LILY SNYDER is the COO at Doghead Simulations, a company that is creating virtual reality software for remote teams. Their team works from the US, Brazil, and New Zealand, but they meet every day in virtual reality. Their virtual office (called rumii) looks like a corporate lobby with a view out of a virtual window overlooking a mountain vista. To join a meeting, you simply walk down the hallway to a meeting room. Once in the room, you can pull up a web browser or work on a whiteboard, and collaborate with your team (just like you would do in “real life”).
Subscribe to the Collaboration Superpowers Podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.
Her tips for working in virtual reality:
- Give new technologies a try. Sometimes you have to try it to really “get it”.
- Take regular breaks to stay productive.
- Use a mix of both real world and virtual world tools: paper and pen, and virtual sticky notes.
Podcast production by Podcast Monster
Graphic design by Alfred Boland
Lisette: Great, and we’re live. So welcome, everybody, to this remote interview. My name is Lisette, and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And today, we have something especially great, and that is I have Lily Snyder on the line from Doghead Simulations. Thanks so much for letting me do this interview. When I saw your website, I was immediately excited. You guys do virtual reality software for remote teams.
Lily: That’s correct, yes. Thank you for having us on the show. I’m pretty excited.
Lisette: Yeah. I mean what you guys are doing, this is the future of work. So we’re going to totally dive into that. But let’s start with what does your virtual office look like and what do you need to get your work done.
Lily: Definitely. My virtual office… Since joining a virtual reality company, my guest room has turned into my portal to my virtual world. So I have my headset and controllers. And we have tracking boxes on either side of the room that can track your movement. So when I open my guest store, I have a dogging gate. I have to keep my dog out. Otherwise, she’ll get [inaudible – 01:12] foot. And then I put the headset on and I join the rest of my team in virtual reality.
Lisette: Wow! You actually have your guest room made into this virtual… So you go into your guest room, you put on your headset, and you are now in a virtual world with the rest of your team.
Lily: Exactly, yes.
Lisette: That is awesome. Okay, so how do you guys start the day? What does that look like? Do you all start [inaudible – 01:38]? I mean I read on your website you have people in three continents and three different countries, including the U.S., Brazil, and New Zealand. So how does this look like in a virtual world?
Lily: Right. Well, we use our own dog food, Doghead Simulations. So you join in rumii. It’s the name of our software. And basically, when you enter a rumii, you enter a lobby area. It looks like any other kind of corporate lobby. And we have a giant window. So you immediately see out to a mountain vista. And if you look to your left or right, you can walk down the hallway and join a meeting room. So in the meeting room is where you can pull up the Web browser or work on a whiteboard with the rest of your team, and that’s where you actually do our meetings and collaborate on what we’re going to work on for the day.
Lisette: And are you sitting or standing or…?
Lily: I personally like to stand because sitting too much is bad for you, I’ve heard.
Lisette: And I’ve heard it too, yeah [laughs].
Lily: So I like standing when I’m in virtual reality because when you’re in that headset, since it’s tracking you, that means it’s tracking your whole body. So if I walk in real life, it will actually walk me in the software. So I can move around. We give each other high fives when we’re done with the meeting for the day. And it really feels like we’re in the same place together.
Lisette: And then do you stay in that room and work in that room? Or do you then have a separate office space? Like where you are now, it could be a median office space.
Lily: Exactly, yeah. So we usually just use rumii for daily standups, for meetings. But then when it comes to actual work, well, we do that in the real life. For example, I’m set up in my living room right now with my laptop. That’s where I do normal documenting and emailing.
Lisette: Right, like the actual sitting down and then working. And then you’ve got a whole guest bedroom set aside for… Yeah, but with the coolest guest bedroom ever, right? [laugh]
Lily: Yeah, that’s what you need [laughs].
Lisette: Every nephew that you’ve probably ever had is super excited, yeah.
Lily: Tell me about it. One of my friends has a little, four-year-old boy. And every time he sees me, he asks if you can go inside the computer.
Lily: It’s going inside a virtual reality, and it’s so funny.
