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From Hardware to Geospatial Software

Today we have a special guest in the studio, Maxime Lenorman, the host of the podcast “Minds Behind Maps”. Maxime followed an atypical journey to get where he is today, beginning his professional career as an aerospace mechanical engineer before making the shift to the field of geospatial software and data science. His aerospace background has enabled him to hold roles with organizations like the ESA, and ICEYE. Having such a varied background and interest in all things aerospace has contributed to his unique perspective that he brings to his listeners, and his current role as a Data Scientist for Overstory.  

The Mind Behind Max

Lenormand describes himself as someone who is interested in interesting things. Of course, “interesting” holds different meanings to different people, and takes on a personal meaning for everyone. From the beginning as a self-certified “space geek”,

Max was intrigued by the poetic inspiration of the skies and the mystery of what lies beyond.

In university, he pursued this passion in a way that he expected would put him where the action was, aerospace mechanical engineering. This involves the hardware and physics of what allows hundreds and thousands of tons of metal to float through the sky like the birds that inspired the founding fathers of aviation. 

Aviation may seem to be an exciting and cutting edge industry to an outsider but, in reality, the presence of heavy regulations and strict safety standards creates the feeling of a slow and inflexible environment for some engineers.

There may be a hundred thousand people working on a single aerospace project, making the individual feel like just another cog in the machine.

Maxime was one of these people and craved a prime spot on the frontier of innovation where his impact would be more measurable. Enter, the Hackathon-

A hackathon is a competition, generally held over a weekend, where teams are tasked with solving a specific problem in an innovative way, then presenting their concept to a group. Channeling their sense of wonder for the skies, Maxime and his team were drawn to an earth observation and artificial intelligence project. Although the team felt like they left themselves with a multitude of unsolved questions, Maxime’s charisma saved the day in the presentation, and they won the Hackathon. After completing the groundwork, and proving the potential to themselves,

they ran with the idea and sought to apply their knowledge to solving real problems on the ground by leveraging the massive amounts of data generated by science’s eyes in the skies. 

The World of Hardware vs. Software

For those outside the realm of computer science, hardware and software may often seem interchangeable. These technologies are inherently interconnected, but there is surprisingly little crossover in those who practice in each area. This means when someone like Maxime makes the jump from hardware to software, they can bring over a wealth of knowledge that allows them to approach problems from a truly unique perspective as they understand both sides of the coin. 

Software is a dynamic and swiftly changing industry.

The nature of software allows rapid iteration of processes, allowing engineers to plug and play different scenarios and where they can almost immediately see the outcome,

tweak the inputs, then rinse and repeat as needed. Software engineering also has a comparatively low barrier to entry. Anyone with a laptop, internet connection, and the time to commit to learning can become relevant in the industry and bring themselves to the frontier. 

Hardware is a different story. Hardware requires much more research and development before an idea moves from paper to reality.

It is resource intensive in terms of time and money, meaning that iterations of ideas are fewer and further between,

even with advances to technology like 3D printing. Oftentimes, hardware holds higher stakes in terms of safety, so a fine tooth comb is necessary to avoid tragic consequences.

Where it is common (and even expected) for a code or script to fail in untested software applications, hardware engineers cannot afford to leave room for error, so testing takes up a significant amount of time for a project.

One might remember from a previous discussion on the Landsat 9 project, 6-12 months are set aside for hardware testing out of the 5-6 year process to protect what can be a nearly 1 billion dollar investment.

Sharing Personal and Industry Growth

Maturity is a virtue developed with time, and experience. If you have a discussion with someone you admire on how they got to where they are today, chances are they have stories of regrets, explorations, and seized and missed opportunities. It may be a romantic idea to think that those in coveted positions are there because they are the best for the job, but in reality,

these are the people that stepped up when the circumstances called for it, and proved the value of their voice. 

Startups often fall into this awkward situation of needing to prove their worth, while often lacking the resources necessary to do so. This is why storytelling is a highly valuable skill. Painting a picture of the end goal, and taking a potential investor through the journey of how to get there adds a huge layer of legitimacy that can allow a startup to get off the ground. The spokesperson needs to be able to manage expectations, while not limiting their potential horizons. This is where confidence comes in. 

Confidence is an especially valuable trait as it shapes how an individual is able to present themselves to others, but it also shapes how they approach things within. One of the supporting traits of confidence is the ability to ask questions. Exploring all potential avenues further reinforces how one might be confident in their own approach.

A willingness to participate in an open conversation on a topic exposes someone to a variety of ideas, including the possibility that their own idea might still be game for improvement.

Keeping an open mind and recognizing the benefit of fresh eyes sets people up for success as they can make sure they are pulling in the best possible information. 

GIS, remote sensing, and earth observation systems are still relatively young technologies, with huge potential to be used to solve the world’s most pressing problems. The resources exist, but data scientists must be curious and willing to try new approaches in order to best take advantage of them and produce things that yet remain unseen. It will take guts to question the status quo of processes as they exist today, but doing so allows us to unlock new possibilities and opportunities that will guide us into the future of the field.

One of the best ways to accomplish this growth is by nurturing connections between those established in the industry, and those who are entering it.

Mentorships lead to growth for both the mentor, and mentee. Valuable time can be saved for the mentee as they are shown the ropes by someone with vast and relevant experience, but mentors often find great benefit from fresh perspective. Regardless of where you may find yourself in such a relationship, both sides will benefit from discourse, dialogue, and an opportunity to make their voice heard.