Microsoft and the next frontier in space

Louise Adams & Lynn McDonald | 06 October 2021 | 24:57

Podcast Transcript: Microsoft and the next frontier in space

Hello, my name is Maria Rampa and welcome to this episode of Aurecon’s Engineering Reimagined podcast.  

The modern space race has taken new paths in recent years, with much publicity particularly around certain billionaires going head to head with their respective space tourism ventures.  

But, perhaps more importantly, governments and large corporations are exploring opportunities to expand earthly ventures such as mining, agriculture, manufacturing, telecommunications and internet infrastructure as part of a global space economy, which is tipped to be the next trillion-dollar industry. 

With increased demand for digital services from the development of autonomous cars, the internet of things, artificial intelligence and virtual reality, the need to find more ways to provide access to telecommunications and the storage of data, combined with easier and less expensive ways to explore the potential of space, is providing a burning platform for innovation and opportunity. 

When Lynn McDonald from Microsoft's Azure Space Team joined the global technology corporation from US Defense, she was tasked to exploit the opportunities that the commercial space industry can provide. 

In this episode, Lynn speaks with Aurecon's Chief Operating Officer Louise Adams about the future opportunities that space provides for internet infrastructure, Australia's emerging space industry, the need for diversity and inclusion in the sector and why engineers are vital to the development of this final frontier.  

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Louise Adams: Well Lyznn, thanks so much for joining us. It's an absolute pleasure to have you here talking about space, the next infrastructure frontier and such a fascinating topic. So, you're a former US Air Force Colonel, and you've worked for the CIA. So how did you end up moving to Australia to work for Microsoft? 

Lynn McDonald: First, it's great to have this opportunity to spend this time with you, Louise and talk to you about a topic that I'm very passionate about, and I've been fortunate enough to spend my career working in. I was in the Air Force for 23 years, in Air Force Space Command and US Air Force for all things related to space and satellite operations, space launch. I got a really neat opportunity to go spend a year at the CIA, I was a mid-level Captain at the time. So earlier in my career, and I was working for one of the very senior execs at the CIA. Looking back, I wish I had gotten to that with much more career experience and maturity, but it was definitely a foundational learning experience. I spent quite a bit of time with the National Reconnaissance Office and with other partners in the intelligence community, related to space and satellite reconnaissance operations. And then, as I mentioned, I retired after 23 years, and wanted to see life outside of the Air Force. I lucked out some more and landed with this opportunity with Microsoft. I had taken some time off after the Air Force and was introduced to a US astronaut through a friend of mine, and so definitely not going to turn off the opportunity to have coffee with an astronaut. And I was talking to her about space. And partway through she said, I'd be interested in seeing your resume. At that point, I was carrying my resume in my purse. So I promptly handed it to her. And she gave me that look like, Wow. Okay. And next thing I knew, I had a call from the newly hired CTO at Microsoft Azure global. And he said we're going into space, we're taking our tech to space and looking for industry experts. And we'd like to talk. And so I said, That's fantastic. Wow, this is super interesting. Imagine working in the industry with some of the most capable technologies. So I joined Microsoft in January 2020, and became a part of the newly formed Azure Space team at Microsoft. A number of us came together from industry, and we all kind of agreed that it was as if we were in a startup backed by a big corporation. So we were just, how can we take our knowledge of the industry and needs of the space industry, and combine that with the phenomenal technology, compute platform, advanced analytics, all that is cloud capability and bring those worlds together? I started working on some initiatives related to geospatial analytics and space data analytics. And our corporate vice president reached out and said, Do you know anyone in Australian space? And I said, Yes, I do. Contacts from when I was in the Air Force, in Australian Defence, a number of friends and other connections in the industry here. In fact I'd come out here to Australia in 2019, before I had even joined Microsoft, and I attended the space research conference in Adelaide, there was heavy emphasis on research from the Australian universities. And I was completely blown away, with the research and the innovation that was coming out of the universities here. So I started working, really anything related to Australian space from the US. So I was working with the Microsoft team here and trying to work with the industry from the other side of the planet. It quickly became apparent that that time zone difference, and the opportunity to engage in the industry here were not matched. So, I was working with AusTrade, the Australian trade and investment commission. And they introduced me to the global talent independent visa program. And they said, Hey, we want to introduce you to the rep in this program because you're moving to Australia, right? 