Lisette: So how long can you stay in a virtual reality without feeling fatigued by it or tired? Or is there any sort of fatigue? What’s the difference between doing something in virtual reality and then… I don’t want to say real life, but how do you refer to that, even? Is it in the flesh and in the…?
Lily: Yeah, just reality and the virtual world, I guess, is how we describe it. And the longest I’ve been in at a time, maybe an hour and a half… Because we go to conferences and different events and do demos. So how we do our demos is the person at the conference helps people put the headsets on. The attendees put the headsets on. But then we, in a virtual reality, actually walk people through our software. So I’ve spent hardly an hour and a half at the max walking people through, explaining the virtual space, the virtual widgets, how they work, [inaudible – 05:18].
Lisette: And you’re doing that from your guest bedroom.
Lisette: And there, at a conference, at wherever they are.
Lily: Exactly, yes.
Lisette: And you guys are hanging out together in a virtual space, talking to each other, walking together.
Lisette: Awesome. And so how was it to look at one another in a virtual space? Is it like you’re just standing there in front of somebody?
Lily: Yes. In our software, we’re represented by human avatars. So you can see people’s eyes move. And we’re working on [mouse matching – 05:53], the person as they speak. But yeah, they’re standing in front of you. So you can see their head, their upper torso. You can see their hand movements and gestures. So we say, “Come this way. Follow us. We’ll go over to this meeting room.” And then they follow you. And now click this widget on the wall. And you can see them click it.
Lisette: Awesome. Awesome. And is it pretty easy to use once you get the hang of it? Is it like after you’ve toured it, you could easily do it again? What’s the learning curve like?
Lily: I’d say it’s pretty easy, especially if you use the computer or you’ve ever been a gamer and use two joysticks or Wii remotes. Some people who aren’t as used to that kind of thing, it takes them a little bit longer to get the hang of it. Mostly, it’s just such a surreal experience when you first are in there because you know your feet are on the ground, wherever you are. But suddenly, you’re in a room that looks and feels real but totally different than where you were just a moment ago.
So it takes a minute for like, “Oh, when I turn my head, yeah, I’m really turning and looking at a different wall.” Or when I press the button to teleport me for like, “Oh, okay, that’s how I move.”
Lisette: Right, right. Just like it would take some getting used to going into any venue. Like walking into a restaurant or a club, you have to look around, get your bearings, see where everything is. So that seems like it translates a bit into the virtual world.
Lisette: Interesting. I have so many questions. I’m going to try to keep this… [laughs].
Lily: Go for it.
Lisette: [laughs] Great. No, I’m so excited about it. So what is the biggest resistance that you’re seeing to this? Because it sounds awesome. I mean think of all the flights and the traveling. I in particular hate flights and flying. So what are people struggling with in adopting this?
Lily: I think the biggest struggle at the moment is just how new it is. It’s just getting the message out there that virtual reality is an option. Once we tell people about it, once we show them at a conference, they get it right away. And they start coming up with all these different applications that they could use in their life that’s even outside of the main focus for our software. So I think…
Lisette: Can you name any? Do you remember any that people are using it for? Or are you like, “Oh, that’s awesome!” I don’t know. I don’t want to put you on the spot.
Lily: No, it’s all right. Let’s see. One person from Starbucks was talking about how they could use it to model their stores before they actually start to build it because they came across problems where they thought they had this [inaudible – 08:51] for [inaudible] spaces and cupboards and everything measured out. But once they actually start putting it together, some issue in [inaudible – 09:00] doesn’t fit the way they thought it would. Or the space doesn’t look quite right once they put the counter in. So using virtual reality, they just model a whole store or concept store before even building [inaudible – 09:13]. That’s one example.
Another person thought that instead of everyone having to spend all this money going to conferences and booking hotels and flights, you could just have a virtual trade show. So you would still pay to go to the trade show, just be virtual. And everyone would have their virtual booths and have their products as a 3D model that you could see.
Lisette: Right. But then, would everybody need to convert a guest room in their house?
