Do you want to get into the heads of the top initiators and performers from the architectural community? If so, we heartily welcome you to Archipreneur Insights! In this interview series, we talk to the leaders and key players who have created outstanding work and projects within the fields of architecture, building and development. Get to know how they did it and learn how you could do the same for your own business and projects.
From being a novelty a few years ago, VR solutions are slowly becoming a medium that’s transforming the way professionals in the AEC industry communicate, create and experience content. But in our interviews we often hear that the AEC industry is slow to adapt to new technologies. This week we found someone who can get to the bottom of this question: We spoke with Ailyn Mendoza, Director of Customer Experience (CX) at IrisVR, a tech startup that develops virtual reality software for professionals in architecture, engineering and construction.
Ailyn is trained as an landscape architect and prior to IrisVR she worked as a designer and project manager at various landscape architecture firms. Now at IrisVR, she serves as the liaison between software users and the software development team to develop new product features, case studies and educational materials on the power and benefits of virtual reality as a tool for communication, design and construction within AEC.
Keep reading to get an insight into a tech startup, find out how VR can be used in AEC and learn from Ailyn’s path of career.
Enjoy the interview!
Could you tell us a little about your background?
I grew up in Miami, FL and my dream had been to be a fashion designer. But when it came time for college, my parents – who are Cuban immigrants – told me that wasn’t a “real” profession and I could choose from their list of pre-selected “safe” careers: doctor, lawyer, engineer or architect. The only hobby I was really passionate about was drawing, so I started architecture school at Florida International University. I graduated with a Bachelors of Landscape Architecture in 2010 and two years later started course work for my master’s degree at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, graduating in 2013.
Having immigrant parents meant having to pay for school on my own, which turned out to be really valuable for my career. I wanted to avoid as much student debt as I could, and I took any job that paid me to use the skills I was learning in school, which covered everything from sales, graphic design, event planning, and marketing proposals to designing projects and managing construction. I ended up working in some of the best firms and with an amazing roster of mentors.
All of this was happening during the recession, and I quickly learned the most important thing I could do for myself was not to label myself as an “architect” or “landscape architect” because it really limited the work I could apply for.
Instead, I considered myself a problem solver who simply used design thinking to achieve a solution, sometimes with brick and mortar, sometimes with a spreadsheet – and it’s the best career choice I’ve ever made.
When did you first come across Virtual Reality (VR)?
In 2015, prior to joining IrisVR, I was working as a Project Manager at a landscape architecture firm. On the way back from a meeting, I agreed to meet with a friend who was working at IrisVR to see what he was developing. At that time, virtual reality headsets – like the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive – were rare.
While at the office, he gave me a demo of the software (which was in beta) and I immediately could see all the ways that a Project Manager could use it – to help me coordinate within my team the best way to build, and to help win projects by conveying design intent.
My short visit turned into a brainstorming session that evolved into an interview. A few weeks later I had joined the team.
Could you tell us about your job at IrisVR as Director Customer Experience?
Currently I lead the Customer Experience (CX) team at IrisVR where my primary role is to be the voice of our customer and their point of contact at our company.
My day-to-day varies quite a bit as a result. Sometimes I’m working with our product and marketing teams preparing for a software launch, sometimes I’m on the phone with users gathering feedback, or I could be traveling to different offices and cities to provide demos of our software.
How did your architectural training help you in what you do now? What specific/transferable skills have proved the most useful?
I was really fortunate to attend two universities with really amazing curriculums structured to support creativity and exploration. My time at the GSD was like getting dropped off at a playground – we had unlimited resources and access to some of the best faculty which supported your interest in any project you could fathom. As a result, I feel all the skills I learned were transferable and help me daily at my current position.
If I had to pick the most useful skill, I would say it’s the ability to listen and interpret your client’s needs. All those weeks spent on research, site analysis, and demographic research for my studio projects instilled in me how critical it is to have empathy. Your client often won’t know or have the vocabulary to express what they need.
