Digital media pros advise young alumni at Silicon Valley networking event

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Digital media panelists included (clockwise from top left): Digby Horner, Kevin Nolting, Eric Ellis, and Rob Lord.

A panel of four highly accomplished UC Santa Cruz alumni with expertise in digital media shared their insights and experience with an eager crowd of younger alumni at a recent networking event held at the Google campus in Mountain View.

More than 50 participants came to the October 13 Silicon Valley young alumni networking night, where they met with seasoned pros in the areas of computer gaming, animation, and digital media. The panelists were Kevin Nolting (Porter College, 1979), an editor at Pixar Animation Studios; Digby Horner (Crown College, 1984), senior vice president of the Engineering Technologies Group at Adobe; Rob Lord (College Eight, 1994), a serial entrepreneur with nearly ten digital media start-ups under his belt; and Eric Ellis (Merrill College, 1995), head consultant for Stubborn Gorilla, a company that provides contract programming for video game development.

The panelists told their career stories, discussed their industry sectors, and answered questions from the audience. The panel discussion was followed by informal networking, as the panelists talked to alumni interested in their particular industry sectors.

"The panelists were very gracious. They made each attendee feel welcome and stayed late to interact with everyone there," said Andrew Susskind (College Nine, 2005), who came to the event from Berkeley, where he works at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. "The structure of this event reflected the mentorship feel of UCSC, and it was great to run into old friends. It reminds you that no matter where you go in life, Banana Slugs are close by."

Working in digital media requires strong technical skills, but much of the panel discussion focused on other qualities, in addition to technical competency, that companies are looking for in their employees. Those qualities include creativity, adaptability, and the ability to work well with others on collaborative projects.

"Video game development is a constantly changing field, so they want people who are creative and can adapt," Ellis said. "It's also a collaborative field--you have to work with other people--so how you present yourself is important."

Nolting, who started his career 25 years ago editing live-action film, shared insights into the small world of Hollywood film-making, where who you know is still paramount. His transition to digital editing required new technical skills, but Nolting said some of the most important skills for his career he acquired as an undergraduate at UCSC, where he earned a degree in aesthetic studies and creative writing. "Writing turned out to be important, because film editing is all about telling a story," he said.

Horner, asked what he wished he'd known when he started his career, said he was initially naive about fundamental business principles. "I was all about technical competency, but if I'd had more knowledge of how business is really done, it would have benefited me early on," he said.

Lord talked about the exciting world of Silicon Valley start-up companies, angel investors, and disruptive innovations. "Know your tolerance for fear," he advised. "If you're in the start-up space, you need to be prepared to fail spectacularly."

When it comes to pitching ideas, Lord said a digital entrepreneur needs to be able to tell the same story in three different languages. The "geek story" explains the technical innovations behind the idea; the "product story" explains what it offers to customers; and the "business story" explains how it's going to make money. "You're telling the same story, but for different audiences," he said.

UCSC alumni now working at Google were instrumental in hosting the event there, including Oliver Style (College Nine, 2007), who helped plan and coordinate the event. The crowd was welcomed by Vikram Sahai (M.S., computer engineering, 1992), currently a software engineer at Google.org and a longtime Google employee. The event was organized by the University Relations Silicon Valley Regional Team.