Lily: No, you don’t need to. You just basically need any kind of open space that you could set up in your living room and then just move the headset out of the way when you’re done using it. So I just happened to use our guestroom because it has the most open space for me.
Lisette: Okay. And how long does it take to set it up?
Lily: My very first day setting it up, it took me about an hour from unpacking the box to setting up [inaudible – 10:16] and updating the software on my computer.
Lisette: That’s not bad.
Lily: No, not bad.
Lisette: I mean what more do you want? It’s like if you buy something at IKEA, it’s going to take longer than that, so… [laughs].
Lily: Pretty much.
Lily: It is pretty simple. It was just like, “Okay, oh, yeah. That [inaudible – 10:34] isn’t okay. Where am I going to put that kind of thing?”
Lisette: Okay. And I’ve also noticed on your website that you’re targeting Agile teams in particular. And I’ve found that very, very interesting. Why Agile teams?
Lily: Yes. I have been working on Agile teams basically my whole career. We use them a lot. And back before I was in virtual reality, I was an IT consultant in People Love Agile. And their CEO, Mat Chacon, is also an expert in the Agile methodologies. So we were coming together, thinking about the kind of best people to use our software. And we both [inaudible – 11:19] Agile teams because you want to be able to get up. You want to be able to stand in a circle with your team, give updates. It’s a methodology design for co-located teams, but that’s not the kind of world we live in anymore. So why not give them that option back?
Lisette: Yeah, indeed. In fact, I always thought that the Agile processes really showed people the way how to work remotely. All the feedback points and the check-in times and the planning and the communication, it all seems like, “Hey, you could just use the Agile mindset to run your remote team?” It did seem like it went hand-in-hand to me. And when they say in the Agile manifesto that you have to meet face-to-face, I thought, “I’m sure if they had written it in 2011 instead of 2001, it would be e-face to e-face.”
Lily: Definitely. I agree with you. I think so. Yeah, I think Agile is great for remote work because a max, 15-minute daily Scrum, that’s all the time you want to spend on the phone anyways. But you still get that daily communication with the rest of your team.
Lisette: Right. And do the avatars look like you? Or do you get to choose what they look like? How does that look?
Lily: So when you first open your software, you can go to the avatar customization. So you can make them look like you have short hair and brown hair. Or you can go crazy and make them bald with green eyebrows, whatever.
Lisette: What do most people do?
Lily: Most people make them look like themselves.
Lily: Yes [laughs].
Lisette: I can imagine it would help you relate to your team member better if it looked kind of like your team member because I’m sure you guys see each other on video calls every once in a while. Or do you not use video at all? Do you always go into the virtual reality?
Lily: We pretty much just use virtual reality. It’s a phone call or virtual reality. We don’t really ever use video.
Lisette: Wow! Super interesting.
Lisette: And is it hard for the people who come and work for you to get used to it? Or is it just… I mean I’m sure the people who are applying, maybe it’s a self-selecting type of group.
Lily: It’s a little bit. Most of the people who worked for us, the engineers, the artists, they come from this 3D modeling. They come from a gaming background. So it’s very natural for them to design for virtual reality, be inside of it, and test it.
Lisette: Awesome. So what’s hard for your team about working in virtual reality? What is really challenging for you guys, especially across the three different continents? We’re going to get into time zones in a second. Everybody asks, so we’ve got to talk about that. But what’s hard for you guys?
Lily: Definitely. I think not necessarily pertaining to virtual reality, exactly. But I think the biggest thing that any remote team faces is just staying up to date on communication. It’s really easy just to get stuck in a bubble of this is the work that I’m doing today. So we all just make sure that we communicate on a daily basis and just stay in touch with what we’re all working on.
Lisette: Okay. And what do you guys use? What kind of tools are you using besides virtual reality, of course [laughs]?
Lily: We use email, Slack, and Gmail for IM, IM a lot because you can get it on your mobile device or your laptop, wherever you are. You can always be available to answer or ask a question.
