A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Payton Barnwell, Product Manager at SkyFi, previously Special Projects at First Resonance, Flight Sciences Engineer at Virgin Galactic, and 2018 Brooke Owens Fellow.
What is your background?
My degree is in mechanical engineering, but I got to try out various areas of engineering work in college. I focused my electives, research, and internships on nanotechnology (so many lab hours…), operations research, and human-computer interaction. While I originally chose engineering to build roller coasters, I fully pivoted towards space work after my first semester. By my senior year, none of my professors were surprised when I told them I’d be missing class for a NASA Social, space industry events and talks, or the first Falcon Heavy launch.
Originally, roller coaster and ride design seemed like THE exciting engineering project in Florida to me - what could be better than working on projects that truly highlight how interesting the product of a lot of math and excess resources could be? After a few trips to the Cape and some inspiration from people like Emily Calandrelli, I looked into the best ride of all… rockets! I really credit the intense space bug to stellar science communicators that broke the “engineering mold”, Florida Poly’s distance from the Space Coast, and some of my incredibly supportive professors early on.
Since I didn’t know any professionals in Florida’s Space scene, I started a university supported club, ASTRO. My thought process was that busy professionals can’t say no to excited budding engineers (this is 100% accurate). So I used my student status to my advantage to build the network I didn’t have. I coordinated NASA and SpaceX speaker visits, collected other on-campus nerds for local competitions and outreach, and slowly crafted a portfolio of space related activities. Although most didn’t result in any tangible engineering work, I had a repertoire of stories to pull from when meeting people that did the work I wanted to do. Earning a spot in the Brooke Owens Fellowship in 2018 was a pivotal moment for me as well. While I was comfortable reaching out to people to build a network nearby, the program brought me a group of supportive and multidisciplinary professions around the world (some that had even left Earth temporarily)! My internship placement during my time as an active Brookie also led to engineering experience on an Air Force designated hypersonic x-plane which was honestly the bonus to all of the cool people I got to meet.
Fast forward a few years and I am now a Product manager for our Earth Observation analytics offerings at SkyFi. Our mission is to make Earth Observation data and tools available to everyone (like you can literally task a satellite from your phone right now). I originally started in business development and partnerships which included talking with data science and machine learning experts on how their tools bring answers to people from space. In my new role, I work with the entire company to make those insights accessible to everyone, no tech experience needed. My engineering foundation helps me to translate “tech speak” into “normal words” and easily understand requirements and interfaces\ for various aspects of our product. Those skills of event and speaker coordination from my ASTRO club days have even helped me with bonus projects like a 400 person 12-hour long SXSW SkyFi Summit coordination which was honestly SUCH a blast.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
I feel SO lucky to have many “wow” moments already in my career, but my favorite will always be finding out that I was accepted for a NASA internship while viewing the JWST – the offer email couldn’t have been timed any better! It was a picture-perfect way to officially kick off my professional space career.
I really thought that I had no chance of even getting a role at NASA so early on. I had done some biology research supported by the NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium, and had tons of outreach events under my belt, but still didn’t think I could make the cut. Since my university was only 3 years old at the time (and not ABET accredited… yet), I had to apply under a different university name - my resume had my actual school, but I figured I wasn’t going to let a dropdown menu stop me from at least trying. When I got the interview call, you would’ve thought they offered me a trip to the ISS! Looking back, my resume was pretty filled for being a sophomore in college, and it told the story of a young engineer being SO excited about the idea of working in space. I didn’t have ANY mechanical engineering experience listed, but I had a clear interest in the work. I remember the topic of STEM outreach coming up during the interview and I literally couldn’t have been more prepared. Get kids excited about space? I could do that in my sleep!
During my post-grad internship at Virgin Galactic, I must have asked 50 times if I could sit in on mission control. We had senior members of our team that had seats in the control room, so I, once again, used my (semi-) student status to my advantage. I got to sit in with the Flight Sciences team quite a few times and then kept asking mission control engineers to lunch to learn more about it. I would bother my boss, his boss, and even his boss’s boss about my goals and interests. When I joined full time, they offered me a spot in the room. Persistence and passion is key.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
I have never really been a true risk taker although a free flight to space would 100% change my mind there! When I got to college, I was already outnumbered and at a disadvantage. I was one of less than 80 female students on campus (seriously…), I was the first in my family to go to college, I needed a job every semester, AND I didn’t even really know what engineering meant during my first semester. I quickly learned that I wasn’t fully prepared, but that also made me comfortable just throwing things at the wall to see what stuck (calculus did not originally stick haha). My Introduction to Engineering course thankfully set the tone for what I could be as an engineer. The professor was a kickass female engineer that didn’t try to fit any specific mold. She was funny, loud, and was always willing to stand up for what was right, not what was expected. Having her be the person that outlined what engineering really included, set the foundation for everything. I could be my authentic self and still be a professional. Once I learned that, there was really no stopping what I could at least attempt to do. What is the worst that could actually happen?
A few of my firsts:
With all of these firsts came some awesome resume bullet points and personal experiences. I credit my spot in Brooke Owens Fellowship to these choices.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
In my final year of college, I took a humanities course focused on STEM-themed speculative fiction. The media we reviewed highlighted the importance of keeping people as an important part of the engineering design process – critically thinking through how new technologies (autonomous vehicles, space travel, AI assistants, etc.) can impact or be influenced by various groups of people should be a requirement for engineers, not an optional exercise.
The course influenced me to create an independent study in my final semester relating to adjusting the school’s Introduction to Engineering course to include human factors design principles and case studies. I really enjoy finding ways to improve the people side of any project and I feel really comfortable doing so now thanks to the lessons learned in these courses.
My current role at SkyFi is a great way to highlight the effects that our technology has on society or how we can use technology to make life on Earth even better. Bonus points for the space connection, too.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
After graduation, I went straight to the desert of California to work in space tourism and somehow ended up working from home for a company that brings space technology to everyone. Every seemingly random skillset I have collected has been helpful along my journey and I love bringing so many of my interests and experiences together in my work.
All of my least favorite memories include repetitive work – that just isn’t for me. While I did have to put the time in to gather enough reps to feel confident, and I will always have to do this when trying something new, I always look for creative ways to make things just a bit more efficient and fun! Can I speed up this process by automating something? Can I volunteer for a side project that scratches the creative itch if I have the bandwidth? Is there a way to just get really good at this quickly so I can move on to the next thing? Boredom is also a great motivator.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
As we advance into a more sustained human presence in space, I am excited to see more hybrid roles that pair technical experience with skills like storytelling and psychology OR more non-STEM roles for people with a strong interest in space! I am personally excited to keep learning about the intersections of technology, space, and society and finding ways to make these topics accessible and relevant to everyone.
It’s inevitable that we will see more roles like this pop up with the advancement of any autonomous technology, but I think we’ll also see this as we progress with AI. We better be asking ourselves “Is this safe? Who will be impacted by this decision? How can I make my designs more robust? When will this fail and why? How do we get people to care about this?”. If companies aren’t asking this, they will be hearing from me on Twitter!!
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?
For engineering students specifically, don’t be afraid to boost your “non-technical” skills like writing, storytelling, or literally ANYTHING creative. These interests and experiences will only help you even if you want to become a principal engineer. Mission control really highlighted how clear communication is non-negotiable for safety-critical (or risky/expensive) systems. These skills really shine for tasks like resume writing, project presentations, or literally any startup job.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Personal expectations for roles can be tricky – you may land your dream job and then realize that it doesn’t fit other personal goals that you have and that can be hard. Pivoting to try something new can be tough, but you never know what could be even better until you try!