|What is your name and job title?
Daniel Vagg, I’m a System Architect at Parameter Space.
What were the main ‘career decision’ milestones in your life so far?
I was studying tech drawing, art and construction studies in secondary school with the aim of becoming an architect. However, I soon decided that architecture wasn’t for me. I then decided that I wanted to study physics with computing despite never having studied physics before in either school or college. I applied to the European Space Agency (ESA) for an internship whilst doing my undergraduate degree in physics. I worked with FeedHenry for a while after completing my degree in physics. It was during this time that I gained a lot of Python experience while I was also studying online. It was during this time that I realised I wanted to do something more scientific so I completed a Masters in Space Science in UCD. I felt that either space science or quantum mechanics are the frontiers of physics and that this is where I wanted to work.
Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?
Not a single person really. The construction crash made physics one of the better options for a degree. I then wanted to apply my education to something that challenged me and is also beneficial to the world of science.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
Generally, yes. I suppose with software and science, it is a very mentally demanding field, so it can be hard to identify and manage the toll it takes. There is also a risk of burning yourself out and losing your passion for the job, but I’m getting better at managing these issues with time.
How did you go about getting your current job?
I was told about an “invitation to tender” provided by ESA. I said I was interested and wrote the technical content of the response. Then when the contract was awarded I was offered a job. I guess it was easier than most interview processes!
Describe a typical day?
I will read over recent emails from stakeholders in our system and mentally juggle the various technologies and implementations we can use to try find the best fit. Sometimes I work on system prototypes, or sketching ideas on whiteboards, or writing system documentation. The documentation admittedly is a bit dull, but it’s making me much better at conveying complex ideas – which is a very easy task to underestimate when you have these ideas in your head for weeks.
What are the main tasks and responsibilities?
I am a system architect, so I design the system we will be using to analyse Gaia data products (approximately one petabyte in size). I present and liaise with other groups who will use the system. I will then develop and write the majority of documentation on these systems.
What are the main challenges?
Trying to design a system that will answer the problems scientists will face in three years when the data products are released without adopting hyped new technologies. There are also lots of unknowns in how people can use our system. It’s constantly a balance of providing freedom and functionality without being too restrictive.
What I really like is knowing that this system will be used to analyse some of the most exciting scientific data available. It’s also using a lot of exciting technology in a quite unique way (especially unique in the astronomy community).
What’s are the main challenges of your job?
Documentation is perhaps my least favourite part of the job. Also, dealing with Ubuntu and dodgy display drivers can be quite a challenge as well. What particular skills do you bring to your workplace? Some of the main skills I bring to the workplace include my knowledge of physics and astronomy. I also have experience with data analysis, various programming languages, software design/development/management, cloud computing knowledge and operations. I also make a decent coffee!
What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?
Not many were too useful, but that’s a good thing! You are not tied down in college because of choices you made in secondary school. I also took art in secondary school, and I really like drawing; I think it’s a great way of unwinding. Actually, I think art would be nice if it was provided for an hour during the week in third level – optional of course, but I think it would help.
What is your education to date?
A Bachelor of Science in Physics with Computing and a Masters in Physics specialising in Space Science and Technology. What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job? With space science, understanding astronomy and space systems help me understand aspects of Gaia data and what to expect. Physics with computing probably provide some obvious ones like algorithms or data structures. But I think the most important part of physics is that it changes how you think about problems in every aspect of life. It’s not a set of equations you learn off and forget, it’s a lot more.
Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?
It’s too early at this time to say for sure. I’d be happy to, but it’s very early days yet. What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far? I started in March, so it’s quite early still. However, we had a meeting in ESAC where we presented our system concept, and the other groups who have to use it were quite happy. So that was a huge relief given the challenges in designing the system.
What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?
Being hugely patient, while having enough experience/confidence to know I can get something done if I keep at it. A sense of humour helps too, and also the coffee – I make good coffee! I suppose as a related quality, I recognize that taking a break to relax is crucial to working well. Even a half hour walk outside (during work hours) has made a huge difference. If I think I haven’t achieved enough to balance out the break, I will be happy to stay and work if I am relaxed. What is your dream job? It’s very early to say. It would always change along with the challenges we face. Soon we could be trying to support humans on Mars, or something equally exciting. So it will change, but perhaps after this job something with SpaceX would be pretty interesting.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
System architect is one thing, while a system architect solving space data problems is another. If you have a job and the domain planned, maybe try to get as much experience in different areas as possible. For people choosing further education, work experience is always valuable! What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job? The three most important characteristics needed are patience, humility, and motivation. You have to keep calm and work without panic, must accept when your idea is not the best, and you must actively research something better ways of doing things. What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position? Having experience as a system architect would be very useful. Without that, a lot of experience managing personal scientific/software projects, as well as a broad range of experience in science and computing.