Are You Looking for VR/AR Jobs in Seattle?

Last week’s VReality event at Microsoft’s Building 99 in Redmond. About a third of this audience raised their hands when asked if they’re looking for a job in the VR/AR industry.

Every morning, sometimes before I even roll out of bed, I check my email for my VR jobs alert. They come time-stamped around 6am, with subject lines like “4 new virtual reality jobs in Seattle, WA.” Here are a few of the listings I’ve seen recently:

Program Manager, Oculus Education

UX Designer, HBO

Technical Artist, Daydream (Google)

User Experience Designer – Virtual Reality (HTC)

Autism Research Fellowship, Seattle Children’s Hospital

Analyst – Advanced Concepts, Blue Origin

I’ve been paying attention to VR job listings since March of last year. At that time I discovered that a startup in Fremont called Pixvana was hiring software engineers. I suspected that in time, companies like Pixvana would start hiring for more non-technology related positions. At some point these companies would need marketers and other creative minds to communicate their technology to the world.

I still think that’s going to happen, but most of the VR job listings I see are still related to coding, engineering, UX, and testing. Chris Hegstrom, who recently worked on HBO’s Westworld VR experience, characterized the state of VR jobs in Seattle with a handy metaphor, saying, “If 2016 was the year of opening all the VR presents on Christmas morning, 2017 is the year of rolling up our sleeves and assembling the content. We spent last year looking at the marketing image on the box & imagining what it will be like once completed but there was more conjecture than actual building. This year is all about opening up the box, scanning the instruction manual & hoping we have the correct tools & batteries (& we don’t have to steal them from the emergency flashlight!) Because of this, we’ll see more jobs around content creation and VR production design opposed to research and experimentation.”

I hope Chris is right. And I’ll be curious to see where these content and production jobs come from, whether from the startup community or from the big players.

Facebook, Magic Leap, Google, Amazon, and the other big companies are like ships slowly traversing an ocean, occasionally casting down lines baited with salaries and perks, hoping to land the perfect candidate. They fill the job boards with intensely specific job descriptions. They want machine learning researchers with at least three years experience in management or scientists with ten-plus years in optical science research. I’ve seen many of these job listings persist for months on Indeed and elsewhere. The focus seems to be on finding candidates with particular sets of skills in order to fill roles, rather than cultivating brilliant people who can grow into and transform such roles.

Finding talent means more than tossing down a fishing line in the form of job listings. It means swimming with the fish. I’ve heard a refrain lately from multiple members of the Seattle VR/AR community that goes something like this: “How come nobody from [Facebook/Magic Leap/Amazon] ever shows up to our meetups?

The smarter big players understand the importance of engaging with this talent pool. Last month HBO opened its offices to host the VR/AR meetup. Last week Microsoft hosted over 300 local VR pioneers for presentations and a panel discussion on legal fundamentals. I bet this will pay off for those companies in the long run. If you’re a young developer who has been going to VR events for the past year, and you get competing offers from Company X that sponsored your hackathon and company Y that behaves like a member of the Witness Protection Program, which company would you choose?

I predict there’s going to be a lot of job movement in VR/AR this year as various companies shutter and people start jumping from one company to the next. I heard the other day of a  software engineer who’s leaving one local startup for another. And while this may seem like a bummer for the company that’s being left behind by this talented woman, it’s a good thing in the end because her new employer will benefit from her having learned skills in her previous environment. The long-term benefits of knowledge circulation among companies will outweigh the short-term headaches of staffing within companies.

How can companies invest not just in securing talent, but in cultivating talent that will be ready for jobs one, two, three years from now?

One way that seems pretty obvious is by actively getting involved in education. I recently met an audio engineering instructor who teaches at Shoreline Community College. He spoke about the challenge of getting his college’s administration to offer Unity classes. He said that it would help if someone could convince the administrators that there were jobs waiting for the college’s graduates. Are companies and colleges communicating? Has anybody from Oculus or on the Hololens team talked to anybody in administration at Shoreline or Seattle Central?

We all stand to benefit from better communication between the industry and the educational institutions that can train students in Unity, Unreal Engine, and all the other t0ols required to build VR/AR applications. This means companies offering scholarships at both the community college and university level to train the next generation of code warriors. I’m curious if anybody–Facebook, Google, Amazon–is doing this.

I did a little fist pump the other day when I saw a post on Facebook from Eva Hoerth asking for feedback on a VR mentorship program she is developing. Eva is all about knowledge sharing and creating skill-building opportunities for what she calls the VR family. This is precisely the kind of program this community needs, and I hope it takes off.

Searching for jobs, getting laid off, showing up to work to learn your company just went under, and plotting career moves can stressful. But I’d argue that the upsides to an uncertain jobs market are opportunities and a steadily expanding knowledge base. I’ve been laid off three times from jobs and it sucks. And yet, each layoff led to a new job where I learned even more and got to apply my skills in a new context. In hindsight it would’ve sucked far worse if I had spent eight years at editing copy about toothbrushes.

If you’re staking out a career in VR/AR in Seattle, hang on, because it’s going to be rocky. The trade-off of working in an industry poised to transform the future is a certain degree of uncertainty about that future. Is it any wonder that the best selling VR game to date is called Job Simulator?