th of what is in your phone right now, and we were able to go to the moon to literally navigate and be able to precisely land units within 4 or 500 feet of where they wanted to go back then. And now we've gotten so much better. Now we're saying, "We want to land within 25 meters and be closer to the precision line." So hopefully technology is advanced enough that we can actually take advantage of it to do some things a little bit better.
Christopher Reichert: You talked earlier about that small engine at TRW that was supposed to run for three minutes and then ended up running for what, 10 hours or whatever the time was. Obviously there was a lot of over-engineering going on in there, which was fortunate to have in that moment. How do you balance that with the cost of things, and the ability to have fault tolerance in there just in case there's something you didn't think of?
Patrick Zeitouni: It's a great question. A lot of what people did back then was what we call over-engineering, but it was also because they were doing it for the first time. They had no idea what was going to happen. If you actually look at the lunar lander, it has giant footpads. They're literally this big. And the reason the footpads were that big was because they didn't know what the lunar surface was going to look like.
Christopher Reichert: Hard or soft.
Patrick Zeitouni: Yeah, there was this professor at Harvard I believe that said, "Because the moon has been pounded by meteorites over its eons, it's all this fine powder, and when you land it's going to be like quicksand, and all the astronauts are going to sink in, and the lander is going to sink in." So they designed these giant footpads so that when the lander would-
Christopher Reichert: Like snow shoes.
Patrick Zeitouni: Exactly, would land, you would just be able to spread it over enough area to have lower pressure and not sink in. And of course, the astronauts land and they're like, "No, we're good. We're good guys. I could step on it and it's actually fine." So we just didn't know.
And the other part of it is, all of these calculations were done by hand. You would have these hundreds if not thousands, at the time it was mostly male engineers, now we're very different and we have a much more diverse workforce. But it was these guys in their short sleeves, and their skinny ties, and they're all cranking away at their hand calculations. Now with the advent of things like Cloud Computing, you can take this analysis, and you can run a million cases in a Monte Carlo simulation. Whereas before you would have had to pad it significantly just because you just weren't sure of all of the edge cases. Now you can run it for every single possibility and run it over and over and say, "Actually, these are the areas where I could optimize the design and bring it in." And then where you do want more margin because you just don't know, you can actually deliberately add it in where you might think you have more unknown. So it allows you to do much more interesting optimizations and design in a way that we would never have been able to do in the past.
Christopher Reichert: Right, run more simulations. When you were at TRW, what year was that?
Patrick Zeitouni: That was 2001 to about 2007, and about halfway through, we got acquired by Northrop Grumman.
Christopher Reichert: And so the project that you were working on was killed?
Patrick Zeitouni: Yeah.
Christopher Reichert: Tell us about that. I guess how the team dealt with that, how you dealt with it in terms of professional setbacks, or what's next?
Patrick Zeitouni: When I was at TRW-Northrop Grumman, I loved the work. The people were great, the passion for the mission was absolutely there. The technical prowess of the team and not just TRW-Northrop, but also the partners that we worked with like Boeing, the technical prowess was just incredible. Here we were in this great announcement and I forget who the gentleman was who announced that we hadn't won. And I looked around the room and there were tears in almost every eye and it was just ... everybody had just poured their heart into this thing and we hadn't won it. And that forced me to take a step back and say, "Why was that? I thought we had the best team, what was going on?" And that's when I really realized as passionate as I was about the job, that I really had only known one small part of it and that was just the technical side. And there was this whole other aspect of the financial, the strategic, the organizational aspect that I—it was almost trying to describe colors to somebody who was color blind—I just had no idea those dimensions even existed. And so at that moment I realized if I truly wanted to have an impact in space, I couldn't just do it as an engineer. And I had to learn the other side of the business because in fact, the rocket science in many ways is almost easy. It's the other stuff that can get you. And that's when I decided I needed to go to business school, and I looked around at everything that was out there, I-
Christopher Reichert: You wanted to go back to USC?
