U.S. Air Force Colonel Lars Hoffman (EMBA ’15) entered UCLA Anderson with the intention of transitioning from the military to private-sector business. Hoffman, who spent a total of 26 years on active duty, envisioned his dream job at SpaceX. He talks about how his UCLA Anderson Executive MBA and the skills he acquired throughout his career — from Air Force Academy through deployment overseas as an officer — contributed to his readiness to join SpaceX, where he has worked as senior director of government sales since 2014.
Q: Why don’t you tell us about your career in the Air Force and why you decided to attend UCLA Anderson?
I was a pilot my whole career, both reconnaissance pilot and a test pilot, and had two tours in the Pentagon, and a couple tours living overseas.
Coming up on my last few years, I realized that as I transitioned from the Air Force to civilian life, I needed to prepare myself. During my last two years in the Air Force I was assigned to Edwards Air Force Base out in the Antelope Valley, where I was the commandant of the test pilot school. I started looking in the Southern California area for a good MBA program, and quickly found the Executive MBA program at Anderson, which seemed like a great fit. I was able to attend the first year of the two-year program during my last year in the Air Force, and it helped me find my job here at SpaceX, where I finished the second year of the program. So the EMBA program was actually the bridge from my military career to my new corporate career at SpaceX.
Q: Please tell us about your transition from military life to a civilian career.
During the last five to 10 years of my Air Force career, I was in higher levels of responsibility and authority, in command positions with staff and direct reports that were supporting me and working with me in a very formal arrangement, as the military is fairly hierarchical. That was the environment I came from.
In transitioning to civilian life, I was told (by the Air Force at least) that there’s going to be a bit of a culture shock. They said, “You won’t be a colonel with a staff supporting you and it’s likely you’re going to transition into a position where you’ll have to do things yourself, you’ll have to work with peers in a different way.”
It wasn’t so different as some people will make it out to be; but during my interview process at SpaceX, they were asking me a lot of questions about whether I was going to be comfortable working in a very flat and collaborative organization without a lot of formal organizational structure to it. They especially wanted to know if I would be comfortable working with people half my age. I said, “Yes, of course.” I had some experience with that, but my MBA experience helped prepare me for that a bit because I was in a classroom of colleagues and contemporaries who were from different industries.
The thing about SpaceX is it’s very different than what you may find in traditional aerospace companies — certainly different from what I knew in the Air Force — so I had to make that transition, and I prepared for it beforehand. I came in ready to make the transition, but it did take me probably six months or a year to feel really comfortable here, and for them to feel comfortable with me. It helps a little bit that my customer is the Air Force and the intelligence community I came from. So I’m able to feel very comfortable with them. I’ve felt a little bit like that at SpaceX, adapting to the new culture but also being able to bridge to the more familiar Air Force culture.
Q: What is your title at SpaceX and what are your responsibilities?
My title is senior director of government sales. My responsibilities are strategy, business development and sales for the national security space market, which is composed of the Department of Defense and the intelligence community. So, all of their GPS satellites, military communication satellites, intelligence satellites — those need to be launched and we are a launch service provider for several markets, including commercial, NASA and now national security space. My focus is in the national security space market.
Q: Is more of your work reactive, on the receiving end of requests for service, or are you actively seeking business from your various clients?
I’m both reactive and proactive: I am operating in kind of three timeframes.
Strategy is something that we consider a little bit further down the line. It’s something that we are working on today to position ourselves to be competitive five years or more from now. Business development is work done now to turn into opportunities for sales in the next one to five years.
Sales is work done for this year or next year, pursuing immediate opportunities, such as those we’ve seen advertised on the federal biz ops website that the government uses. In this case the Air Force or the intelligence community will typically advertise a request for information (RFI) or a request for proposal (RFP) and we’ll get into the proposal or the response to an RFI.
On a day-to-day basis, I operate in all three of these different frames of reference: the strategy, the business development and sales. I receive visitors at SpaceX a couple times a week, I have regular meetings throughout the week both at SpaceX and over at Los Angeles Air Force Base, home of Air Force space acquisitions. I interact with my Air Force counterparts on a daily basis. I also travel back to Air Force Space Command Headquarters in Colorado Springs about once a month for visits there at higher levels, all the way up to the four-star general officer level. And I travel to Washington, D.C., about one week a month and, while I’m there, I go over to the Pentagon and I meet with Air Force senior leaders and secretary of defense senior leadership.
I also visit other intelligence community organizations, like the National Reconnaissance Office, and I talk with them about the same things — like, “Where is SpaceX today in terms of our capabilities, where are we headed in the near future?” I provide them with updates that are valuable to them, but I also ask them questions about what their needs are today, what are their needs in the future, and how can we best meet those needs?
In terms of strategy, I lay out the longer term vision of where SpaceX is headed, like our new launch vehicle that we’re going to start flying next year or the satellite constellation that we’re designing and building that we’re going to launch and operate here in the next couple of years; or our Mars vehicle, our Mars rocket and spaceship that Elon (Musk) unveiled at the end of September.
We have a growing relationship with the Department of Defense and with the intelligence community in which they are looking to rely on us more and more as a key component of their future space lift capability.
It’s all about matching our capabilities to their needs and trying to develop opportunities into sales that we can then close. A lot of what we bring in terms of revenue is folded right back into research and development and some of the company’s grander initiatives. It’s a good cycle here.
The company is very solid financially, cash flow positive and profitable —on a solid foundation, very forward looking and internally, I’d say, very optimistic about our future.
I’m grateful to the UCLA Anderson School of Management for preparing me for my transition from my military career to my new corporate career at SpaceX, one of the most exciting companies in the world. And, especially on Veteran’s Day, I am proud of my 26 years of service in the Air Force, and I am grateful for the service of all veterans that keep our country free and our world safe!