I was like, what, what, what? I’m sorry, what’s the plan? It escalated quickly. So they kept pushing and I kept saying, What are you talking about? I had other plans, which as we've all learned with all that was 2020, that plans just go right out the window, and you learn to improvise and create new plans on the fly. So applied for the visa for the global talent program. Two days later, it was approved. So I realise, I've got a decision to make. And it was really clear, I was absolutely enjoying the work, super interested in the Australian space industry. And it was just another awesome opportunity. So I packed two bags, and got a one way ticket and moved here to Canberra.  

Louise Adams: And here we are. I can hear the passion for this space industry and the opportunities. And I think this is where people really love to talk about space, because it is that concept of hope in the future and untapped frontiers. One of my favourite projects that Aurecon's been involved with for a number of years now is the Square Kilometre Array project and the largest radio telescope in the world. It's just so mind boggling to think about being able to look so far into deep space that you're almost looking back in time. So, I sort of get a kick out of that project and we can learn so much about what we are today from space. What is it that you love about the space industry? 

Lynn McDonald: It's such a great point that you really have so much potential to innovate and explore technology. I love space. To put it quite simply, I know we're on an audio cast, but even my coffee mug here has astronauts and I love space on it. It's truly an industry, like so many other high-tech industries, where every skill set is needed, everyone is needed to really bring the industry to its fruition. The space industry, it is highly focused on innovation, technology, it's a move fast industry. I think we're seeing that even more so now in this space 2.0 era of the industry that it really is, wherever you or, collectively, we want to take it. The thing that I also really love about the industry, is this entrepreneurial, highly collaborative spirit. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that?  

Louise Adams: Tell us a little bit about Microsoft for space startups Australia, I think you launched it about a month or so ago. So, what are the goals for this program? 

Lynn McDonald: When I moved here earlier this year, it really was impressed upon me that we need to invest in and help grow and enable this rapidly evolving industry. So, I've looked at that through a variety of different initiatives. And so, we have the Microsoft for startup program, but what we didn't have yet was a Microsoft for startup program specific to the space industry. How can we take this fantastic program with all these great resources, whether it's cloud compute, access to cloud through credit, access to different development tools, productivity tools, tools that will help businesses to grow? How can we take this and tailor it to the space industry to invest in these new businesses? We really focused in on the mentorship aspect of the program, and developing the program in a way that brings in all of the different subject matter experts across Microsoft, and the space experts. So I've got a couple of engineers that have deep expertise in the space industry in Australia, combined with the other engineers on the team and other experts across the board, from digital twin, IoT, machine learning, you name it, and we wanted to look at how can we bring all of these subject matter experts together in a way to create the support structure for space startups in Australia. To help these companies as they accelerate and grow and innovate. 

Louise Adams: Do you think space infrastructure is the next investment frontier? Where do you see some of those growth opportunities? 

Lynn McDonald: Definitely in the infrastructure, not only in the opportunity to invest in the growth of the infrastructure and enabling technologies for the space industry, but also in where does this infrastructure need to go? How do we need to evolve infrastructure for the space industry in a way that's going to take it in the direction to meet the demands of the global space industry? So, when we look at the demands for high bandwidth, high capacity, low latency, high speed, communications, and data and processing, that is a really interesting place that this space infrastructure is headed. There's a tremendous growth opportunity globally, from the Australian Government to support the growth of the Australian space sector. They are focusing this funding and resources across the space sector to help enable infrastructure growth, it's great to see this access to these resources across areas related to the space sector, from robotics, to payload development, to launch infrastructure, it's really across the board, from an infrastructure perspective. When we look at Azure Cloud and Microsoft capabilities, we're looking at it from the perspective of enabling technologies for the industry, enabling infrastructure for the industry, the cloud storage, compute, access to advanced analytics, it's a whole variety of tools from machine learning, artificial intelligence, but you bring all these capabilities together, they're scalable, flexible, in a way that business can leverage that type of infrastructure, and then focus on their core tech innovation capability. So instead of replicating infrastructure, company by company, or elements of the industry, that's one of the opportunities to create efficiencies in infrastructure, through cloud computing and cloud infrastructure. 

Louise Adams: What do you predict that the space infrastructure industry is going to look like in say, 10 or 20 years? 

Lynn McDonald: So, I think it will be increasingly virtualised, increasingly automated. It will also be increasingly sustainable. And I look at the sustainability, not only for space infrastructure here on Earth, in improving how we leverage infrastructure for all of our wonderful engineering and technology innovations here on Earth. But also, we need to look at creating sustainable technology for space, because it will continue to become a quite competitive environment, competitive in the sense of many assets in space, access to space is opening and continuing to open. And so we see small sats, nanosats, big satellite constellations, of really interesting capabilities. As these technologies develop over this next couple of decades, we really need to be mindful of sustainable technology in space. And sustainable management of technology in space. Because we will end up with a bit of a space debris issue, that if we're not managing it now, it's going to be incredibly challenging to manage later.  

