Interview with Shanna Tellerman
Shanna Tellerman describes herself as an “accidental-entrepreneur” who turned a course project from Carnegie Mellon University into reality in the form of her first tech company, Wildpockets. The company focused on democratizing access to game development by providing a cloud hosted game engine. It was later acquired by Autodesk Cloud Services and Applications, where Shanna currently works as the Product Line Manager.
An Interview with Shanna Tellerman Product Line Manager, Autodesk
Date: October 3, 2011 [intro music]
Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders. I'm the CEO of NCWIT, National Center for Women & Information Technology. We're working hard to encourage more girls and women to pursue computing, education and career paths. This interview series with women who have started great technology companies is very inspirational. and to be having great advice for all entrepreneurs in terms of starting companies. With me Larry Nelson, w3w3. Hi Larry.
Larry Nelson: Oh boy! It's a pleasure to be here. This is a great, great series. I know your listeners want to pass this interview along to others and you know would be interested and they can listen to it at couple of different places that we'll give you at the end of the show 24/7.
Lucy: Today, we have another great person to interview. The talent just keeps coming. Today, we're talking to Shanna Tellerman who is currently at Autodesk, Cloud Services and Applications, but before that she was Founder and CEO of Wild Pockets. Shanna is in a post- acquisition mode. That's a very exciting thing to have a company that you are the founder of, be acquired. Wild Pockets is an end-to -end open source solution that supports creators through the life cycle of 3D game development. I can't wait to hear more about it. It was Shanna's first technology company out of graduate school, but she attended Carnegie Mellon University, which is just a great, great school. She attended the Entertainment Technology Center. Doesn't that sound like great deal of fun? Shanna welcome. We're really happy to talk to you today.
Shanna Tellerman: Thank you, glad to be here.
Lucy: Tell us a little bit about Wild Pockets/Autodesk and what's happening. Shanna: My company was Wild Pockets. We were building out a 3D game engine that you could access in a web browser. What we were trying to do is make the ability to build games, 3D games specifically, easier and more broadly accessible to anybody. When my company first met with Autodesk, Autodesk is the creator of 3D tools and all kinds of products for the media world, the entertainment world, architecture, manufacturing, engineering. They saw what we were doing and saw that we had an idea that could be applicable to a lot of their different tools and products here at Autodesk. There was a lot of synergy between our teams and the company. Ultimately they decided that we should join them. Now I work at Autodesk. I'm the Product Line Manager for our new Autodesk cloud product line, something that's coming out this fall. It has been started through the summer last year. It's a really exciting new space for Autodesk. We're doing some awesome new things.
Lucy: Well, that's pretty exciting. We don't often talk to people who are in that post-acquisition mode, so maybe a sentence or two about what that was all like.
Shanna: This Autodesk acquisition of our company was a pretty quick experience. We had been talking to them and working with them a bit over the course of two years. Then, when I met with one of their directors of engineering, he was really an exciting person to talk to and visionary here at Autodesk. Then I would think up on what we were doing and what he was doing on a fairly regular basis. We did that a couple of times over the course of two years. Finally, they said, "We really want to move forward. We want to make their team part of our company." Once they said that, the process went really quickly. It was really about working together, figuring out the right terms, making sure investors were happy, et cetera, but we all had the end goal in mind. Within a couple of months, the whole deal was closed. Our team in Pittsburgh can move into an Autodesk office in Pittsburgh. I was in San Francisco. I had moved into their San Francisco Office. Before I knew it, I was completely part of the Autodesk Company.
Lucy: Surprised. That's very good. Congratulations.
Shanna: Thank you.
Lucy: Shanna, why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about how you first got into technology? Everybody is always curious to know what was it that first sparked your interest.
