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Jobs Off the Beaten Track

Looking for a cool job? Here are four that fit the bill

By Anne Baye Ericksen

Forget the stereotypes, because some jobs are just too cool to be bound to any dated, nerd-like image. Think about the early rocket scientists; they harnessed a power that ultimately held the world’s attention during the 1960s’ Space Race. Then there’s the excitement that surrounds the Internet: It’s mind-boggling how quickly the technology has evolved.

For that matter, don’t dismiss the ingenuity of the computer scientists whose work evolved into the multibillion-dollar personal computer industry.

But exciting, challenging and intriguing technical jobs are not limited to society changing events or products. Rather, engineers and computer scientists accomplish amazing feats in all endeavors and in some very unusual professions, too. Here are four unique, but very cool jobs (that you can do, too).

Going for a Ride

Do you love the thrill of climbing to great heights and then, seconds later, dropping so fast that your stomach flies up into your throat? Next come the loops, twists and corkscrews, all of which make for an exciting minute or two. Such is the experience of a roller coaster ride—a favorite among vacationers of all ages. These machines of motion are a demonstration of engineering know-how. And designing them can be even better than riding them.

Arrow Dynamics’s structural engineer Scott Anderson puts the pieces of his next coaster in place.

Arrow Dynamics’s structural engineer Scott Anderson puts the pieces of his next coaster in place.

“Everyone has opinions about what makes for a good roller coaster ride, but they don’t stop to think that someone actually has to design them,” says Scott Andersen, P.E., a structural engineer with Arrow Dynamics in Clearfield, Utah. “It’s an uncommon thing that I do for a living.”

Roller coasters have been around for more than a century, enticing people’s adventurous nature by defying gravity. Andersen carries on that tradition by building coasters that boast multiple loops or sheer, almost 90-degree drops. Thrill seekers today are given the rides of their lives.

Like designing any new product, it all begins with putting an idea on paper.

“We begin with the layout of the ride, whether it will be looping or not and how many loops. Most parks have something in mind when they come to us,” he explains. “Then we figure out how long to make the track and how high the lift has to be to get you around the coaster. We also check the G-Forces and velocity.”

After the coaster’s design is completed, Andersen refines the track specifications, including its support structure. The track consists of the rails for the cars to ride on and the ties between them. “The ties are similar to railroad ties and we design them and calculate the spaces between them. Then we figure out the support, which is called the strongback,” he says. “Finally, we connect the strongback to the saddle or the support structure, which are the columns that support everything.”

When all that is configured and tested, the coaster is shipped to the amusement park for final assembly. There, Andersen adds his final structural touches before handing the coaster off to electrical engineers to finish the testing before opening the ride to the public.

Certainly, roller coaster design is unlike most engineering jobs, but there are several reasons Andersen found himself drawn to it, and it’s not because he loved them as a kid. “My dad and sister were nuts about coasters,” he says. “They would ride them three or four times each. But once was enough for me.”

Arrow Dynamics’s structural engineer Scott Anderson

Arrow Dynamics’s structural engineer Scott Anderson

Andersen most enjoys the role he plays as a structural engineer. In other positions, Andersen’s control over the final product was limited, typical of many structural engineering jobs. When working on a building’s construction, for example, after structural engineers have developed their plans, the work is turned over to fabricators to hammer out the details of the beams and bolts. But in designing roller coasters, Andersen does it all.

“We have to design and produce the drawings and much more. We are in on the production from start to finish, and I like being able to see my work as it progresses,” he states.

Another appealing difference with roller coasters is the position structural engineers hold on the project team—the lead.

“Roller coasters are structurally oriented, and it’s the structural engineer who dictates what happens,” he says. “[In my other positions], the structural engineers supported the other disciplines and it was common for us to change our designs to support mechanical engineers’ or architects’ demands.”

