Q&A with Mk Haley
August 1, 2013

Q&A with Mk Haley

Disney Research’s Mk Haley discusses her position as SIGGRAPH 2013 conference chair and looks ahead to the show.

Mk Haley

Tell us about yourself from a personal level.

I am pretty excited to be chairing the conference not only for its 40th anniversary, but, personally, my 25th conference in a row. Two pretty neat milestones. I have worked with some amazing teams both professionally and personally, and often interconnect my SIGGRAPH professional and personal worlds in support of each other. I studied design as an undergrad, and was pretty quickly attracted to the computer graphics and animation program that was just beginning at the University of Massachusetts. One of the first in the country to have artists mucking about with code and terminals and plotters, giant CAD machines, Commodores, and a lot of classes in the Computer Science and Math Departments.

Eager to do more after seeing the possibilities at my first SIGGRAPH in 1989, I went to grad school in Southern California, enjoyed some fine late-night hours with a donated VAX 11/780, and got to visit the JPL artists in resident program. I was thrilled to be asked by Walt Disney Imagineering, 'So let's get this straight, you are an artist who can code on a Unix box? Can you start tomorrow?' It seems silly during this day and age to even specify that you create using a computer - it is presumed. But choosing to do so a long time ago has really allowed me some fun adventures across both my left and right brain.

What do you bring to SIGGRAPH in terms of this professional experience?

As conference chair, I have some really unique insight into far more programs that one might, having served across many of the conference programs in some capacity already. I had a deep understanding of their strengths and opportunities for evolution. I also bring with me some business and project management models that suit the efficient operation and evolution of the conference well, and am working to integrate the business side of the conference more closely with the juried content side to meet the needs of not just the attendees, but all critical contributors to the experience.

What made you take on the volunteer position of conference chair?

I was encouraged to, I was excited to tackle such an interesting challenge, and I certainly feel an obligation to serve an organization that has given me so much. Conference chair is a massive and multi-year commitment, and you have to have your employer onboard to support that effort before you can even consider it. I was teaching at Carnegie Mellon University and working with Disney Research when asked to serve in this role, and both were hugely supportive of the idea. Disney especially has single-handedly had the most influence on my being able to support the conference for so many years, and as a result, gain some really valuable professional development opportunities.

I was a graduate student when I started at Disney in 1994 (SIGGRAPH Orlando, super convenient!) and even as an intern, my management team took the lead to figure out how to shuffle our schedules so that I could support the conference and still hit my deliverables. I was authorized to have fancy things like a pager before I was senior enough to have one, because it allowed my team confidence that they could reach me while I traveled for SIGGRAPH. Disney, and every other company that supports team members' volunteer efforts with flexible schedules or time to travel, are a huge part of why the conference can even happen each year.

From on-site volunteers, to content creation and serving on juries, this is a volunteer-run conference, and that only happens when industry supports it. I am forever grateful for that encouragement and support to volunteer in smaller, and now giant, ways.

What other SIGGRAPH positions have you held?

Egad, there is a bunch…. Started in 1989 as a Student Volunteer in Boston, and I saw some mind-boggling things that year (fractals, fur, and Pixar's 'Knick Knack' in 3D)! I had to come back. I have served as director for communications, as part of the Education Committee, as Student Volunteer chair in 1997, as Emerging Technologies chair in 2001, as director of Encounters in 2008 and 2009, was invited to be tagged a 'SIGGRAPH Pioneer' after 21 years of work in the field, and now conference chair for 2013. This is my 25th year in a row volunteering in support of the conference in one way or another. (Yes, indeed, I have a lot of SIGGRAPH T-shirts.)

What can attendees expect this year at SIGGRAPH?

Attendees can expect really focused and high-quality content. Each venue chair came to me with a specific plan for their program, justification for why it was a great idea, and focused outreach to ensure the highest quality submissions. Emerging Technologies, for example, had a focus on assistive technologies, the Computer Animation Festival strove to get a global and diverse jury to have as many lenses as possible evaluating the content. We have been sure to focus on the quality of the entire experience with our mantra of 'service, community and delight' across every aspect of the planning, selection, and execution process.

For example, in the area of 'service,' the submission and review process was streamlined for our juried content. All our hotels for the conference are within walking distance, and we are providing resources to our first-time attendees to help navigate what can be an overwhelming experience. In service to our 'community, we are tailoring a custom session to address the history and concerns of our members embroiled in the dynamic changes seen in the past few months in the visual effects industry. We are working to support those in our community who lost jobs this past year, and we are celebrating 40 years of the People of SIGGRAPH with a really fun app (http://siggraphpeople.siggraph.org). Add yourself! And 'delight' is difficult to define, but you sure will know it when you see it - in general, the idea that you had to be there!

What specifically are you looking forward to most at the show?

