Interview with the CEO Part 1: Working with Stellar as a client

By 4 September 2020 January 17th, 2021 Stellar

Stéphane Bourgogne

Stéphane Bourgogne

Founder & CEO

Good morning M. Stéphane Bourgogne, and welcome to this interview! 

Good morning! Thank you.

Today, we are basically going to ask you one simple question, but in many different ways. That question is: Why in the world should people work with you?

That sounds like a good program! Let’s try and convince them!

We’ll break this interview into two parts: 1) Working with Stellar as a client, and 2) Working with Stellar as a collaborator. 

Good idea. Let’s start with clients first, and then collaborators. But, whoever you are, don’t miss the other part!

Excellent. So you are the CEO of Stellar. Let’s start with the beginning: Why did you create your own company?

That’s an excellent question. We had previous experience in space science, and we thought we could improve things for both clients and employees. We like to do things our way, because we think we can do things better and differently. Starting a company is extremely difficult and challenging. But we were daring enough to take the risk, and hardworking enough to turn our words into reality. We had high quality clients who believed in us, and we tried our utmost best to never disappoint them. So here we are today.

There are thousands of companies existing already. Why one more? Why would people like to be working with you?

Well, first of all, our goal is not to take over the whole market! We don’t want to compete with every other company in the space domain. What we want is special partnerships with passionate people. We like human adventure and companionship before everything else. We want to build long-term relationships with people who are like-minded: who like to think differently and who are ready to overcome difficulties to achieve something great. We had the great luck to meet one such person early on, and to work with him for many years. Now we want to repeat the experience with others. First we want to find them, and second we want to work with them. Everything else is secondary: we are courageous enough, we can learn new topics, adapt, work overtime, and do what is necessary to achieve our goal. So, our ambition is to attract bright people on both sides of the equation, customers and employees, and to blend the mix with a special sauce. The special Stellar sauce! We don’t care much for existing rules or traditions. We want to make it our way, and we want to make it highly pleasant and rewarding for everyone involved. That’s our plan. If that sounds interesting to you, please contact us!

That sounds attractive! But let’s get down to the facts. What services do you provide today?

We provide intellectual services for the space industry. Our current expertise is in science and data processing from Earth observation missions. We process data, analyze satellite measurements, invert linear systems, solve mathematical problems, develop software, perform studies, simulations, and other related activities. We built our main experience in gravity missions (GRACE and GRACE Follow-On), but the technical background is broadly similar for all Earth observation missions, so we can easily jump from one mission to another. That’s a very intellectually stimulating activity. The second aspect of our work is data visualization. We build interactive visualization websites to deliver data to the public and to the scientific community. We transform obscure stacks of zeros and ones into beautiful curves and colors, which make scientific analysis obvious with one simple click of a mouse. We make your data shine. One example is the GRACE Plotter. Users love it. Some even called it addictive! We get compliments all the time from all over the world. Leonardo Da Vinci famously said: « Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication ». It is absolutely true. It is very easy to make something complicated, but it is very difficult to make something simple. Our first activity stimulates our intellect and our second activity satisfies our artistic nature. In both activities, we cultivate a deep sense of efficiency, in order to make things simple and to gain time and resources. We use the extra time for innovation and progress.

Interesting. So you mentioned gravity missions. « Gravity », like when the apple falls down from the tree?

