How to pivot from Aerospace Engineering to a career in Software — Sam Ogbonnaya

This article looks at Sam Ogbonnaya’s experience of studying Aerospace Engineering (AE) at the University of Sheffield and discusses how his career has pivoted away from his original interests in AE to Software Engineering at GE Aviation.

Sam studied Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry at A-Level. Throughout his childhood he had always wondered why planes fly, and due to guidance from his parents and his interest in aviation, Sam chose to study AE. Whilst he was in sixth form he registered for the RAeS’ Student Affiliate Membership. This allowed him to attend some lectures put on in London, and Sam found these useful to mention in his personal statement as they demonstrated his interest in the subject.

After receiving offers from multiple universities including the University of Bath and the University of Sheffield, Sam chose to study at Sheffield. This was due to Sheffield’s reputation for AE, as well as the fact that Sam had friends going to there.

Upon starting, the main difference that Sam noticed was the change in the approach to learning. He had to do almost everything himself and it was his responsibility to search for knowledge. At Sheffield, AE students are initially taught the basics of general engineering. In your second year, you can choose to enter either the Avionics or Aeromechanics stream. You then specialise further in your third year, choosing another area to focus on within your stream. In his second year, Sam chose the Avionics stream, followed by Flight Control Systems the year after.

Sam’s favourite part of his course was a project where he had to design a PID (Proportional, Integral, Derivative) controller for a helicopter-like vehicle. This project included software development and robotics, both areas which Sam really enjoys. Another project Sam was given was to make a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) – this is shown in the picture at the top. His least favourite part of the course was the materials section, simply because he just didn’t like this area. This could be one of the downsides of the course structure with a more general first year – you are forced to have to learn about topics which you don’t like at all. Therefore, if you are really certain of the field you want to study you could consider finding a degree much more specialised from the start.

The PID controller for Sam’s helicopter project

Due to Sam’s choice of the Flight Controls Systems stream, he found himself programming a lot. Even for the people who didn’t choose this stream, there are some aspects of programming used in the simulation software and other modules. Although it is taught, he would advise that anybody interested in studying AE tries to learn some basic programming before they start at university. Apart from reducing the amount you will need to learn at university, programming opens up many opportunities due to the high demand for the skill. It is very transferrable and could be what sets you apart from other applicants to internships and jobs after you graduate. One of the easiest ways to begin is to try and complete some small projects, and the earlier you start the better.

In his spare time Sam played a lot of football for the Aerospace Society team. As well as this he was a ‘residents mentor’ and organised a football league for younger students, which he really enjoyed due to his interest in football. He also became a PASS (Peer Assisted Study Session) Leader. This meant that he would run tutorial sessions for small groups of younger AE students.

Sam’s course was a sandwich-year MEng, and this meant that the year in between his third and fourth was spent in industry as a Systems Engineer at GE Aviation. He found the experience invaluable due to the workplace and life experience gained. The interpersonal exposure which is necessary when working for a large company increased Sam’s confidence and he gained lots of skills which he could bring back to his final year of university. When he returned to university he found that it took around a month to re-integrate into the university lifestyle and routine, but his industrial experience helped him to become more organised and efficient.

In his fourth year Sam did his thesis in machine learning. The whole time he had been at university he had been slowly heading in to the computer science field, and his year in industry confirmed his interest in this. After graduating, Sam returned to GE and is working there as a Software Engineer (Data Analytics). Although he still works in the aerospace industry, Sam really likes software engineering and would like to focus his career to working in the data domain.

Sam’s main advice for a student applying to university is to get experience in programming. It is completely free once you have a computer and it opens lots of doors. A great language to start off with would be Python, due to its wide use and relative simplicity. You should do what you are interested in, but make sure to try out lots of different things. However at some point you have to pick one thing to give most of your focus to reduce the risk of just ‘floating around’ forever. It is important to get yourself a broad experience and try to build yourself up as a full package, with the soft skills as well as technical knowledge.

Thanks very much to Sam for taking part in an interview! His experiences are completely different from anybody we’ve spoken to before and offer a different viewpoint to any readers. The more people that see this article, the more it can help. As such, we would really appreciate if you could share it with someone who would find it useful. To let us know what you liked or didn’t like, please comment on the article to help us improve!

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