Yet another reason Andersen loves his job is because he gets to put his experience with fatigue cracking to work. All structures can suffer from fatigue cracking, but very few endure the unusual circumstances inherent to coasters. What other structure sits idle and, within seconds, must withstand the full brunt of its load and then, seconds later, is back to standing idle? Now consider the number of times that happens on a typical summer day, for three months straight, year after year.

“We are always looking for a better way to minimize the cracking involved because, unfortunately, it can’t be eliminated,” notes Andersen.

So what does it take to design outrageous roller coasters? Other than an understanding of fatigue cracking, Andersen says the job calls for strong training in structural engineering fundamentals. “If you have the ability to visualize and think in three dimensions, then this industry is for you.”

He does, however, caution graduates about the cyclic nature of the industry. Typically, business slows during the summer months. It’s not until after amusement parks have determined the success of their summer that they place orders for new rides.

“We’re approached around August or September. We have the fabrication done by November or December and the trains running by May,” Andersen says of an average year.

Additionally, the industry is very economically sensitive: If the economy slows and vacationers don’t visit the parks, then park management doesn’t have the funds for a new coaster and design jobs aren’t created. That said, however, Andersen believes now is the second Golden Age of roller coasters.

Want to do that, too?

Engineers interested in coaster design can start their careers by simply contacting a local amusement park for summer jobs in the park’s engineering department. Most parks employ their own engineering staff to maintain the rides. This is an excellent first step because it gives you hands-on experience with the structures and because it puts you in contact with the design companies the park management hires. You can build up your network within the industry, which is especially important in a unique industry.

Additionally, the Internet offers numerous sites dedicated to roller coasters—everything from enthusiasts to industry journals and design company information. From there, you should be able to build a base of contacts from which to launch your coaster career.

Capturing the Checkered Flag

Speed can be intoxicating, just ask Peter Ramanata, a development engineer with Ford Motor Co., in Ann Arbor, Mich. Ramanata, whose regular job is with the Ford Racing Group, is on assignment for the next two years with Team Rahal, a member of the Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc. (CART) series. For the past year, he has traveled with the team all over the world, watching a high-performance racecar that he works on contend in some of professional racing’s toughest competitions. “Just hearing it run on the track is very exciting, and of course, the product is very cool,” he says.

Ford Racing Technology Engineer Peter Ramanata.

Ford Racing Technology Engineer Peter Ramanata.

While not a huge race fan before accepting the rotating assignment, Ramanata respected the technical expertise that went into making a racecar exceed 200 miles per hour. “I want to make them go faster,” he says.

Specifically, Ramanata conducts vehicle dynamics analysis on the car before each race to help the engineers, pit crew and driver heighten the car’s performance.

“I run the car through various simulations and then do some virtual tuning to see if I can get it running at its optimal performance level,” he explains. “Each track is unique and environmental conditions definitely play a role in the racing strategy. Also, the team uses different tires for each track and not every tire is alike, so you have to tweak the car to meet the particular conditions.”

Ramanata forwards his findings to the team’s engineers in the pit to make the actual changes and adjustments to the car. These high-tech evaluations must all happen at a racing pace because there’s limited time before each event.

“Basically, you arrive at the track on Thursday and the practice session is on Friday. Saturday morning is critical because that’s when we spend time getting the car to go faster. The afternoon is qualifying and developing the race strategy. Finally, Sunday is the race and then you go home,” Ramanata explains.

“A race team makes decisions very quickly, so I have to provide them with the necessary information quickly. That was fairly hard to get used to because it’s not something they teach in college,” he continues. “It comes through a relationship-building process and experience.”

When he isn’t on the road with Team Rahal (the racing season runs from March to November), Ramanata is back at Ford working on other vehicle improvements. Much of that work, both at the track and in the lab, involves a great deal of programming, for which Ramanata mostly uses Matlab. “Matlab allows for high-level programming and is a versatile tool used vastly at Ford,” he comments. “Programming really is becoming more and more dominant in engineering and accounts for more than half of my job.”

Ramanata debriefs with his team after a practice session.

Ramanata debriefs with his team after a practice session.

