From Intern To CTO – How This FAMU Grad Leads at NASA

Ray Gilstrap has always been interested in technology. As a boy, Ray would dismantle toys gifted to him just to see how they worked before putting them pack together. “My parents didn’t think it was cool.” Ray says.  “I was interested in finding out how stuff work. At some point, I found out there are people that have to understand how things work for a living because they designed them, and those people are engineers. “

As a national merit and national achievement scholar, Ray had his pick of schools. However, FAMU’s Dr. Humphries persuaded him with the Life Gets Better Scholarship, which included an internship at any company of Ray’s choosing. “When they asked where I want to intern, I was this close to saying Apple, but then chose NASA.” says Ray.  Before even stepping onto FAMU’s campus, Ray was an intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Southern California. He went on to complete four more internships with them. “That cemented my interest in engineering.”

After completing his masters at Berkeley, Ray was recommended for a network engineering position at NASA AMES, and was hired shortly thereafter.

Today, Ray’s team focuses on networking research—taking new networking technologies and testing them to see if they work for the applications need. If  the new technology is promising they  transition to operational folks to deploy.

Ray’s job also allows for unique travel opportunities. Often NASA scientists do research in remote parts of the world like Antarctica that lack a communications infrastructure.  “They are collecting all this data, but don’t have a way to get it back to their colleagues.” says Ray.  “My group has the ability to do satellite communications, so we’ll fly out to the location and set up a satellite dish which gives us internet access anywhere in the world.”

On these trips Ray and his team does some networking engineering—moving data from where it is to where it needs to be over a series of links between different sites. “At the basic level the internet is a bunch of computers of different types connected by links of different types (like ethernet cables or wifi).” says Ray. “There are all types of ways to move data, each with it’s own characteristics, so you have to understand the needs, what equipment is available, and the cost, then take all those pieces to build a network that meets the requirements.” His team also works to understand the effectiveness of virtual collaboration tools like skype and google hangouts under various networking conditions.

Ray did a rotation as Chief Technology Officer for Information Technology at AMES, keeping an eye on emerging technologies and trends NASA could use. “These days I wear several different hats” says Ray.  “I’m the network lead for the NASA center for supercomputing. We have the 13th fastest computer in the world.” Scientists around the world rely on NASA to analyze piles of data from the field. 

Ray is also the technical lead for the root domain name server operations at NASA, one of thirteen in existence, which translates human understandable names like into the numerical addresses computers use to talk to each other.

Ray recommends asking questions to learn how people got to where they are and letting them know your interests. “Take lessons from everyone” says Ray. “There are always going to be folks out there that are willing to help. My mentor today is still the same mentor from 25 years ago.” Ray also recommends exploring thing that interest you. “I’m an engineer but  love to travel. I’m a musician and those things inform my work, keeps me engaged and having fun. Whatever your passions are beyond the technical field explore them. The best engineers are really artists.”

Ray lives that advice. Last year, he became a fellow at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.“It is something they started a year ago, they wanted to bring in a cohort of artists and activists and innovators. The question we were given was, ‘Can we design freedom?'”  Ray and his group explored different aspects of the question. “My colleagues and I  came up with a way to model oppression, to see how communities coalesce together. It’s been really cool to see what people have done.”

Find Ray Gilstrap on LinkedIn


Article by Ayo Suber

Freelance Front-end Engineer. FAMU Alum