Yes, exactly! We are indeed walking in the glorious footsteps of Newton (laughs…)! Like in the days of Isaac Newton, there is a theoretical interest in studying the Earth gravitational field: the beauty of science of course. BUT there is also an applied interest which is crucial today. Actually, two main interests. The first one is that a very precise gravity field model is needed in order to calculate the precise orbits of satellites. The second one is very surprising and very unexpected: gravity allows us to monitor the movements of mass at the surface of the Earth. Gravity is due to mass, so if you monitor gravity, you monitor mass. And what is the biggest mass moving at the surface of the Earth? You guessed it: WATER. For example, let’s consider the monsoon season, when there are enormous floods over the Amazon or over India: that represents gigantic masses of water. Believe it or not, the gravitational attraction felt by the satellite at a 400 km altitude is very different if the season is dry or wet. The same goes for polar regions. The satellite behavior over Iceland is not the same in 2002 and in 2020. What is the difference? Well, the gravitational attraction is much lower now. The difference represents the huge quantity of ice that has melt down and gone into the ocean. We can measure it by gravity. Isn’t it extraordinary? If you want to be convinced by yourself, just follow this link. The curve represents the equivalent heights of water (or ice, in our case) decreasing over time. This is objective scientific data. At a time when CLIMATE CHANGE is all over the news, there is no better tool than gravity missions to measure it globally and objectively. And yet, almost nobody knows it. It’s a well-kept secret, but gravity missions are THE BEST. We should educate all the politicians and policy makers into the basics of gravitational field. Let’s put up a special course at Stellar! All volunteers welcome!

Tell us more about those gravity missions! Are they active today? How long do they last?

GRACE was launched in 2002 and was designed for 5 years. It gracefully lasted for 15 years, much to our delight. GRACE Follow-On had some delays due to quarrels between the EU and Russia. But it finally went in orbit on May 22nd 2018. If everything goes well, it will last for at least five years too. All the data will go into the GRACE Plotter in order to monitor the water variations over the Earth. The next gravity project being studied is called MARVEL. For the fun part of the story, we found the acronym here in Toulouse while brainstorming with Richard Biancale, the former head of the CNES geodesy team. He was a brilliant scientist, energetic leader and a true gentleman. So, if the mission ever goes to space with that name, it will be a very nice story to tell our kids and grand-kids!

So, that’s rocket science, literally. That must require some serious skills in maths and physics. What is your academic background?

Myself, personally, as the 36 years old CEO of the company, am a former student of Ecole Sainte-Geneviève in Versailles (« Ginette ») and Ecole Nationale Supérieure de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace (SUPAERO). So, « Classes Préparatoires » and « Grandes Ecoles ». That’s a typical French curriculum, which I know well. And I absolutely love it, although it is slowly becoming politically incorrect to say so. It is a very intense training. It requires a lot of endurance, patience, work and dedication. And intellectual talent. So we like that in our staff. The selection is quite hard: you have to rank among the 300-400 best students nationally. We think it’a very good entry point to start recruitment! People who survive this training have very strong roots in maths and physics, are able to learn quickly any new topic, and are used to managing an important workload. What’s not to like? And on a human side, this curriculum also has many advantages. The experience of « Classes Préparatoires » is often a lesson in humility. Students are usually the best in their class in high school (usually without having to work), and they suddenly end up being catapulted at the end of the class, because all the others are now way better than them. That’s a humbling experience. That gives perspective. Secondly, since this training is very hard, it often involves a lot of human solidarity and companionship between the students (although urban legends and detractors often like to claim the opposite). In some ways, it’s just like the army. My personal experience was like this. It teaches to support each other. It makes friends for life. So we like that too. And there’s sometimes a third interest: many Classes Préparatoires are boarding schools: students live and sleep at the premises. Often, these are very old historic buildings, almost monastery style, coming all the way from the austere soul of old academic France. It has a charm of its own. Students live there for two or three years, in a small 9 or 10 square meters room, sometimes sharing the space with a room mate, with a hard wooden board as bedspring under their mattress, a floor that cracks, a small window, and just books, and a pen and paper. It’s very simple and frugal. You cannot invent it if you’ve not lived it. That makes you become very minimalist. You need very little to function and to be happy. And we love that too. That kind of frugal, patient, positive and enduring character is very useful in small companies, where the reward never comes immediately. So, we like Classes Préparatoires and Grandes Ecoles a lot. But it’s very specific to France, and we are open to any academic profile. Anyone talented enough to convince us will earn their way into Stellar!

You said before starting the interview that two things are very important in your professional endeavors at Stellar: the love of one’s work and the spirit of service. Can you elaborate on those two aspects?