Although Ramanata was appointed to Team Rahal through his work with the Ford Racing Group, that’s not the only avenue to career opportunities with professional racing teams. First, there are several racing divisions, such as NASCAR, Indy Racing League (IRL) and Formula One, each with a different type of track and car that demand different engineering skills and performance. An automotive manufacturer usually supports each type of racing, but there are also opportunities via suppliers, such as tires or braking systems manufacturers. Surprisingly, Ramanata says that racing teams themselves are often looking for new technical talent. Some teams experience substantial turnover, which he attributes to the extensive travel required. That said, the best training, outside of programming experience, is a strong engineering base.

“I didn’t think most of what I learned in school would play a role in this type of a job, but everything I learned in school I’ve applied to the job,” he explains. “It’s highly technical and highly demanding.”

Want to do that, too?

Ramanata suggests that you determine which area of racing interests you most. If you want direct contact with the car, then reach out to the racing teams. Most organizations have their own Web site as does each racing division. Additionally, automotive manufacturers that sponsor teams may have an internal racing division, such as Ford’s Racing Group.

On the supplier side of the track, inquiring directly with the company’s human resources department is the best first step. From there, you can get the green light to shift your engineering career into gear.

Racing in the Skies

From the racetrack to the skies, creating state-of-the-art technology is exhilarating, but this is especially true for a young girl who grew up around some of the country’s finest machines: U.S. Air Force fighter jets.

“My father was in the Air Force and I was around planes all my life. I always wanted to fly but when I couldn’t do that, this was the next best thing,” says Julie Windey of her work as an avionics developer at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Corp., in Marietta, Ga.

Even though she may not be piloting a fighter jet, Windey is making sure the pilots that do can safely fly the new F-22A Raptor plane, which has been in development since 1994.

“I am part of the software development team and I help integrate software for the cockpit displays,” she explains. “I make sure the functionality is working correctly for the pilots. We find out what they like and dislike about the console and make the necessary adjustments.”

Windey joined the team in 1997, shortly before the plane made its initial flight. “I saw its first flight, which was so exciting. It gave me goose bumps to see a plane I’d been working on fly for the first time,” she notes.

Avionics was new to Windey, but it was an area she always wanted to explore. Not only was she in a new company and working on different software duties, Windey needed to learn how to use the tools necessary to her job. Therefore, she relied heavily on in-house training and mentoring from her co-workers.

“We’re working with languages that are not used commonly in the commercial world, so I had to gain that experience. Also, there was a lot of internal training for tools that were different from anything I had used previously, but it has been a tremendous experience. I have learned a lot about how software and hardware interact.”

Avionics developer Julie Windey develops software for F-22A Raptor planes, the world’s first stealth air-dominance fighter.

Avionics developer Julie Windey develops software for F-22A Raptor planes, the world’s first stealth air-dominance fighter.

The Raptor, a stealth fighter designed to carry on multiple missions, is not yet operational, but the project has come a long way since Windey first joined the team. At first, she says, the sheer size of the project seemed overwhelming. “There are so many pieces to the puzzle to understand and put together.”

In fact, that’s the one aspect of her work that still astounds her—the size and impact of the F-22A Raptor. “What stands out for me the most is that I’m writing software for an aircraft that will be used by our military. How exciting is that?” she says.

When she graduated from college, Windey was like thousands of other new computer science professionals of the ’90s who chose careers in the private sector. After all, that’s where the jobs were, especially where the Internet was concerned. Windey, however, knew she eventually wanted to take her career the government-contract route.

During the ’80s, large defense budgets created countless jobs for technical professionals, from aerospace and aeronautics to telecommunications and weapons design. But with the collapse of Cold War mentalities and shrinking budgets, engineers and computer scientists found themselves downsized out of the government-contract industry by the early ’90s. Despite the setback, work among these corporations never stopped and technical talent has always been sought, of which Windey was always aware.

