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How a VR Programmer with an Economics Degree Got into the Industry

Before you start college everyone tells you that you should study what you are passionate about. Michael Carmody is a gamer, but he got a degree in Economics. In college, he didn’t think of video games as a career path. However, he now finds himself doing what he loves every day, as a Virtual and Augmented Reality Developer. So how does someone make their passion their job when they didn’t study it in school? Carmody was kind enough to answer our questions and let us know how he broke into the industry.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I went to Northwestern University and had planned to get a degree in Biology, but that only lasted three months. Instead, I graduated with a degree in Economics.

And what is your current role?

Senior XR Developer (XR is a catchall for augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality).

So what did you do for work right after graduation?

Economics at my school was like getting a business degree. Before I graduated I assumed I would go into business consulting. My mom was a compensation consultant, so I had her network in Chicago to lean on if I wanted to get into that. I interned at Towers Watson for two summers and thought it was fine, so I accepted a full-time position after graduation.

After about six months of 80 hour work weeks, I was already burned out. While the pay was great, this wasn’t the path I wanted to continue down. If you stay in consulting for three or four years you get to travel a lot, network like crazy and save all your money because you don’t have time to spend it. But it is really stressful. After one of the worst days of my adult life, I decided this wasn’t a fit and wasn’t happy. I gave my two weeks notice the next day, without a clear plan.

While the pay was great, this wasn’t the path I wanted to continue down.

So what did you decide to do next?

My buddy Sean, who I met at Northwestern, found out I was interested in programming and looking to learn more while between jobs. His friends, Mike McGee and Neal Sales-Griffin, were co-founding a programming school in Chicago, The Starter League. They had done a couple pilot programs but were now a third of the way through the year-long program. I had done some coding off and on before, but was mostly self-taught and hadn’t done it professionally before.

I reached out to them about formalizing my programming skills and was able to jump into their front-end developer class in January 2014. Even though I missed the first third, I did get four months of classes with them.

At the end of that I was looking for an entry-level developer job, or a non-developer role where I could have some exposure to programming and continue to learn more. Another college friend, Alex, knew I was looking for a job, and sent a posting that he had seen online right after it went up. The posting was for a role at Aisle 50, a startup in Chicago. They were looking for an entry level sales person, but also someone who also had experience in front-end development. The founder was also a Northwestern grad, so I quickly wrote a resume and email to him and was able to get my foot in the door before the posting had been seen by many others. We got coffee two days later and I was hired.

I did that for a while to gain experience and continue learning programming languages. Eventually, I was able to apply to my current company, Productive Edge, with those new skills.

So then how did you get into VR?

I got one of the first development kits for the Oculus Rift in May 2015, to play video games on it. Looking back on it, I think I caved to all the marketing and promos. It was going to be the next big thing that nerdy gamers (like myself) had been waiting for. Even with all the hype around the technology, I thought it was great from a gaming standpoint and was excited to hear about all the other areas the technology about be applied to. I was also finally in a good enough place financially that I could consider dropping the money to buy it.

And how were you able to make your hobby a part of your career?

Productive Edge is a web and mobile development consulting firm, so we mostly work on large-scale apps and commercial websites. I had been working at the company for 2 years as a Front-End Developer and loved it. I was learning a lot and getting to work on a lot of different projects. About 18 months ago we started a group in the company to explore business options in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Because I owned a VR headset and had even brought it into the office once, everyone knew I was interested in the space. My coworkers knew I wanted to be a part of this research group before I had even heard about it.

My coworkers knew I wanted to be a part of this research group before I had even heard about it.

While I had always enjoyed VR and AR as a gamer, I had barely tackled the programming and design portion of either. Once again there was a lot of self-education and learning to get up to speed, but this time it was also because the technology was new and there were no experts in our company already. I was able to step up and become the go-to person on this new income stream.

One of our largest projects has been the HoloLens (AR) Holiday Experience at One World Observatory. In a holiday-themed AR treasure hunt, you followed the OWO mascot through portals into different “sister cities” to collect tokens. We also developed a VR Hockey Slapshot Arcade Game for the Buffalo Sabres and are working on a “4D” Motion Seat VR Ride for an undisclosed client.

Not all of our projects are games. We are also working with Massachusetts General Hospital on a Personal Space & Uncanny Valley Behavioral Study, where VR technology will be used to replicate human interactions with a virtual person, to analyze certain social behaviors in patients with neurological conditions. We also hope to see how behaviors change when interacting with people in the real world and avatars of people in a virtual environment.

Do you apply lessons from your degree and formal education in this role?

A lot of the grunt work in Excel that I hated doing as a consultant and learned in undergrad comes in handy all the time. If you ever want to manage a team of developers, or decide on the projects to prioritize, or build a budget for a project, you have to be able to crunch numbers and justify your plan within the business’s goals.

As someone who spent years trying to catch up to the technical skill level of those around me with a computer engineering degree, I have a huge amount of respect for formally educated engineers. At the same time, I think the reason that I have moved ahead at work is because of these softer skills. My liberal arts degree taught me how to be a writer, work as a team, and make presentations. All of these skills are extremely valuable when you want to lead your own team. 

Do you think you would make a complete industry shift again in the future?

I honestly don’t know, but I’m not adverse to it. I have no reason to think that I will do this specific job for the next decade. I’ve made an industry change once before, I could do it again.

What would you advise students currently in college about picking a major?

I knew networking was extremely important, but I don’t think I appreciated how true that was before graduation. If you go to a career fair and get the email of a manager at a company you are excited about, email that person and establish a rapport ASAP.

My college network of friends has been extremely important to me. Not only did I make great friends, but also built a strong professional network. In school, I did a lot of stuff I enjoyed and met people through those clubs and classes. People got to know me as a hard worker and remembered me when opportunities came up.

Your major doesn’t matter as much as you think it does, which is exactly what a bunch of college grads told me when I was in college. When I’m interviewing someone for a role at Productive Edge, I don’t really care what degree someone has. Partly because VR is so new, but also because it doesn’t matter what your degree is if you can do the work.

A degree is the shorthand to the skill set, but it doesn’t have to be.

A degree is a shorthand to the skill set, but it doesn’t have to be. If you can show that you are a proficient web developer, you can get a job as a web developer.

*Images provided by Productive Edge and Michael Carmody

This article was written by Carolyn Pairitz Morris, Senior Editor at Earnest.

Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.