James Moody, engineer and information technologist

James Moody. Interview sponsored by the Australian Research Council.

James Moody graduated from the Queensland University of Technology with degrees in electrical engineering and information technology, winning the University Medal in both. In 1999 he began his PhD research at the Australian National University. His research involved strategic management theory and the management of complex projects within the space industry. As part of this research, Moody was the systems manager with the Cooperative Research Centre for Satellite Systems, involved with the building and launching of FedSat, Australia's first satellite for 30 years. He also manages several companies that integrate his interests in space and the environment.

Teachers' notes to accompany this transcript.
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Interviewed by David Salt in 2002.

Contents


What does an engineer do?

James, at the age of 26 you are involved with the United Nations on a range of projects, you run several companies and you have won a fistful of awards – including Young Professional Engineer of the Year, Young Queenslander of the Year, and Young Australian of the Year in Science and Technology. How do you describe yourself?

My friends would probably call me a bit of a nerd, but I suppose I would describe myself as socially conscious. I really like technology and I love finding out about things and creating things, whether they be businesses or engineering projects, but always for the benefit of the society and of the environment.

What led you into engineering?

When I was young I watched Star Wars many, many times, and I got a passion for space and wanted to become involved in the space industry. And since I liked maths and physics, I found the best avenue for me was to become an engineer – that way I could create things. I could build a satellite, so to speak.

My father was an engineer, from a family of engineers. My great-great-uncle (I'm named after him) built the Sydney Harbour Bridge and my great-great-grandfather built half the railways in Queensland. So, luckily, with that sort of heritage I could actually understand what an engineer does and I knew that was what I wanted to do.

So what does an engineer do?

I believe an engineer solves problems, mainly technical problems. There's a lot of problems in the world, but one of the things that engineering education at university does is to teach you the best way to identify a problem and work out how to solve it, using the best possible tools. And I love doing that. It's a really creative profession, and one that could be used even more than it is to help the community.

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FedSat: gathering space data for Earth's problems

You are currently finishing off your PhD on Australia's new satellite, FedSat. Why is FedSat so important?

FedSat, the Federation Satellite, is Australia's first satellite in 30 years. (Australia was the fourth country in the world to launch a satellite from our own turf, 32 years ago. So we were in there with the space industry from the very beginning, although we haven't been doing much since then.) I was lucky enough to be one of the small team of people who were building the satellite itself. My job was the systems manager, responsible for all the different pieces being put together.

Although this is a $40 million satellite, it's actually quite small – about 50 cm by 50 cm. We like to say it's the size of a bar fridge. If it were a computer, it would be more a PC than a mainframe. Yet it is incredibly complex, with communications systems, power systems, attitude control (pointing systems) to be interfaced and plugged in. And if something doesn't fit into something else, my job is to find a way around that. We have to fix it.

What will FedSat do?

This is a research satellite, so we are trying to get Australian technologies and put them in space to test them. For example, we have got a high-bandwidth communications payload looking at getting direct high-speed Internet to the bush. We have got a magnetometer and a GPS receiver to measure our ionospherics, looking at space weather. And we have got a 'reconfigurable' computer – that is, it can change its hardware in space, halfway through a mission.

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Turning information into intelligence for a sustainable environment

You also manage several companies. What is the focus of the work that you are currently involved with?

I have got one media company, but most of my companies are involved in my two passions, space and the environment. One is a space engineering company, for example, and another is a sustainable development and environmental consulting firm. My latest endeavour (which is taking up a lot of my time) combines my passions in one company, Mitchell Resource Intelligence. We are taking space data – images of the Earth from space – and applying it to the environment. We can now look from space at crops, at vegetation, at climate, at water use. We can increase a farm's water efficiency by 25 per cent, for example, by means of this data. And from the air we can measure soil quality. Using the data we can start to make better choices about how agriculture can work in Australia and also about how we can benefit the environment.