“For people who haven’t been brought up in the military, they may not know how exciting it is to work on projects such as the F-22,” she says. “Everybody has been so focused on commercial jobs that they have forgotten how rewarding it can be to work for a government-contract company. It’s fun being able to tell people that I am part of the F-22A program. It sounds impressive because it is impressive.”

Like others in unique jobs, Windey recommends students firmly grasp the basics of their engineering and computer science disciplines, but she adds that it’s very beneficial to seek out internship and co-operative education opportunities where you’ll be exposed to specific tools used by those companies. “The opportunities are out there,” she adds.

Want to do that, too?

Fortunately, many government-contract firms have established relationships with colleges and universities and are often among the first to sign up for job fairs. Windey recommends that students enlist the aid of their career services offices. There you’ll find company information as well as dates when company representatives will be on campus.

Of course, you can also find out a great deal about what it takes to make a career with a government-contract firm by researching its Web site.

Artificially Intelligent Guidance

Sometimes the challenge of a job doesn’t necessarily come from pursuing the unknown. Rather, it’s derived from channeling an interest of the unknown into a single, practical and applicable focus. That’s the position Stephen Coggeshall, Ph.D., faces as group vice president of technology development for HNC Software Inc., based out of San Diego. “What I do is manage some very smart technical people.”

Steven Coggeshall, a former nuclear engineer, now 
develops artificial intelligence to predict the future of his client’s 
needs.

Steven Coggeshall, a former nuclear engineer, now develops artificial intelligence to predict the future of his client’s needs.

HNC uses artificial intelligence to solve problems for many of the world’s financial, insurance and telecommunications institutes. “We use behavioral modeling or artificial intelligence modeling for consumers.” This information gives clients an insight into their customers, which can be used to better serve them now or to predict their needs in the future.

As a manager, however, Coggeshall must harness the creative juices of his engineers and computer scientists to focus in on a specific problem for a specific customer. “There is a lot of creativity and brainstorming involved in solving these problems. I think finding a balance between the pursuit of an interest and its practical application is the biggest challenge facing technical leadership.”

Coggeshall received much of his training as a nuclear physicist at Los Alamos Laboratory in the nuclear fusion program, which is where he worked after receiving his doctorate in nuclear engineering. While his work with fusion energy and lasers was interesting, he saw how managers and supervisors struggled to keep brilliant minds honed in on an objective.

“Because of how brilliant—and quirky—some of these world-class scientists were, they were difficult to manage because they wanted to pursue what they found interesting regardless of its value. Managers had to gently steer these scientists to what was practical,” he explains. “I observed some managers who were successful and others who were not.”

After 10 years of research work, Coggeshall realized that he, too, had to become more focused in his career, which is when he became interested in neural networks and artificial intelligence. He began working with major corporations in various applications, such as technology processing controls, braking systems or consumer behavior modeling and optimization analysis. The difference between pursuing science for the sake of pursuing science and pursuing science to discover a solution to a company’s problem was profound.

“I found out that the work we were doing with companies had huge leverage. In other words, making a small improvement in the system was worth tens of millions of dollars to the organization,” Coggeshall says. “The potential for our applications was immediate and large. I liked that. Suddenly, the work I was doing was valuable and had an immediate effect. That realization was intoxicating.”

Coggeshall attributes his managerial success to both his technical and nontechnical skills: two of his five degrees are in music. “Be sure to develop as a person, which, for some technically brilliant people, is a real challenge,” he says. “It has helped me in my interactions with business leaders because I have learned how to listen and understand other fields.”

Indeed, Coggeshall says listening and having a strong work ethic will lead you to success as a technical leader.

Want to do that, too?

Artificial intelligence is an ever-expanding field and companies within it are constantly looking for new talent. Many firms offer internships or cooperative education programs, with information available on the Net. Once in these positions, you can set your goals to reach whatever level of the career ladder you wish—be it in management or on the esoteric side of science.

Whatever avenue you choose for your technical career, unique, interesting and challenging opportunities await you.

All you have to do is a little digging to uncover the cool job for you.

Anne Baye Ericksen is a free-lance writer based in Simi Valley, Calif.

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