Louise Adams: Where do you see the top job opportunities in the next few years and into the future, to get involved in this huge growth of this industry? 

Lynn McDonald: My go to is engineering. And then I try and tell myself, don't have the go to be engineering, because again, I strongly believe that it really takes all skill sets, from graphic designers, to lawyers, to policy thinkers, and policy developers, to engineers, and scientists. And it really takes every skill set for this industry. Engineering is an important one. When you look at the evolving industry, the need for engineers specific to the space industry is important. There is tremendous talent in the industry here. As you would expect, with an emerging, evolving industry, there's always a need for more. And building depth in some of those critical STEM related skill sets is critical. There's an immediate need, and then there's the need for creation of a long-term pipeline, and so I think that it's important to look at reskilling. How do you take somebody, let's say they've come out of college with a pharmacy degree or a psychology degree, and let's say that maybe it's a saturated market, how do you take those highly educated people who know how to look at numbers, that know how to look at things critically and scientifically, and take those skill sets, and reimagine them, and upskill and reskill, for this industry that needs the immediate application and growth of talent.  

Louise Adams: I love that you focus specifically on engineering, we talk a lot about STEM, and it's important to keep talking about STEM. But I think we should be boldly unapologetic about a focus on engineering, particularly in Australia. We have a huge shortfall in engineering capability coming through the pipeline for what we want to do holistically. We need to invest in the future of engineering and try and attract as many people as we can. For me, diversity in STEM and diversity particularly in engineering is a huge passion of mine. What sort of advice would you give to young women in technology and specifically in engineering to help them reach their potential and perhaps get involved in this industry that you're clearly so passionate about? 

Lynn McDonald: If you think you're interested. Do it. Go for it. My advice would be, take the little voice in your head, the little voice that loves to pop up on anything that you want to explore, achieve, go after, and just kick that thing to the curb, whether it's 'Oh, you know, I don't meet all the requirements on this job posting, so I better not apply for it', kick that to the curb. Whatever we want to call it, the imposter syndrome - everyone struggles with this. Of thinking, well, I don't want to bring this up. Because you know, I'm the only person in the room that fill in the blank. I've been the only person in the room for the majority of my career in the military and now in industry in an engineering environment. And you can intimidate yourself out of a lot of things. Find mentors, mentors are everything. It's so important. I had a boss when I was in the military, and he was a general officer. And I learned from him the importance of mentoring everyone, all the time. I was blown away every single day that he would mentor everyone that he came in contact with, from the brand new airman who had just come into the military, all the way through to the other generals, and everyone in between. And he never missed an opportunity to mentor. And I learned so much from him. And it really made such a strong impression on me of the importance of mentoring others. 

Louise Adams: One of the most rewarding parts of my career is to see people that I have mentored coming up and reaching their full potential as well. We've talked a lot about diversity. Really focused on getting more women into engineering. But the ultimate goal for diversity is that it is a huge driver of innovation. It's got to be critical to have diverse thinking around the tables, when we're talking about the space industry and the infrastructure that's going to be the foundation for the future of humanity. So you said, you've got a passion for diversity, and this idea that it's got to be coupled with inclusion so that people can feel like they belong. So why do you think it's so important for the industry as a whole? 

Lynn McDonald: Without inclusion, diversity doesn't get you very far. You really have to create a culture of inclusivity. It takes everyone's voice, everyone's input, all of the skill sets. I looked at the Inspiration4 launch. And I was like, we are at the front end of the most amazing next era of innovation, and exploration and transformation, as it relates to space and human activity and space and human exploration and understanding. And all of the technological benefits, and societal benefits, and scientific benefits. And in that next era of space exploration, and creative innovation, and all the good that's gonna come out of it. It really does take every skill set, and every voice and every person to come to the table and bring their ideas. I don't want to sit next to someone that thinks like me, it's boring. I want to sit next to somebody who's challenged me, who's looking at things from a different perspective, I want to create a team of people that know that all the different perspectives are valued. In an organisational culture, it doesn't take much for the inclusivity piece to fall apart. Leaders and organisations have to actively engage all the voices, all the perspectives, its cultural. It has to be crystal clear that inclusivity is valued and sought after.  

