Changing Careers: Harriet Brettle
Harriet Brettle, the Head of Business Analysis at Astroscale, discusses changing careers from banking to the space sector.
Who are you and what do you do?
I'm Harriet Brettle, Head of Business Analysis at Astroscale. I always loved space but had no idea what I wanted to do as a career. I studied maths at Warwick and worked at the Bank of England for four years. I realised that banking wasn't what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, so I spent a year studying astrophysics part-time in evening classes, and then I moved to the US to do a master’s in planetary science. After that, I found my current job at Astroscale, where I'm able to combine my passion for space with my finance background!
What does your role involve?
My job is to figure out how we turn our mission (to clear space debris and create a sustainable space environment) into a viable commercial business. That means identifying potential customers and building a convincing argument as to why they should pay for debris removal services. Such end-of-life services are fundamental to satellite operators to ensure the operational service of satellite constellations, limit collision avoidance manoeuvres and mitigate collision events. I also work closely with our engineering team to make sure that the business strategy lines up with the missions we are developing.
What's your background and career path?
Maths degree to working in banking, back to university to study planetary science, and then to my current job at Astroscale.
What did you do to go about changing career?
I graduated with a maths degree and immediately got a job in finance, but I always kept this little career notebook where I wrote down things that I wanted to achieve. At the bottom of the list there was always this line: Go and work for a space agency. It seemed completely out of reach as I couldn’t see the link between what I was doing and where I wanted to be.
I started a part-time postgraduate certificate in astrophysics which I could attend through evening classes. During that time, I went to an astronomy conference and realised that my finance skills were transferable. That gave me the confidence I needed to apply for graduate school in the US and start my career in space.
When I decided to leave finance, I threw myself into a whole host of space organisations, from volunteering with the Planetary Society to becoming an active member of the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC). It was actually through SGAC that I was able to attend two conferences in Germany in 2018, the Space Generation Congress and the International Astronautical Congress (IAC). It was at these events that I met the team at Astroscale and learned about the business role I’m now in.
What resources, organisations, events, etc. were most useful to you?
SGAC has been fantastic as it gave me a global network of people around the world who shared my passion for working in the space industry. Through volunteering experiences, I built up skills and knowledge that I wouldn't have had otherwise, meaning that I could hit the ground running when I started my first job in the space industry.
How did you get your first job in the space sector?
I was about to wrap up my master’s in the US and looking for job opportunities in the UK. I received a scholarship from ESA to attend the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Bremen and spent the week talking to different companies and getting a sense of what opportunities were out there. Through SGAC I'd met someone from Astroscale at a previous event and was aware they were looking for a business analyst. I sent them my CV, had in-person interviews at IAC, followed up with a Skype with the CEO and then got the job! The network I'd built through SGAC was invaluable, as was the scholarship opportunities to attend events and make those connections in person.
Why did you want to move to the space sector? When did you decide to try?
I'd always loved space but didn't realise there was more to the industry than being a rocket scientist or astronaut. I wanted a job where I was truly passionate about the underlying industry. I only decided to try about three years after graduation, when I started evening classes in astrophysics. At first, it was just to learn something new that I found interesting, but I quickly realised it was what I wanted to do full-time.
Did you feel like there was a job for you in the sector?
Now I do but that's hindsight for you! At the time I was looking for jobs in the space industry, I didn't realise the jobs I was interested in existed. Whilst a large proportion of jobs in the space industry are in engineering, there are opportunities for business, policy, operations and communications!
Were there any barriers you had to overcome? How did you overcome them?
The first barrier was building my self-confidence to know that I had useful skills to bring to the space industry. With my finance and planetary science experience, I had to be creative to demonstrate I had the skills to work as a business analyst for a start-up in the satellite industry! The second barrier was getting over my imposter syndrome, that's still a work in progress.
Was the style of your job applications in the space sector different from what you were used to?
The only other jobs I'd applied to, were when I left university and applied for graduate schemes. Those were much more standardised. I found that to transition into the space industry (particularly from a non-traditional path) the application process was less clear-cut.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
I find Astroscale's mission - to ensure space sustainability - very inspiring and motivating. The work we are doing here has meaning and we are taking proactive action to ensure that space can be used for years to come. I also love the challenge of the work we do here, both the engineering and the business case are really tough challenges to solve. But it's important work and everyone in the company is working together to rise up to this challenge!
Do you have any other advice for people wanting to make a similar change?
Go for it!
Changing your career path can be really difficult; it takes time and effort to build up the relevant skills and show that your existing experience is translatable. Getting involved in organisations like UKSEDS and SGAC are a great way to build a network, meet new people and learn about the space industry. Don't be afraid to reach out to people and ask for help; the space industry is a friendly community!