Lisette: And for tracking tasks and things like that, do you have your own sticky note board on a wall somewhere? How does that work?
Lily: We use Atlassian’s JIRA. So you’ve actually integrated JIRA with rumii. So when we go into virtual reality, we just pull up our integrated JIRA board and can move cards around.
Lisette: In virtual reality, with your own, virtual fingers.
Lily: Yes. And it will update the JIRA website on the back end, so if you make a change on the website or reflect in VR and vice versa.
Lisette: Awesome. So, great, what’s happening? I think it’s so exciting, so exciting. Oh, man. So what about time zones? Because you guys… like I said, you have people in the U.S., Brazil, and New Zealand. That’s all over the world.
Lily: Yes. The majority of our team now is in the U.S. We just have a few people in Brazil and just one person in New Zealand. So the best way to communicate with them is email or IM. But when you have time zones like that, some people have to make sacrifices if we have a whole team meeting, whether it’s getting up really early or staying up a little late. So that’s just something we all, I’m sure, have experienced at some point.
Lisette: Yeah. We can’t squeeze the world closer together. Time zones are time zones. Yeah, I just thought… You guys have the silver bullet for how you work with people in Australia if you’re over in Europe. But nope, staying up late and getting up early, that tends to be [laughs] the answer.
Lily: It still is, yeah. We [inaudible – 16:43] unfortunately.
Lisette: So then how do you guys… In addition to the JIRA Board, how do you guys know what each other are doing? Because so many managers say, “Ah, I don’t want my team… I don’t want people to work remote because I don’t know what they’re going to be doing.” So how do you guys solve that?
Lily: We know what we’re all doing because we all work closely together. So the dev team works closely together, ask each other questions, help review each other’s work. And I think that all comes from we stick to our [Sprint – 17:17] planning with everyone joining. This is what we’re going to do these next two weeks. And people will just stick to the board and update the tasks that the team agreed to accomplishing for that two weeks. So it’s all about just transparency. And if you think there’s something different that needs to be done instead, it’s just about raising your hand and making that change to the Sprint Board for the week.
Lisette: And how do you find people to work for you? I’m just curious about your hiring practices because it’s a pretty special thing that you’re doing. So I can assume that the specialties needed for actually doing the job and then… How do you know they’re going to work really well remotely?
Lily: Yes. Well, the majority of our team already knows each other.
Lily: Yeah. Chance and Albert are two of the co-founders. They came from a game design university called Full Sail University in Orlando. And from there, they knew a lot of people that have the right skillsets that we needed. They were friends with or acquaintances with who they knew would be good for the project. And once they start telling their friends what they’re doing, some just volunteer to come on board – well, not volunteer but has to come board [chuckles].
Lisette: [laughs]. They would really have to like something a lot and be financially, independently wealthy, somehow.
Lily: Yeah. If we could only, I’ll be that man [chuckles].
Lisette: Yeah, right, right. Or Wonder Woman now, the latest craze [laughs].
Lily: Right [inaudible – 18:59] pretty awesome, yeah.
Lisette: [inaudible – 18:00] pretty awesome. I’ve got to admit. I totally enjoyed it [laughs]. So what about productivity for yourself? I hear a lot that people as remote workers feel really lonely. They don’t have that sense of team or comradery. What are your productivity hacks? And how do you keep that sense? I guess it’s two separate questions, productivity hacks and sense of team. So let’s start with productivity hacks.
Lily: All right. I don’t know that they’re necessarily hack. I am an old-school person. I checking off lists. So I have my [people – 19:34] planner exactly [chuckles] [inaudible] planner. So based on what we have in the Sprint, the current Sprint that we’re working in, I write down what I want to do for the day in my planner. And that motivates me to check those items off and stay productive during the day.
Lisette: Yeah. Not everything has to be remote, as much as we love the virtual worlds. Right, pen and paper, there’s something to it, I think. It’s… yeah.
Lisette: Okay. So you have your to-do list on a piece of paper.
