David Ball joined the RAAF in 1981, straight out of school. He served as a communications engineer in various postings around Australia, eventually specialising in satellite communications. He left after 14 years and transitioned into the private sector.
David is now the CEO of the Space Environment Research Centre (SERC) in Canberra, which conducts research into orbital space debris. His advice to transitioning military personnel is: take full advantage of the training available to you in the Australian Defence Force (ADF); and if possible be selective about any civilian organisation you join.
David Ball had wanted to join the RAAF since he was a kid. He joined via the Engineer Cadet Squadron and completed an engineering degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
As a communications engineer, David initially worked on electronic communications of all kinds, including fixed, mobile and tactical communications systems, before specialising in satellite communications – a field he still works in. It was while in the Air Force that David met his wife Jan-Maree Ball.
David left the RAAF in 1995 to pursue a career in the space industry and satellite communications. He was quickly snapped up by a start-up satellite communications company called PanAmSat – the first privately owned satellite operator in the world.
The main thing he misses about the Air Force is the people. But he was fortunate in that PanAmSat had a similar camaraderie to that of the RAAF.
‘The feeling of belonging in that organisation was fantastic,’ he says. ‘It was a nice small company with big goals and everyone was charging towards the same end point.’
Be as selective as possible
His main piece of advice for transitioning personnel is make sure that, if at all possible, you choose the right employer for you.
‘Be selective about where you go and just understand the nature of the organisation and the role you’re going into,’ he says. ‘It’s important that it’s going to be satisfying for you. Look at who you're going to be working with and understand how they treat people and how you’re going to fit in with that organisation. So think about the people side of it as much as you think about the technical side of the role.
‘Research the organisation and see if there are people you can talk to who work there and then obviously ask questions during your interview. Don’t be shy. It’s as much about you liking the company as it is them liking you. Talk to your line manager, understand what motivates them, what they’re looking for from you, what you can deliver to them and understand the way they think. Understand what career growth you can have and what they’re trying to do as a business.
‘And see if the organisation is on a growth path. If so, that’s really exciting – new opportunities will come up. If they’re on a flat or declining path, it may not be a great place to go.’
Having left the ADF, David was surprised by how little training civilian organisations provide to their employees.
‘Make the most of your training while you’re in the ADF,’ he says. ‘Doing a writing skills course may seem frustrating and boring, but trust me, it’s worth it. Make sure you take note of what you did. The training the ADF gives you is tremendous. You might as well take advantage of the system that's there.’
In his various roles since leaving the RAAF, David has employed former ADF, particularly when he was doing contract work for Defence.
‘It’s just the way [ADF] people think and the way they can present and write and structure an argument on paper. They’re very focused on the end goal. The right person with an ADF background really gets it, and can jump in and just go.’
David become CEO of SERC in December 2017. The small organisation is nestled among the collection of buildings that make up the Mt Stromlo Observatory overlooking Canberra. It’s developing technologies that will reduce the threat from debris to space-based infrastructure, such as satellites. One aspect of this is working on an international space management arrangement similar to the air traffic control agreements made a century ago.
‘We’re seeing a rapid increase in the utilisation of space,’ says David. ‘So it’s really important that we get those rules of the road established, understanding the environment and work to manage it a lot better than we have in the past. There are 1800 active satellites in space today. There are plans to put another 18,000 up in the next 10 years.
‘Beyond that, there's about 30,000 pieces of debris greater than 10 centimetres, which we're tracking or the world’s industry is tracking, and there are millions of smaller pieces. The challenge is, something as small as a marble travelling at eight kilometres a second can really ruin your day if your satellite gets in the way. It’ll obviously wipe out a satellite but it will create a big debris cloud too.
‘So if we can give a satellite operator advance notice to manoeuvre their satellite away from a debris collision, that prevents that collision from happening. What we've done here is to try and predict that event a lot earlier and more accurately so that they can manoeuvre with confidence that A) it’s going to be a miss and then B) they haven’t just made the situation worse [by colliding with something else].’
The other aspect of the work SERC does is looking at how to manoeuvre debris using photon energy from the ground using lasers. The work is as interesting as it’s important.
‘People don't understand how much we use space services every day. Your mobile phone relies on satellites to power Google Maps. All the timing for the ATM network for the banks and so many other technologies rely on satellites every day from weather forecasting to crop imaging and positioning information.’
For tips on transitioning successfully, see the Leaving the ADF page on the Defence Community Organisation website.