From fine art to television, racetracks to the African bush, these 10 technologists find surprising places to ply their trades
Fly Boy: Jos Cocquyt made a childhood hobby his career. Photo: Gregg Segal
Are engineers with amazing jobs just lucky? Or do they have some focused drive—a long-standing master plan or even a pact with the devil—that other people lack? The 10 people we found for this year's Dream Jobs report got where they are without rigid long-term planning or Faustian bargains. They all made their own breaks when the right opportunities came along.
Take Martin Cooper, who uses lasers to restore priceless works of art. As a university graduate, he was ready to pursue a humdrum research job when an interesting internship came along—it simply sounded fun, and today he’s a leader in his field. Grant Imahara, who builds "myth-busting" contraptions for a TV show, also found his path by way of an internship—one that he took after toying with dropping out of engineering altogether.
Then there’s Jos Cocquyt, a Belgian-born designer of unmanned spy planes, who scored so low on school math achievement tests that a career in engineering, or even college itself, seemed out of the picture—except for the fact that he kept pursuing his childhood love of planes. Rick Townend also shrugged off a supposed weakness—he loved racing cars as a youth, but never won a race—and instead became a whiz at making those cars work better.
Indeed, a common motif of our 10’s success stories is that they simply listened both to their guts and to their hearts. Jim Benya found his niche as a cutting-edge lighting designer by following his environmentalist conscience—that he could create pleasant environments while also using energy-efficient systems. Ajay Royyuru, who’s unraveling the biggest questions in genetics, tried a career in software, because it seemed a smart career strategy, but missed his previous work in the labs too much and found a way to combine both. Anthony Eckersall, a Brit, followed his bliss on a whole different level: he ended up designing the control systems for spectacular water displays after he up and moved to California to be with the woman he loved. The relationship soon sank, but the job at the water works is going swimmingly.
And sometimes, as our tenacious 10 prove, you only have to be open to odd-sounding opportunities and, most important, be willing to adapt. Before she joined Disney Imagineering, Manni Wong didn’t know much about theme park rides but had always been curious about how they worked. Wade Bortz knew little about acoustic sensors, but his dabblings in other fields gave him the confidence to give them a shot. Now he hopscotches around the Pacific’s tiny island paradises setting up sensors. And for Louis Liebenberg, a handheld-computer expert from South Africa, his curiosity about tracking animals was strong enough to overcome his trepidation about setting off into the bush—and risking disease, cultural alienation, and raging rhinos.
Odds are you won’t have to cross paths with rhinos as you pursue your dream job. But tapping into your passions and your sense of adventure, and then basing a career on them—there’s an achievement. If you’re living your dream job, let us know: write us firstname.lastname@example.org.