Lily: And then I think whenever I’m feeling unmotivated or sitting at my desk for too long, walking my dog always helps me get back in a mindset and start thinking about how I want to accomplish the next thing. So I think going for a walk is a big, big, helpful tip.
Lisette: I agree. Yeah, I totally agree. Do you guys have any virtual forests that you can actually walk through?
Lily: Oh. Now you’re giving my teams ideas [laughs] [inaudible – 20:40].
Lisette: I just spoke with somebody a few weeks ago. She studies the virtual world and the effects that it has on calming. I’ll send you the link to the interview. But she said that walking through a virtual forest has the same effects as walking through a normal forest, not a hundred percent, of course, but still better than not walking through a virtual forest.
Lily: Yeah, I believe it. I met a researcher who’s a psychologist. And she has been using virtual reality as part of her practice since the early or late ‘90s. He actually used virtual reality to help people get over their fear of flying after 9/11. So I totally believe it.
Lisette: All these applications I had never heard of but of course make sense when you think about bravo for people. Okay, team building, how do you guys keep that sense of team on your team?
Lily: Definitely. Having daily scrums, keeping in contact with each other on a daily basis is helpful. Majority of the team lives in the Orlando area. So they’ll have monthly get together. We’ve tried doing gaming nights, online gaming. So everyone that’s interested has been invited to do an online gaming, team building together for fun. So we do things of this kind.
Lisette: I think that that’s one of those areas that’s really untapped in the world of remote workers. I just heard recently in an interview that people used video games as a way of team building. And I thought, “Of course, yeah, of course we would use video games, but it didn’t occur to me.” So yeah.
Lily: Yes. [inaudible – 22:35] guys.
Lisette: Yeah, super smart. Let’s see. Any virtual team management tips for managing remote people? I mean do you just need to be there all the time to put the foot down? Or how does management work?
Lily: I think the number one thing… if you’re going to have a virtual team [inaudible – 23:00] manager of it because you have to have that trust in your team that they’re going to do the work. I think any manager really means to be able to trust their team members. We’re all adults here. And hopefully, [inaudible – 23:15] like that when they commit to accomplishing a goal or deliverable. So having trust is big. But when it comes to management itself, I like to hold weekly one on ones with different members of my team just to check in how they’re doing, if they have any questions on the work, they have any other things going on in their life that they need to talk about. And then everything goes back to Agile Boards, just tracking against that. If you see someone estimated two days for something (it’s taking a whole week), then you can go and ask them, “Hey, what’s going on? Are you struggling with something else?” So just for me, being supportive and trusting before getting to be a micro manager and dropping the hammer.
Lisette: Yeah. I think that style is slowly going out of favor over time. Most people want to have some freedom and some autonomy in the work [inaudible – 24:24] hire people because they’re professionals.
Lily: Exactly, exactly.
Lisette: Yeah. So what advice do you have for people who are just starting out in this virtual reality field? When I give presentations out in the world and I start mentioning virtual reality, people think that is so Star Trek. That is so far out from… But it’s not. It’s here. People are working in virtual reality now. So what advice do you have if you’re just starting out?
Lily: If you’re just starting out, well, I am not a developer. But there are so many ways to get involved, from designing stories for it if you’re kind of in a VR, entertainment field, if you’re doing games… There’s testing. There is managing the team. I think developers… if you have any kind of experience in art design or any kind of game development, just jump in. It’s such a new field that maybe not everyone knows exactly what they’re doing or the exact type of roles that are needed. So it’s being invented as we go along.
Again analogy, I heard at this is that virtual reality now is similar to the Web when it was first coming on the scene. And people described it kind of as a spider Web. So it’s similar to that. Just jump in if you want to want to do it. Just go for it.
Lisette: It’s the Wild West, so have fun while it lasts.
Lisette: No, awesome. And what about companies who are interested in trying out virtual reality for their teams for the first time? What would you advise them? How would you advise them to start?
Lily: Definitely. I advise them to go to our website.
Lisette: For sure?
Lily: Yes. We have a free, Early Access program going on right now where they can use their software for free. And the great thing about ours is that it’s device-agnostic. So you can use it in headset for virtual reality. Or if you don’t have a headset, you can use it in a 2D, desktop mode and move around like just a normal game.
