June 11, 2020 | Rachel Erickson

Keith Parker stops in front of the NASA space shuttle at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Keith Parker stops in front of the NASA space shuttle at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

In 2008, While Keith Parker was busy using LEGO Mindstorms NXT and code customizations to build robots during his NC Space Grant Undergraduate Research Scholarship, he understood he was gaining unique technical skills that would help him in the future. What he was also gaining, though, underneath all the coding and machine learning, were crucial soft skills that still serve him in his career.

As a computer science major at Winston Salem State University, Keith Parker won support through NC Space Grant as an Undergraduate Research Scholar to work on advanced robotics research at NASA Kennedy Space Center. He worked with engineers to make simulations of what life on the Moon and Mars would be like for astronauts and robots. The simulations were made to prepare them for any obstacles they would run into in those extraterrestrial desert environments. 

Parker reflected that his internship at NASA helped set him up for his success going forward. When going in for interviews, having NASA experience on his resume was always an ice-breaker. Even if the position he was interviewing for didn’t directly relate to the work he did at NASA, the interviewer’s interest was piqued and helped the rest of the conversation go smoothly. 

In 2010, Parker was offered an internship after graduating and then a full time position at NIKE, Inc. in Oregon. A year later, he enrolled in North Carolina Central University’s online graduate program to get his Master’s in Information Science. 

Parker delivers a presentation during his time as a program manager at Nike, Inc.
Parker delivers a presentation during his time as a program manager at Nike, Inc.

Parker worked at NIKE, Inc. for over seven years in many roles, including as a program manager, before he moved on to work as a program manager for Google in California. He may not have been using his skills of building robots and machine learning in those roles, but he knew the value of using his soft skills to bridge the technology and business worlds. 

Thanks to his experience presenting his research funded by the NC Space Grant Undergraduate Research Scholarship and more, Parker felt equipped throughout his career whenever tasked with presenting or public speaking. He also remembers how his role at NASA prepared him for the ins and outs of the real world.

As an undergraduate student, the leap to the workplace can seem like a huge change. For Parker, he credits his research with NASA as his glimpse into workplace life. At Kennedy Space Center, he got an idea of what a typical workday looks like: budgeting, time management, interactions between colleagues, work breaks and maneuvering project deadlines. 

Learning these workplace social norms during his time as an NC Space Grant scholar left him feeling confident at the start of each new role in which he found himself. Parker knew the value of that experience he had when some of his peers who didn’t have internship or similar experiences came into a new job; he describes them as being “shell shocked.” His experience, funded by NC Space Grant, eased him into his new roles.

Parker borrows a Google shared bike to navigate around the Google Mountain View campus in California.
Parker borrows a Google shared bike to navigate around the Google Mountain View campus in California.

Looking back on his career path, Parker is thankful for the technical background he built during his schooling and NC Space Grant-supported research with NASA. While working everyday bridging the business and tech worlds, he likes to think that because of his technical background, his skills combined to make his role now a sort of “Swiss Army knife,” requiring him to be savvy in multiple fields.

Keith Parker’s career path shows how many possibilities can come from whatever background a student possesses. While still in a technical role, he isn’t using the same skills he began his career with, like machine learning and building robots. He is, however, a successful and well-rounded professional thanks to a foundation of key lessons he learned while starting out as an NC Space Grant scholar at NASA. 

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