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Spotlight 80: Virtual reality expert Jazmine!

Hellooooo!! I’m not sure if it’s still ‘allowed’, but HAPPY NEWYEAR to every one of you! It’s been a while since my last post and I’m very sorry. Sometimes life happens while you’re busy making other plans :-) But, that aside, I’m happy to be back with a wonderful interview. This week I’m introducing you to Jazmine and together with Jazmine, we’re diving into the amazing world of VR. Thank you so much for your time Jazmine :-) Enjoy reading!

Name: Jazmine Olinger
Job: Co-founder & COO at Ilium VR
Favorite website, app or gadget: Google Chromecast
Favorite book: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett
Site: My company site is iliumvr.com

What inspired you to pursue a career in IT?
When I started high school, I had to choose an elective class for the first time. I had this huge list of classes, and I had no idea what to take, so I asked my dad and he suggested I take Programming I. My dad is a programmer turned entrepreneur himself, so I was pretty computer savvy growing up, but I didn’t know much about programming. So, I took the class – I was the only girl in the class but my teacher was really great, he didn’t treat me any differently from my classmates and it turned out to be my favorite class. My high school actually cut all the programming curriculum the year after I took the class because not enough students enrolled, so I was lucky I wound up taking it when I did.

From there I just decided that’s what I would study in college. Later in high school, I took an AP Computer Science class online, and my last year of high school I took some programming classes at the local community college. Then I was off to college and it all just took off from there. All throughout high school and the start of college I actually wanted to get a PhD and do research in computer science but I wound up starting my company during college and went down that path instead.

What does your working day look like?
Well… It’s not very consistent. We’re a small company so I fill a lot of different roles here, so no day is exactly the same. But generally, it consists of coming in, coffee first thing, then we have a morning meeting where we go over what we’re all going to work on that day. I go through emails, respond to some things right away and decide when I’m going to work on longer responses. I pretty frequently have meetings scheduled sporadically throughout the day, sometimes in person, sometimes over the phone. I handle most of the financial and legal and logistical stuff for the company which is kind of just like a game of whack-a-mole where I just deal with situations as they arise.

I don’t work on as much coding anymore as I’d like to since there’s so much else going on in running the business, but I do always have a project that is my “tech work” that I put time into when everything else is taken care of. Right now, that is working on our logistics system for handling orders and shipping which is getting a revamp right now since we’re not actively taking any orders. This motivates me to get through all my other less fun work, then I get to work on actual cool programming stuff.

We also travel a lot which is awesome, on travel days we’re usually going to give a demo of the controller, so after the hassle of lugging our cumbersome setup across NYC or San Francisco or some other city. Once we actually get there and setup, the fun starts, we get to just share our experience with people – what we make is gun controllers for VR games, so they usually have a blast playing with it, shooting some zombies, and then we get to chat about VR and what we’re doing or what they’re doing. That’s the fun part of the job.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Well, I’m going to branch out from purely technical projects and say HackRPI, which is a 500+ student hackathon I founded in 2015 with three other students (two of them are also the Ilium VR co-founders) while we were juniors at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. We started out just attending other hackathons together and we decided that our school needed one. It was a huge undertaking; it really consumed my life for the first year we ran it. But it was a great hackathon and totally worth all the late nights put in, I was and am still very proud of it. The second year was much easier to run. For the third year, I actually got to return as a sponsor through Ilium VR and was super proud to see the team we established running it so well without us.

Do you have a hero, or someone who inspires you?
Someone who inspires me in life, in general, is Hillary Clinton. I don’t want to get political here, so I’ll just say I think she’s a very admirable woman and I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time! Looking just at tech, I think Grace Hopper is very inspiring. She was amazingly smart, and it’s kinda crazy how much she did in her life and how long she kept working. I think if I can work even half as hard as either of those women I’ll accomplish a lot in life.

Why do you love working in  IT/Tech?
It’s interesting, it’s fun, it changes a lot, the possibilities are as close to endless, and any industry can get I think. I think the tech industry is a lot more creative and open to change than other industries. I’ve never worked in anything but tech though so it’s really all I know. And it definitely is not without issues. I can sometimes get a little fatigued with the lack of interaction with other women, which started back in college, my school had a 70:30 male to female ratio overall, and an even worse ratio in computer science department. That can get a little discouraging, not that I don’t like working with men, but I sometimes crave a little variety. Otherwise, I think it’s a great industry and I hope it keeps growing in diversity.

