The rocketing career of SpaceX’s David Pavlík


There are a handful of Czechs who are part of the booming hi-tech new economy on the US West coast and more specifically in Silicon Valley. But few could boast a career that over the last decade has been littered with the names of so many of the large multinational US companies in the forefront of technology and its applications as Zlín native David Pavlík. His career has jumped from Microsoft, to Amazon, multinational pay for film company Netflix, and currently the private company at the cutting edge of the new space race, SpaceX.

David Pavlík, photo: archive of David Pavlík
David Pavlík was recently back in the Czech Republic to talk about his experiences with some of the US’ top companies and take part in some workshops. One of those sessions was organised by the Czech-German Chamber of Commerce. Pavlík found time afterwards to talk about his rocketing career and how his computer sciences studies at Brno’s Masaryk University and business studies in Britain helped provide the foundation for his following career. Pavlík began with a broad brush update of how he got to the US in the first place and a job at Microsoft’s headquarters on the outskirts of Seattle.

"It’s almost 10 years since I moved to the US, before that I worked here for three years at Microsoft Prague. At Microsoft Prague I was part of the international team and after a couple of years, I was always interested in working abroad, I asked my manager if there would be an opportunity in Washington State and I happened to be an internal transfer. The benefit was that I was part of an international team so I could continue with my role over there. "

The role was a familiar one, but all the same Pavlík found that something was missing and that was the use of his basic technical skills which he believes are fundamental to any career.

"That was probably the most exciting part of my career where I was responsible for shooting down Netflix infrastructure."

"At Microsoft I was responsible for the programme project management, for the international support sites and for the sites for developers and IT professionals. We were building sites for people in many different languages, so coordinating the localisation, selecting the content, and making sure three was a good customer experience. The skills I was using at the time was basically project management and programme management but I was really missing the technical part. I was able to step up my technical game more when I later joined Amazon and later Netflix."

Amazon, which he joined in 2011, was well on the way to becoming one of the world leaders in e-commerce. Pavlík stayed there around a year. Netflix, the pay for film channel famed for its political thriller series, House of Cards, was still finding its feet. The Czech arrived as it began to confirm its early promise and actor Kevin Spacey was soon to make its name as the cynical political manipulator. Pavlík had a different role, part of the technical team making sure that the Netflix film offer and pages, with around 3,000 changes a day, was running smoothly.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., July 5, 2017, photo: CTK
"At Netflix I was responsible for coordinating all aspects of the cloud platform so that all other teams could develop and deploy to this platform and also I was a liason for AWS systems."

In fact, Pavlík also had a special mission to test the whole Netflix software infrastructure to see if he could bring that particular house of cards down. He was successful once or twice and the lessons learnt helped make the system became even more robust.

"That was probably the most exciting part of my career where I was responsible for shooting down Netflix infrastructure and we were basically testing how Netflix infrastructure is resilient against failure. It was a lot of fun and a lot of great learning out of it. "

Normally, Pavlík would not have been looking for a change but the opportunity to join a company at the technology cutting edge, the space rocket firm created by Elon Musk, SpaceX, was not to be missed. The first set of interviews did not land a job but he later got a call back telling him that a more suitable post had opened up. Seduced by the prospect of being part of mission to change human history and development, Pavlík did not hesitate.

Musk had come to a rapidly evolving space sector with the role of the US space agency NASA narrowing to become a buyer of space services and technology offers and its place taken by private companies rapidly expanding. And Musk, who was also at the same time seeking to revolutionise the electric car market, had come to space with ideas which were more than sky high. He wanted to set the foundations for man to really conquer space and eventually colonise other planets not just be a temporary presence. Part of the path would mean cutting the costs of space travel and that would involve changing the economies of the most buoyant part of that market, the business of launching rockets into space to carry communications and other satellites.

"I started in the role where there were some systems that were supporting the launch operations and now I have moved to the team that is building the Dragon software."

That market had been dominated by the European company Ariane and Russian, and more latterly Chinese, state agencies. But the concept was founded on one time use rockets which escalated costs. To Musk, this made about as much sense as aircraft manufacturers Boeing or Airbus having a plane that was used just for one journey and then replaced by another aircraft for the next scheduled flight. SpaceX’s revolutionary goal to pave the way for reusable rockets was born. In March this year that goal was achieved when the first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon rocket returned to the Kennedy Space Center ready to be used again. Pavlík is part of the follow up step which aims at converting the Dragon rockets, previously used for carrying cargo, including cargo to the International Space Station, to be able to take crew as well.

"I am basically helping coordinate software for the Dragon spaceship to make sure we can build it, launch it and coordinate with our customers. I joined the software team and there was a pretty nice connection between my software connection and working on software for other companies. When you are building software there are certain similar aspects for all teams that are building software and the activities that you have to carry out. So it was a pretty good fit."

Photo: SpaceX / Public Domain
The first manned Dragon test flight is expected to take place in 2018 with the first manned mission to the moon in the same year. Musk’s has stated the target of manned flights to Mars within a decade.

The Czech was also at the brunt of the rocket programme involved with the high pressure and tense launches.

"I started in the role where there were some systems that were supporting the launch operations and now I have moved to the team that is building the Dragon software. It’s helping the team succeed with all of our current and future missions. "

While SpaceX has now established its launch credibility, that was not always the case in the early days with the whole rocket programme reportedly just one launch failure away from causing the whole project to fold. Pavlík says there is a clear link between the US companies where he has worked:

"It is a really strong vision – what they believe in and making sure everything is aligned with that vision and the innovation and execution in connection with that vision. I think that is the most common thing we see at all of these companies. Pretty much everywhere in Silicon Valley you will find founders with strong vision that they are able to deliver if it’s a successful company. For the not successful ones, they will probably fail."

"It is a really strong vision – what they believe in and making sure everything is aligned with that vision and the innovation and execution in connection with that vision."

The willingness of US entrepreneurs, companies, and employees to take risks, with workers in some cases mortgaging their houses and nearly all they have to make their vision came true is something Pavlík says is rare in Europe. However, the son of Zlín believes the typical US-style entrepreneurial vision was epitomised in the past by Tomáš Bat’a, the shoe magnate who founded a multinational empire from the east Moravian city.

"If everything went well, if he didn’t die too early and if there wasn’t a second World War, I really believe that the Czech Republic could have been the first European Silicon Valley. I believe the infrastructure was there, the human potential was there, the industry was there, and the motivation was there to build something really big out of the city of Zlín. It did not happen and the rest is history."