Tech Role Models: Rebecca Poulson, Technical Program Manager, Emerging Platforms at Northwestern University

Today's Tech Role Model is Rebecca Poulson. Rebecca is the Technical Program Manager of Emerging Platforms at Northwestern University.

Today’s Role Model is Rebecca Poulson. Rebecca studied art history and creative writing in college and then spent her early career writing and directing plays. She found herself being drawn towards technology enabled experiences and interactives. Then she started coding more seriously and worked as an engineer at Kickstarter for a couple years. In her current role leading AR/VR projects in the journalism school at Northwestern, she combines her background in technology and storytelling. Rebecca also speaks at conferences (she gave WebVR workshops on three continents last year) and enjoys cooking, knitting and playing with her dog.

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

Technical Program Manager, Emerging Platforms at Northwestern University Knight Lab. I’ve been at the Knight Lab for 2.5 years and I started my current role in March 2017.

What attracted you to this technical program manager role?

When I started at Knight Lab I was a web developer who did VR stuff as a hobby. I was lucky to join at a time when the lab’s interest and investment in VR was growing. About six months into my time at the lab, one of the faculty members I worked with really championed me. We were able to design a role that took advantage of my interdisciplinary background and combined coding, design and student engagement.

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 bring breakfast from home and eat it at my desk while answering emails first thing in the morning. (This period is the only time I look at my work email.) I like to do quiet focussed work in the morning and I like to start my day by learning something new. After email, I’ll read a paper or watch a talk about AR or VR. Following that time, I might be investigating a new library or prototyping tool or debugging student work. At the beginning of the school year, I was doing a lot of interviewing and hiring. Before lunch I try to do a little planning work, pulling potential readings, adding comments to Trello cards for the projects I manage or getting things together for upcoming events.

I take lunch around 1-1:30, which is apparently “very New York” of me. Most of my colleagues eat earlier. I try to take a walk around campus if the weather’s nice or do a little bit of knitting. I try to do most of my “peopling” work after lunch. Two days a week that’s leading a project in our Knight Lab: Studio class. The rest of the time, it’s checking in on the student fellows I manage. I’m usually out shortly after five. Sometimes I shift my time so I come in later in the morning and leave around 7pm since it can be tough to coordinate a group of students when you’re only available 9-5.

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

Technically, I alternate between web projects which use Javascript and projects that use the Unity game engine, where I write code in C#. I also do a lot  of research and information design and mentorship.

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

I love working with student fellows on experimental AR/VR projects. When I design a project for the fellows, I approach it from a place of “Okay, these are the technologies and techniques I’m interested in exploring; these are the skills and interests my student team has; and these are the experiences they need to acquire to be ready for the kind of jobs they want.” Those are really inspiring constraints to build around.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

The breadth. My role is really multidisciplinary, which is why I love it, but it’s really demanding to maintain such a broad skillset.

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

The big tent pole project for our lab is the Knight Lab: Studio course, a multidisciplinary course that runs every quarter. It’s team taught by a journalism professor and a computer science professor and I and the other staff developers act as project leads. Before registration, we all pitch projects that we want to work on. Then we open applications to assemble cross-functional teams made up of students all across the university. We just opened applications for winter quarter where I’m running two AR projects. One is a user research project where we’re play-testing an AR game about climate change. The other is a prototyping project where we’re reimagining what different storytelling forms might look like in AR.

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

I’m trying to be more strategic. In a role like mine it’s really easy to be like, “Ooh, shiny!” and start exploring something new. I’m trying to have more big-picture vision and purpose to the things my team works on.

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

The ability to be self-directed and learn new things. A high tolerance for ambiguity and willingness to fail. Also the ability to persuade people that they’re capable of things that sound kinda crazy comes in handy.

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

I used to struggle with feeling like my work had to be perfect before I showed it to anyone and I’ve really had to work on that in this job. Emerging technology moves so quickly that by the time you’ve done anything, there’s a better and faster way to do it. You can’t afford to be precious.

In your technical program manager role, what metrics define success?

I don’t really have a quantifiable definition of success–which can be both liberating and anxiety inducing. I definitely consider any project we ship or research findings we can share out to be success. I also get really happy when students bring their parents in to the lab to try out VR.

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