Dylan O’Donnell is a humble young Dad who you may have passed in the street or the IGA at Sunrise a hundred times with his little boy not far away from him.
Dylan’s story is inspirational, so inspirational in fact (yes I am a huge fan of Dylan and his work), I asked him to answer a few questions in the first of what will be a regular feature about people and their passion on Common Ground. People you pass in the street everyday and never know their story. So now you can get to know Dylan, just one of the amazing people that make up our vibrant colourful and complex community.
Dylan’s story is only half written, but so far it’s a story about a young man who went from flunking high school, to becoming an acclaimed astrophotographer with a family, a small portfolio of investment property, 2 degrees and a national IT company director.
Dylan grew up in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth – a real urban, city kid.
He was kicked out of a catholic boys school in year 9 for being vocally irreligious, and scored poorly in his year 12 HSC. He picked himself up repeated year 12 and beat 80% of the state.
And as soon as Dylan was old enough to leave the city for a country university he did. Who wouldn’t? No parents, no responsibility except for study, and a springboard for exploring Australia’s interior. He was young and won’t deny it – he partied well enough to ensure he could have held his own at a table with Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Keith Richards, except like Richards he is still alive to enjoy the memories.
He then flunked uni, but again picked himself and finished his degree in IT with top marks. He did a Masters degree after that and was awarded top of his stream again. All the while, he was working full time as a unix systems administrator at an ISP where he ran internet across the entire country. Failure and trying again is a recurring theme in Dylan’s life.
At one point during this time, he moved into his 4wd for 6 months. That’s where Dylan really began to learn DSLR photography. He would wake up in forests, on beaches, besides waterfalls, then go to work at a desk and server room until 5pm. Nature and Technology – and lots of it.
“I met my partner, Anna at university and one day we just decided to quit our jobs and move to Byron Bay. I’d been building my website and hosting business DNA Digital since 2000 and through a series of strategic mergers, acquisitions and organic growth we now service almost 1000 businesses across Australia. This also allowed me to buy a few properties along the way too.”
In 2013, I was lucky enough to score a trip to San Francisco to visit Google on a work junket. I was energised by the city, it’s youthful entrepreneurial spirit and technical bedrock, but I also took the opportunity to blow my savings on a trip to Florida to visit NASA. A childhood dream.”
“That trip really rekindled my lifelong love of science and astronomy and it wasn’t long after that I bought a telescope and taught myself astrophotography. In the years since I’ve been published by NASA several times, and ESA (The European Space Agency) who invited me to visit and photograph their deep space tracking station. The interest in my photography took me by surprise and being featured around the world to literally tens or hundred of millions of people has inspired me to keep going.”
“I try to shoot as often as possible so I’m quite active on social media. People often ask me “When do you sleep?”. Easy – when it’s cloudy!”
“It has definitely become a huge passion, as science and photography both have been for a long time. My interests shift regularly though. I’m also a musician, artist, writer, designer, and web developer. I’ve been thinking about meteorites a lot lately. Anna thinks I’m a little mad, and our kitchen is like a laboratory sometimes. There’s always some new experiment or adventure happening. I don’t really have time for television, there’s too much to learn and explore.”
KP – What is your greatest career achievement?
The photo of the International Space Station transit is going to be hard to beat. Being given accolades from several astronauts and space agencies as well as the world media was pretty massive. I won’t rest on my laurels though because there’s still so much more stuff to do on my bucket list.
KP – How do you give back to your community?
I guess in a broad sense I do a lot of science and technical outreach. I do talks at schools, but also for businesses and my astronomical society. In a more tangible sense my company always donates to a different few charities every year. I just want to be a good dad though really and would be happy if my kids are well rounded individuals. My main “activism” is the preservation of darkness against the growing threat of light pollution.
KP – What is your idea of perfect happiness?
“Perfect Happiness” is an oxymoron I think. When we die we won’t remember the countless comfortable days happy though they were. We remember the things that were hard and sometimes miserable but rewarding – climbing a mountain, trekking through the desert, travelling through india or getting up before sunrise. When we leave our comfort zones we forge these long lasting positive memories even if they hurt at the time.
KP – What is your favourite Travel destination/why?
Anna and I have travelled the Pacific Islands extensively. It’s a cliche but I love tropical islands, and the Maldives was easily the most stunning of them all. That’s probably why we ended up in Byron Bay.
KP – What is your most noticeable characteristic?
I’m a huge nerd.
KP – Who are your hero’s in real life?
So many. The men and women of science throughout the ages but also musicians and artists. They are all inspiration but a “hero” in the sense of self sacrifice and social justice I would have to say Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning deserve that kind of recognition right now.
KP – What do you value most in your friends?
It’s better to have good lifelong friends than lots of acquaintances. My good friends are good people but we always skip the small talk and get into far reaching discussions about the big topics. I like that.
KP – What is your most treasured possession?
I have a lot of things I like, but if I had to leave a burning building I’d take my data. Decades of photography and memories are irreplaceable unlike everything else. How good are smartphones though? I’m a big gadget tragic and am glued to my devices all the time. I’m an early adopter and can’t fault the youth of today for loving their devices – who can blame them? They are incredible.
KP – Which words phrases do you overuse?
Maybe Rad. Back in my day radical kids were just really good at skateboarding. Not religious extremists.
KP – Which living person do you most admire/why?
There are too many to choose from, for all different reasons. Some are famous, some are just internet famous, and some are just my friends. Here’s a quick brian dump – Neil De Grasse Tyson, Steve Wozniak, Sam Harris, Chris Hadfield, Marissa Meyer, Theirry Legault, Craig Stark, Samantha Cristoforetti, Stephen Hawking, Mark Gee, Brian May, Charles Bolden .. the list goes on and on.
KP – If money was no object what would you do?
I think if money was no object there would be a lot of people to feed, clothe and educate, species to save, environments to fix first. But if it was for me personally I’d probably blow it all on space tourism and science! “Byron Bay Observatory” has a nice ring to it I think.
You can follow Dylan on Instagram @dylan_odonnell_
And you can follow him on Facebook here