A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Paige Holland-Thielen, Ops Automation Lead at Muon Space
What is your background?
I did my undergrad studying mechanical engineering at the Cooper Union in New York City and graduated in 2011. This was a really unique college experience that I think helped shape the type of engineer I am today. The Cooper Union curriculum focuses heavily on project-based problem solving and instills a passion for lifelong learning. In 2020 I was invited back and I currently sit on the Engineering Advisory Panel, incorporating my own industry expertise and knowledge of the engineering world with feedback from students and faculty during yearly meetings to help advise curriculum improvements.
After college I was hired as an Associate Engineer and eventually promoted to Project Engineer at Bloomy Controls, a consulting firm specializing in systems integration for test, automation, and data acquisition applications across a wide variety of fields. In my role I also taught classes to other industry professionals. The dynamic nature of the role helped expose me to the various applications for test and automation software implementations and helped drive the next steps in my career. I had to interface directly with customers and users to gather and implement requirements and the skills I learned from that interaction have lasted throughout the rest of my career so far. I later worked as a Test Engineer at Crane Aerospace but left after only a few months to spend the next four years as an Automation Engineer at Digital Control, Inc. DCI creates high precision sensing systems for horizontal directional drilling and I overhauled all of their calibration equipment from the ground up. During this time I started my Master’s in Mechanical Engineering at University of Washington in Seattle.
Most recently, I spent almost four and a half years at SpaceX in various roles. I started there as a Ground Software Engineer, working on the software that runs all the automation used on all the launch pads, test sites, and individual component test stations throughout the Falcon and Dragon ecosystem. I gained a strong familiarity with the Falcon lifecycle and built really solid working relationships with many of the users of these systems. I always prioritized gathering direct, honest feedback from end users and keeping usability and stability in mind when proposing improvements to the system. I moved from Ground Software to Launch Software Automation and worked on improving the interfaces between Ground Software and the rest of the launch automation, including testing and validating configurations before every launch. This role allowed me to more effectively advocate for the needs of the launch team and implement changes that met those needs wherever I could.
Finally, I was able to take on a Lead role in a Satellite R&D program within SpaceX. I had a small but scrappy team of operations and automation engineers working around the clock to keep the prototype satellites in space while simultaneously attempting to implement automation to make operations more hands-off. Over 6 months, I nearly doubled the team size and helped define the scope and responsibilities of the team for the current constellation and determine how the team’s role would evolve as the program grew into a full constellation. That role set me up perfectly for my next role as Ops Automation Lead at Muon Space. I am beyond excited to start from scratch to implement the automation on a brand new satellite and eventually grow a new team to work on a really incredible mission.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
In Ground Software I helped overhaul the graphical user interface (GUI) framework to allow non-software engineers to more easily contribute to their own display systems. This was a huge undertaking and was a badly-needed feature to reduce a significant amount of overhead on the Ground Software team.
On the Launch Software Automaton team I was able to advocate for the Launch team’s needs and automate away a lot of repetitive flight over flight tasks. The biggest and most visible was an interface to automatically load a flight manifest of over 1000 configuration files into Ground Software, which used to take an engineer around 4 hours to complete successfully and had to be repeated before each launch. This was something the launch team had been requesting for years and the Ground Software team was never able to prioritize.
More generally, my favorite part of my career so far has been my ability to talk to the people who use the tools I create. In so many ways I have been able to improve business outcomes while simultaneously making people’s everyday lives at work much more streamlined. When implementing new test equipment at DCI I always made sure to solicit ongoing feedback from users to quickly address bugs and to make sure that the systems were always serving their purpose as efficiently as possible and make sure the ergonomics made sense for the environment and the reporting was useful.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
I have always been willing to learn whatever skills I need to produce the best outcome. When I reach a point in any role where I feel like I am no longer learning anything new, I will pivot to take on new challenges. I have also always had a human-focused view of my impact as an engineer. I can build cool things, but it’s more valuable to me to create things that change lives. This human focus is what helps me be a successful leader.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
A huge part of Cooper Union’s educational philosophy is the focus on projects and emphasis on continued, lifelong learning. I think this has really helped me get ahead. When I’m dropped into a new environment I feel like I can figure out what needs to be done. I may not have the knowledge to solve every problem right away, but I believe I have the skills I need to learn whatever is needed. In addition, Cooper Union’s nontraditional campus life helped me forge lasting relationships. I learned how to collaborate with others and provide support for my peers when needed. I also learned how and when to ask for help, although this is still a skill that I will spend the rest of my life honing.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
My favorite thing about being an engineer and a leader is the ability to put my mind toward solving complex problems in creative ways, whether those are technical problems or human problems such as interpersonal conflicts, mentorship, making sure people have their voices heard, and helping others grow into the best engineers and humans they can be.
On the other hand, being a woman in engineering has never been easy. It is difficult to overcome first impressions and there are people who will judge based on your gender or appearance and never change their minds. There are many times when I have been overlooked for opportunities or when I have had my ideas ignored, only for someone to propose the same idea later and be commended for it. I have had people publicly take credit for my work. I’ve had managers give me performance reviews calling me too emotional for expressing myself. I have fought a lot of battles to have my voice heard and I don’t anticipate this changing any time soon. I know I am not alone in this fight - other women and minorities in tech and our allies are fighting alongside us to make sure we are treated fairly but after over a decade in engineering, it can be extremely draining and feel like change isn’t happening quickly enough.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
There are a ton of cool projects all over the space industry, but also really interesting and novel ideas are developing in climate tech. Engineering in general has so many applications. There are obvious applications of software engineering in machine learning and AI, but there are also more traditional applications that are in high demand and always will be.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?
Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself or others. Not everyone will like it.
It’s ok to be scared.
When faced with a huge problem that seems unsolvable, break it into bite sized pieces and you may surprise yourself.
Finding a network is crucial to growing in your career and as a person. I think everyone should try to maintain mentorship relationships; early in your career, seek out a mentor to help you grow. These people should advocate for you and help you learn to advocate for yourself and our needs. Later on in your career, give back by mentoring others. Mentorship helps develop important interpersonal skills that are really valuable for career and personal growth.
You can take the long way to get where you’re going in your career and in life. Having a non-traditional background helps create well-rounded people with creative approaches to problem solving. In my experience, having a well rounded background has helped me find growth opportunities and overall career happiness. It’s ok to start late or to start over.
Don’t forget to invest in yourself as a person outside of your job.