Programmed for vertical take-off

So young and already a leader? Why not? After starting off as a work student about ten years ago, Christian Westendorf now heads a software team   

Career trajectories at OHB are sometimes steep. The best proof of this is Christian Westendorf, who has climbed the career ladder from work student to department head for software in the space of about ten years. Today, the 35-year-old leads a team of around 40 employees. In this interview Westendorf explains why his most important task is to encourage a good team spirit and what characteristic is particularly important at this stage of his career.

Rapid vertical launches are obligatory in the space industry, but this image is also apt when it comes to describing your own trajectory. Would you ever have dreamed in 2008 of how your career would take off?

Christian Westendorf: I would never have thought that I could assume this level of responsibility at OHB at such a young age. But even while I was a work student at OHB subsidiary Teledata, I knew that I wanted to work for OHB System AG.

What was the reason for this determination?

Space is obviously an exciting industry, but I also liked the nature of the family-owned business. At that time, OHB was still relatively small. But the opportunity of being involved in the development of satellites is definitely what fascinated me the most. And when OHB was awarded the contract for the Galileo navigation system in 2010, demand for software specialists suddenly shot through the roof. Which was great for me, of course.

So, everything really got started with Galileo?

Yes, you could say that. In the meantime, I had completed my degree in computer engineering at London South Bank University. So, I was immediately hired as a software engineer. I helped develop the memory management system for Galileo, among other things. This was followed by work on the software for the thermal subsystem. I was present at the ESOC space flight control center in Darmstadt when the first Galileo satellite was launched.

Incidentally, what is memory management?

It is a system for the provision of the data that has been collected and created together with what we call the “safeguard memory”, which is designed to ensure that all data is backed up and remains available even in the unlikely event of a power failure.

I see. Have you stayed with Galileo?

I've always tried to learn new things. For example, I worked on the ESA SAVOIR (Space AVionics Open Interface aRchitecture) project and learned about project management while doing this. Later I moved to the position of Lead Software Engineer Development for SARah. I've always wanted to take on more responsibility and play a leadership role. So I needed to learn more.

In what ways does this enthusiasm for leadership manifest itself?

As a project manager I have noticed that I enjoy deploying people in accordance with their strengths and helping them to perform as well as they possibly can. For this reason, I asked the SARah people if I could help them as a project manager.

And that worked?

Yes, very well in fact. I realized that my strengths lie in my leadership qualities and I was lucky that there were people around to support me. And so I moved from being team leader for the flight software development system to department head for SCSW (satellite control software) engineering.

What qualities must a good leader have?

Empathy. It’s all about recognizing where people’s strengths lie. You make sure everyone gets along fine on the project. Cohesion within the team is very important to me. We are very international here and there is a meeting of different cultures. So, as a leader you need the empathy to perceive all needs and channel them into a team spirit. What is also very important is respect, and by that I mean the ability to communicate and act eye to eye.

Is there any difference in the type of leadership you need to manage a team on the one hand and a department on the other?

As a team leader you are like a big brother, as a department manager you have more of a paternal role and are in closer contact with the Management Board. But I have always had an open door for all concerns. And I’m open to feedback. There has to be honest feedback in both directions.

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