At 16, Josh Davis ’06 decided he wanted to design roller coasters. Since then, the Lynchburg, Va., native has pursued that goal, earning a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from NC State and a master’s in the same field from Cal Poly in 2008. Where is he today? Since October, he’s been in Singapore as a project coordinator and junior engineer for California-based Attractions Services Company Inc. working specifically on one of the attractions planned for the Universal Studios Singapore opening in spring 2010. Davis is helping implement the designs of the show action equipment—objects that move using mechanical components and pneumatics—and flame effects for the Lights! Camera! Action! attraction, which will give visitors the opportunity to see how special effects work and how movies are made. A Caldwell Fellow alumnus, he spoke to us about his career and roller coasters.
How did you become interested in roller coasters?
When I was 16, the summer that preceded my senior year in high school, I was volunteering at the Jubilee Family Development Center in my hometown of Lynchburg, Va., and I began to really think about the job I would like to have. You have to love what you do knowing ahead of time that you’re probably going to be working 25 to 30 years. I thought of things that could hold my attention for that long and that would provide a lot of variety. I think the entertainment industry provides that, particularly at amusement parks. But I also wanted to be on the side where you build something, do calculations, troubleshooting and figure out to how to make things work. So I majored in mechanical engineering from NC State and followed [Mohammad Noori] to Cal Poly. He was a professor at NC State when I was an undergraduate student, and he’s now dean of Cal Poly’s College of Engineering. While there, I wrote all these proposals and contacted every major theme park in the U.S. asking if they would be willing to sponsor a project for me. They gave me noise and vibration, so my graduate thesis was on noise and vibration in roller coasters. That’s how I broke into the industry. I finished up last June with my master’s degree [in mechanical engineering], and I had soon signed my contract for theme park that was to built in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. When I signed the contract, it was the greatest feeling I’ve ever had, and I was so pumped up. Last summer was the greatest summer I ever lived, and everything seemed to be in sync. But, the economy fell and the project got put on hold.
What did you learn from being laid off?
You go to school and they never talk about the economy turning sour and what happens if your project is put on hold and you experience a layoff. It happened so quickly. I had a job, but then, just six months of being out of school, I was already out of a job. I was confused, I really was. I’ve probably grown just this year alone by two or three years. It was a great lesson learning in that every single day that you go to work you should work like it’s like your last day. I also better understand how the [entertainment] industry works. It is a cut-throat industry, and to maintain a career, it’s important to be dedicated to what you’re doing. So I’m trying to build a portfolio where people know the type of work I do and what I bring to the table as a team player, and I try to keep a positive attitude. And hopefully people respect that and I’ll be able to have a long career in this industry.
How did you get to Singapore?
Shortly [after being laid off], I signed on with Attraction Services. I begged and pleaded with them to let me come to [Singapore] as they installed the [Lights! Camera! Action! attraction]. I think one of the most important things in engineering is that in order to be good at design, not only does it take repetition, but it’s important to actually see the stuff that you’re working on being installed. Normally it requires some manipulation or modification of the equipment to get it to work in the actual venue where it’s being installed. Everything is ideal in the shop and the lab because you control a lot of things, but when it leaves your shop, you can’t control things anymore. So designs require modification once they begin the installation, and that’s a different way of thinking. If you never get from out behind the desk, you never see this part. It really only makes you a better engineer.
What makes a roller coaster special to you?
The newer roller coasters are sexier because it’s about pushing the limits—bigger drops, faster speeds. But I love the classics because they carry so much history and represent the skill of some great designers [like John Allen who designed the Racer at Kings Island], who weren’t privy to using technology that we have available today. It’s pretty cool to ride coasters that have been standing for 60, 70 years.
Where does your drive come from?
I was fortunate to have a wonderful family, teachers, friends and mentors as I grew up. To have that constant support makes a difference because everyone is always pushing you to be better. I didn’t have any excuse to not be where I am. But, the game of basketball was where I learned about my drive. It was the first thing I ever completely concentrated on, and I failed at it. But you never get anywhere without failing somewhere along the way. Those mistakes and lessons from basketball have fueled my drive to design roller coasters.
What did you learn from your Caldwell experience?
When I was first began the Caldwell Fellows program, I was a lot more closed-minded. The opportunities I had because of the stipend and the way to use the stipend to educate yourself to be more socially involved and socially aware—a lot of people don’t get he opportunity to do that. A lot of times, it’s easy to restrict yourself because you don’t think you can. Sometimes you just have to ask and people will allow you to come behind the scenes. Now, I always ask if I’m even interested in anything. Some people don’t mind if you tag along to show you how things work. That’s what Caldwell did for me—to allow me to be more open-minded about how I think and how me understand how you can grow from any experience.
How did you use your Caldwell stipends?
[I took an Alternative Spring Break trip] to San Francisco, Calif., where we served the homeless. The way they structured the trip was for us to actually experience what it was like to live as a homeless [person]. You didn’t necessarily see people in rags coming in. We saw people who looked exactly like us. It was an eye-opening experience to recognize how fortunate I am but also how much work we need to do to make life better for everyone else, not just ourselves. That’s one of the cool things about [the entertainment] industry: We reach people in a different way. Every day, when I go into work, I try to remember what we’re doing. We’re entertaining, and I get a feeling of satisfaction from hearing a kid say, “Mom and dad, that was really cool. I wonder how they did that.”
The second stipend was to put on charity events at the Jubilee Family Development Center, [which serves underprivileged youth in Lynchburg, Va.,], where my dream to design roller coasters was founded. A lot of times charities approach fundraising with adults selling how great the kids are. But I wanted to put on the luncheon where the kids did everything. They were trained how to serve food like a professional from a certified chef in Lynchburg, and they ran everything. They fixed the lunch; they served the lunch; they did the emceeing. It went over quite well. We did two of these back to back years in 2006 and 2007; both years they raised somewhere between $35K to $40K. It’s amazing to watch these kids and give them their own platform because the only way to sell is for them to show the community that they have what it takes to take the community to the next level. At some point, they are going to be the leaders and decision-makers. The community needs to buy into these kids so the kids can develop the confidence in themselves that they can do it.
How did you build your confidence?
The year 2004 was a big year. At the time, I was 19 and got an internship with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Every year they select about 50 [college students] from around the country to work with special agents and other professional staff at the bureau. It was a huge confidence booster to go from just applying and doing the drug and polygraph testing to making it all the way to end. It was a reminder that nothing happens over night and that things take time. Also, don’t just focus on the end result but give yourself a chance and be fully committed. It’s difficult to get where you want to be when you waver. When you first get started, you have no experience. There are a small group of people like Michelangelo who were probably born with something. Most aren’t, so we have to work at it and then you have to work to maintain it. It requires repetition while finding ways to get better. And that’s what it’s about for me—to find ways to get better, to be open-minded, and to listen to people who have already been there before. Everything is really about progression, and I believe progression breeds success.