Changing Careers: Thomas Dell
Thomas Dell is a Lead Flight Software Engineer at D-Orbit, with prior software engineering experience in the motorsports industry.
Who are you and what do you do?
I'm Thomas Dell, and since a young age, I've always been fascinated with computers and pulling apart anything electronic. Constant experimenting was my way of learning until I discovered there was a whole university course where I could put my curiosities to better use. I studied for a master’s degree in Electronic Engineering at the University of Southampton, UK. Since then, I have specialised in software engineering, and in particular the field of embedded software. At this time, I am now working for D-Orbit at their Italy office, as a Lead Flight Software Engineer.
What does your role involve?
In my role, as a Lead Flight Software Engineer, I am responsible as technical owner for a variety of software development that is eventually intended for space. Our wider engineering group has technical teams covering all aspects of space design, so this means that my day-to-day job involves developing embedded software for our in-house hardware platforms.
Our development cycle in software takes us through all the stages of the typical space project, as such we support many software deliverables to cover the different stages of the avionics development and prototyping. As an embedded software developer this presents an interesting challenge as you typically need to design and test software against very early versions of hardware that are not fully aligned (or even close) to the final avionics used in space. In addition, we frequently need to develop software interfaces for 3rd party hardware from one of our many suppliers. Aside from pure software development, my role also involves maintaining our software team infrastructure, such as build servers and other cloud-based tools.
What's your background and career path?
During university, I undertook several internships in different industries, ranging from semiconductors through to the automotive and defence sectors. Through this period, I discovered my main interest was rooted in software development. After my degree, I started my career working in the motorsports industry as an Embedded Software Engineer designing software for Formula 1 ECUs (Electronic Control Units). I worked on several aspects of the software development cycle and also took on projects in other motorsport series, including NASCAR and Formula E. Aside from software development, part of my role involved field engineering support, which in the case of F1 projects meant travelling around the world to support the F1 teams with their technical setup on the race track.
What did you do to go about changing career?
During the first years of your career, you try to discover what aspects of your discipline you want to broaden and which you want to focus in-depth on. I found, I think as many others would, that you stumble into your first job without much of a career plan! In many ways this is fine, it’s a great discovery process, and over time you'll build your experience in the industry and your discipline. The rest of it comes down to some luck and some ability to look for opportunities as they arise.
What resources, organisations, events, etc. were most useful to you?
Colleagues, past and present, are always a great source of advice to explore different aspects of your discipline or your industry that perhaps you didn’t know existed. Aside from that, the ever-useful LinkedIn and job search sites, such as LinkedIn Jobs and Indeed, get you most of the way.
How did you get your first job in the space sector?
With some good timing and a bit of luck! I was lucky when I was job searching to come across a great opportunity with D-Orbit to work on some very interesting projects.
Why did you want to move to the space sector? When did you decide to try?
I had decided I wanted to explore a different aspect of software engineering whilst also being able to harness the experience I had already gained. The space sector, particularly in new space, is an exciting area to be in right now as the sector is growing rapidly with new opportunities, and hence new problems for the engineer to solve are coming forward all the time.
Did you feel like there was a job for you in the sector?
In truth, I knew very little about the sector before entering it. However, after some research, I understood many of the technologies, in the avionics area, were already familiar to me from my experience in motorsports and automotive electronics.
Were there any barriers you had to overcome? How did you overcome them?
Regarding your typical life as a software engineer, many aspects are much the same. The best practices of engineering tend to be the same, although they are moulded and adapted for the sector. The biggest barrier perhaps, for myself as an engineer, was the difference in the regulatory and standards environment. Space engineering and quality standards have been built up over decades of experience, and that takes some time to become familiar with as a newcomer. Attending some training courses, with sponsorship from my company, has helped, as has drawing on the experience of new colleagues with a strong background in these areas.
Was the style of your job applications in the space sector different from what you were used to?
The main difference was performing the interview remotely since I was working in the UK before moving to my new company. Indeed, I had not seen the company with my own eyes until starting the job on my first day! Otherwise, the job application process was much the same.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
I am continually inspired by the people I work with and by the work we do. If this holds true, I find everything else tends to work itself out!
Do you have any other advice for people wanting to make a similar change?
Career development is as much a process of discovery as it is one of careful planning. So, do your research, but also look for opportunities in the unexpected and take a chance.