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Matt Marshall, Head of Design at Circuit Stream: On How a Creative Technologist Thinks and Works

Posted by

The SuperHi Team

Published on

February 11th 2020

I got lucky. Matt (@marshmatter) was the first creative technologist that came up for me in a LinkedIn search. It wasn't quite random: surely the power of a geographic algorithm and one shared connection who I actually don't know means more than mere happenstance. But that's how we connected. Matt started in theatre after spending a childhood on film sets in Toronto. A mentor gave him the very wise advice that to step away isn't to forget, and he ended up years later as head of design at an enterprise AR/VR software company. I caught him just before he was about to head off to Iceland and we chatted about his career, from working on award-winning inventions to art installations to video games. Getting from point A to X? That's a lot more than luck.

What do you do?

I’ve worked in several different industries and seen many kinds of problems so it’s been an atypical career journey: theatre, visual effects, video games, software development, user experience design. I don’t wear just one hat, really. I identify primarily as a creative or design director, first and foremost. In my personal projects, that’s what I’m doing. I’m in a weird space now where I’ve become quite competent as a developer - the design and the tech has become so intertwined where helping to build the thing is sometimes the best way to express its intended creative direction.

Currently, I work on virtual reality software in the enterprise space at Circuit Stream as the Head of Design. I do spend a lot of time as a developer, jumping in and helping out. I’m the product designer so I wireframe features, conduct user research with our clients, and go out with the company to conferences. I’m helping hire, I’m helping make product videos. I’m kind of doing a bit of everything.

How did you get into this space? Take me back.

It’s definitely a strange journey. I’ve been working with computers since I was in grade 4. I had a little office in the basement of our house. My dad was the CTO of a medium-sized company and I got to play a lot with computers in my youth and began creating my own websites in the 90s. I ran the definitive Goosebumps fanpage. They used to film it in Toronto so I even got to hang out on set. So I’ve always loved technology and was able to be around it a lot as a kid.

By the time I was in high school I was more into my newly discovered creative side. My parents “highly encouraged” me into theatre when I was in high school, and then I fell in love with it. I eventually went to university for theatre as an actor, and converted into a director along the way. After that, I moved to Vancouver to do my Master’s at the Center for Digital Media. And there, I saw the capacity to take the innate love of technology I’ve always had and put it together with my love of directing theatre. And just to be clear: we’re talking contemporary theatre, not musicals or Shakespeare.

I began to see a clear way to start to put those two loves together and I started working in the digital media field, moving towards a creative director role. I was in visual effects briefly. That’s when I learned Python and started getting into more advanced programming. There’s a music and art label in Vancouver - Hybridity - that I worked with that for awhile, designing interactive art installations bringing together music, Microsoft Kinect, and projection mapping.

I spent several years working in games, some of which were self-funded projects that went on to win some awards.

In 2015 I led the team that won a Microsoft design competition called Hacking Mars.

Hacking Mars Design Challenge Announces Grand Prize Winner from Microsoft Design on Vimeo.

I was able to take a closer look at some of the inner workings of Microsoft Design during its transition towards Inclusive Design due to people like Kat Holmes. I heard about how design thinking was impacting mission planning at places like NASA JPL and I saw how my skills could impact products on the International Space Station, for example. This started my transition to UX Design where I’ve been able to work in VR, education, fintech, and architecture & design.

My art and technology skills just keeps coming together in new forms. It’s been this constant snowballing of putting art and technology together, framed by something I find intensely interesting at the moment.

That’s quite the journey. How did it all come together to working in the AR/VR space at Circuit Stream? How did you get that job?

I knew one of the founders, Lou, from when I lived in Vancouver. I was working with another company called Biba, working on some pretty compelling playground integrations with digital games to motivate physical play, recently named one of Time Magazine’s Top Inventions of 2019. Lou wanted to get into the AR/VR space and we would have coffee chats every now and then to discuss the state of the technology. Last year, he called me up and asked if I knew any designers who could help him work on something, to which I said “actually, I’m hungry to tackle something new.”

They had something unique where they had done AR/VR training - running online courses for AR/VR prototyping with many of their students working at big Fortune 500 companies and places like NASA and the US Navy. Those students were going out and getting their stakeholders super interested in the prototypes they were making. Suddenly, Circuit Stream was being asked “can you help us build this for real and scale it for enterprise?”

So, 12 months ago, they began pivoting to a software company. And that’s where I came in. They had some spicy design problems. And I like spicy problems. And that was the end of the job application process. Now I’m Head of Design and am building a team.

Going from theatre to programming to design, it doesn’t seem like you can be singularly defined by one narrow role over an extended period of time. What has it been about specific jobs that has drawn you in?

It’s usually a mix of those spicy, interesting problems paired with people I want to work with. If there’s a lot of unknowns, there’s a lot of room to come into a company and make an impact. The more potential for impact, the more of a chameleon I tend to become.

In the broader sense, that’s a company culture thing. If everyone has a good head on their shoulders and wants to do something fresh and exciting - I’ll usually get drawn in. Even the creation of company design culture is a spicy problem in its own that I enjoy diving into.

On the flip-side, if things are already rigidly defined and the big problems already solved, I’m less likely to be drawn in. I find it much harder to be a gear in a well-defined machine, but I have taken on those roles.

Jobs that cross-over with my personal projects so that I’m continuing to develop relevant skills to build the things I want to build, and work remote possibilities that would be compatible with travel - these are all factors too.

So much tech is made in big cities, so I’m curious what kind of inspiration can come out of different geographies and landscapes.