Whichever trailer, paper, proposal, or submission I most recently saw. I look at the accepted and anticipated content and find myself thinking, 'Yes! I am totally going to see that!' or 'They are doing what?!' Each piece of content has such potential, and they are all raising the anticipation levels pretty high right now. Today, it's the Technical Papers Fast Forward session. (At the time of this interview) We just released the Technical Papers trailer, (see below), and I have watched it over and over already. It's a treat to see so many ideas so quickly, and the Papers Fast Forward session onsite is a similar delight. (You have to be there to see it!) Oh wait, I also just saw the first draft of the Computer Animation Festival trailer, mostly my jaw was hanging open for that, so that is also going to be amazing, and inspiring. I better stop now before I see something else and change my mind.

How has the conference managed to stay relevant given the overall trend toward smaller and more targeted trade shows?

SIGGRAPH has a robust attendee feedback system that has provided some great direction - smaller and more targeted is exactly a goal for us in many ways. We turned last year's attendee survey data around in just weeks to be able to integrate some of the feedback immediately into the 2013 planning process. Specifically, our attendees expressed appreciation for hands-on tutorials and training sessions, so you will see more of that at the conference this year. We are also exploring some of the more modern educational models being explored, and will contribute with some of our own online content this year. Our courses chair has carefully selected a series of introductory courses to be taped onsite, and shown online, for free, to anyone who wants it after the fact. The idea being that future attendees can learn some of the basics online to prepare them to jump into more advanced content onsite the following year.

Over time, we will continue to build up a larger and larger base of shared content in this 'SIGGRAPH University' experiment. It also allows us to extend our impact beyond just the few short days of the conference. Our Business Symposium is only one day, and this allows a highly focused and targeted experience for the business leaders in the industry, which better meets their needs. I have also worked to really integrate our exhibitors and other business partners into the content side of the experience more this year. I am excited to beta-test an Exhibitors' Fast Forward Session, modeled off the Papers Fast Forward Session, that gives a fast-paced and high-level overview of exciting offerings to a captive audience. As the needs of all of our stakeholders morph, be they attendees, contributors, exhibitors, retirees or students, we are responding to those need with options that best serve everyone's interest.

What are the exhibition numbers looking like right now?

So far, (early May) we have 135 exhibitors taking approximately 42,000 square feet of floor space, which is running right in pace with last year in Los Angeles. Most of them are enthused to stay in Southern California and glad to be in a new city. One interesting trend is that we are seeing smaller start-ups that are standing alongside long-time exhibitors, including some cool apps. We are also seeing the international trend continue, with 45 non-US exhibitors, which is right on par with our normal percentage from 18 different countries…19 including the US!

We also are welcoming some new exhibitors to their first SIGGRAPH ever.

What are some of the best tips you have received from past chairs?

'Holler loud and long if it matters to you.' We are a volunteer-run organization, you often need a champion to pick up ideas and run with them, or they can easily fall off the radar. So, being able to convince the team that stuff was awesome, and worthy, and not my ideas but everyone's, has been critical to allowing them to thrive because others started hollering with me and picked good ideas up and ran with them.

'Check on the cost of that….' Convention center and other related costs do not always reflect the day-to-day world - you are as often pleasantly surprised as not. But it does change your decisions when you have as informed a choice as possible; you can really choose to invest in the priorities.

'Put the assets in front of our guest's eyeballs.' It's an easy call to make if the choice is between our team walking far to get to venues, or the attendees having to walk far. Attendee wins every time.

What is the best tip you have for the next chair?

Pick a great team and let them do their job. I have an amazing team of program chairs with very specific ideas they were thrilled to move forward, and a gracious attitude about the conference and organization as a whole before their individual venues. Which, of course, has let so much more flourish than any single-minded effort ever could.

Every year the chair's influence can be felt to some degree on the overall show. How will your background and interests be included in this year's show?

I come from a long history of customer service, and have really focused the team on a lot of back-of-house operational opportunities, as well as front-of-house experiences. Tools and processes that respect and serve our submitters, jurors, attendees, exhibitors, and partners. We are creating one-of-a-kind experiences that will really make it worthwhile to our attendees to have trusted us with their time. And I am laying the groundwork tools and culture-wise for service to be paramount, and keeping the idea top of mind at all times is a very specific influence I am pleased to have brought.

What is the mark you hope to leave on SIGGRAPH 2013?

I hope that my team has helped set a precedence for caring about the community, the conference over time, and then their individual venues, in that order - because it has allowed them to shape an experience far larger and with more of an impact than focusing on just their own tiny piece ever could. We are baby-stepping on some initiatives that are only possible because of presumed growth over time and a partnership with the 2014 team already. We are taking our lead from some experiments last year, and handing off seedlings to next year. And, of course, awesome stuff. I want as few distractions as possible related to operations or other necessary details, and more time to celebrate and engage in and learn and share the best in computer graphics and interactive technologies, and each other.