Shanna: I first got into technology during college actually. I had gone into college for fine arts, of all things. I was painting and drawing and doing very traditional art, but Carnegie Mellon is an extremely practical and tech-heavy school. It's one of the number one computer science schools across the country and a great engineering program. They have a lot of interdisciplinary programs. Even though I was in the art school, it didn't take very long before I was introduced to all of the amazing things going on in the computer science program. Specifically, I had seen this one presentation from this course called "Building Virtual Worlds." They did a big presentation for the whole school at the end of their semester. It was really like a show they put on. People were standing on stage, wearing these 3D virtual reality glasses, and taking you through like video games that were being projected live. They were playing through it in real time. I looked at that. I was like, "This is the coolest thing I have ever seen. I have to go to that class. I have to take that class, because they combine artists with computer scientists, so I would get to build these worlds, but I didn't have to know how to program them." That was really what drew me in to technology. I had played around with some of the different editing programs, Photoshop, and other kinds of programs, Director, and a little bit of the 3D tools, but it was the end result. It was looking at the incredible things that could be produced. They were both visual, but also interactive that drew me in.
Lucy: Well, Carnegie Mellon does that so well. They are so well known for interdisciplinary curriculum and computing, a great place to be drawn in, I must say. One more technology question for you. When you look out, your purview of the technology landscape, what technologies do you think are particularly interesting or up-and- comer?
Shanna: Well, I'm going to have to say it's really all about the cloud right now. That's what I'm excited about working on it at this very moment. It's about not having to be tied to one particular device or your laptop or your computer or your phone, but it's about being able to take the thing you're doing anywhere that you want to be. You're working on a document. You can access it from or your phone or your iPad even, you're playing a game and you log in here and then log out and then you log back in from your TV. It's in the same place and remember who you are. The cloud is providing incredible opportunities for us to be super- connected and also things that people don't really usually think about, which is it can process in compute intense data at a rate that a single machine can't. Some of the really cool things we're doing here at Autodesk includes rendering in the cloud. Rendering when you take like a 3D model and you create a photorealistic version of that 3D model with all of the perfect lighting and the materials that were just like they do in the real world. Usually you'd be an artist and you'd be sitting at your computer and maybe building a model of a house. If you want to do a rendering a bit to show the client what that house is looked like, then you had clicked the render button and then you would probably log out for the evening and let it run for hours while it creates that photorealistic rendering. When you send that to the cloud, you can scale up. You can do renderings in minutes or they can take a few hours, but you keep working on your machine, because it's not processing locally anymore. That to me is just the tip of the iceberg of the incredible things that the cloud can do.
Lucy: Speaking of rendering, too, I remember about eight or nine years ago watching something I thought was pretty simple get rendered, and it did, it took forever.
Lucy: Speeding this stuff up is good.
Larry: I'm more empathetic than I want.
Larry: Shanna, can you hear me? You came out of Carnegie Mellon and you formed a company. Why did you become that entrepreneur and what is that about entrepreneurship that makes you tick?
Shanna: I became an entrepreneur totally accidentally. I came out of Carnegie Mellon. Actually well I was still within Carnegie Mellon. I was working on a project in graduate school that to me felt like a really had legs. It was something that we had prototyped and we had shown to our end users. They were excited about it and they wanted to start using it in the real world. I said, "Oh! How can we make that happen?" The university was not planning to continue to develop it into a commercial product. They build prototypes, they build samples, but they don't commercially distribute software. I started looking at can we get grants to the university to commercialize this or is there another path? Before I knew it, I started talking to local business people and investors. They said, "I think there is a commercial opportunity here." At which point, I said, "OK. Well, let's see if we can make this happen." Really it was my eagerness to try to get something from prototype to reality that drove me into entrepreneurship.
Lucy: Well, I suppose that the accidental entrepreneur is may be more common than we think.
Lucy: You know for sure. Who influenced or supported you to take that path? It sounds like people, perhaps at CMU or in the local community who you had talked to, were encouraging you to take that technology outside the university. Who else influenced you?
