Shannon Bruzelius: Toy Story

How a B student landed an A+ job in the toy industry

6 min read
photo of Shannon Bruzelius
Photo: Timothy Archibald

This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report on Dream Jobs 2009.

photo of Shannon BruzeliusEngineering fun: Shannon Bruzelius, an IEEE member, makes sure that toys made by San Francisco’s Wild Planet Toys are safe and reliable.Photo: Timothy Archibald

Shannon Bruzelius was calling yet another toy company. He dialed 1-1-1-# and heard, “You have reached a nonworking number.” Next he tried 1-1-2-#. “You have reached a nonworking number,” the system repeated. Then he dialed 1-1-3-#, which got him closer to a human being: “Hi, this is Sue in customer service….”

Bruzelius was working his way through the company’s phone system, trying to reach someone—anyone—in the engineering department. He’d been making such cold calls for months, convinced that if he made enough of them and talked to enough people, he’d eventually land his dream job: doing engineering in the toy industry.

He’d always been a toy guy. “Even when I got to that age where it’s not cool to play with your toys anymore, I was still collecting them,” he recalls. He’d regularly check out the latest toys at the mall, and he had fond memories of the summer he spent working as a clerk in a toy store. But he never thought about a career in toy engineering until shortly before he graduated from college. Even then, what he had was not so much a plan as a fantasy hatched during a late-night bull session.

A “real career” for an engineer near Bruzelius’s home in Longmont, Colo., in the late 1990s meant working in the local disk-drive industry, where Maxtor, Quantum, and Storage Technology were big tech employers. After graduating from the University of Colorado with a mechanical engineering degree in 1995, however, Bruzelius had no real interest in spinning media.

Instead he took an assembly-line job making wheels for in-line skates. He was overqualified and understimulated, and after three months, he found a slightly better job handling quality assurance at a medical-device company. Still bored, he thought back to that late-night conversation in college. Could he really become a toy-industry engineer?

He started researching the field by walking through the local Wal-Mart, turning over every toy and writing down the name of the manufacturer. He then looked up the companies on the Internet and discovered that a fair number of them were in the San Francisco area.

So in November 1997, he packed his clothes, his collection of Star Wars action figures, his Ed Grimley doll, his Sony PlayStation, and his new 25-inch television into his 1988 Toyota Camry and headed west to San Francisco. He moved into a friend’s parents’ garage and started calling local toy companies. Whenever he hit a voice-mail message that identified the person as working in the engineering department, he’d write down the name and the extension, and then he’d call the person until he got through.

Bruzelius didn’t ask for a job outright; he just asked people if they would meet with him to tell him about the industry. Most wouldn’t. In fact, he says, many responded with suspicion, thinking he was an industrial spy. Then he reached Alan Adler, founder of Aerobie, which makes flying rings and other throwable toys. But instead of Adler telling Bruzelius how to break into the toy business, the veteran toy inventor posed a series of tough engineering problems to the young engineer, who struggled to respond.

“I realized that I wasn’t smart enough to work for him,” Bruzelius recalls. “I was just a B student in engineering.” He also realized that starting a career in toys might take longer than he’d thought.

To pay the bills, he found a job doing quality assurance for a company that made tubing for chip manufacturers. At night, he kept making calls. “I talked to somebody at just about every toy company in Silicon Valley,” he says. He finally got a lucky break in September 1998, in an unlikely place. Flying back from a wedding in Colorado, Bruzelius poured out his heart to his seatmate, all about his dead-end job and his dream to get into the toy industry. The seatmate knew someone Wild Planet Toys in San Francisco. That contact in turn gave Bruzelius a name: Jeff McKee, the company’s head of engineering at the time.

Bruzelius called McKee and left a message. Actually, he left a lot of messages—at least one a day for two weeks. Finally, McKee called back, and Bruzelius asked him if he could take him out for breakfast at an International House of Pancakes, which was about all he could afford.

