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Member Profile: Barb Helfer

1. What do you do, and how long have you been doing it?

I am a technical program manager for a company called Immersion, who is the leader in haptic technologies for mobile, content, and medical simulation. I have been at Immersion for three years, but I have been doing project management, specifically Agile project management, for 10 years.

2. What was your first job?

My first job out of college was as a Broadcast engineer at WSPA-TV. My first job in graphics was because of my background in designing broadcast systems. The Ohio Supercomputer Center (OSC) hired me to install their production facility and to run their Ohio Visualization Lab for their OSGP team. Their APE (Animation Production Environment) was the precursor for several commercial scientific visualization products, including AVS and Explorer.

3. Where did you complete your formal education?

It is doubtful that I will ever complete my formal education. I am taking courses constantly, and as my dad tells everyone, I am his “perpetual student.” I love to learn and I try to learn something new daily, and that is why this industry is so fascinating.

My undergraduate and graduate degrees are from the University of South Carolina, in Journalism (Broadcasting). I have an AEE from Spartanburg Technical College with a specialty in Broadcast Engineering, and I have a Masters Certificate from UC Berkeley in Project Management. I am still taking courses at UC Berkeley in Agile Management.

4. How did you first get involved with ACM SIGGRAPH?

My first day at OSC, after I got my login credentials, I picked up my airplane ticket and headed to Atlanta for this conference called SIGGRAPH. I didn’t know anything about the conference, but being from the south I knew Atlanta. The first person I met at the Conference was John Fujii, who was working as a student volunteer. John was part of the ACCAD program at Ohio State, and was housed in the same building as OSC. John and I have been friends ever since, and he was the person who got me interested in volunteering. My first SIGGRAPH volunteer experience was in 1993, reviewing courses. I was on the Courses Committee in 1995, when Wayne Carlson asked me to participate.

5. What is your favorite memory of a SIGGRAPH conference?

This is a hard one because there are so many. Each conference has something that is especially unique to itself. But I think the one memory that I have at every SIGGRAPH is that it is like coming home to a big reunion. I have met so many wonderful people over the years, and to see them each year and to catch up on their lives is precious to me. I am so grateful for my SIGGRAPH relationships and the community that supports them.

One of the traditions I had at SIGGRAPH was to have dinner with John Fujii and Scott Senften during the Conference, and it was always a highlight of my week. Scott hasn’t been at the last few conferences, so I miss that time with my two friends.

Since joining the Communications Committee, we having been having Wednesday morning breakfasts at the Conference, and it is always a wonderful time. This group of people, Teresa, Kristy, Ken, Aaron, Jacky, Emily, Michele, and Tim are fun to be with. We work really hard throughout the year to bring the ACM SIGGRAPH Community up-to-date news about the industry, the conference, and the organization through the website, social media, and newsletters. I am proud of the team, they are dedicated and good at what they do. We have three new members this year: Theresa-Marie, Alex, and Diana. I can’t wait for them to meet the rest of the team.

6. Describe a project that you would like to share with the ACM SIGGRAPH community.

I started out in this industry with video expertise, moved to CG, and now I am doing project management. I believe that my ability in project management stems from two things: (1) learning to work geometry problems backwards in high school because working the forward made no sense to me, and (2) technical directing the 11 o’clock news.

You start with the end in mind and work backwards, you know where you need to be at any point on the time continuum. My goal for every project that I run is that on the due date, we are all composed, rested, and proud of what we have accomplished. But it is only accomplished by knowing where you are and focusing on the end goal throughout the project.

Technical directing taught me that you only have a certain length of time, and at any point you have to make a decision to cut, extend, or add content. That happens in project management as well, you always have more “asks” then the time allotted, so you learn to prioritize and work on only the items that will satisfy the customer needs.

I am working on becoming a certified Agile Coach because I really believe in the process as a great way to do development, both on the job and in my personal life.

7. If you could have dinner with one living or non-living person, who would it be and why?

My first instinct here is to say Harry Truman because of his attitude to do what was best for the whole rather than what he wanted for himself. But then I thought more about it and the person I would want to have dinner with is Turner Whitted. He is one of the visionaries in this field and I could listen to him for hours and never be bored.

8. What is something most people don’t know about you?

I like to highpoint. That means climbing to the highest point in every state. I got involved in this activity when John Alexander got me hooked. I have climbed to this highest point in 20 states, with Mt Elbert in Colorado (14,439 ft) being the highest so far. I hike with the South Bay Ramblers several weekends a month as we scout out different trails in the San Francisco Bay Area.

9. From which single individual have you learned the most in your life? What did they teach you?

I have to thank my parents for this. They have been extremely encouraging of me. When I was in college, most females tended to go toward teaching and nursing as professions, but I loved to write so when I wanted to go into journalism they were supportive. My dad has been influential, and his attitude about doing what can be done today, not worrying abouttomorrow, and giving it your best daily has resonated with me. I am lucky to not have had many opportunities to look back on my life and say “what if,” and I thank him for it. My mom and her tenacity and never give up spirit has rubbed off on me. When I get that call on Saturday morning, sometimes at 4am, about computer problems, I am amazed at what she has done before she has called me.

I fell in love with broadcasting after I took my first course when I had a dynamic, crotchety professor, Dr. Lee Dudek. He was totally amazing, and I remember his first speech in my first class (and every other class with him), and it has set me on my way as a professional. He told us “No one owes you anything, not an education and certainly not a job. You have to earn it, and you have to earn it throughout your career.” That is why I constantly keep my skills up to date, why I learn new things daily, and why I am willing to take on new challenges.

10. Is there someone in particular who has influenced your decision to work with ACM SIGGRAPH?

John Fujii was the first. Scott Senften was the person who got me to interview for the Courses Chair for the SIGGRAPH 1997 Conference, and Scott Owens gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. But there have been so many people along the way that have influenced my decisions to make this a lifelong commitment, such as Judy Brown, Mary Whitton, and Alain Chenais.

I would be remiss if I don’t call out Turner Whitted as well, in the first 1997 Conference meeting when we were paired as a team with Barbara Mones-Hattal. He could have taken over but he let us present the group thoughts and it provided me with a confidence to go out and do what I needed to do with my program.

11. What can you point to in your career as your proudest moment?

There have been several of them. One was the 1997 Conference when I was Courses Chair. It went off flawlessly, and I attribute that to the great people I had on my committee. The second was my first day at LeapFrog when I finally realized that project management was my passion and I loved getting people where they needed to go. And finally, I think the day I got my PMP, which was an accomplishment because it was the hardest test I have ever taken in my entire life. I will stay current on my certification if for no other reason than I don’t want to take that test again.