Yes, with pleasure. The love of one’s work is absolutely crucial for us at Stellar. Why? Great painters love to paint, great singers love to sing, great athletes love to run. That’s why they get better at it every day. When we hire people, we are looking for people with a passion, and who love what they do. Why? They will work with additional care and dedication, not because they’re told, but because they want to be proud of what they do. The motivation is very different. They will be happy to come to work every morning. They will be enthusiastic about it, they will communicate their passion to others, and that will bring everybody in a positive direction. We love when work becomes art. That only happens when people love what they do.

And the spirit of service?

The spirit of service is the soul of our business. We are a services company. We are successful when we make other people satisfied. So, when we hire engineers, we are looking for people who feel a genuine pleasure at making other people satisfied. That’s true towards our clients and it’s also true among colleagues internally. We need to be happy to serve others, and to make it a philosophy. That brings satisfaction daily and gives us the will to continue. The special Stellar sauce!

What is your view on team work?

Team work goes hand in hand with the pleasure to serve others. How does it apply to our field (intellectual work)? By nature, intellectually curious people like to learn and share. So, we love to join brains and efforts to solve problems. Working together keeps us learning something new everyday. We never get bored and we always progress. May it be in maths, gravitational theory, code, computer bugs, or whatever… We share the troubles and we celebrate the joys together. We learn from each other, we teach each other and we support each other. We enjoy team work as an intellectual stimulation and a human cement. As a consequence, it builds strong skills and redundancy within the company. And as a consequence, it ensures stability of operations for the company and its customers. It is a virtuous circle. Of course, if you adopt a purely accounting view, many managers will tell you that it is costly and inefficient to double the resources on one task. Yes, we can hear that. But over the long term, the cost of not doing it is much higher. And some things are priceless.

What do you think of administration and procedures?

I’m an entrepreneur, I’ve never been a fan of administration, rules and procedures! (But I’m very well organized). Jokes aside, let’s put it this way. We are a technical company. We want to use our time solving technical problems with technical people who love technical subjects. We are very cautious about time-consuming, brain-exhausting, and self-inflicted administrative-mania… That kind of visionary ambition by the relevant department will destroy a company. We like to keep things fluid and simple for everyone. Both for clients and employees. Our activity doesn’t put any human lives at risk, so, our policy is rather, « Think by yourself and come up with a good result ». If it is not good as expected, well think again and improve it. That’s all we ask. There’s a famous quote by Winston Churchill that says « If you make then thousand regulations, you destroy all respect for the law ». That’s absolutely true. What happens inevitably when you have too many procedures is the following: People stop thinking by themselves. That becomes way too risky, the punishment is too harsh. Since this is naturally frustrating, they start to take revenge by doing things which are stupid, but which are compliant with the procedure. They abandon all critical thinking and all personal responsibility. Very soon, you get a zombie company, with mediocre results. But it’s OK after all, because that’s what the company wants. Management’s ego is satisfied because everybody applies their rules. Employees start to lower their motivation and their expectations. They come to work to do their monthly hours and get their monthly pay. Soon enough, everybody is sleepwalking into disaster. We see that all the time. That’s not how you encourage talent, innovation and individual initiative. At Stellar, we try to make things simpler and lighter, not more complex. So, instead of enforcing countless arbitrary rules which frustrate people and prevent them from doing good work, we favor old-school values, such as common sense and personal responsibility. We bet that we’ll succeed with that.

Do you have a specific policy regarding work ethics?

We try to stick to simple honest boy-scout/girl-scout values.

Do you have favorite customers?

We love all of our customers equally, but we’ve noticed that with certain characters, it makes some extra fireworks. We put a lot of love and effort in what we do. Running a small company requires extra energy, dedication and will. It is literally exhausting, and very often nerves testing. So we like to work with people who see the value of it, and who share the same vision. We value hard-work, courage, generosity, kindness, availability, and we like to work with people who live by the same values everyday. We will do everything for those customers. We will do our utmost best to serve them well every single day, and to earn their esteem and respect for years and years.

Are there you have customers you don’t like?