As one example, in Cootamundra, New South Wales, part of the Olympic Highway kept falling apart every year. Everybody was blaming each other: vibrations from the nearby train line were blamed, or it was thought that somebody was washing water across the road and so destroying it. But our company could see through the road to measure the salt in the ground and we found there was actually a salinity pathway right underneath, where nobody had been able to detect it before.

How do you see through a road?

You use radioactive small particles called gamma rays. It turns out that salt in the ground, thanks to cosmic radiation, is a little bit radioactive itself. And that's how we measure it. Using our information, then, meant the road could be covered with a piece of plastic, in effect, and rebuilt. They have never had the problem again.

Australia is going through a major drought. Can your imaging work help us cope better with drought?

Our work with Mitchell Resource Intelligence is all about gaining more information about the country. For example, with thermal satellites or synthetic aperture radar we can find out where there are water irrigation channel leakages – through which we lose a lot of water – so those problems can be addressed immediately. We can find out where people are over‑irrigating, so we can start addressing these problems to increase the water efficiency of farms. There are many other things we can start doing, such as understanding the soils. We can measure soils directly now, so we can listen to what the land is telling us and start putting crops in the right places, based on the soil type and acidity. That is the whole idea: not only are we going to make more money for the agricultural areas because we will have better crops, but we are also going to help the environment and make Australia more sustainable.

Is there a difference between spatial 'information' and spatial 'intelligence'?

According to a well‑known saying, 'Information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom.' Information by itself is actually quite useless. There is so much information out there that we believe strongly in getting it from different sources, aggregating it so that it applies directly to the outcomes. It's only when you start gathering information and applying it so that it drives directly to the application, turning that information into intelligence, that you can use it.

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International responsibilities

How did your involvement with the United Nations begin?

Well, at university I really believed in getting involved. I had a lot of networks, a lot of friends, and I started going to some of the youth forums in the broader community. From that I got invited to a few international youth conferences such as the State of the World Forum for Emerging Leaders, in Mexico, and through the people I met there I was invited to become a member of the United Nations Environment Programme Youth Advisory Council, as the Australian delegate. And from that I became involved in the space side of things, and then science and technology.

Now I've just been asked to be one of 10 members of the Digital Divide Task Force for the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. Our job is basically to identify ways to connect people in developing countries to communications – phone lines, for use for health or medicine or education – and try to stop the divide between rich and poor, by which developed countries have lots of communications but developing countries don't have any.

Your United Nations work has you travelling all over the world. How do you cope with always being on the move?

It's pretty crazy. For three years I was never in a country for longer than three weeks at a time. I've learnt to live out of a suitcase, in some respects. I carry my satchel around; it's got my computer and my mobile phone, and that's pretty much all I need in terms of office. So I cope by being mobile and getting used to it.

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Intertwining interests

Science fiction was one of your early motivators toward science. What did you read, and are science fiction books and movies still among your interests?

Oh, I was reading a lot of stuff: science fiction fantasy, and also Krimis – a German word – science thrillers and all that sort of thing. I really enjoyed that. One thing I like is that you generally find that today's science fiction is tomorrow's hope, which is the future's reality. There's very little that we cannot do if we put our mind to it. (That's what I love about engineering, too.) Whether we should do it or not is an entirely different question, but the thing about science fiction is that it really is dreaming about the future.

There's heaps of very visionary stuff out there. The Fifth Element is a fantastic movie. A lot of science fiction is a more dire view of the world, but I'd rather take a look at the world as more, say, environmentally friendly and so I prefer movies like that. Among the books that have influenced me most would be Neuromancer, by William Gibson, one of the first guys to start talking about the Internet. Now, that's amazing. We still haven't reached his vision in terms of where the Internet might be going.

What other interests do you have outside your incredibly busy career?

Just the normal stuff. I've got lots of friends; I like to hang out with them. My favourite sport is snowboarding, although I do like getting on a mountain bike now and again and riding up to the mountains – and that's why Canberra, where I'm living at the moment, is great.

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A network of mentors to keep the passions aflame

I am interested to know what has been the key to your success. Do you have any role models, or mentors?

