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When Melony Mahaarachchi interviewed at SpaceX in 2010, she was asked a question that would make most candidates go into panic mode: “We hire rock stars at SpaceX. You just presented a failed project. How do you expect us to think you’re a rock star?”
Mahaarachchi didn’t skip a beat when she answered, “Two reasons: Number one, rock stars are rock stars because they failed at the beginning and learned from their mistakes. Number two, be happy I failed before joining SpaceX so that failure is not at your cost.”
That searing reply was a bit unusual, but it was carefully crafted well before the presentation. Mahaarachchi, then applying for her first job, was different from many of her fellow applicants. The recent UCLA engineering grad was at least 10 years older, with two young children, and no summer internship experience. (“I was busy doing summertime with my kids.”)
But Mahaarachchi knew she was qualified enough to get the job as a mechanical design engineer and excel at it. So when an on-site interview was scheduled with only three days to prep, she started searching for a way to stand out in the competitive pool of candidates. Mahaarachchi was asked to create a 30-minute presentation on an engineering project. The audience would include her hiring manager, the VP of her prospective department, and the entire team of people in that department. She was also told that Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and tech wunderkind, might attend.
Mahaarachchi spent an entire day learning everything she could about Musk, reading blogs and biographies and watching every interview she could find on YouTube. She took notes: Musk liked going to Burning Man, he sold a computer game when he was 12, and as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, he reportedly turned a frat house into a nightclub. Since there’s so much coverage of Musk, Mahaarachchi confesses she also found out about “a lot of private things you should not know about your future boss.”
But the perceptive engineer derived a larger, more important message from her research on Musk and SpaceX: “I realized he was a man with many failures. At that time, SpaceX had not even launched the Dragon.”
So she decided to appeal to her future boss’s history with losing, and present her senior project from UCLA — one which her entire team had failed. It was a risky, but clever move, that ultimately paid off. By the time she arrived home, Mahaarachchi had a job offer waiting in her inbox.
Mahaarachchi’s journey to that first job was anything but usual, but it speaks to the persistence that has always defined her.
As the only daughter of three children growing up in a middle class family in Colombo, Sri Lanka, she was well aware of the limitations on her career. “The culture’s stigma is that women aren’t supposed to be in the engineering field because it’s a very masculine, male-dominant field where women are not going to survive,” she says.
Although engineering appealed to Mahaarachchi, who liked applying what she knew to find solutions to problems, it was not an option. In high school, she was steered towards studying biology so she could become a doctor, a career deemed more suitable for women but one she had little interest in.
When she didn’t pass the medical school entrance exam, coming up short by just a few points, she got married. Shortly after, she had a son and then a daughter. The birth of her daughter was a turning point. “I realized I didn’t want my daughter to face the same social stigmas and constraints I grew up with,” Mahaarachchi says. “I wanted to get out of the country because I wanted both my children to excel in education, but more importantly, I wanted to give my daughter the opportunity that I didn’t have.”
The go-getter acted on that goal: 15 years ago, Mahaarachchi applied to and won the U.S.’s diversity visa lottery and moved her family to Los Angeles to start a new life. As her children started going to school and her husband began working, she saw an opportunity to pick up her own education where she had left off. She got into UCLA and pursued an aerospace engineering degree for what she describes as “an emotional reason:” She wants to help reverse the impact of climate change by increasing what we know about other planets, so those findings can be applied here on earth.
Entering school with a much younger cohort came with its own set of challenges. Even today, Mahaarachchi only tells close friends and family her age. “I didn’t want [others] to think that because I was older, I messed up my life at the beginning,” she says of enrolling in UCLA’s undergraduate engineering program.
Mahaarachchi thrived during her time at SpaceX. The company was the perfect fit for the innovative energy bottled up inside of her: “My mind is crazy with creativity. That job was so ideal for me because the company was always doing something new.”
Mahaarachchi was part of the engine design team, where she was responsible for designing the electrical cabling for the Dragon, which made history in 2012 when it became the first commercial spacecraft to reach the space station.
Though she loved SpaceX’s company culture, almost five years of office sleepovers, weekend work, and a 100 mile-long commute was unsustainable. In search of better work-life balance, she left to take a job at Boeing. But the slow pace felt unbearable after SpaceX, and she resigned after a few months. Now, she’s found a happy medium — and is achieving new career heights — working at NASA’s prestigious Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on the Mars 2020 rover. Mahaarachchi’s team is in charge of designing the internal electrical layout for the car-sized rover, which will attempt to find signs of past life on the Red Planet when it ventures into space.
She's satisfied with the harmony she's found between her personal and professional lives. It’s important to her that her family sees her as a role model, and that she’s around for the milestones. She spent Friday helping her daughter, who was recently accepted to Boston University where she plans to study biology, prepare for prom. (Her son, too, is pursuing a career in STEM as a second-year engineering student at Berkeley.) “Yesterday, I was designing for the Mars Rover. Today I’m going to a nail salon and hair salon with my daughter," she says. "You wear so many hats as a working mom trying to balance life.”
Mahaarachchi has every other Friday off and uses the time to speak at schools and robotic competitions, where she hopes her story will empower young girls. While she's often asked how she landed a job at SpaceX and what advice she has for prospective applicants, she always warns that her presentation is unlikely to work again. After all, true innovation isn’t about copying something that has worked before, it’s about being the first one to try something new: “It’s not a novelty anymore — they have seen the failure project, so you have to be more creative to stand out."
Mahaarachchi’s Advice For Entering Tech Later In Life:
Understand The Value Of Life Experience
"When you're an engineer you are a leader. Decision-making is a daily part of your professional life. This is where life experience helps you. You make better decisions when you have experience, whether it comes from your personal life or professional life."
Use Age To Your Advantage
"Your decision to enter tech is more solid than others who are still figuring out whether tech is a good fit for them."
Don't Be Afraid To Ask For New Challenges
"[When I joined JPL] I knew what I wanted. I told my boss: 'I’m not going to compromise. If I’m going to take this postion I want to work for Mars 2020.'"