Well, we have to stay politically cautious and diplomatic to avoid unnecessary problems. But it doesn’t mean we don’t have an opinion. There are behaviors we absolutely dislike. For example: People who abuse their power instead of doing everything to deserve it. People who forget that their role is only lent to them by the institution they work for, and who forget that they have to honor it. People who know nothing about the work and the problems, who did nothing to prove their worth, who can’t help when help is needed, but who come at meetings just to sit and criticize the work of others. People who lack horizon, amplitude, or generosity. Those are the ones who are mocking and sarcastic at any time of the day. There’s no reward or incentive to work with them. People who impose their own frustrations and limitations on others. People who try to prevent others from succeeding, based on false pretexts. We tend to avoid them like the plague. On a five year time frame, you will always see that the human factor is the first factor of all. Some people will inherit a desperate situation and, against all odds, will solve all the problems, and make it shine for everybody. Some other people will inherit a wonderful situation and drag it into the ground with a surprisingly reliable dedication. That’s a fact of life. There are countless examples, and you might be thinking of one right now. We’ve been through that, and we’ve suffered enough. There are only so many hours in the day and so many years in life, so it’s better to spend them with people of good will who will make your life brighter, and for who you can employ your talents in order to make their life brighter.

Stellar is a small company. Why would customers work with a small company?

Small is beautiful. It means more flexibility, more creativity, quick decisions, less bureaucracy, more personal involvement, more personal responsibility, and more satisfaction. Small companies are very good at solving problems because they have to do it all the time. Their life depends on it. That’s a big incentive, I promise you… So small companies are much more reactive, concerned, experienced, and persistent. Bigger companies can be slow and inefficient, it has no consequences for them. At least not in the short term. It does not really make a big difference for them if one customer is happy or not. If a small company does something wrong, however, it will feel the consequences immediately. This is your best guarantee that they will do it right. As a customer, small companies will take special care of you, and will gift you with higher spirits, better work and better results. That’s perfectly logical and perfectly predictable. At Stellar, we are big supporters of small companies. All of them, including competitors.

The art of the deal?

Yes! That’s very important. There’s nothing that makes us happier than a clever solution that makes everybody win. The only way to succeed in the long run is to make everybody happy. And usually, with a bit of thinking and good will, that’s possible. This is why we are always very diligent and disciplined to understand what everybody’s interests are. This enables us to imagine and conclude good deals for everyone. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again, I’ll explain that in detail in one future post. At Stellar, it’s not only words, we really have the power to do so. There’s not a long hierarchical chain of decisions that will take months before you get an answer. You’ll be talking directly to the CEO, so any decision will be applied very quickly.

We’re getting closer to the end of the interview. A tricky question we like to ask: will you make mistakes?

This is one promise we can guarantee! We will make mistakes. We’ll try, fail, try again, and sometimes we’ll be embarrassed. But we’ll make adjustments and we’ll get better. Mistakes are the practical way you learn when you take the risk to do things. You learn to ride a bicycle by falling and trying again. That’s how you become experienced, and appreciated for your experience. As Einstein said: “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new”. So yes, we’ll make some mistakes, but we’ll try to be cautious enough that none of them has serious consequences, and that all of them can be made up for very quickly!

Thank you very much for this interview (Part 1). What can people do to know you better?

Excellent question! Well, that’s something we’d really appreciate. Just send us an email! Everyone is more than welcome to do so. We’re very friendly people. We’ll be glad to come to see you, have a coffee, make a short presentation, get interested in what you do, and see if we can help you in a way that you can’t get from your usual partners. And we like to be recommended by word of mouth. If you like what you heard, tell your friends, spread the news around you. We have a few emails addresses on our mailing list, but maybe not all the ones of people who would be interested to work with us. So share with your best colleagues! Hit the « Forward » button. Subscribe to the newsletter if you haven’t already, and invite your friends to do so!


And please, again, send us a hello. We never know, life is long, and something interesting may happen in the future!

Thank you very much, M. Bourgogne, it was a pleasure. Coming soon is the second part of the interview: Working with Stellar as a collaborator.

My pleasure, can’t wait for it!