I am often asked that. It is an interesting question. I've got quite a few mentors, but really I find that I take what I think is the best part (and this is all my opinion!) out of a lot of people around me. Everybody has something to offer – in that respect, everybody is a role model, everybody is a mentor. It's just a matter of identifying what it is about them that is so interesting. In an old saying, 'There's no uninteresting people. There's only uninterested people.' I like to live by that rule.

At university, I believe, you were an 'engineering activist'.

Well, at university my one philosophy was 'get involved'. I think I was president of six clubs there, and by the end I was running the snowboarding club. (In fact, we created the first Queensland snowboarding club – a bit like the Jamaican Bobsled, as I hear.) It was a matter of getting involved, getting other people to become involved, especially from the engineering profession. I wanted to see engineers get out, be part of the community, give talks at schools or do engineering works for community projects. So that's why I was an engineering activist.

Would you recommend this as a good pathway for other students?

I am not saying anybody should copy me, or do what I have done in my life. The pathway I would recommend for anybody is basically to identify what it is that you are really, really passionate about – what it is that can get you up every day when you have had a late night beforehand or when you just don't want to work or you don't want to go to school. What is it that will keep you going? For me, from when I was quite young, it was my passion for space, which then turned into a passion for the environment.

I believe the key to my success is that I knew what I was passionate about, what I wanted to follow. I think that for a lot of young people it is really hard to find out what you want to do with your life. But I've been able to know what it is, so from that point of view I was extremely lucky. I suppose I came to know it by asking myself the question 'Why?' a lot. 'What do I want to do?' 'I want to create things.' 'Why?' 'Because I want to leave something behind.' 'Well, how can I do that?' 'Become an engineer.' There is a lot of questioning to go through.

So first came finding out what I was passionate about and following that. Second was having a vision for it: 'This is where I want to get to, and now I'll go and do it.' And then third was basically having a lot of friends, a lot of networks around me of people who would be willing to come with me on that journey.

How do you find passion?

Everybody can find passion; it's just that they need to find what they are passionate about. So how can they do that? I believe it's by asking questions, by getting out and talking to as many people as you possibly can. My cousin, in his final year of school, had about $3000 to spend on a car stereo and wanted to find out exactly what car stereo to buy. He talked to everybody, he looked through every magazine, he spent heaps of time – and finally he found the car stereo that he wanted and he bought it. It was great.

Yet people who are trying to work out what they want to do at university, which is a million-dollar decision in terms of what you are going to earn for your life, don't spend that sort of time. They don't start talking to people who are doing the course, they don't look in magazines or on the Web, for example. The first thing is to actually go out and get as much information as you possibly can – let it come at you from all sides – and suddenly you'll hit on something that just feels so right that you know it's the thing you want to do.

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Who should go into engineering, and how?

What subjects should students be considering for a career in engineering?

The prerequisite subjects for engineering are mathematics, sciences and stuff like that, and people should talk to other people who have gone into the engineering degrees, or counsellors or whoever it is, to find that out. The interesting thing is that whether or not you like each subject should weigh very much in the decision. Remember, you've got to be passionate about what you're doing, to follow that path. If you don't like maths, for example, then you may not like engineering. It is important to find that out. But if you really want to be an engineer, that's probably going to give you enough passion to pursue mathematics. Do the things you are passionate about.

Engineering is often seen as a 'white male dominated' profession. As a successful white male engineer, what do you think about that?

Well, it's very true, although I put engineering things into two classes – skills such as in electrical engineering, to understand electronics; mechanical engineering, to understand mechanics; and civil engineering, to understand structures – and applications such as space engineering or biomedical engineering, say. I have noticed that you get a lot of males doing the skills-based, older type of engineering, but you get a really good representation in the applications: you get a lot of females doing things like space engineering. Maybe that's because girls are smarter!

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Long-term sustainability: 'Let the engineers go and do it!'

As an engineer, what do you think is the key to a sustainable future for Australia?