Patrick Zeitouni: Yeah, I looked at USC, I looked at UC Berkeley. I looked through these schools down the street here and the one that resonated the most was MIT Sloan because it was one where the technical depth was there. So you had this school that was primarily known for engineering and had this incredible passion around that, but also applied this layer of strategy, and business, and investment thinking, and in economics in all of that around it.
And by far the people that I met when I came out here for the orientation day were the humblest, most interesting, most down to earth people. I was like, "Those people, I want to be studying with them." That's when I decided to pivot and go from just engineering to join MIT Sloan.
Christopher Reichert: It's interesting you mention that because in our previous ... this is our ninth in the podcast series, and if you listen to the others, that's a thread that comes through from a lot of the people that I've spoken to, that it's an intimidating place potentially, but when you actually meet your classmates, they're very much down to earth, and are here for the mission of learning and not so much some of the other things maybe up the road.
So tell us about your time at Sloan. You mentioned how this added a perspective to you that was beyond engineering. Which could be difficult, because engineering is very simplistically right and wrong, there's specific challenge that you work towards. But now when you come into business management, it's a lot looser. How was that for you mentally to get on board with that, and embrace it, and bring it into your life?
Patrick Zeitouni: Absolutely, the very first thing you do is you cast a very wide net. You're like, "I don't know any of these things. Let me start probing and see what is going to matter and be the most relevant." I had to pull myself back from taking a lot of course 16 classes, because they were all just super interesting. I ended up just taking one, which was David Mindell's Digital Apollo, which talked about the digital guidance and navigation computer that was on Apollo, and that was just a fascinating class. But other than that I tried to focus on statistics, operations, finance, investments, a lot of micro and macro economics.
And then every place I would step in and I was like, "Oh my God, there's a whole universe of information and frameworks and thinking here that are essential to how you would think about how should we go into space." You'd assume “All right, I design this thing, I hand it to somebody and it gets manufactured.” And then all of a sudden you're like, "Oh, actually manufacturing is not that simple. There's a whole supply chain that needs to happen. There are these bottlenecks in these machines." Then you end up with queuing theory and feedback models, and so that sort of opens your mind. And then you get into finance class and you're like, "All right, great. So I make the decisions that are based on the best technical choice." And you go with them, and you're like, "Well, actually I have to think about return on investment. So how much money are you investing? When do you get your money back? How do you trade these things off?"
And then in some cases where it's more probabilistic, then you start thinking about expected value of the returns. And so with every single one of them, you probe. I'd walk up to this door and I’d try to approach it rather than saying, "Oh my God, there's a whole bunch of scary things behind this door, let me just close it and back away slowly." I'd be like, "Well, let me at least just dip in a little bit and see what I can learn in this thing."
Christopher Reichert: Did you have a favorite professor or class at Sloan that you-
Patrick Zeitouni: Yes, this has sort of been in one way unrelated to aerospace, then in many ways actually it really helped shape some of my thinking of some of the longer term economics of space settlement. It was Macro Economics under Professor Rigobon, and it was specifically just how economic crises happened, and how you thought about contagion, and economic models, and that sort of thing.
And so it was just eye opening to see how you can set up these entire economic systems and how they can just completely fall apart. We just now start to think about what an economy on the moon or economy in space would look like, and I can only imagine all of the economic dynamics that are going to be happening in space that we literally have no idea about right now.
Christopher Reichert: Right, we have no idea how it's going to be-
Patrick Zeitouni: Exactly, but it's great to look back on history and see what history teaches us from the Asian financial crisis to the tulip crisis of Amsterdam of the 1600s or something.
Christopher Reichert: Right, how about a do over? Is there any class that you would do over? Like if you could drop one and do another. If you were given one more semester, what would you take? How's that?
Patrick Zeitouni: All right. If I had one more semester, what would I take?
Christopher Reichert: And actually not even academically. It could be socially, so whether it was getting across campus more or participating in more group classes, study sessions?
