When you think of someone who codes, you might picture a person hunched over a laptop in a dark garage. But that was the stereotype of yesteryear. Today, STEM careers have taken on a wildly different perception, and some of the coolest jobs around require a background in science, technology, engineering and math. After all, someone had to build and program all of the apps and gadgets you can’t live without, right?
Below, we highlight 10 cool STEM jobs you should be jealous of. (And soon you could be an asteroid hunter!) Know someone else with a sweet science or tech gig? Let us know in the comments.
1. Music Data Journalist
Liv Buli is the resident data journalist with upstart music analytics company Next Big Sound, where she creates a narrative around music and artist data. She helps to educate music industry professionals on the value of data, and she’s helping these professionals understand how to apply technology in what has traditionally been “a strictly creative industry,” explains Buli.
Part of her job is to write content for the Next Big Sound (NBS) blog, some of which is syndicated to Hypebot, MTV’s O music awards blog, Billboard.biz and Sidewinder. She trolls through data to search for general trends in the industry, writes about buzzworthy events, festivals and appearances from the data perspective or she’ll feature artists whose numbers are on the rise.
NBS syndicates the two charts to Billboard Magazine — the Social 50 chart, which ranks the biggest artists across the Internet, and the Next Big Sound chart, which tracks the fastest accelerating artists online. Buli curates the NBS chart to ensure the data is accurate. As a music fan, she finds this task exciting, since big name artists likes Alabama Shakes, Gary Clark Jr and the The Lumineers have all appeared on this chart long before their big break, and Buli is then privy to great new music before it goes mainstream.
Buli spends a lot of time in Excel and is learning to use mySQL and to query in R. In addition to the technical software, a music data journalist needs to have a basic understanding of the do’s and don’t’s of chart and graph design, in addition to being very familiar with current events in the music industry. “My background is in journalism, so I often feel like writing is the easy part,” says Buli.
“I am constantly challenged and feel as though I am part of something groundbreaking,” she says.
“I am constantly challenged and feel as though I am part of something groundbreaking,” she says. “I get to serve on A&R committees and speak on panels about what we are doing, and basically learn something new every day.”
2. NASA Curiosity Driver
Who doesn’t love Curiosity? The Mars rover touched down on the Red Planet in August and has beamed back photos, news of the weather, checked in on Foursquare and scored a nomination to be Time‘s Person of the Year. While we’re all in the awe of this amazing robot, you might not realize that there is a human at the helm, navigating Curiosity over Martian terrain. One of the drivers is Vandi Tompkins (shown above with Curiosity’s Earth twin), and she has one of the coolest jobs on (and beyond) earth. She holds a Ph.D. in Robotics, M.S. in Robotics, M.S. in Computer Science and a B.S. in Electrical Engineering, and spends her days “problem-solving with an incredible team.” Interested in hearing about her day-to-day? Check her out on Twitter.
3. 3M Staff Scientist
Staff scientists at 3M tend to be one of two things. There are R&D types, who are extremely knowledgable in a particular field (such as organic chemistry or optical physics), and there are people on the inventor/developer side. Ray Johnston is the latter, and he invented 3M’s LED Advanced Lighting, 3M’s first-ever consumer bulb, which boasts a 25-year lifespan.
“I get to work with all these people to examine a basic question, an idea that I might have for a product or a product platform,” says Johnston, who was trained as a chemical engineer and holds numerous patents. “It doesnt make a lot of sense that I’d be the inventor of a lightbulb, but that’s the beauty of a science and engineering background … I like to say that I get paid to play.” The LED bulb was a germ of an idea in 2009, and he bounced it off several people, received encouragement and advice, and brought the bulb to market in 2012.
To do their job, Johnston and the other 100 or so staff scientists talk to customers about pain points and scan the world outside 3M to find out about new and emerging technologies, then think about how they can be applied to 3M products. These scientists have nailed the work-life balance; Johnston says they’re cross-country skiiers, weight lifters, dancers, and these extracurriculars help the scientists be better at their jobs, since they’re exposing themselves to various environments that could be fertile ground for innovative new products.
