Working Geek: Will Daugherty embraces risk and experimentation in Pacific Science Center reboot

Pacific Science Center President and CEO Will Daugherty hiking on Mount Si, east of Seattle, with his son John and Kinley, his dog. (Will Daugherty Photo)

Will Daugherty was ready to start his next chapter. He’d built expertise and years of diverse experiences at companies and boards including Amazon, Expedia, McKinsey, the University of Washington, the alternative radio station KEXP, and the Special Olympics.

“I was looking for an organization that had a mission or a purpose that mattered to me,” he said. Maybe a business with an educational or environmental cause, a group making a positive difference.

“I was being very patient,” Daugherty said.

Will Daugherty. (Pacific Science Center Photo)

More than three years ago, the right fit presented itself and Daugherty took the role of president and CEO of Seattle’s Pacific Science Center.

Built in 1962 as part of the World’s Fair, the beloved but somewhat beleaguered institution was at risk of slipping into irrelevance in modern times. The nonprofit was millions of dollars in debt and needed millions more in maintenance upgrades.

Given the challenging financials and his tech background, Daugherty applied a lean, risk-taking, startup mentality to the operation. He’s welcomed actual startups onto the 7-acre campus where they share the entrepreneurial process with visiting kids and families. It’s an affordable way for the Science Center to put real-life innovation on display.

Inspired in part by the community-building role that neighboring KEXP plays for music lovers, Daugherty has also experimented with hosting public speakers and events, creating a communal “living room for science and technology.”

“We’re a gathering space, not just a place to look at exhibits,” he said. It’s a place “to engage in conversation about issues that matter to this region.”

The rebooted Science Centers now offers discounted memberships for lower-income families, financial aid for science camps, more presentations at Title I schools, programs for people with autism and a focus on bringing girls into science.

As happens with new ventures, not all has gone according to plan. A viewing of the 2017 solar eclipse drew unexpectedly huge crowds, leading to a shortage of viewing glasses and nearly forcing them to shut the doors to the event. Daugherty has tried to guide these experiments using lessons learned from his tech days. That includes Amazon’s mantra about figuring out which doors are one-way that you can’t go back through, and which are two-way and allow for do-overs if a decision turns out to be wrong.

When all is said and done, “I would not expect people to say [I] did everything right because I haven’t and won’t,” Daugherty said. Rather, he hopes to be remembered for being “relentlessly focused on how he and we could best serve the community.”

We caught up with Daugherty for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: My office is at Pacific Science Center in Seattle. I spend about half my time at the Science Center and the rest in various locations around Seattle and the region listening to and meeting with community members and leaders.

Computer types: Windows and Mac OS.

Mobile devices: Dell laptop, iPad Pro with Apple Pencil and iPhone.

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: Dropbox, Evernote Penultimate, Google, Google Maps, Uber, TripAdvisor, KEXP mobile app, iTunes, PeakFinder, Gaia GPS, Surfline.

The mid-century modern chic of Daugherty’s office, with dinosaur views. (Pacific Science Center Photo)

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? Thanks to mobile devices and wireless networks along with 20-plus years at McKinsey, Expedia and Amazon, I have learned how to work just about anywhere — coffee shops, hotel lobbies, airplanes, back seats of Ubers, the kitchen counter, sitting in my car, on a park bench, etc. I love the Gathering Space at KEXP for informal meetings and catching up on email and documents.

But my primary workspace is my office at Pacific Science Center. It has been the office of the Science Center’s president since the building opened for the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962. Most of the furniture is also from 1962. This is elegant, nostalgic and charming, but not ergonomically designed for today’s computer-intensive work, so I improvise. We have configured the office with a desk for individual work, a conference table and white board for 1:1 and team meetings, and a coffee table, chairs, and sofa for conversations, especially with visitors.

The office has clear views of our iconic fountains and arches, the Space Needle and guests enjoying the courtyard. While my focus is on the future, it’s cool — and quite humbling — to think about all of the community leaders, public officials, astronauts, renowned scientists and other luminaries who have visited the office. I keep the original jacket of PacSci’s first president, former Washington Gov. Dr. Dixie Lee Ray, hanging on my door as a reminder of the tremendous contributions that my predecessors, members of our board of directors, and many generous supporters have made during the last 57 years. To help us look ahead, I added our mission, guiding principles and inspiring quotes from scientists to the wall above the sofa.

