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Career spotlight: Code and fly

Design the software that keeps us flying

You love aircraft. But maybe you don’t love them enough to want to fly them for a living. Or the idea of living out of a suitcase doesn’t appeal to you. Luckily, you have options.
Shot of a programmer working on a computer code at night

Modern aircraft rely heavily on electronics, whether in the instrument panel or through high-tech fly-by-wire flight control systems. Designing the software to run the instruments, systems, and components is the heart of what a software engineer does on a daily basis.

Joe Gepner used to head Garmin Aviation’s Team X, a small group within the company that designs avionics meant for the experimental market. Recently promoted, he now runs the company’s aviation product experience team. Gepner joined Garmin straight from Kansas State University, where he earned a degree in computer science. Since then he has worked on early versions of the Garmin G1000 avionics suite, and he helped create the G3X and G3X Touch and the Garmin G5, among others.

“I always wanted to fly,” he said. “And I was kind of a computer nerd.” At Garmin he can fulfill both. A lack of resources kept him out of the sky until the company began a program that reimbursed employees for flight training. “I jumped on that immediately,” he said. He took his first lesson in the late spring and had a pilot certificate three months later. Now he’s living the dream as the owner of a Van’s RV–8 experimental amateur-built tailwheel aircraft.

The work allows him to come up with ideas for new features or capabilities, design them, and test them. “Whatever I coded today I could fly tomorrow and refine the next day,” he said. Hardware engineers can work for months or years to see their ideas come to fruition, but for software engineers the timeframe is short.

Gepner’s team is made up of like-minded people, many of whom are also pilots and aircraft owners. Collaboration brings even more ideas. “We’re a group of engineers who are our own customers,” he said. “We are trying to build products we want.”

As the leader of the team, Gepner still gets to be hands-on sometimes, but he’s also tasked with thinking broader, surveying the market, ensuring customers have the best possible products, and working the team’s strategy into the larger business goals. And he still gets the newest equipment for his airplane at what he calls a smoking good deal.

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Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly is senior content producer for AOPA Media.

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