You identify as a creative technologist. Can you talk a bit more about that?

I’ve never had “creative technologist” as an explicit job title, but it’s the only catch-all term I’ve found that captures both art and technology as a practice. It’s the closest thing that someone might understand. I have an understanding of the aesthetics and implementation of art & design paired with a solid understanding of technology as a developer. A Creative Technologist is in many ways a tinkerer in the middle, using that understanding to uncover new ways art and tech can fit together. This person needs to be able to actively prototype with the technology, and to empathize with users.

Few companies actually understand that as an explicit role, and usually those companies have very large R&D budgets and large cash runways for experimentation: the Microsofts and Googles of the world.

While not every company has creative technologists, there are useful byproducts of the skills that apply to other positions. As a designer, it really goes a long way in being able to communicate with developers and know when it’s possible to “push” the technology a little bit further. You can communicate with clients more meaningfully, and become a useful clearinghouse of information for a project.

There might not be as much room to be a true Creative Technologist in projects with rigid scopes and deadlines, but those skills are still activated day-to-day even when your business card says something else. Creative Technology is a state of mind!

What’s been the biggest challenge for you, having to wear all these different hats?

There are many times when I want to be wearing many hats but will need to stick to one and focus on executing to the best of my ability.

One of the greater challenges is when there are rich technical needs and I find myself wearing the developer hat too often. I’ve been hired as a designer, and then find myself leading the development team three months later. There’s obviously a huge demand for these skills, and it can be easier to add bench to the design team than to the technical. It can be an existential crisis when I know my technical abilities are needed, but I know I should be designing as well. It’s an ongoing identity crisis.

More recently, I’ve been getting over my imposter syndrome as a developer, so that I might affect how I think about those moments of identity crisis.

I’ve also worn producer/project manager hats, business owner hats, and quality assurance hats. I have to be very careful that I’m not spreading myself too thin.

Ultimately, being a developer and a designer/artist actually makes you really powerful for team communication where you can actually get in there and talk meaningfully about how to execute complex ideas. Like, if there’s an animation curve that I’m looking for, I can jump in and write it rather than standing over a developer’s shoulder while they nudge magic numbers around.

There’s a lot of mystery around the job hunt process generally. But I imagine it’s even more mysterious doing what you do, and iterating from one thing to the next with this underlying creative technologist role that you identify with. What has helped you build your career?

When I was doing theatre at York University, I had a part-time job in the film department helping them set up one of their courses which then became a full time job the following summer. And then, at the Centre for Digital Media, one of my major projects caught some eyes and that led to my internship. And then after that, one of my course instructors liked my work and that became my job. Out of all that, I’d say that the most important career builder has been saving up lots of career capital. Get coffees, share ideas, and help others who are also on the path.

Sharing my work - in progress or otherwise - has also gone a long way. It’s always good when the people you want to work with are seeing what you’re working on and reciprocating those collaborative feelings.

I’m curious because you seemed to have a real passion for theatre and ended up somewhere quite different. Looking back, was that a conscious decision and do you think it’s been the right decision for your career?

At the end of my undergrad in theatre, I had just done this crazy year of directing practicums. I took on way more directing than I should have and I got to the end of it and went to my directing mentor at this point and I was asking her, Well what now? Do I do a Master’s in directing? Do I just start doing Fringe Festival?

And she said “do something else for five years”. Do anything else for five years, because if the creative work is going to be true you need life experience to feed into it and you’re not going to have anything good as a theatre director if your entire life has just been in theatre school. That’s not the work that theatre’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to be telling real human stories and drama.

I’m definitely well past my five years of “doing something else” but I’m still very happy with what I’m doing. I have to acknowledge that I’ve been able to reach hundreds of thousands of people with my current work - some of which is very artsy and weird.

I think it’s been the right decision. It’s been a gradual process and combining things I love and it’s the constantly additive, evolving, snowballing career path. It’s not a typical path, but I’ve been able to turn my various hobbies and jobs in all kinds of bizarre and twisted ways that puts me in all kinds of unique career situations.

That diversity of experiences is valuable and helps you think outside the box. You recognize patterns from other spaces and apply it to different problems. It really helps navigate the emerging/unknown spaces like design for VR.

Even if I was still doing theatre I would still have all these broad interests and would be pursuing them somehow, so things probably would have worked out the same but through a different path.

I have debated: maybe I should start directing theatre again and just do that for a year.

In the trajectory of your career, what’s next?

I’m heading to Iceland tomorrow. I’ve got some friends with a farm up in the north where I can work in relative isolation. I was going to do a couple of days of writing for a new game to get a new personal project going.

With Circuit Stream, we’re rolling out a new vision of the company and how we work and attack problems for clients. I’ve been heavily involved with that, and drawing lots of inspiration from Valve’s Employee Handbook. We’ve also just finished a massive first client project, and it’s been a huge victory now that the analytics are coming in. It’s opened up the floodgates for several new projects and it’s going to be a very busy 2020 solving some very spicy VR design problems.

I think the next big trajectory move will be related to geography and travel, and seeing how that impacts the work I’m looking to do and my overall working style.

-As told to Ana Wang, November 2019. Transcribed and edited for clarity.

This interview is part of our Work in Progress series, a raw and real look at modern dream jobs, the often winding paths of career journeys and the job hunt process, as we explore the questions: what does it take to build a successful career as a creative? How does the marriage of creativity and employment work together? What does the path to fulfillment at work really look like?

We’re looking to share more stories of people employed in roles and jobs in creative industries - technology, design, art - around the world. Email [email protected] and tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.