Let’s speak about the products IrisVR offers: Could you give us some examples of how the software can be used and how it helps architectural practices?
We’ve developed two types of software that leverage different types of virtual reality technology. Prospect instantly and automatically converts 3D models into fully navigable VR experiences for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift headsets. Scope is an app that allows you to view rendered 360° panoramas with a Google Cardboard, GearVR, or other mobile VR headset.
The primary users of our software are architects, engineers, and construction companies looking to augment the way they communicate ideas with clients and coordinate across trades.
Virtual reality has become a critical tool because the experience is so much more powerful than a 2D drawing could ever be. The hard truth is most clients don’t understand the beautiful black and white 2D exploded-axon-section-plan you spent days on. Traditional drawings are difficult to read for anyone who doesn’t have years of training and they fail to help your client confidently make decisions.
We’ve heard so much positive feedback from our software users describing the impact VR has had on their work – from saving money on meetings to decreasing coordination time. In particular, architects working in healthcare, retail and hospitality have a lot to gain from using VR because the costs of physical mockups can be so high and delivery timelines can be very tight, leaving no room for error.
On our blog, we have a number of case studies which explain further the many ways VR is being used.
What is the business model of IrisVR?
We are a SaaS company, which means that our software is available for download and purchase directly from our website.
The building industry is known for being slow to adopt new technologies. How is your experience with this?
AEC as a whole is slow to adopt new technologies so it’s important to connect with the industries and users who are at the forefront. For example, construction companies tend to have more resources for investing into new technologies because of the high amount of risk associated with that field. If new technology can increase on-site safety or reduce construction delays that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s worth it for them to invest.
I’ve also seen many firms who’ve learned the hard way that they can’t afford to hit snooze on adopting new technologies because it means that they are losing projects to companies who are at the forefront.
In the past few years, as VR has become more widely known, I’ve also witnessed a shift in who is demanding VR. Project owners are increasingly including a “VR deliverable” as part of the scope of work, where they might stipulate that a certain software is used in the project. Many of our current AEC users have found our software because their clients have requested that they integrate VR into the project.
Do you have any advice for architects looking to change careers?
First, don’t undervalue the skills you’ve learned in design school. When you work at a firm it’s easy to feel like your skills are not unique, but the moment you leave the industry you realize how valuable those photoshop and project management skills actually are.
Second, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it. Two years ago, when I told most of my colleagues (and my parents) that I was leaving my safe career as a landscape architect to join a VR company, I received a lot of grief. From the, “that’s probably going to fail” look to, “what a waste of talent” pity glance, none of it deterred me. Today, I have still haven’t looked back. In an odd twist of fate the number of emails I get from friends, classmates, and old co-workers wanting to know how they too can use virtual reality increases weekly now.
And of course, regardless of where you choose to go to next, join a team you trust and work well with. These are the people you’ll spend 40, 50, sometimes 60+ hours with on any given week. To succeed, you’ll have to work quickly and efficiently, and the ability to anticipate each other’s needs will help you move faster during those critical growth moments.
In which areas (outside of traditional practice) can you see major business opportunities for up and coming architects?
There is a bounty of opportunity for up and coming architects outside of traditional practice – it’s simply a matter of perspective. From working in robotics, graphic design and UX/UI, there are a ton of excellent careers that need creative thinkers who can also execute the work. Take advantage of course work that pushes you into exploring non-traditional skill sets, for example app design and coding, because you won’t regret it.
But like Baz Luhrmann, the best advice I can give anyone is to wear sunscreen.
About Ailyn Mendoza
Based in NYC, Ailyn is the Director of Customer Experience (CX) at IrisVR, a tech startup that develops virtual reality software for professionals in architecture, engineering and construction.
Prior to IrisVR, Ailyn worked as a designer and project manager at various landscape architecture firms, including Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, DLANDstudio and Raymond Jungles. As a minority professional she has been involved in diversity initiatives, including the ASLA’s National Diversity Summit and CLARB’s Foresight Sessions. She holds a post-professional degree from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University and has 8 years of practice within AEC.