“One of the things I really enjoy about working at 3M is getting the chance to work with very intelligent people, which helps you come up come up with really cool ideas,” he says. “It’s extremely fun, rewarding and challenging.”
Johnston also revels in the fact that 3M works on new technologies, such as the films in the iPhone display, in addition to improving older products, like the 100-year-old sandpaper industry.
Johnston has been at 3M since 1980, but his career’s been exciting because there’s always something new to explore and the culture is one of innovation. “We’re compensated pretty well, we’re technically trained and we’re professionals,” he says. “But the other thing is that as you’re trained and you develop proficiency in science and engineering, you really have developed a capability that allows you to do almost anything. You develop the skillset of howto learn, which makes the process of learning easier, so you can be very adaptable. You can grow older and develop new interests. So getting that background literally opens the world to you, it really opens doors.”
4. EA Environmental Scanner
Those EA golf games are pretty lifelike, huh? That’s because it’s someone’s job to fly around the world and scan famous golf courses and arenas so they can be as real as possible. That someone is Shannon Yates, who’s been an environmental modeler for 12 years, and has been working on Tiger Woods PGA Tour since 2008. For his work on the golf game, Yates spends up to eight days capturing thousands of high resolution photos and surveying an entire golf course using HDS (high definition survey) equipment, Cyclone and Scene. He logs as many as 150 scan locations on a golf course, which provides raw data that’s within 6mm of accuracy.
After returning to the studio, Yates and team process and export the data to Maya, the 3D modeling application EA uses to create and texture the art you see and interact with in game. So don’t take that lush grass for granted — there’s a lot of data in each blade, and you can thank Yates for it.
Yates says it’s fun to stay on top of ever-improving technology, explaining that “each day presents new problems to solve and interaction with some of the most talented individuals in this industry.” And because EA wants every release to be better than the last, modelers are encouraged to innovate and test. Then there’s the travel. “Seeing the world, working in some of the most beautiful environments you can imagine and then seeing those same environments come to life in game … What’s not to love?”
5. Tumblr Product Manager
Tumblr is home to 92.7 million blogs, which churn out 76,139,943 pieces of content per day and yield 20 billion monthly pageviews. The word “Tumblr” has pretty much become synonymous with “blog,” and it takes a lot of work to keep a product like that top-notch. Renee Perron is project manager at Tumblr, where she helps the product engineering team complete their projects on time and with all the tools they need, so that Tumblr can become better and better. “What that involves is some QA, light coding, filing and assigning site bugs, helping to prioritize new features, working with outside partners, and lots of running around and asking people for favors,” says Perron. She works in the project management system Atlassian JIRA, combs through Zendesk support tickets and makes small PHP changes to improve the Tumblr experience for its millions of users.
Perron earned a master’s in Multimedia Journalism, and it was in that program where she learned her first bits of HTML and got involved in social media. Soon after, she started working for Tumblr Support, where she picked up more about the Internet and programming, and she recently started working for the product team.
“Besides working with a great team who all love what they do, the best thing about my job is the ability to learn while I’m working,” she says. “I’m constantly picking up new skills (and hopefully new languages), and as long as I’m not afraid of taking something else on, there’s always something new to do.”
6. ESPN Statistician
Yes, you can make a living by knowing every detail about RBIs, third-down conversions and triple-doubles. That’s right, if you’ve ever wondered how announcers come up with those totally obscure stats right after a play, the answer is that it’s someone’s job to research that data. It’s also someone’s job to figure out how to optimize plays by studying the numbers — should we go for the two-point conversion? Should we switch up the pitcher now?
