A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Jonny Dyer, Founder of Muon Space, Former Senior Director Engineering at Lyft and Chief Engineer at Skybox Imaging
What is your background?
I have a BS and MS in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford. While there I spent a fair amount of time doing rocket research in the AeroAstro department and taught machining, welding and other manufacturing skills in the PRL. I also pitched for Stanford's Varsity baseball team including two appearances in the 2003 College World Series.
After school I continued doing rocket research with a small Silicon Valley company called Space Propulsion Group before joining Skybox Imaging as their second (or third, we still argue about it) employee. At Skybox as Chief Engineer, I led most of the technical development of our constellation system. When Google bought Skybox, I continued that role for two and half years until the division was sold. I stayed on at Google and ran the data collection platform team for Geo (the Google Maps team). I then took a role as the Head of Lyft's Autonomous Vehicle Systems Development team in 2019 and grew that team for about 18 months. I left Lyft in December and am working on my own startup now.
What have been your top three career accomplishments so far?
I am most proud of the development and operational success of the SkySats. There are now 21 of them on orbit producing high quality imagery 24/7. I believe the combination of scale, reliability, performance, and data quality that we achieved in that constellation has still not been replicated in industry, almost 10 years later. We’ve not had a system fail in more than 65 on-orbit years.
Another aspect of that experience I’m very proud of is the technology we developed to do dynamic image stabilization on the second generation satellites. Unfortunately, there has not been a lot discussed publicly about that technology, but I believe it to be extremely elegant and it contributes substantially to the system capabilities of the SkySats and is one of the reasons others still are not there.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
Be willing to take risks. Opportunities are everywhere but often people are too comfortable or risk adverse to jump at them. You can work your way up slowly through the system at big companies like Google or you can jump into something early and, I believe, have the opportunity to take a much bigger leap in both career and personal growth. I highly recommend going through the startup experience to young professionals because there is no education like it.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
It was the things outside of the formal, required parts of my education that had as much or more of an impact on me than the core curriculum. My time teaching in the PRL machine shop was extremely valuable - it taught me self-reliance, leadership, and gave me great confidence that if I needed, I could learn how to make anything. Similarly, my experience doing research in the rocket lab taught me how multidisciplinary real engineering projects are and forced me to learn software, embedded systems, thermal, plumbing, data analysis - all kinds of things. These practical lessons are often difficult in a classroom setting.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
Seeing things I’ve been part of from the beginning become real is a joy. Also, more recently, I’ve learned how satisfying it can be to build a high performing team and see their accomplishments vs. just what I can do on my own. My least favorite lessons have come mostly due to bureaucracy and inefficiency of big companies. There are benefits in working for a well funded, large company but the overhead in administration and lack of alignment with delivery is really frustrating.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
The world needs more generalists - people who can dive in and connect the dots between disparate areas of technology, business, etc. People who are fluent not only in technically broad areas (software, hardware, ML, etc.) but also in finance, product, etc. are going to become invaluable.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation following a similar career path?
The world is changing faster than ever and it’s important to be able to think about what the long-term trends are. It's easy to get caught up in the hype of today, but being able to zoom out and think about where things will be in 10 years or 20 years and work backwards is going to be more and more critical. Climate is a good example of such a trend. Any strategy you come up with, there will be a climate angle to it in 5-10 years. Another one is the urban migration - how does the movement of billions of people from rural to urban environments affect the world? There are many others...
Is there anything else you would like to share?
We’re at a unique junction in time where ideas that were taken as gospel in the past are now in question. That our institutions are and will remain the strongest in the world; that science/technology and democracy are uniquely symbiotic and reinforcing; that there is an inevitable trend towards democracy in the arc of history; that the world is trending towards consensus on political and economic ideals. I think the last few years have called some of these assumptions into question. We can't be complacent as these things are not inevitable and I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to be conscious of our influence on these trends and consider whether the things we chose to pursue are helpful or harmful.
The Space Talent Spotlight is our blog series focused on the leaders and builders at the intersection of space and tech.The Space Talent Spotlight is our blog series focused on the leaders and builders at the intersection of space and tech.