Do you have a degree in IT? If so, what taught you the most? And if not, did you miss some important knowledge?
Yeah, I have a bachelor’s degree in computer science and mathematics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, which is where I met my co-founders and where our company is still located. I’d say my first year of classes in computer science really helped the most. I already knew a little bit of coding from high school but the first year of college really taught me the fundamentals behind everything, particularly classes on data structures and algorithms, and from there I felt like I could teach myself anything.

As far as my other major, I definitely am glad I got a formal education in mathematics, I think math is a lot harder to teach yourself than coding – although certainly, some people can do it. I found it hard to motivate myself just to sit down and learn any sort of math on my own, so I’m glad I learned it in school. Even though I don’t do it much in my current role I’m super interested in the intersection between computer science and math, in college I did a lot of work in computational mathematics and data analysis and I think it’s a really cool field.

After my first year of college I felt like I took off when it came to coding. My second year I started going to hackathons and also joined the open source club at my school where I was always working on some project. Once I had the mindset that I could figure out any library or any new language and put it to use to do anything it really made the possibilities limitless for what I could work on, it was only a matter of if I wanted to put in the time. After going to a few hackathons and making something in a weekend using some tool I had never used beforehand, I never looked at any new technology and thought that it was too hard or I couldn’t learn it.

What would be your advice to everyone who is interested in a career in tech? (or learning to code?)
Well to someone who knows nothing about coding and is trying to teach themselves, I’d advise them to ask someone else! I’m very impressed with people who have done this, a lot of people ask me this, and honestly, I’m not the person to ask because I didn’t teach myself, I was taught pretty formally. But I will say once you’ve got the basics down, whether you taught yourself or you were formally taught, you should just throw yourself into a project that interests you. Just come up with some “thing” you want to make or do and then do some planning to figure out what technologies you need to add to your arsenal to make it. If you are working on something, you care about you’ll fly through your project.

I would also advise them not to get bogged down in the “I don’t know how to do this” mindset because if you approach it piece by piece, you can figure out every step. Plus, you’d be surprised how many people have tried to use whatever exact library you’re using for almost the exact thing you’re trying to do, chances are someone has already asked about it on Stack Overflow or some other forum, and you can find a step by step guide on how to do it. And if not, ask yourself. Eventually you’re going to be the person writing oddly specific detailed responses on how to use some obscure technology that you know well, but for now don’t be afraid to take advantage of other people’s advice. If you get truly stuck on something, and you can’t figure it out or get help, just move on to another part of your project or another project entirely. When you come back to the problem you were stuck on you’d be surprised how quickly you may figure it out after some time away and some more experience.

Could you tell us something about VR and what you like about it?
Yeah so VR is pretty great, there’s a lot out there in the VR industry, but my company and my interest is in the gaming sector of VR, so I’ll talk about that. If you’ve never tried a VR game you really should – it’s a whole new world of immersion into a game. When you’re playing a good VR game, you forget it’s a game, which can be amazing or terrifying depending on the game.

One of the first VR games I ever played was called Dreadhalls, it’s this horror game where you have to navigate through a maze, and there’s lots of scary stuff that comes out at you, and you can’t fight anything, so it’s a matter of running away and surviving to get to the end of the maze. And it’s really very scary, and I’m not someone who plays horror games or watches horror movies, to begin with. So, my roommate offered me $20 to just play the game until the end of the maze, and I was in college at this time, so $20 was quite a prize for just sitting and playing a game for 10 minutes. But I honestly couldn’t do it; it got me so scared that I just whipped off the headset off after a few minutes. So, that aspect is really cool for people who enjoy being terrified. I’m not one of those people.

Other kinds of immersion are really promising, though, an immersion that is thrilling but not terrifying or immersion in beautiful and unique environments and great stories are more exciting to me. I was actually a pretty serious World of Warcraft player for about six years (and I very recently started playing again, please send help), so to me the coolest application of VR would be an MMO. First person shooter games, of course, are great for VR, and that’s what we do at Ilium VR currently is develop gun controllers. In the future, we’re looking towards developing all kinds of VR peripherals and that’s what is most exciting to me. I do play a few shooter games, recently I’ve gotten particularly hooked on Overwatch, but I’ve never been as dedicated to FPS as many gamers I know. I enjoy a wide variety of games so I’m looking forward to bringing even more interactions to VR games beyond gun controllers.

Extra question from Lee: Do you have any side projects?
Yeah actually, I’ve got a little idea for a VR application having to do with audiobooks, that’s my current side project. It’s been on the back-burner for a while now but I hope I have time to finish it eventually.