Recent engineering graduate Ryan Thomas used his skills to help Emirates Team New Zealand take back the America’s Cup.
“I sat in the chase boat analysing every move the Team New Zealand boat made and worked with the team to ensure they were as fast as possible.”
Ryan Thomas hadn’t even written a line of code before studying at Massey University, and yet in a few short years he would be helping Emirates Team New Zealand take back the America’s Cup.
The team’s catamaran, remarkable for its use of hydrofoiling and, of course, its unique pedal-powered system, required a considerable amount of technical tweaking from a computational perspective, which meant the inclusion of Ryan. His job was to analyse the boat on the water from a chase boat and later work with the team to make adjustments that would ensure the boat was performing at its peak.
“On a regular boat the sailors know what they want the boat to do, and when something isn’t right they can make the changes to fix it themselves — there’s no code or computers. Our boat was a lot more complicated than most, so my job was to help them get what they wanted out of it, within its capability and what it could actually do.
“It’s really satisfying. You see a problem, you make a change, and then you see whether it works or not straight away. It was a fast-paced environment, solving problems on your feet,” Ryan says.
Being part of the winning team was a great experience for the boy from Whakarongo Primary School who enjoyed mathematics and later physics at Palmerston North Boy’s High School. “I was always interested in subjects that are key to engineering, but I hadn’t even written a line of code before I took up engineering at Massey,” says Ryan. “I literally got my first introduction in a first-year paper. That’s all changing now though — I was asked to give a talk at my old primary school, and the kids told me that they were learning code already. That’s so cool at such a young age.”
Ryan learnt about engineering and software at Massey and extended his study, doing a master’s degree that gave his CV a boost. He helped on projects including developing a machine to move hospital beds, an automated pollen-recognition system, and a robot helper for the elderly. His first job was in Hamilton, programming and automating machinery for factories. “After I had only done a few machines by myself, the company sent me to India to help a start-up that was connected to the company. It was very much sink or swim, but it was a great experience. You just get on with it and learn as you go. I was given pretty big jobs right from the get-go, and what I learnt at Massey really helped.”
But how he got from the factory floor to the sailboat is a shining advertisement for social media, as Team New Zealand found Ryan through his LinkedIn profile.
“It was a little bit of luck really. My company had seen the potential in a hardware platform, that just so happened to be the same one that Team New Zealand were thinking of using. I had put it on my LinkedIn profile and they reached out to me from there. I almost didn’t go, as I had other plans to travel, but I had a bit of a think and I realized that this wasn’t the kind of opportunity I could say no to.”
For 18 months, Ryan was part of the crew working to bring back the cup for New Zealand, pulling the long nights in the shed and early morning trips out into the water. He says, “If you like solving problems, engineering is a great career.”