Lisette: Okay. So like on the arrow keys on your keyboard and using the mouse, you could actually move around in the virtual world, meet colleagues there, and talk to them.
Lisette: Okay. And do you just use like a simple headset like you normally would for Skype?
Lily: Yeah, I use the Skype right here.
Lily: And talk to each other. So that’s a really low-risk way to get started experimenting with it.
Lisette: And how big of a team can you fit into one room?
Lily: Well, it’s always growing. But we found the best team size if you really want it, focus on doing work is probably five to eight people, just like in a normal meeting, in a normal Scrum team, so [inaudible – 27:34] random, x number of people [southern]. So it’s from a productivity type of view. That’s probably the best number to me at the time. But you can fit many more people than that can actually meet in a meeting room.
Lisette: Oh, yeah. So you could have a hundred people in the room, no problem. There’s no real limit. Is there a space limit?
Lily: Yeah. Eventually, you get pretty [inaudible – 27:57]. You won’t be able to really move around without running through people [chuckles].
Lisette: Is there any sort of… There can’t be a sensation. Is there anything that you experience when you go through somebody?
Lily: I bet it feels like what a ghost feels like [chuckles]. It’s a little weird. You see the inside of someone’s head as they move past you [laughs].
Lisette: Really? Do you actually see there is such a 3D component? I mean clearly, you’re not seeing their brains and their vessels and these things. But there is sort of an inside of somebody.
Lily: Yeah, unfortunately. Yeah, during testing, we’ve had some unfortunate spawning incidents where people spawn on top of each other. But we’re getting [inaudible – 28:41], so…
Lisette: [laughs] Oh, the cool bugs that we’ve all missed. I heard there were many more to be discovered [laughs].
Lisette: Oh, this is so awesome. So I really hope that people go and try this. It sounds very easy to try. You can just use your browser and the arrow keys on your keyboard to move around and people. And there’s no excuse not to just give virtual reality a try.
Lily: Exactly, exactly, yes.
Lisette: Do you have the same experience? I find that it’s one thing to explain things to people. But until they actually do it, they don’t really grok the experience of what it will be like. You don’t really understand how powerful some of these things are until you actually go into it. It’s like all good. The academic version is all good and academic. You get it conceptually. But I think I’d really like to encourage people listening to actually really go try this.
Lily: Yes. Yes, exactly. I thought when I first heard of it, I thought it was [inaudible – 29:37]. But it wasn’t until I actually experienced it for the first time that I thought, “Wow! This is mind-blowing. It’s the first mind-blowing [inaudible – 29:46] that I have experienced a long, long time.” And there are plenty of ways to experience it. Besides [inaudible – 29:54] loading our software, I’ve seen pop-up virtual reality cinemas. You can go to your local Microsoft store. They have HoloLens, demos. So you can find it.
Lisette: Awesome. So let’s see. Last question, we just have Chance joining us. So let’s introduce Chance, actually, while we have the chance.
Lily: Yeah. Hi, Chance.
Lisette: [laughs]. Hi, Chance. Can you hear us?
Lisette: Oh. I’m not sure if chance can hear us. Okay. Well, there was one question that I had that maybe I don’t have now. I’ve forgotten. So maybe we’ll end with the last question, unless Chance jumps in. And then we’ll give chance a spotlight. But it is what is the best way to get in touch with you? Obviously, your website.
Lily: Yes. You can also email us at email@example.com. Or you can find me personally. I’m on Twitter, @lilyotron. So we’re all… And doghead is all over social media. So any of those outlets of Facebook page, Twitter, very responsive [chuckles].
Lisette: Great. Great. I hope people do that. Tell them that Collaboration Superpowers sent you. It’s always fun to know where these links came from.
Lily: Yeah, that’s so good.
Lisette: Thank you so much for talking to me today. It was a very interesting conversation. And until next time, everybody, be powerful.
Lily: Love it. Thank you.