Bruzelius took a day off from his tube-inspection job to make the 9 a.m. appointment. But McKee didn’t show; he simply forgot. McKee did call later to apologize, and they rescheduled for later in the week.

Sometimes persistence really does pay off. The breakfast lasted 3 hours. McKee told Bruzelius all about the industry and how he got started. Bruzelius didn’t get a chance to talk much about himself, and in any event Wild Planet didn’t have any openings. But McKee said he would let Bruzelius know if something came up.

During the next six months, Bruzelius called McKee every couple of weeks to remind him that he was still interested. Finally, in August 1999, McKee told Bruzelius that a letter offering him a job was on its way. Bruzelius says he didn’t even care what the job was or what it paid. He just replied that he’d be accepting the offer.

He loved it from day one. He was asked to take existing products and figure out how to make them better—identifying the best plastic to withstand hammer whacks from children, for instance. These days, Wild Planet specializes in high-tech gadget toys. It’s sort of a Sharper Image for the grade-school set. Wild Planet’s toys use RFID chips and readers, radio transmitters, electronic sound and motion detectors, and image sensors to turn children into Spy Kids or to set up complex challenges of memory or speed. Today, as the company’s product-integrity manager, Bruzelius makes sure the toys are safe.

On a typical day, he bikes 13 kilometers from his home near San Francisco’s Ocean Beach to his office in the city’s financial district. He fields calls and reads e-mail from the Hong Kong office, which is close to the company’s assembly lines. Then he looks at early designs of toys and tries to identify safety issues. To research the safety aspect of a toy, he might call experts in other industries who can shed light on the problem. Cold calls, he notes wryly, are something he’s pretty good at.

He regularly visits toy stores to conduct “competitive research” and rarely leaves without buying something. “I get a chance to play with everyone’s toys—Fisher-Price, Hasbro, Mattel, everybody,” he says. The company gladly pays for his purchases.

Sometimes he just walks around the office, looking for designs in development. “I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I noticed that thing sitting over there. Is that how the final product is going to be? Because we might have a problem,’ ” he says. More than once, his colleagues have suggested that the letters “PI” in his job title must stand for “private investigator” rather than “product integrity.” He shrugs it off. “I’m trying to get my hands dirty on every project we’re involved in,” he says.

Bruzelius still spends at least half a day, several days a week, testing toys. “I not only try to break toys, but I try to climb inside people’s minds to find out why they’ve returned a toy when it’s not broken,” he says. He especially loves testing new toys on children. (His own child is not even a year old—not quite ready to be a toy tester.) The company recently designed the Spyder Trap, an alarm system with touch-sensitive trip lines that extend in four directions. Bruzelius recruited an 8-year-old boy; he handed the kid a prototype without any instructions, eager to see how the boy used the toy.

“I wanted to see how a kid instinctively played with it,” Bruzelius says. “At first, he used it as intended, setting it up as an alarm. But before long he created his own game and turned the toy into a high-jump meter.

“He set up the alarm, extending all the trip wires. Then he tried to jump over the lines without hitting them or making the alarm go off. He landed on the trip wires several times, and the toy crashed to the floor.”

The toy now uses breakaway wires and an alarm module that can take a beating. “I sometimes consider myself the person who’s trying to harness the destructive capability of children and use it for good,” Bruzelius says.

But mostly what Bruzelius does is play with toys—new toys, old toys, his company’s toys, competitors’ toys. His office is full of them: Roll-In Blaster, a toy grenade from the Spy Gear line; a line of spy toys for girls called Undercover Girl; Hyper Dash and Animal Scramble, two RFID-based games; Spyder Trap, for children who want to booby trap their rooms; Battle Crawlers, a discontinued line of robotic sumo wrestlers; and countless others, covering every available surface.

Other jobs pay more, but to Bruzelius, none offers a better working environment. “I have the job I always dreamed of,” he says. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

To Probe Further

For more articles and special features, go to Dream Jobs 2009.

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