Patrick Zeitouni: The one thing that I found that was fascinating here is that you have these engineering students and all these different parts of the school that are creating incredible inventions, and patents, and new and different ways to solve really interesting problems. And I had a little bit of an opportunity to engage with some of them. And I did, it was either iLab or eLab and we actually thought about how you would apply them in interesting and unique applications. But if there was this alternate universe, if we have this quantum set of universes where all these different permutations would've happened, I would have loved for one of them to have been just taking a few of those ideas and actually trying to start a technical startup and flushing one of those out. I think that would have been fascinating to do given all of the talent in the school.
Christopher Reichert: After Sloan, you went to McKinsey. Directly or not?
Patrick Zeitouni: No, directly. When I joined, you write your essay as to what you think the school will want to hear. You're like, "I totally have this plan of what I want to do." And so my plan was I'm going to go to Sloan so I can figure out these other nontechnical aspects, and then maybe go to consulting to figure out some things, and then come back to aerospace. That actually ended up being the path I ended up taking, but it was completely, it-
Christopher Reichert: Surprised even you?
Patrick Zeitouni: Yeah, that I had actually written that in my essay. But I came to Sloan and did not even know who McKinsey was before I set foot on this campus. I was that much of a clueless engineer. And I was fortunate, I think I had the most exceptional core team. We still wanted to hang out together even by the end of the second year out.
And then there were two folks on my team that were actually both from McKinsey, and they helped shape some of my thinking on the people that were there, the kind of work that was done. So I knew that I wanted to go into consulting with the thought of “Those guys know how to fix different aspects of companies.” And it would be like an extended business school of learning, how to do supply chain, or product development, or strategy, or that sort of thing.
And then looking around, I was like, "Well, if it's going to be anybody, it has to be McKinsey." They're the ones that work with the best companies, they do the most interesting problems. I have these two exceptionally nice people on my team that are from there so they must be great people. And so the thing about Sloan that was great is it's a great platform to actually get into McKinsey. I don't know if this is still the case, but at the time it was the single largest employer of every Sloanie class that was coming out.
Christopher Reichert: Interesting. How long were you there for?
Patrick Zeitouni: Again, I was like, "I'm going to go in, I'm going to learn for two years and then I'm just going to bounce-"
Christopher Reichert: Go back to engineering?
Patrick Zeitouni: Go back to engineering, and then fell into this random walk. I started in the Dubai office because having spent some time in Saudi and Lebanon I spoke Arabic. I'm like, "This will be fun." So I went to Dubai, and I loved the people and the work. It was an entirely different set of problems there than the ones that were perhaps more related to what I wanted to solve.
So after about a year of being there, I came back to Boston and got to do more of the work that I wanted to do. And some of it was aerospace so I got to work on jets, on civil aircraft, that sort of thing. But some of the best learning was from completely random companies that you wouldn't think of as valuable, but I learned how to build the best most efficient procurement organization from working on bathroom fans.
And the guys in the bathroom fan company- they're great people. They're like, "You work on shuttles, why are you here?" I was like, "Guys, saving two cents on this fan will make or break the business case on this fan." And we look at aerospace and people sometimes don't know what something will cost until after they design it. That's how engineers approach it and you're like, "That cannot be the right model." So you learn how to do something from industrials, and bathroom fans, and garage door openers, and it's a fantastic learning environment.
And then you go to automotive, they do product development, they release a new car effectively-it's a modified variant of the one-
Christopher Reichert: Iteration but still.
Patrick Zeitouni: Yeah, but they have to build millions of them. They can't catch fire or kill people and they have to do a very rigorous gated process. They have to go through their crash testing and certification to be on the highway, and they do this consistently. And so learning from them, how they think about design to value, design to cost, and product development, was super illuminating.
So I kept doing all of that, and then I got to go and actually apply that to a lot of the large aerospace firms, and the DOD, and NASA, and what was supposed to be a 2 year stint ended up being 8 years at McKinsey.
Christopher Reichert: And is that when Blue Origin came knocking? Or did you knock on their door?
