12 questions for a 27-year-old space engineer

While career advice from advanced professionals is totally valuable, we think hearing from readers in the midst of their early career trajectory can be just as fascinating. So we’ve set out to ask 20-something HelloGiggles readers about how they’re making a living, fulfilling their goals, or just trying to get by in this crazy quarter-life journey.

Name: Lisa Kristeena Johnson

Job title: Space systems engineer and satellite designer (a.k.a. she builds satellites for space!)

Age:  27

1. How did you get your job, you know, building satellites for space?

I was an aerospace engineer with a focus on space systems in Boston until recently. At my new job I’ll be a hardware engineer in space systems in a company in Glasgow, Scotland.

2. So you recently switched jobs—how did you land the new gig?

It was a long interview process – I had to answer challenge questions over a week. I had 5 phone interviews and a day of 3-4 in-person interviews in their San Francisco offices.

3. How did you get into this line of work, or rather how did you even know this was a career option?

I have a Bachelor’s of Science in Aero/Astro with Information Technology from MIT.  In my first year of college, I wanted to do human factors engineering – that is, become an expert for engineering systems for human use like the new HUDs (Heads Up Displays) for fighter jets. You need so much information at the right times so humans can make the right decisions. You learn how to adapt the equipment based on what people can process, and how quickly. That includes designs for working spacesuits and the spacecraft that take people into space.

4. But you decided to change your focus a little. What prompted that? 

I was like, why bother making things that humans can go into when you can just put robots in them? Then you can basically design anything and shove it up in space. If it breaks, then, oh well. You still get the science but no loss of life!

5. So what does the workday of a 20-something space engineer look like?

For the most part, at my last job, it was: get up at 6, head to gym or pool. Work was at 9ish – I’d either be the first or last person to show up.

Then at work, it depends on the project I’m working on for what my day looks like, like will I be standing in the lab all day? I’m usually done by 6 PM, when I head back to the gym for my triathalon team meeting. Then I go home and watch TV and sleep. I never get much sleep, unfortunately!

6. What is some great work advice you’ve been given, so far?

One of the most important things was come into things with open mind. My boss would say this to me because he knew I wasn’t interested in certain things… I had a month where I was using a new program that I had to learn to use to finish the project. But then I knew how to use that program and now I can design things I couldn’t do before on my own projects. Actually, I never could’ve gotten my new job without that experience.

7. What do you do outside of work?

I cosplay a lot, which means sitting at a sewing machine, creating things. My last cosplay was the gold dress Peggy wears in the first episode of Agent Carter at Emerald City Comic Con.

8. What is your dream job?

It’s been the same for the past couple years: working on spacecrafts, specifically on large and multiyear projects. Just working my way towards there. I want to design things myself, integrate things myself. Maybe in couple more jobs, I’ll get there… I’ll need to transition to a bigger aero company at some point to get to work on the big spacecraft.

9. What’s the friendship culture like at work?

I work in really small companies, with 500 people, and 40 people in office. My best friend started in company with me. I have a pretty good friendship dynamic with people my age – the people who are married with kids don’t hang out much outside of work. I left my job a few weeks ago, but I still talk to my old co-workers throughout the day. Startup companies are really great if you’re looking for fully immersive work-life experience. It literally feels like space camp.

10. Are there many women in your field of work?

When I was in MIT, we had an almost equal incoming class… Women would be more talkative and asking questions during class. My female friends were all space engineers, we had lots of female professors – at least two female professors every semester. At work, though, we had 40 people, with two female engineers and three female admins. At my new job, it’s me and seven guys. It’s fine working with male engineers, definitely, but… There’re not a lot of women in the field. It was really disappointing.

11. What’s your money situation?

At my old company I had healthcare, 4% matching 401K (I have to roll it over to my own IRA accounts now that I’ve left the company), $70 a month for transport, a company Zipcar for $25/year. At my new company, I have stock options in the company, moving bonus, and I’m getting health coverage through being in the UK. I generally save a lot because I try to live at the same level of income as when I was a student. I want to save for house or a plane.

12. Wow – a plane?

Yeah! You know that movie Fly Away Home? I got my pilot’s license a couple years ago and I’m just waiting for the opportunity to participate in something like Operation Migration.

If you’d like to be featured in our My Quarter Life Career column, or know someone who would, email us at [email protected] and include “My Quarter Life Career” in your subject line. 

[Image courtesy of Lisa Kristeena Johnson]