Louise Adams: And I think where we have this war on talent, where people fundamentally have a choice, they can choose to work for Microsoft, they can choose to work for Aurecon, or they can choose to go and work for someone else. So, I love what you say about the fact that it's a leadership capability, and it's got to be ingrained into the cultural DNA of an organisation. And talking about Aurecon, we consider we’re a large organisation and Microsoft, even larger, and then, an organisation like Defense in the US. These are big beasts, big employers. You've talked about creating a startup mindset within a large organisation. You hear it all the time, this is where large organisations get stuck, when it comes to implementing innovation. So what do you think large organisations can learn about innovation from startups?  

Lynn McDonald: What startups bring to the table, and what large organisations should be paying attention to is the agility, the flexibility, the culture of fail fast and learn. Startups don't have time to spend a lot of time not learning fast, failing fast and learning from it and moving forward. That is something that large organisations have to become comfortable in that space. Just keep learning, keep a growth mindset. And I think that's an area particularly for larger organisations, where it can feel like risk, where failure is Oh, no, not that thing. That thing we don't want to do, when actually you want to create a culture of people that know that it's okay to go try something and have it not turn out great. And learn from it and move forward. Because if the culture supports it, they will learn from it and get better and progress.  

Louise Adams: You touched on growth mindset. And it's funny, I have an eight year old son and he gets taught how to have a growth mindset at his primary school. So that's great for that generation, but we're having to go back and unwind some pretty ingrained behaviours to build a growth mindset in our workforce. So that's really good advice there for large organisations. We all know the importance of innovation in keeping our businesses relevant into the future.  

Lynn, thank you, it's been a privilege to have you spend the time with me here today talking about this fascinating topic. And before we got on the podcast today, we were just talking about being in lockdown and I'm in Melbourne, so having been in lockdown for so long, it's hard to get motivated. But I have to say I'm feeling motivated now, you've really given some inspiration to people listening to the podcast, such an exciting topic to talk about. So, thanks very much. 

Lynn McDonald: Thanks for your time. I love talking about space. So, I really appreciate this time with you and your thoughts as well and your passion for diversity inclusion in the STEM industries.

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I hope you enjoyed this episode of Engineering Reimagined! It certainly provided some thought-provoking insights into the next frontier of the space industry.  

We’d love to hear your feedback about this episode and our podcast series as a whole, so why not write us a review and tell us about topics you’d like to hear about in the future! You can subscribe to Engineering Reimagined on Spotify or Apple and follow Aurecon on social for updates. Until next time – thanks for listening.  

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Show notes

The modern space race has been taken to a new level in recent years; with billionaires going head to head with their respective space tourism ventures.

But, perhaps more importantly, governments and large corporations are exploring opportunities to expand earthly ventures such as mining, agriculture, manufacturing, telecommunications and internet infrastructure as part of a global space economy, which is tipped to be the next trillion-dollar industry.

Infrastructure opportunities in outer space are endless! When Lynn McDonald from Microsoft's Azure Space Team joined the company, she was tasked to deliver on that endless opportunity "How can we take our knowledge of the industry and the needs of the space industry and combine that with the phenomenal technology...all that is cloud capability and bring those worlds together."

An expert in space data analytics and a former member of the US defence force; Lynn now calls Australia home. Prior to her relocation, Lynn was already familiar and impressed by Australia's involvement in space research and technology "I was completely blown away with the research and the innovation that was coming out of the universities here."

In this episode of Engineering Reimagined, Lynn speaks with Aurecon's Chief Operating Officer Louise Adams, about the business opportunities in the emerging space industry, the importance of diversity and inclusion for engineering and why mentoring is the most important influence when growing your career.

Meet our guests

Learn more about Louise Adams and Lynn McDonald. 
Louise Adams - Chief Executive – Australia & New Zealand

Louise Adams

Chief Executive, Australia & New Zealand

Louise Adams is responsible for leading approximately 4000 people, together with the financial and operational performance to meet Aurecon’s strategic and operational business goals across both locations. She has over 19 years of experience as a Chartered Civil Engineer.

Lynn McDonald- Azure Space Lead, Microsoft

Lynn McDonald

Azure Space Lead, Microsoft

Lynn leads efforts focused on integrating the Azure cloud platform with an ecosystem of Australian space partners to develop cloud-enabled technologies for the space industry and its customers. She has 25 years of space expertise in Defence, the intelligence community, and industry.

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