Patrick Zeitouni: Yeah, it was actually me knocking on my door. So the great thing about McKinsey, it's a phenomenal place to be. Again, it's surrounded by brilliant people that are very passionate about the mission of professional development and client impact. And so you were constantly being challenged, it's almost like you are a kitchen knife that was constantly being sharpened, so you were never dull and you were just being honed even further every single year.
So it was always a great opportunity to keep learning, and I had a set of great mentors who kept pushing me and giving me the right opportunities to advance. Although I wasn't interested in being a partner, I was like, "Wow, I'm this close. Let me just stick it out and see if I can make it." And sure enough with the support of all these great people, actually I got to be a partner.
And at that point, I stepped back and I said, "All right, what's next?" Because there very easily could have been a world, where I could have just stayed there, kept going. Got to still do some aerospace work of course. I realized at that point, again, circling back to if I were going to look back on my career when I was like 50 or 60, what would I have wanted to do?
And I said, "I really want to be in a space company that's about to make a huge difference, and I want to be able to say, 'I was in there, and I was executing it.'" And being at McKinsey, you could never quite say that. You could always-
Christopher Reichert: You were one layer back.
Patrick Zeitouni: You were one layer back. You could have been the other person whispering in their ear and giving them all the tools, but in the end they were the ones that had to execute. And I sort of had a little bit of FOMO from that, I was like, "I kind of want to do that." And I realized if I didn't leave McKinsey then, in a sense I was almost going to become pigeonholed as a consultant, and so I needed to leave at that point.
So I stepped back from that. Everybody was like, "What are you doing? You just made partner." And I was like, "No, this is what I need to do." But the people who knew me really well, they were like, "This is great. This is why you need to go do it." So I took a step back and I started looking around, and at first I had a list of like 70 places I wanted to go. And of course, you get all these great companies like Google and some of these other ones that reach out and are like, "Hey, do you want to do this really cool thing here?" Or recruiters reach out and they say, "Hey, there's this thing that you could be the COO of or whatever."' So your immediate instinct is, "I don't have a job, I need to make money. I should take the first thing that shows up." And then you had to dial that back a little bit and say, "All right, I'm leaving because I have an objective in mind." So I made a very short list of companies that I wanted to be at that had a very clear vision, had a culture of disruptiveness and a bias to action and were well funded to go execute.
That third one actually ended up being the hardest one because there's a lot of new space that actually is doing that and it attracts some phenomenal talent, but as they say in the Right Stuff, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”
Christopher Reichert: I haven’t heard that. That's great.
Patrick Zeitouni: Blue and a couple of other companies were at that confluence, and it was because of the McKinsey network and because of the work that I had done that I knew some people there and connected, and I basically went in and met them. It was over this informal social event that we did this, and then I came in a couple of weeks later for an interview over the afternoon and they're like, "Come on out."
Christopher Reichert: How long have you been there now?
Patrick Zeitouni: I've been there two years. I moved from New York to Seattle.
Christopher Reichert: So what compels you to stay and engage with Sloan? You've flow out for this reunion, and this is your 10th, I guess?
Patrick Zeitouni: Yeah, there's a few different reasons. First of all I think it's the people. If you look at half the people that showed up to my wedding, half of them were people from this class, the 2009 class. It was a phenomenal set of folks, and I would have just flown out just to see them.
The other part of it is, Sloan is almost like the fulcrum on which I was able to do this career pivot. So it's always been an important part of how I was able to get to where I am professionally. So I wanted to come back, check back in with the school. Everything has changed so much, like this building didn't exist when I was here, which is insane.
Tag back in and just understand what the latest thinking is, what are people working on here. That's what really pulled me back.
Christopher Reichert: I have two last questions for you. One is, what's your definition of success? And the second one is what have you geeked out about recently? Which maybe you can't even tell us.
