Role Models: Morgane Santos, AR Engineer at Mapbox

Morgane Santos
Photo credit: Samuel Unéus

Today’s Role Model is Morgane Santos. She studied computer science at Berkeley and has worked in tech for about five years as both a web developer and designer. Morgane is currently an augmented reality (AR) engineer at Mapbox, a location data platform. Since she is around computers all day, she likes to hike, read, and otherwise avoid technology in her free time.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

We don’t have official titles at Mapbox, but I’d call myself an AR engineer. I’ve been at Mapbox for just under a year and have been on two teams in the time. Prior to being an AR engineer, I worked on our Unity SDK (also as an engineer).

What attracted you to this role?

I’m really interested in the growing 3D space in tech, and knew I wanted a job in AR or VR (virtual reality). I was tired of working on websites and wanted a fresh challenge. AR and VR are still so new that no one’s an “expert” yet, which can be daunting but it also means *you* can be the trailblazer. A lot of AR/VR roles also combine design + development, which I enjoy; I don’t like just doing one or the other.

Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

I’ve actually written about my day for our company blog before. You can check out the post here

tl;dr though, there is no typical day for me. I *can* tell you that my days are a mix of 3D math, coding, sketching out ideas on paper, and drinking a lot of tea. I keep a fairly traditional 9-to-5 schedule, eating lunch at noon and getting tea with coworkers around 3pm. I never stay late. I work from home maybe once or twice a week (which I prefer; I don’t like open offices at all). Every so often my job requires going to a conference, so I may be traveling for that.

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

I’ve used a lot of different tech over the years, but this is what I use now: Xcode (we program in Swift on my team); Unity/C#; Git; Figma…

As for skills, I think the most important thing is to be curious and willing to see an idea through. In AR, there are no answers. There’s no book you can read that tells you exactly what works and what doesn’t. You have to come up with an idea, sketch it, prototype it, and build it yourself to learn if it was ever a good idea. Of course it helps to already be comfortable with math and programming, but the curiosity is ultimately much more important. Are you willing to learn? Are you willing to fail? Being comfortable with so much uncertainty and ambiguity has been critical to my success in this role.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your role?

I literally get to think of what could be cool in AR, and then I make it! This is a role with lots of freedom and room for experimentation. It’s really exciting coming up with the very first solution for something and learning by doing. It’s similar to playing with Legos as a kid: you have a visionary idea, you have some basic building blocks, and you just go for it. Sometimes I can’t believe I get paid to do this.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

Everything that makes it exciting: there are no answers. I can’t easily research how someone else has solved a certain problem. I definitely can’t anticipate most problems I encounter. The tech is also nascent, so the limitations of the software and hardware can be frustrating at times.

What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

Our team’s fairly insular, but we do work with the sales, business, and marketing teams to better understand what potential/existing customers might want in the AR space, and how we can make that happen. We also collaborate with other engineering teams sometimes to create specialized AR experiences.

While I can’t talk too much about the work we do for customers, I can mention a more individual collaboration. Part of my job includes writing tutorials for how our SDKs work. In those cases, I work closely with our documentation team to make sure my instructions make sense and are easy to follow. People like Heather Stenson (who you interviewed!) are really instrumental here.

What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your role?

I like teaching and mentoring; I want to focus on how I can share my work with others and help them get more comfortable in AR/VR. I recently spoke at Nordic.design about how designers can get started in this space, and it’s something I look forward to continuing.

Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your role?

I’ve touched on this above, but I’ll say it again: curiosity and being comfortable with ambiguity.

I also want people who like collaborating and don’t have huge egos. My team is really supportive and kind; we judge each other’s *work*, not each other. I’d rather work with a “junior” person who’s thoughtful and excited to learn than a “senior” person who’s rude and stuck in their ways.

So how can you show that you’re curious, collaborative, and thoughtful? Maybe you have a few side projects that illustrate how you learned a new technology. Maybe you blog a lot about engineering or design. Maybe you volunteer somewhere on the weekends for a cause you really believe in. Maybe you have totally non-tech-related hobbies like learning a new language. I’m more interested in any of those facts than where someone went to school or if they’ve worked at a “famous” company before.

What skills (tech/non-tech) have you improved as a result of working in this role?

Being self-organized. I need to plan out my own work, including the metrics of success; I can’t rely on someone higher up telling me exactly what they need from me because no one knows what’s a reasonable ask in AR yet.

I’ve also gotten a lot better at understanding how people process 3D space, which is a cool perk of working in AR/VR.

In your role, what metrics define success?

Tangibly, it’s building a prototype/demo/app/whatever you want to call it that clearly communicates a certain idea. These demos are used by teams like the sales team to help convince customers to use Mapbox, specifically for AR.

Aside from the *business* success, we’re successful in our roles as long as we’re learning and honing our AR skills. The more we know about how to design and build something for AR, the better.

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