It’s a mid-week summers night in Olympic Village and I’m set to meet with Emily Colombo, Lead Waterslide Designer at WhiteWater West Industries. Having only met Emily one time previously, her love for sweets did not escape me, making Earnest Ice Cream the undeniably perfect backdrop for us to reconnect. It’s after 8 pm and she is coming straight from work, I arrive early to get us a seat. As soon as she arrives she is as full of energy as if her day was just beginning, not ending. We spend the evening discussing her intriguing career path and before long its apparent that despite her infectiously upbeat presence this girl didn’t just happen upon her life as she knows it, she fully engineered it.
The Aha! Moment
"Leaving high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do at all. I was really close with my physics teacher and he told me that I should go into engineering. I said, "OK, I guess." In first year I asked my roommate what kind of engineering she was going to take, she said civil and I said, "Alright, me too!" I graduated and ended up working at La Farge, a concrete company which was fun at the time. I liked the people and what I was doing but I had no passion for it.
On my 22nd birthday, I went to Calypso water park with my friends. We were standing at the top of an aqua loop tower— a slide that drops you out of a launch capsule. It is the most impressive slide without question and my friend Bailey turned to me and said, "How do they know how fast they have to be going to get up over the loop?" And I’m like, "Gravity, physics, science, friction factors, water"...and then it hits me. I could do that! If you gave me a piece of paper I could at least put down the formulas to figure that out. On the way back from the water park I called my boss and gave my 2 weeks notice, I hadn't even made it home yet. I didn’t know who designed them, or where but after looking around the water park I just could not stop thinking about how it’s all just engineering. And it really is!
After I left Calypso, I started googling and I came across WhiteWater. WhiteWater had made Calypso and with them being the first to come up on Google, that was my focus. I applied to them every 5 days and they had absolutely no interest in hiring me, which I was just too staggered by. Why wouldn’t they want to hire me, I love it!? When I was googling, the World Water Park Association came up so I clicked on the link and it said there’s a convention in 7 days. I booked my flight, emailed the company putting on the trade show and said I’d like to volunteer during the day and apply in the afternoons. I bought a blue suit, and I got a blue resume and I put a wave on it. I wrote up a resume that explained simply that I just needed to make water slides. I’ll move anywhere, I’ll do anything.
I flew there and walked around and met with a lot of companies and a lot of people and someone pointed me in the direction of my current manager. I spent two hours talking to WhiteWater, then I left the convention and was like, "Yep I nailed it." I thought I had it in the bag. A week goes by and I hear nothing from them. Nothing! I’m outraged, I told them I wanted it. I had x number of job offers from other companies in the industry, which is funny that they’re companies that I know now through the industry and they’re like “We tried to hire you first!” I wanted to work for WhiteWater though, it’s the biggest and the best water park developer in the world.
I remember calling WhiteWater and asking for the CEO, Jeff Jenner. The receptionist put me through to him and I said, "WhiteWater is my first choice and I’m wholeheartedly committed to working for WhiteWater, but I need to make moves and I’d like an offer within the week." He said, "Ok, let me call you back." I can picture him now getting up and walking over to HR and saying, "So, can I hire somebody? Like can I do it, or do you have to? I’m not sure what she’s being hired for..but something, we need her." There was all this back and forth and finally they said, "Okay well you can come to Vancouver and interview for a final position, or you can come to the IAAPA (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions) convention." It’s like the convention, everyone's there and it’s in Orlando in the largest convention centre in North America. There’s roller coasters, water slides and zip lines going through and you just get to go and test them all. It’s a very fun place to be. So they flew me there and I worked in their hospitality suite which I now run. I had been on the floor in meetings talking to every which person internally and externally and the COO comes over to me and he jokingly says, “So, are you ready for your interview?” Like, you have to be kidding me, do I not have the job yet?!
So on the Thursday they asked me when I wanted to start, and I said Monday. I lived across the country in Ottawa at the time, they were thrown and a little confused. But I had Friday to pack and I flew to Vancouver on the Sunday night, renting a car and staying in a hotel in the beginning. During that time, because I knew what I wanted to do my family and friends supportive of what I was doing was so important.
I’ve always loved entertainment. I love fun and activities, but I wouldn’t say I love a water slide more than I love jumping off a cliff in Muskoka. It’s the feeling, it’s the excitement that I love...the happiness of people around you while they’re doing it. My friend described it as, "things that make your heart go WOO!"
What I love about water slides is the unknown variable which is water. There is an element of creativity that is less mechanical, whereas with a roller coaster you have a seat that is in a completely controlled environment. There is no unknown or variability, everything is well defined. With water slides there’s an element of creativity. My favourite thing is brainstorming new ideas, new ride concepts. You put 5 ideas on the table and you talk about the pros and cons of each of them and it’s like, "Well that one might not be as safe...well that one might not be as fun." and you’re finding this balance between fun and safety. We design with simulations so we can predict the ride experience and share that with the client, "Maybe there’s too much oscillation here, or too little here...", its such an evolutionary process that is very fun for us, fun for the client and produces a great product.
natural vs. normal
I’ve done a lot of mentorship coaching and leadership training and one of the things I’ve learned is that people’s realities are inherently different. What’s true for you can be a completely different truth than for someone else and both of those truths are equal in value. It’s so important to understand where people are coming from and why they’re attached to an idea. It’s a lot of self awareness, I’ve also learned the concept of natural vs. normal. I caught myself saying that something felt normal and normal to me is a word that is uninspired, whereas where I am at in my life right now is so natural. Natural is a place where you feel inspired and you want to grow and learn and you’re eager and thirsty to do so. Whereas normal is a place that feels static. I’ve never had one thing that has instilled so much passion in me, I love what I do and I love working towards solutions with people.
I have the most strong minded mentor, he actually is the CEO of the company and he pushes me harder than anybody in the entire world. He is demanding, has extremely high expectations and is very disappointed if I let him down. I’ve never had someone be so hard on me, but it’s an incredibly humbling and well appreciated learning experience. I am better because of it. He pushes me to be better and to connect with the people I need to connect with, and to find solutions when solutions are not obvious. It’s very easy to take the path of least resistance and he pushes me to take the path of mutual success for both parties.
the next generation
I’m actually very involved in women in engineering, I’ve done a couple of round tables where there has been 200 people in the audience asking what it’s like to be an engineer, and specifically what it’s like to be a female engineer. I really enjoy those moments. I like presenting and showing people the fun side of engineering, but the best part about it is the connections that happen afterwards through the emails and questions that I get. I mean, I’m 25 years old and am barely an adult and someone who is 21 is asking for my advice. The fact that I could be their mentor is just such a surreal feeling. It’s just interesting to look around and see the different options of engineering, and understand that each and every thing is engineered in some capacity and that someone, somewhere created that."
Interviewed and photographed by Tianna Grey on 06.16.2015