We’ve all seen Moneyball — sports are games of data. That’s why many teams have statisticians on-hand, and ESPN has an entire analyst group. Dean Oliver is one of the best analysts around, having helped to pioneer the statistical evaluation of basketball (a.k.a. APBRmetrics), which he explains in Basketball on Paper. “I build statistical tools to better understand sports, who is good, what tactics work, and how to put all the pieces together,” explains Oliver, who uses statistics, engineering, economics and a good understanding of sports to create his models.
Oliver joined ESPN as director of production analytics in 2011 after spending several years with the Denver Nuggets and Seattle Supersonics, where he some programming language, statistical packages, databases and Excel to provide insights to management about trades, free agency, draft analysis and coaching issues. Oliver earned a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina in 1994, having worked in environmental engineering, risk analysis and mathematical modeling.
Pay attention to Oliver’s statistical models — they could help you draft some killer sleepers for your fantasy team.
7. Spotify Machine Learning Engineer
Erik Bernhardsson is technical lead at Spotify, where he helped to build a music recommendation system based on large-scale machine learning algorithms, mainly matrix factorization of big matrices using Hadoop. He moved into this role after heading the Business Intelligence team, where he collected, aggregated and made sense of all the data at Spotify, whether that’s ad-hoc insights, A/B testing, visualization or ad optimization.
Bernhardsson’s roots at Spotify date back to 2008, when he interned for the company while writing his master’s thesis on systems for automatic music recommendations (he was awarded master’s thesis of the year by Naturvetarna, and we all know where that led).
8. Shapeways 3D Printing Materials Manager
William Wagner is a hybrid of a 3D Printing Engineer and a Materials manager. In short, he ensures that each customer’s creations are produced as quickly as possible, and he also explores how new materials can be integrated into 3D printing (Shapeways prints in ceramic, steel and more) to enhance the technology. He’s always looking to improve product quality and production efficiency.
“Additive manufacturing is a relatively new field, so the technology is still in a volatile state of evolution,” explains Wagner.
“Additive manufacturing is a relatively new field, so the technology is still in a volatile state of evolution,” explains Wagner. “My job is to find new uses for materials and finishes that will bring Additive products closer to traditionally manufactured alternatives. This often involves hacking into industrial 3D printers and getting my hands dirty messing with resins, molten metal, glass, and aerosol coatings. How cool is that?”
9. Professional Hacker
David Parker is the Director of R&D at Novacoast, where he works in computer security, often dabbling in “James Bond-like projects.” Penetration testing, which is also known as ethical hacking or white hat hacking, is the term used to describe what Parker does when anyone from banks to hospitals to educational institutions and government hires him to break into their systems as a malicious hacker or unhappy employee would. After breaking in, Parker and his team present a detailed report that “usually shocks the executives,” and then he helps them remediate their security vulnerabilities and develop custom software to make their systems safer yet easy to use.
“It’s always fun and a little scary when you get deep into an assessment and realize you’re one flip of a switch away from printing bank checks, adding your coworker’s mugshot into a police department database, or shutting down a state’s primary gas pipeline,” says Parker, who has a degree in computer science. “The job takes a good deal of curiosity, persistence, creativity, a strong technical background, understanding of the languages that computers and networks use to communicate with each other, and a bit of competitive spirit.”
10. Legoland Designer
Who doesn’t love playing with Legos? Now imagine putting your “architectural expertise” to work, building roller coasters for the Legoland. That’s the job of Mandy Jouan, a model designer who designs the Lego models at Legoland, the thrill-inducing nerd mecca.
Jouan graduated with a degree in sculpture and took a few electrical design courses, which helps her integrate animations into the models. To build models, she uses several computer programs, such as Rhino, Photoshop and a proprietary program created specifically for master model builders (though she sometimes does it the old-fashioned way and draws ideas with pen and paper). She says her favorite part of the job is taking a Lego model design from concept to finish. “It is incredibly rewarding being able to see it a final product that I designed out in the public making the guests smile and hopefully inspire them to be creative in their own lives,” she says.
Written by Lauren Drell