Thursday, June 26, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Software Engineer at SpaceX

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and the AAS Employment Committee have compiled dozens of interviews highlighting the diversity of career trajectories available to astronomers. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with Patrik Jonsson, an astronomer turned software engineer at SpaceX. He made his career switch at the age of 41 and works remotely from Hawaii. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit http://aas.org/jobs/career-profiles. We plan to post a new career profile to this blog every Thursday.


What field do you currently work in?

Aerospace

What is the job title for your current position?

Software Engineer

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?

SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies)

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?

I live in Hilo, Hawaii, USA, and work remotely (the office is in Los Angeles, CA).

What is the highest degree in astronomy/physics you have received?

Ph.D.

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?

Soft money researcher.

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?

I first stayed as a postdoc at UC Santa Cruz, where I got my Ph.D., while waiting for my now-wife to graduate (she is also in astronomy). Then I moved to a position as a (soft-money) staff astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and she to a postdoc at MIT. After two years funded by the Keck foundation, I got my own grant but shortly afterwards I was offered a job at SpaceX and we moved to LA.

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?

There were several factors contributing. First, I was not encouraged by my chances of getting a permanent position in astronomy, especially since both me and my wife worked in astronomy and we had decided that we had restrictions on where we wanted to live. Second, I was also quite disillusioned with theoretical astrophysics, in the sense that the incentives are such that it's more important to crank out papers than to worry much about them actually being correct.  (The world doesn't need more papers, it needs better ones!) Finally, my undergraduate degree is in engineering and I was missing working on something real and tangible, where rewards for success or penalties for failure are more obvious. I had contemplated leaving astronomy many times during my Ph.D. and afterwards, partly for this reason, and even applied for a few jobs previously, but for various reasons I never followed through until now.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?

I left astronomy at the age of 41.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?

My astronomy research focused on numerical simulations and I made a conscious decision to hone my software skills beyond what was necessary for just getting the calculations working (perhaps to a degree that impacted my success at writing papers) because this is a skill that is transferable to a wide range of other professions. I also have use of my general knowledge of physics and mathematics, but that is of secondary importance.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?

None.

Describe a typical day at work.

I work on software that's used for simulating a launch of our Falcon rockets. It's a very small team, so there is little overhead and most of my time is spent designing and implementing upgrades to the software as well as talking to the people using it about what functionality they need.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.

I had a discussion about non-academic jobs for astronomers on an internet discussion board and someone from SpaceX suggested I check it out. It seemed like it would definitely satisfy my desire to build something real, but I couldn't apply until I got my green card so I kept it on the back burner for a while. I did put some effort into learning more about skills they said would be valuable, like doing some hobby projects programming microcontrollers. When I got my green card, I just sent in an application, was interviewed, and then got an offer. I didn't use any special networking or job hunting resources, but I found that my academic training at giving talks and using the whiteboard for discussions served me well during the interviewing process.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?

In general, I think it would be nice if advisors paid more attention to preparing their students for the fact that most of them will not stay in astronomy, but that's nothing new. Specifically, I think it would be good to encourage students to get more formal software training. Even though most of astronomy research involves writing software, most of us are "self-taught" and that way we end up writing software that is often not of very high quality. If students were encouraged to take some computer engineering classes, for example to learn about algorithms and data structures commonly used in software, that would make them more attractive for software jobs. It might not be the best thing for their academic progress, since often "quick and dirty" codes are good enough for some data analysis, or whatever, but I think it would be a net win.

How many hours do you work in a week?

40-45 hours. Since I work remotely, all my work is done from home.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

Satisfied. The job is interesting and, perhaps more importantly, I feel like my work is contributing towards a meaningful goal.  Working remotely is somewhat of a challenge, and I think it will take some time to figure out how to stay up to date and connected.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?

The best reward is the sight of the rocket taking off (and, soon, coming back and landing!) after months of work, knowing that you did your little part in making the flight successful.

The least enjoyable parts are that many times the actual work, once you have figured out how to do it, is not so intellectually challenging. But I think that's something that comes along with most jobs.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?

Since my current work environment is my home office, this is both a good and a bad. On the one hand, I have no commute and I get to live in Hawaii instead of LA! On the other hand, it's pretty isolated. Some of the software jobs at SpaceX can also be very high stress, but because I'm not working directly with launches, it's not a big problem for me. 

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?

I find software design to be a very creative activity, and I have very free reins to accomplish my goals without interference or red tape.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?

Yes. I still have my astronomy grant, though I haven't had any time to work on that project since starting at SpaceX, and my wife works in astronomy.

There is a worry among those considering careers outside of astronomy or academia that you can't "go back" and/or that you feel that you betrayed advisors, friends, colleagues. Have you felt this way?

No. I've had no regrets or wishes that I could go back, and the feedback I've gotten from my mentors and friends is generally that I have an awesome job! :)

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?

I'm generally a tinkerer, so I have many little projects going on. We recently bought a house, so that's absorbed most of my hobby time lately. Otherwise I'm (very slowly) working on building my own airplane. I like to hike and camp, and now that we live in Hawaii I feel like I'm not spending enough time at the beach.

Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?

Yes. patrik-astro[at]familjenjonsson.org