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Engineering & Product

Rody Oldenhuis, Senior Software Engineer at Dawn Aerospace

Star Trek played a key role in Rody Oldenhuis dreaming about becoming a scientist when you was growing up. The only catch was he didn't really know what that meant at the time. Originally from the Netherlands, Rody now works as a Senior Software Engineer at Dawn Aerospace where he not only gets to tell his kids that he is building spaceplanes for a living but he gets to do so in New Zealand!

It is a testament to the huge aspirations of the team of Dawn to be able to attract talent of Rody's calibre and judging by this interview he is very much bought into the mission. Great to have you in New Zealand Rody and thanks for sharing your story. 

“We are building a plane that can fly to space. It’s an actual spaceplane. And I make sure our team can fly it safely. ”

Firstly, how would you explain to a five-year-old what it is you do?

I have three kids, and the youngest is five years old, so… *rolls up sleeves*

We are building a plane that can fly to space.  It’s an actual spaceplane.  And I make sure our team can fly it safely.  At the same time, I’m also teaching our spaceplane to fly itself!  That is much more difficult.  So difficult that I need a whole team of extremely smart people to help me out. 

And for the adults, what does the typical day-in-the-life of a Software Engineering Manager at Dawn Aerospace look like?

We build flight software that enables our spaceplane to fly both autonomously and with an on-the-ground pilot.  We produce both because we need to fly just the same as a regular airplane, except our one goes to space.  It also means we can push the envelope of our vehicle bit by bit – safely. 

And unlike rockets, as you know them today, where if something goes wrong and you just have a big red button that blows it up if something isn’t going quite right, our pilot can step in, turn it around and safely fly it home again.  This means we have to build both on-board control and on-ground control software, which works together seamlessly. I oversee and coordinate the development and quality control of both these systems. 

There are decades of knowledge and proven technology for both aviation and traditional rockets, but we are merging them together in a whole new way.  The team and I spend a lot of time testing and reworking the code of existing software and building new code to meet our unique requirements and enable our team to fly.

What are some of the common misconceptions about working in Software Engineering?

That we spend our entire day hacking away at code.  While hackathons certainly do happen from time to time, that is the job of a software developer.  As a software engineer, I spend most of my time designing the complex system we’re trying to build. 

I spend a lot of my time breaking down the huge tasks needed to build this system into bite-size work packages, communicating why they are important and what we need to achieve, prioritise, then distribute them across the team I lead in both New Zealand and The Netherlands.  As they’re completed, I quality control them and make sure they fit seamlessly into the bigger picture, serving our customers and increasing access to space.

“I grew up firmly convinced that I’d become a scientist. Back then, I had no idea what that exactly meant though! I loved science fiction and devoured tremendous amounts of it, especially Star Trek.”

Was working in tech something you dreamed about doing as a kid?  If not, what was?

I grew up firmly convinced that I’d become a scientist.  Back then, I had no idea what that exactly meant though!  I loved science fiction and devoured tremendous amounts of it, especially Star Trek. I loved this show as its main focus was on space exploration and the roles science and technology play.

I quickly realised that technology has some euhm...*ahum* catching up to do if it is ever going to let us venture to the stars. This grave disappointment and having lived my most impressionable years in the age where the internet truly took off has brought me to where I am today.

Tell us a little bit more about your career journey and ultimately about how you ended up working at Dawn Aerospace?

After my masters, I tasted remote sensing and developed a camera tracker that photographed Earth’s night side from the International Space Station.  It’s called the NightPod, and is still up there!  The urge to explore a “professional career” took me to my first real engineering job at OHB/LuxSpace in Europe.

In my six years, I helped build the software validation facility for a three-ton, $800M geostationary European Data Relay Satellite.  It was huge.  The most important lesson I learned was how to work with extensive, rigorous, comprehensive and all-encompassing engineering standards and follow these processes to build real hardware. 

I then joined iSpace Inc. in Japan to develop a lunar lander and rover.  It was the first step to build out a hydrogen economy and infrastructure on the Moon.  But as a dad, I had a stronger wish to have my kids grow up in New Zealand.  I met with Stefan Powell, Dawn’s CTO, who offered me a way to work in New Zealand in Aerospace while maintaining close ties to my home country, The Netherlands. Opportunities like the only come by once, so here I am!

“If you find that something is standing between you and your goals that you hate and despise, don’t avoid it or find ways around it. Instead, focus on finding a way to love it”

What is the best piece of career advice you have ever received?

“If you find that something is standing between you and your goals that you hate and despise, don’t avoid it or find ways around it. Instead, focus on finding a way to love it — the rest will follow naturally.” This came up in a casual conversation I once had with Wubbo Ockels, the first Dutch astronaut. 

At the time, I quite strongly disagreed with it, yet somehow it stuck. As I progressed through my career, I often found myself doing exactly what he said.  Not only does this approach make you progress in your career, but it also encourages you to grow as a person.

“..let’s be honest—I get to tell my kids I’m building a spaceplane, which will be the first thing in human history to ever fly to space and back again, twice in one day; how incredibly awesome is that!”

What do you love about working at Dawn Aerospace?

Dawn has an ingenious and novel approach to what everyone incorrectly seems to believe is a solved problem. It’s the right bunch in the right place—the team also fully realise that just building the tech does not make a viable business. 

They have huge goals and aspirations but go about them intelligently, pragmatically, and are building a company that will endure long-term.  And, hey, let’s be honest—I get to tell my kids I’m building a spaceplane, which will be the first thing in human history to ever fly to space and back again, twice in one day; how incredibly awesome is that!

Lastly, Dawn Aerospace continues to grow and evolve.  What kind of candidates are you looking for in terms of experience, attitude and character?

I need the best software engineers this country has to offer.  I’m actively looking for the brightest we can find who have undergone the entire software development lifecycle several times for sizeable software deliverables, preferably in a regulated industry.  People who can identify systemic problems early on. 

Their quality control processes are well-executed and have killer leetcode skillz in vim using Dvorak-programmer.  It’s an extremely unique opportunity.

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