Thinking about technology's impact, not just its implementation

Hillary Manning

Hillary Manning is a Senior Developer who leads engineering for Cloudburst's work with The Goodman Group, a leading assisted living provider. Their big picture view across different contexts makes them especially thoughtful about the impact technology has on people.

What inspired you to work in technology?

I studied psychology in college and worked in mental health during and after undergrad running an eye-tracking research lab, helping digitize therapeutic medical records, and organizing conferences on Narrative Therapy. In every clinic I worked for, there was friction around making the switch to electronic medical records and making decisions over what tech to use, how to stay HIPPA compliant, or how to make it intuitive for clinicians. These urgent challenges made me reflect on how integral technology was to all the businesses I had ever worked for, and how frustrating it is for businesses to lack the technical knowledge they need. I'd always been fascinated by human-computer interaction, so I decided to switch careers so I could help.

How did you come to work at Cloudburst?

After working as an engineer for a few years, I found Cloudburst through Invisible Network, a fabulous job board that's anonymous to reduce hiring bias. Cloudburst's mission to lower the barriers to entry for being an entrepreneur jumped out at me right away. I love that we're saying that as long as we believe you and your idea have potential, we're willing to invest in you to figure out how to make it a reality.

I was also impressed by everyone on the team that I spoke with. They all just seemed like genuine, creative people who were passionate about technology. And then there was the work flexibility and the Cloudburst X program. Cloudburst X is no small part of why I joined Cloudburst!

Hillary using a Magic Leap AR headset and controller
Hillary using a Magic Leap AR headset and controller

What is Cloudburst X?

Cloudburst X is one of the ways Cloudburst invests in its employees. It's a program that compensates Cloudburst employees at the same rate as for their day to day client work (capped at 20% of our individual core commitment hours) for working on what we each believe matters most in technology. And while Cloudburst has full access and a license to use what we create as long we're employees, we retain all intellectual property rights to our work.

Why is the Cloudburst X program so important for you?

For me, Cloudburst X has empowered me to take more seriously my own ideas and opinions about what matters in technology. Having the program is Cloudburst's way of saying, whatever you all think is important is probably important, so go check it out. It honors that people in technology have different perspectives, and that there's a whole lot of other stuff going on in the tech industry beyond what just one company sees.

With Cloudburst X and the ability to adjust my core time commitment, I’ve been able to find balance between supporting our clients, pursuing my own technical passions, and having space for my personal life.

Hillary setting up their green screen studio for mixed reality capture
Hillary setting up their green screen studio for mixed reality capture

What have you explored through Cloudburst X?

I have a particular passion for augmented, mixed and virtual reality. Cloudburst X has given me the opportunity to deepen my understanding of both the technology and the industry surrounding it. My projects have focused on creating virtual experiences and experimenting with lower-barrier-to-entry methods of implementation. With the experiences I've created in Blender, Unity, and most recently Unreal, I've gotten to play with the sense of immersion and suspension of disbelief that you get in virtual spaces.

On the barriers to entry side, I've been assessing how individual creators and small teams can move into AR/MR/VR and find a place in the metaverse. In addition to the financial barriers and accessibility hurdles facing consumers, building with this technology is challenging because it's still very young with many open problems yet to be solved. Similar to how in the early days of the internet there weren't shared web standards, we're currently still moving toward more agreed-upon solutions. Basic assumptions in AR/MR/VR like what we track, how we communicate with sensors, and where we sell content are changing and developing at a fairly break-neck pace. There are certainly companies out there making some incredible proprietary stuff, but for independent creators, there are a lot of moving variables to keep up with.

At Cloudburst we’ve done a fair bit of work building progressive web apps on Ionic, and I’m eager to explore how I can introduce an augmented reality component to that body of work. I think there is room for highly effective, if a bit less flashy, AR experiences that lean more heavily on existing web technologies like Three.js or maybe even A-Frame. What matters is figuring out what doors are open to us with this new technology.

What have been your biggest learnings about the AR/MR/VR space?

Well, those projects led me to a bit of panic around how privacy is so much more at risk with VR. In VR, far more data points can be collected, including biometric data and data that's more personally identifiable than what's generated when you're using the internet as we know it today. What is tracked and who owns the data takes on even more urgency. When you're wearing a VR headset, it has the potential to track your eye movements, your micro-expressions, your audio, and all sorts of other biometrics. That means there's an added moral complexity to developing in VR on top of how it can be implemented.

Considering the moral and social impact of data collection brought me full circle to my final coding bootcamp project at Prime Digital Academy, which looked at a way to visually represent aggregated mental health data over time. Each time someone has a therapy session, they often fill out a wellness survey that asks how they're doing. Clients are rarely afforded the chance to revisit that data, but there's power and possibility in being able to review moments and trends over time.

I think if your data is being collected, it should not only be well-protected, but also easy for you to access and benefit from. I've always both loved technology and been nervous to be a part of the industry because for all the potential good new technologies present, there's also serious potential for harm. If I'm being trusted to make technical decisions, I have to understand and consider the human implications of those decisions too.

Some of the characters Hillary's created in Blender for future VR scenes

How else does Cloudburst X make you a better technologist?

Working on Cloudburst X projects has helped me think more holistically beyond the developer position alone. There's more to technology than the code. There's the product, the people behind it, and the problem you're trying to solve. Having to zoom out and take the non-developer view for my Cloudburst X projects has helped me better relate to the work Cloudburst's clients do as entrepreneurs.

On certain Cloudburst X projects of mine, I've had to manage scope creep after putting more and more ideas on the board. Playing that role has been an opportunity for me to own the decisions about what's feasible and what I'm actually going to do among the set of all the things that can be done. Doing so has made clear the importance of defining an MVP to create a sense of finality around ideas I'm passionate about and could just add to and develop forever.

If you're an entrepreneurial technologist who cares as much about impact as Hillary does, we'd love to learn more about you and your work here.