Shanna: I had a bunch of great mentors along the way. The very first one was somebody named Randy Pausch, which perhaps you've heard. He is famous for the book he wrote and the talk he gave called "The Last Lecture." He was actually the person who ran that class that I talked about Building Virtual Worlds. He was the reason I got into technology. He was influential through my whole course into starting a company and supporter all along the way for everything I was doing. He was one of my first mentors and I recommend seeing "The Last Lecture" if you've not seen that, because he unfortunately passed away from cancer a few years ago. But before he got sick, he was an incredible teacher. Another mentor for me was someone named Jesse Schell, very well- known in the game industry. He's done a bunch of talks on something called "Gamification" and he worked at Disney Imagineering and he's now a professor at the Entertainment Technology Center, he has a game studio. He was one of my early advisers, an adviser/co-founder when we started this company. He was somebody who really was there in the early days supporting me and encouraging me and helping me figure out how to get this company up and running. Very quickly after that, I met somebody name Jake Witherell. He had been a former entrepreneur who was a local person. He was just an informal adviser and guided me through all kinds of the bumps and chaos of starting a company in the early days. Then in the later days of the company, I moved from Pittsburgh where I started the company in the area of Carnegie Mellon. I moved out to San Francisco where I started working with venture capitalists and investors in Silicon Valley. There was one woman that I met out here who was actually a Carnegie Mellon grad as well. She was an accomplished entrepreneur as well as an accomplished venture capitalist. Her name is Cindy Padnos. She was an amazing mentor for me. She helped me establish myself out here. She connected me to people to invest in the company. She also connected me with lots of partners and lots of opportunities. A really incredible woman.
Lucy: She is incredible. She has a venture fund that she's forming called Illuminate Ventures. She's just a fabulous person.
Larry: All of these different things that you've done, graduating and starting your own business and getting acquired. What is the toughest thing that you've had to do?
Shanna Tellerman: There's a lot of tough things when you're an entrepreneur. Stacking them up and saying the toughest one is a hard thing to pick, but I would say that actually it had to be letting people go. One of the toughest things that you have to do is manage a team. A team of people works best together when the culture and the environment is right. Oftentimes you'll hire somebody and they may be really talented or really smart or really good in some way, but they just aren't fitting. They aren't fitting the team or they aren't doing the work they need to do. To have to make the call that that person doesn't belong in the company anymore is the hardest call that I've ever had to make in my life. We've had that happen a few times. I really liked and respected the people, but the fit wasn't right. I just knew that that kind of a bad seed on your team can disrupt your progress.
Lucy: I think too that generally the people themselves know that they're not a fit. They're going to be happier someplace else. That's what I always used to tell myself. "I'm doing them a favor."
Shanna: You do think that. You think after the fact, I hope that their next opportunity really makes them look back at this and say, I'm glad that things ended and I'm glad I was able to move on, but in the moment it is such a difficult thing when the person is unhappy. I'm one of those people who really thrives on energizing people and getting them excited and making them motivated and happy. To deliver a message that's the total opposite is really difficult.
Lucy: It is difficult. I think almost everybody that I had to let go ended up being the better for it and came back and told me so.
Larry: There you go.
Lucy: I can tell so far in listening to you that you have a great deal of passion about the technology and about energizing people and having a great team. What other kind of advice would you give a young person about entrepreneurship? What other kinds of things do you think are really important?
Shanna: The first thing that's really important is just doing it. I think that most people stumble on the idea that they're not ready, that they're not prepared, that there's one more thing that they need to do first, the time isn't right, etc., etc. My personal feeling is if you've got an idea, you're motivated to make something happen of it, the best thing in the world you can do is go for it. You're going to definitely make mistakes. You're definitely going to fumble. It may not work out, but that's not the end of the world. It's really that journey and the learning experience that you get from it that's the most meaningful. The worst thing you can do is sit around and wait until everything feels like it's perfectly ready to go. Getting yourself out there and getting something started is the best thing that you can make happen. The other thing that I would say is surround yourself with incredible people. It's the people who have been around me that have made me who I am and have made these opportunities possible. I never could've done this on my own. I've always looked to a great team of people to work with, to a great team of people to advise me, to a great team of professionals to work with whether that be legal or whether that be HR or accounting, you look for people that you trust and that you know are going to be partners through what will hopefully be a long and very fruitful adventure, but could also be difficult and strenuous at times.
