Alumni Profile: Russell Rumbaugh | 2018 | News

Alumni Profile: Russell Rumbaugh
Russell Rumbaugh

Alumni Profile: Russell Rumbaugh


In this section we will ask an SSP alum ten "frequently asked questions" in order to spotlight their own career achievements as well as what insight they have gained as a result from their years at SSP.


Russell Rumbaugh is Senior Project Leader at the Center for Space Policy and Strategy, The Aerospace Corporation



1) What is your degree and your dissertation title?

SM '04, the thesis title was "Working with What You've Got: US Strategy in Iraq"

2) What is your current position/title? 

Senior Project Leader, Center for Space Policy and Strategy, The Aerospace Corporation

I've also worked in the Pentagon twice; as personal, professional and support staff on the Hill; and at a think tank downtown. All focused on institutional defense policy. It's a lot of different perspectives on the same few problems. 

3) As is often the case for SSP alums, when you finished your dissertation you had an important choice to make between a position in the policy world and an academic career. What inclined you toward the option you chose? Do you have any advice to share with current SSP students as they weigh their career choices?

As a masters student, I had to make that choice before leaving SSP and I'm still not sure I made the right one. I asked Barry for advice and he asked me if I had a book in me. I didn't at the time and so took my masters degree and ran into a policy career I have found very rewarding, including by veering back to scholarly--though not academic--work at two think tanks. 

I get a little jealous watching someone with tenure--or even just on a tenure-track path--get to apply their big thoughts to policy without worrying that it will generate a steady paycheck. But I'm also convinced that building a career in policy is what has given me whatever big thoughts I have. 

Frankly, I don't think the initial choice is as important as what you do with it. I've seen people settle into a workaday policy job and stop looking beyond the small pond they're sitting in. But I've also seen people take policy jobs and use their big thoughts to change the course of events. I've seen people settle into academia and produce just enough to stay in their ivory tower. But I've also seen people in academia frame their big thought in a way that changes how everyone--including policymakers--understand an issue. 

That's not great advice since it doesn't give someone a scale on which to weigh their own conflicting goals. But I hope it emphasizes the choice isn't whether what you do matters but rather what you want your day to day life to look like.

4) Would you say that your experience at SSP has continued to influence your current position. What key concepts or values from SSP have served you well in your current position?

Absolutely. SSP provided a theoretical underpinning relevant to policy; an underpinning I apply on a daily basis and from which I mine insights others around me don't seem to turn up. To me, that was SSP's particular advantage. Some places that try to teach policy itself provide a woeful underpinning because the policy specifics shift so often and so fast. Yet places that pursue abstract theory can leave aside the questions that are tormenting policymakers on a recurring basis. SSP finds that sweet spot of enduring theoretical value that still matters to the questions being faced every day. Which shouldn't be that surprising; war should focus the mind a bit. 

5) One of the primary premises of the MIT SSP is "War is an extension of politics. Politics causes wars. Policy must be the governing force." Can you explain how, in your experience, this has been true or false? What has been your own experience?

In my experience, it's been painfully true. Some of that is being primed by SSP to see issues as questions that can't be decided by some technocratic formula. Rather, they are questions that are settled by political pulling and hauling; pulling and hauling that can result in violence. I've certainly witnessed a lot of pulling and hauling in my career. 

So much so I take a bit of issue with saying a bloodless word like "policy" should be the governing force. Politics not just causes wars but explains how they unfold. As much as we may want to believe there's some ideal answer that will satisfy everyone, almost every defense problem is one answered politically. Having had a professional career contemporaneous with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you can't explain the course of those wars as just a policy disagreement; you have to understand who was pulling and who was hauling at any given point. 

6) What is the part of your current position that you think allows you the most satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction and why?

My greatest satisfaction right now comes from having a chance to frame things in new ways while still being enough a part of the machine to wield that framing. Deep in the bowels of the bureaucracy as a junior civil servant or Hill staffer, I would get frustrated by getting stuck with a debate and language that just seemed wrong; we weren't even talking about the right problem, so all the proposed solutions were meaningless. 

But at a think tank where I had the freedom to frame an issue any way I wanted, you're so far removed from things actually happening it can feel like shouting into the ocean. 

Where I am now gives me the distance and time to try and frame questions better but I'm close enough to the action I can see what needs to be addressed for the framing to be useful. 

7) What in your career are you most proud of and has SSP been a part of that? 

Shaping the debate about our national security, and yes. As one example, I wrote a report simply summing up all we'd spent on defense equipment in the first decade of the 21st century. A talking point had developed that even though the defense budget had increased dramatically in that decade we hadn't gained any enduring value because the wars had consumed all of the additional funding. By tallying up where the money had gone and packaging it in 20 pages, I think I tamped down the use of that talking point (the F-22 was the program we spent the most procurement funding on in that decade; hardly a counterinsurgency weapon). I was proud of that, and owe SSP a great deal for it. SSP taught me to place the current debate in context and gave me the tools to capture ten years of funding in a short brief. I think I can point to other examples too. 

That particular example is a relatively quixotic accomplishment: the talking point keeps coming back. Most of my accomplishments are quixotic. Policy just doesn't lend itself to accomplishments as concrete as building a house; in the policy world there's never a final answer. But sensing a change in how really big questions are addressed can make you feel like different paths of history are possible, which is pretty exhilarating. 

8) What, outside of SSP and your work here, has been the factor that has most influenced who you are now, and what your current research interests are?

As I said, I was primed by SSP, but you can't live within the bureaucratic processes of the government and keep believing that they're there to better achieve operational outcomes. But working every day with people who have dedicated themselves to national security, you also can't just write off their well-intentioned efforts. Almost everyone I've met think they are trying to improve our national security. And yet the outcomes can be so ugly, you have to marvel at how all these good intentions can lead to such suboptimal results. It's not productive to either accuse people of cowardice or naively believe there is some stylized answer that will address all perspectives. So everyday I try to better understand how the outcomes can get so warped and how one might straighten them back out (while acknowledging straightness requires looking from some specific perspective). 

9) Looking back, what, if anything would you do differently?

Go in more often and ask people what they thought. Getting on in the career, I've come to realize most people are willing to take time and tell you what they've seen and learned. I didn't take enough advantage of that. There's two corollaries to that advice. One, have something specific to ask about. No one has the answer to life at the tip of their tongue and the magic is asking a question they find interesting enough to explore yet is practicable enough they have something from their experience to offer. It's easier to find that level of question after you've been doing it yourself for a while, which of course is when someone else's perspective is least valuable to you. Still, worth trying even if there may be an awkward conversation in front of you occasionally.  Two, write back again if you don't hear from them. Turns out it's more likely busy people lost track of the e-mail than meant to slight you.  

10) What is the key piece of advice that you would pass along to current SSP graduate students, or those just beginning their careers?

It's going to take a while. There is no simple way to judge whether someone's good at policy or not. There's no stopwatch equivalent to timing someone in the hundred meter dash. Which means you have to put in time gaining the trust of people. Someone has to believe that you have insights worth noting. And even gaining that trust takes opportunity, only some of which you can create yourself. And no matter how successfully you grab an opportunity,  you usually find out that opportunity just leads to another opportunity. 

That's supposed to be optimistic advice. And I think it is to someone starting out because at the beginning it can feel like the opportunities will never come. They will. It just might take a while.