For engineers — and really any person in a field that requires hours and hours of computer screen time — balancing work with play is vital. And sometimes “play” culminates in a full-blown side gig.
We caught up with three engineers who lead double lives as an actor, a rocketeer and a novelist to learn more about how these roles outside of the office complement their careers.
Jon Wiese launched a career in software development after college. In his spare time, he builds and launches rockets — one of which reached about 22,000 feet and flew at about 2.5 times the speed of sound. Wiese, now two years into his engineering role at BigCommerce, said he appreciates the chance to craft something tangible to balance what he and his team create at work.
Which came first, engineering or the rocketry?
I graduated from college in 2011, but I’ve written code since middle school and high school for smaller things like web pages. Coding has always been something I was interested in. The rocketry I didn’t get into until about four years ago. I’ve always been into space and space flights and eventually bought a model rocket, like people make when they are kids.
Then I found a community of basically adults that determined there’s really no upper limit on what we can do here and have built some really big rockets. I’ve seen ones that are 20 feet tall and 12 inches in diameter. Austin has a really great amateur group called the Austin Area Rocketry Group that meets once a month at this big sod farm up in Hutto and flies.
What do you like about it?
I really like that it combines a bunch of engineering disciplines. It feels like the things I learn from my hobby are just as important as the things I learn at work. It makes me a more rounded engineer overall and helps me view things a little differently.
Best story about launching a rocket: Go!
Two years ago, I went to this big rocketry event in rural Kansas called Air Fest, where they have FAA clearance to launch rockets as high as 70,000 feet. That’s where I went to launch mine at 22,000 feet. It was super rewarding. I spent three to four months custom building the rocket design, hand-made from carbon fiber. The GPS built into it worked perfectly, and I was able to recover it about 1½ miles out following launch.
What are some of the similarities and differences between your hobby and your job?
There’s a basic knowledge of software engineering in terms of critical thinking that applies to any kind of engineering discipline. When messing with the flight computers and GPS on the rockets, there can be a lot of required firmware that you load onto devices where it’s beneficial to have a background in computer programming.
The big difference is that there is a lot more physical building on rocketry compared to my day-to-day job. At work, I don’t need to pick up a saw or sandpaper, but with rocketry, you’re actually getting your hands dirty, which is kind of nice. Like many engineers, I enjoy building stuff. It’s nice to have things that are bit more tangible.
Long before Stephen Gazzard joined the Robots and Pencils team as the lead robot for the iOS team, he yearned to be an author. After six years at the app development firm, Gazzard is five years into writing his novel with plans to finish it before the 10-year mark. Gazzard shared the importance of doing something that inspires creativity.
Which came first, engineering or writing your own literature?
I wanted to be an author since I was 7. I didn't start programming until I was 13, so I suppose the above.
What do you like about it?
It's a chance to stretch my creative muscles in a different direction, and it gives me the illusion of being in control.
What similarities are there between your developer role and writing?
In engineering, you eventually learn how to say a lot with very little and that good code is clear, concise and readable. Likewise, in writing, you have to convey what you mean in a way that keeps your reader’s attention, conveys what you want and flows well. In both cases, I think saying more with less is really important.
Do you feel it’s important to balance your engineering job with something like this?
Yes, I think you have to do things to stretch your mind in ways it's not used to, or else it will become overly rigid, and you will lose the ability to think creatively about things. Being able to think creatively is super important in engineering where you are constantly problem solving!
What’s it been like — writing a novel?
Writing a novel is probably the hardest project I've taken on individually, and sometimes I despair if I will ever succeed.
I am finally in the revision stage and have completed a first draft, so I'm optimistic I'll finish before this story hits the 10-year point. I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo seven times, winning five. NaNoWriMo is an online challenge to write 50,000 words in the month of November. I think technically you’re supposed to write a novel of at least 50,000 words, but I’ve been focused on adding words to my current one.
Meet Doug Shuffield: Virtuix’s director of engineering by day, and professional actor by night. Seriously, in addition to leading a team of developers in designing fully immersive 360-degree VR gaming experiences, Shuffield also acts — and gets paid to do so! He has played roles in NBC’s “Revolution” and ABC’s “American Crime.”
Which came first, engineering or acting?
Engineering. I, like most kids, did the occasional school or church play, but was always, from my very first Commodore 64, interested in computers and electronics. However, in the back of my mind, when I would watch a TV show or a movie, I would think to myself, “I could do that!”
What do you like about acting?
Acting is completely different than engineering. It is good for your soul to do something outside of your normal day-to-day box. For me, that is acting. Something about being in front of the lights and cameras is just invigorating. Being on the set of a major network television show or major motion picture is one of, if not the most, cool experiences you could ever have.
Meeting and talking with the main cast, usually famous actors you’ve seen in multiple TV shows or movies, the friendships and camaraderie forged with the local cast and crew in the wee hours of the morning on an overnight shoot, seeing all the behind-the-scenes magic that makes the show come to life — it is all just a truly awesome experience. But no, I don’t have any plans to move to Hollywood just yet.
Your most thrilling acting experience: Go!
The most thrilling experience I have ever had on set was on ABC’s award-winning drama “American Crime.” I was cast as a featured extra playing the visiting head coach of the Eagles opposite home team coach Timothy Hutton. During the shoot I was upgraded to a principal speaking role by Academy Award winner and director John Ridley because he needed some dialog in the opposing team’s huddle.
Needless to say, I was ecstatic. No pesky audition and I’ve got a speaking role on a major network TV show…WIN! So the on-set basketball coach and I came up with my lines on the spot and I delivered them like only a veteran YMCA girls basketball coach could do. As a result of the upgrade, I received a nice hefty paycheck, a residuals check every six months or so, and I am now eligible to join the Screen Actors Guild. What? Not bad for a day’s fun!
Are there any similarities between your engineering role and acting?
Not any in regard to the work itself. Engineering work and acting work are polar opposites. As a matter of fact, I hear they even use different sides of my brain!
Responses were edited for clarity and length. Images provided by participants and social media.