Sustainability is making sure that we don't leave the world in any worse shape than when we got it. Getting to that goal, then, depends on putting more money on design – and if you do that, you will probably find that the whole thing will cost you less anyway. The new type of light bulb, for example, might cost more up front, but in the long term you are going to save money because you use less energy.

A lot of sustainability is exactly like that. It's saying, 'We want to waste less, because waste is something we are producing that we cannot sell' – an interesting concept. From an engineering point of view, if we start designing the right things the right way with the goal of sustainability in mind, we are going to get better products, they are going to last longer and we are going to have less waste.

The key is to decide as a country that sustainability is directly linked with our future, to embrace it, and then to use that to stimulate innovation – to let the engineers go and do it!

Why haven't we been doing that?

Well, in some cases we have. New York is a great example. Because the water quality in New York was going down, they were going to build a $6 billion water recycling plant. Luckily, though, somebody did some sums and found out that if they just bought $2 billion worth of forest which was being chopped down at the time, and revegetated it, they would improve the water quality. So it was actually cheaper to buy a forest than to build a plant.

I think one of the reasons why we are not really focused on it at the moment is short-termism – looking to the next business quarter or the next election cycle. Sustainability can save us a lot of money but it is usually in the long term.

Unfortunately, we are going to get some short-termism, no matter what. Many people would take a dollar now over $20 in a year's time, so to speak. It is largely a failure in recognising priorities. If I sell you a washing machine, your goal is for that washing machine to last as long as possible. My goal, as the person selling it to you, is for the washing machine to break so I can sell you another one. And so there is a focus on things not lasting as long as they might.

We have to start looking to the organisations that want to be long term, like banks. Eventually one day you might be able to have a bank pay for a solar hot‑water heater on your roof, in exchange for the money you are going to be saving, so you don't have to worry about the short-term loss of cash. And one day you might pay just for hot water, so to speak, without caring where it comes from, and once again it would be in the best interests of the person supplying that to you to look at the longer term and to make it more sustainable.

Can engineers play a major role in helping us reconfigure the world?

Absolutely. I think that in Australia every engineer is responsible, on average, for $4 million worth of production a year. That is a lot of goods and services being produced, so the impact that an engineer can have by focusing on sustainability is going to be enormous.

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Exciting prospects: creative problem-solving to benefit the community

An important focus in your socially conscious engineering is to use the possibilities of space. Aren't there dangers in space?

Yes, space is a very dangerous game. In a launch we have basically a giant bomb trying to be shot into the sky. Then once the FedSat, our satellite, is up there it will be in an outside temperature which moves between minus 50° and plus 50° every 103 minutes. Space is full of radiation, so things fall apart. It really is a dangerous environment. We have seen a whole lot of disasters – the Mars climate crasher, rockets falling apart, even the Japanese rocket that we're launching the satellite on (we've had a couple of failures before this one).

Have you been present at the launch of any major rockets?

Yes, I have seen the Space Shuttle take off. That is absolutely the most amazing experience: you see some smoke and suddenly you start hearing this huge sound and you get a giant 'popping' in your ears, and your whole body starts shaking. And then you can watch the Space Shuttle until it becomes just a tiny speck in the sky.

Where do you think this work might take you in, say, 10 years' time?

The thing I love most about what I am doing right now in using satellite data for environmental benefits is that it allows me to fulfil my need to be creating things as an engineer, solving problems, and doing it for the benefit of the community. So I can see myself in 10 years' time still doing that sort of thing – perhaps in something totally different, but still, hopefully, solving problems to help the community.

I believe that as we go through our lives it is important not to be isolated. A lot of people focus on money or on other things that are very much to do with themselves. For me, the more you help the community, the more the community helps you back. It is basically a reciprocal arrangement. And so the most rewarding thing will be when I have, hopefully, 'saved the planet' in 20 years' time. Then I can sit back and say, 'Wow, I feel really fulfilled.'

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© 2017 Australian Academy of Science

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