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Spend as much time as possible listening to the people you serve and aim to serve. Create opportunities for others. Build time into the calendar to think and reflect. Read about things that are not directly related to work (and not just the sports section). Get involved as a board member, advisor or volunteer at other organizations that excite you. Make time to exercise and get outdoors, preferably in the wilderness. Get plenty of sleep.

Daugherty and his wife and kids, from left to right: Will Daugherty, Kate, Jennifer, Ellie and John. (Will Daugherty Photo)

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? I check guest reviews of Pacific Science Center daily on TripAdvisor, Google, Yelp and Facebook. I use LinkedIn for research, recruiting and professional connections. From time to time, I use Facebook and Twitter to share news about PacSci.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? Outlook says that I have 7,069 unopened emails in my inbox, but I swear that’s misleading because I can tell what they say using the preview pane without opening them and because the vast majority don’t need to be answered. I think I’m only behind on about 25 emails that require action, but this is an area where I need to take better advantage of the tools and features available to filter and prioritize my email. I welcome tips from GeekWire readers!

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? 26

How do you run meetings? Establish the desired outcomes. Ask lots of questions and encourage others to be just as curious. Adjust the agenda if a topic ends up needing more time than expected. Use the whiteboard to structure problems, illustrate ideas and define deliverables. Ensure that the next steps are clear. Check in with participants afterward to identify areas for improvement.

The Pacific Science Center welcomes welcomes Guide Dogs for the Blind. (Pacific Science Center Photo)

Everyday work uniform? It depends on what kind of meetings and events are happening that day. Jeans and a fleece, slacks with a dress shirt and jacket, or a suit and tie.

How do you make time for family? Plan to cook and eat together. Go outside together leaving the digital devices behind (well, not completely — I use the camera and GPS trail maps). I love the mountain trails east of Seattle including Cougar Mountain, Tiger Mountain, Mount Si and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Carve out time for short getaways (1-to-2 nights) somewhere close and beautiful such as Vancouver, B.C., the Kalaloch Lodge on the Olympic Coast, Orcas Island and the Gorge Amphitheater. My wife, our three children, the dog and I have vacationed in Tofino, B.C. during 12 of the last 15 summers. Those two weeks away together are always magical.

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Running, especially on mountain trails with our dog. Hiking. Backpacking. Skiing. Surfing or just watching the waves. I find it very relaxing to remember nights in the wilderness safe inside the tent with the sounds of rain and wind outside.

Talking about the Pacific Science Center’s startup-in-residence program with (from left to right) Nick Ulring of virtual reality startup HyperSpace XR; Will Daugherty; Sherilyn Anderson, Glassybaby’s chief financial officer and Science Center board of directors member; and Sara Lindquist and Chris Blessington of Smartsheet. (Pacific Science Center Photo)

What are you listening to? KEXP

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? I read the New York Times and GeekWire daily and the Seattle Times, most days. I also read Harvard Business Review, McKinsey Quarterly, Puget Sound Business Journal, Science Magazine and Pitchfork.

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “Midnight in Chernobyl” by Adam Higginbotham, “The Wisdom of Wilderness” by Gerald May and “Franklin Barbecue” by Aaron Franklin and Jordan Mackay.

Night owl or early riser? Night owl. I used to try to get by on six hours of sleep per night. I have realized that everyone is happier if I get eight.

Where do you get your best ideas? Reading, running, hiking, cooking something on the grill, conversations with colleagues, friends and family.

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? Beth Knox (CEO of the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games), Estela Ortega (executive director of El Centro de la Raza), Gene Boes (CEO of Northwest Center), Paul Lambros (CEO of Plymouth Housing) and Robert Nellams (director of Seattle Center). I admire their humble servant leadership and the tremendous impact they have in our community. I am curious how they manage their work, build and inspire their teams, and cultivate investment and support so effectively.

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