Re­cent en­gi­neer­ing grad­u­ate Ryan Thomas used his skills to help Emi­rates Team New Zealand take back the Amer­ica’s Cup.

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“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.”

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