Larry: Once again, you've been through a number of different things. I'm very fascinated by it, as well as your company. What are the personal characteristics that you have that makes you an entrepreneur?
Shanna: I think entrepreneurs are generally curious people. They are people who get excited by the world and are excited by the possibilities of what they can do to change the world. They believe in themselves that they might have the opportunity to make that happen. I think there's a bit of confidence you have to build as an entrepreneur. There's a bit of fear of nothing. You have to believe that anything is possible and that your wildest dreams could come true. I also think you have to be extremely dedicated and extremely motivated because it's a lot of hard work. You need to focus and you need to get a lot done. You're probably the kind of person, if you're an entrepreneur, who has always over-committed or overdone everything that they've tried to do because that's just the personality that you have. But number one is really that curiosity or you're the kind of person who wants to explore and wants to try to make things happen.
Lucy: I think that reminds me of the word "invention," too. You're curious. You take it one step. You see what happens. You take it another step and you just keep pushing forward with that relentlessness to really get it to move. You mentioned hard work and being dedicated. That gets us to our next question around having both a work life and a personal life. How would you integrate the two? Some people would even say balance, although I think we've come to realize that there is no such thing as balance in entrepreneurship. How do you address that in your own life?
Shanna: Well I think the first thing is you have to love your work, because if you're an entrepreneur you're working a lot more than most people work. It does seep into every area of your life. If you don't like what you're doing you're not going to be very happy. That's the first thing I recommend. On top of that, I do think it's important to structure in balance. My first year or two I found that I was always on, I was always stressed, I was always anxious. I didn't really take time off for myself. It had a negative result. It made me more tired. It made me less focused at times when I needed to be focused. Eventually, by the 3rd or 4th year of my company, I started realizing on the weekends I need to take a good day or so where I'm not checking email and I'm not working, maybe even two days, which for an entrepreneur is a lot, but you need that time to rest and to get your mind off of everything going on. For me, I'm pretty active. I do that through sports. I've done triathlons. I've made a lot of friends out in the Bay area who also do triathlons. It's such a beautiful place to live in, the Bay area. There's so many places to explore that I just found being outside and being around people really rejuvenated me and put a lot of balance into my life.
Larry: Wow, I could get tired just watching you, I think.
Lucy: I think you might be an extrovert.
Larry: Lucy, she does a lot of running too.
Lucy: And I'm an extrovert:
Larry: You have achieved a great deal for such a young person. I have to say that while you talked about the cloud and the things that you're doing with the company right now. What do you see is next for you?
Shanna: I'd like to start something again at some point in my life. Right now I'm at Autodesk. I'm loving what I'm doing here at Autodesk. If it keeps going as it is today there's a good chance I will stay here because we're getting to start all kinds of things within the structure of a big company. I could also see an opportunity where something comes along and starting another company just makes sense and I dive into that and grow something from the ground up again. I'm pretty open. I usually let things come to me and roll in as they happen. I take the opportunity when something feels right to jump on it and try it out.
Larry: Wow. I love it.
Lucy: I think that's great. One thing I wanted to mention when you said that Shanna has accomplished a lot. I just have to give her a shout out for being named "Business Week's" best young entrepreneurs in 2009. That must have felt real good.
Lucy: Yeah. One other thing too that I want to thank you for is your participation in organizations around women and computing and thank you for that. Great organizations like Astia, Women 2.0, Girl Geeks, etc. Thank you for your participation with those groups. They are most excellent. Thank you Shanna. We really enjoyed talking with you. Larry, do you want to remind listeners where they can find this interview?
Larry: Absolutely. A couple of really neat places, ncwit.org, up there for sure, also at w3w3.com. You can listen to both 24/7. You'll see it in our podcast as well as our blog.
Lucy: Shanna, thank you very much.
Shanna: Thank you very much. This is definitely the area of passion for me. I hope that more girls do get into technology. I love opportunities like this. Thank you for having me.
Lucy: Thank you.
Larry: Thanks for being here.
Shanna: OK. Thank you.