Patrick Zeitouni: Oh my God. Let me start with the first one. My definition of success for myself is I want to be able to look back, let's say when I'm 55, and I'm on some tropical Island somewhere, it’lI have to be some Mediterranean or tropical Island that I'm just hanging out on, and then I look back, and I say "I materially improved the trajectory of humans getting into space." That's what I want my career goal to be, and truly believe Blue Origin is the place that'll actually make that happen.
Christopher Reichert: Wow, and geeking out?
Patrick Zeitouni: It's funny, every day that I walk into work is some form of geeking out. My role right now is I'm the acting head of advanced development programs. And so in a company that is on the cutting edge of everything, my team is the one that's looking out even to the future from that.
And so one half of my team is getting to work on like crazy concepts and the lunar lander, which every day I wake up, I'm like, "Oh my God, we have to build something that's going to land humans on the moon in five years."
Christopher Reichert: Is there a model somewhere in a warehouse that you can walk up to and walk around, climb up on?
Patrick Zeitouni: You have to be very careful because the top deck is actually 15 feet high. So climbing up there, it's going to be a huge step for me and Neil Armstrong if he was still around. But yeah, we actually built a mock-up because it is so big. And by the way, this is not something we've just done with this. Even for New Glenn, we've built large mock-ups because even to this day and age, humans are really bad at scale. You can have an engineer that's like, "Oh, I'll just design a bolt that'll just go here." And then at the scale it’s like, "Dude, that bolt is 200 pounds." And you need to lift it up and inadvertently attach it to something-
Christopher Reichert: When you're in space.
Patrick Zeitouni: In space would be easier.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah, right. Actually, it's only about 120, right?
Patrick Zeitouni: On the ground is the problem because you're trying to do it and not drop it on all the other expensive stuff that's around. So yeah, so we do build virtual models, but also physical models.
Our founders spoke on May 9th and announced his vision for humanity, vision for Blue Origin. And then he unveiled the lunar lander behind him. Of course, everybody was like "Oh, look at the shiny big lander." It's like, the rest of the speech is really good too, but there was also the lander mock-up.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah, the background was great with the twinkling lights. It was very well staged.
Patrick Zeitouni: Thank you.
Christopher Reichert: But we'll put the link in the notes for this episode to that video as well. Actually one last question.
Patrick Zeitouni: Sure.
Christopher Reichert: Any parting advice for prospective students considering Sloan?
Patrick Zeitouni: First of all, I think, Sloan attracts a lot of engineers, but even if you're not a technical person, I think this is a phenomenal place to be because you're surrounded by such a humble and incredibly smart bunch of people, and you'll get sucked into the technical stuff regardless, you will just pick it up via osmosis.
But once you've figured out that you are going to come here, I think ... and this is going to sound like contradictory advice, but leave yourself open to a lot of things because I think some people come in with a very strong perspective of what they want to do and they may somehow sometimes miss out on everything else that's going on, so there's an opportunity to really broaden what you would do here.
At the same time, I think it's important to think about what goal you want to achieve, or what do you want to get out of it, because the flip side is there's so many fricking cool things here that it's very easy to get so fragmented from the clubs, to the outside classes, to all the different Sloan classes, to all of the events. It's so easy to get fragmented and so you end up dabbling in everything and never getting to double down on a few things.
Patrick Zeitouni: And I actually think it is worth doubling down on a few things here because Sloan is not just this giant la carte menu. In any of these threads, you can actually go extremely deep and become super proficient in it. If there's an opportunity to become proficient in something, take that chance.
Christopher Reichert: Well thank you very much, Patrick Zeitouni for joining us for Sloanies Talking to Sloanies here, thank you all for joining us.
Christopher Reichert: Sloanies Talking with Sloanies is produced by the office of external relations at MIT Sloan School of Management. You can subscribe to this podcast by visiting our website, mitsloan.mit.edu/alumni or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Support for this podcast comes in part from the Sloan annual fund, which provides essential flexible funding to ensure that our community can pursue excellence. Make your gift today by visiting giving.mit.edu/sloan.