Women In Innovation: Joni Sytsma

"Innovation is so important to me because that’s how I personally make the magic happen. I’m imagining the science fiction future and through innovation bringing it to reality."

We interview women in our community about innovation and what drives them to make a difference in their industries. This week we spoke to Joni Sytsma from Department 13.

What are you working on?

I started as Chief Technology Officer of Department 13 in May this year, and I have taken ownership of the tech stack of our drone detection and mitigation system which uses radio and signals analysis to detect and take over control of drones in critical airspace. I’m working to modernise our hardware and software stack and am leading hardware, software, and reverse engineering teams, and the product team as well as serving on the executive leadership team.

At Department 13 I am migrating our legacy products from a client-server model to a modern cloud IoT architecture, re-building a secure edge processing back end, cloud services, and a new front end to support a new and fully modernised product line. I am also re-imagining the hardware to reduce its cost by an order of magnitude and improve manufacturability and supportability based on my experience in aerospace systems. I’m utilizing my Agile program management experience to achieve all these tasks for the fastest time to market.

Why is innovation important to you?

I was raised on science fiction in the media, and Arthur C. Clarke’s line that “technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic” rings true in my head as I daily talk across the world on a mobile phone and build the high-tech robotic systems in my work. Innovation is so important to me because that’s how I personally make the magic happen. I’m imagining the science fiction future and through innovation bringing it to reality.

What drives you to make a difference?

I’m hyper-motivated by the extremely interesting subject matter of my work: space rockets, drones, and robot dogs with freaking lasers on their head, radio, cloud, and IoT! I’m extremely excited about what I call “robots”: cyber-physical systems that merge advances in software subjects like machine learning and AI with a physical manifestation that interacts with the environment and we humans. I’m excited about using advances in controls engineering and machine perception to allow robots to interact with us in new and imaginative ways previously only in the realm of Sci-Fi.

Do you have any advice for getting more women into the innovation ecosystem?

I have a slightly different perspective as I’m a trans-woman, but having been both the recipient of male privilege and the opposite I can say that life is not as fair to women. Women in the tech fields I’ve worked in are by far the minority, and there are disparities in compensation and advancement that are very real. My advice would be to channel your feelings of dissatisfaction with the status quo into rocket fuel to push yourself to the top. Rise above the crowd and convert that energy to shine brightly, build new things and make the magic happen.

What are you proud of right now?

At Department 13 over the last 3 months, I led an Agile R&D program to determine the angle of arrival of radio signals from drones. With a really tight budget, a small crew, and a pandemic holding us back I still managed to plan a tech program and build a hardware and software solution that fully integrates within our existing framework and is ready to be installed in the field, if COVID ever allows us out in the field again! We demonstrated the end-to-end system last week and it worked amazing, and we hope to install it with a customer soon!

I’m a high achiever, and I’m go-go-go all the time. In my normal life, I’m highly stressed with work and rely heavily on athleticism and socialisation to manage my stress and stay hyper-productive. I only recently moved to Canberra and I have no friends, family, lovers, pets, or plants in my life to support me. At the same time, I’m on a strict lockdown having to manage all my teams under the tight deadlines that startup life offers. I’m pretty proud of myself for mostly keeping my head together through this unending COVID lockdown, and it’s evident I’m becoming more resilient the more the world challenges me.

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