Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Ellen Juhlin is the Head of Product at Orion Labs, leading product development of its powerful voice communication platform, wearables, mobile apps and web interfaces.
Prior to Orion, Ellen held several product development roles at Meyer Sound, producer of industry-leading, high-quality, self-powered sound reinforcement loudspeakers and digital audio systems. She managed the development and launch of cutting-edge programmable audio automation products for large-scale venues, including theme parks and Broadway shows. She was also closely involved with several audio networking standards groups, defining use cases and interoperability requirements for professional audio products.
Ellen holds a BFA from Carnegie Mellon, where she did everything from recording classical music performances, learning how to code and creating virtual reality games. Ellen lives in San Francisco, CA and spends her spare time building interactive art and storytelling experiences.
Ellen, how did you get into this industry? Tell us a bit more about your background and your projects so far.
I’ve always had a passion for audio and complex automation systems, and in my previous job at Meyer Sound, I specified high-end audio processing hardware plus audio networking standards. When I heard about what the early Orion Labs team was setting out to do (enabling teams with superpowers through real-time voice communication tools), I jumped at the chance to apply my experience in design, product development and audio to a wearable (and platform) for team communication.
My first project with Orion was the original Onyx voice wearable. No one else had done anything like it so we were breaking new ground in trying to get smartphones and Bluetooth to do things that they weren’t really designed for. We learned a lot from that first product, and for the next Onyx (the one available today), we ended up having to design our own Bluetooth Low Energy protocols in order to support instant voice messaging. Alongside that, we were also building two mobile apps, plus the platform and infrastructure to support message delivery anywhere in the world. So it’s been a challenging but exciting journey.
What does your current job role entail?
As Head of Product at Orion, I’ve defined the roadmap for nearly every type of product we’ve created, including hardware, firmware, iOS and Android mobile apps, platform services, web apps, and enterprise features, plus bots and integrations. So every day I am communicating the vision for our products, and working closely with the team to achieve that vision.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
Right now, we’re working on bots, which allow you to automate certain workflows that you can activate with a simple voice command. These bots will enable a more efficient and safer workspace for a number of industries including hospitality, healthcare, retail, public safety and manufacturing. For instance, an employee can ask the bot to check on inventory or call for help in a dangerous situation. Voice bots have really taken off in the consumer and B2C space in the last couple years (Alexa Skills or Facebook Messenger bots, for instance), but there’s also a huge untapped opportunity for voice bots in B2B.
Orion also just launched AppTalk for Android. The AppTalk feature now allows anyone with an Android device to use the Orion mobile app as a push-to-talk device, making it easier for teams to get started quickly.
Outside of work, I’ve been doing various coding and electronics hacking for interactive art projects. I’ve built an interactive phone system (678-WAYMARK) for listening to fictional stories about real locations, and I’m currently building a pedestrian walk button that will say unusual or unexpected things when you press the button.
How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges?
My degree is a BFA in Drama from Carnegie Mellon University, and my original career path was towards sound design and interactive entertainment. However, within a year of graduating, I was doing product management for networked audio automation systems, and I’ve focused on software and hardware product development ever since. So I lucked out initially on being able to jump from being a technology user to being an expert product specialist, and then my eight years of experience at Meyer Sound in different roles was directly applicable to all the things that Orion wanted to do: hardware, networked systems and audio.
The biggest challenge was making the switch from professional audio to consumer products. I had a strong desire to make products that were powerful, yet easy to use, and it took a while to find the right fit. Most companies in the consumer space were looking for someone who already had experience with consumer products, and the products I had worked on were rather industrial-looking. So when I went in to interview, they would look at these complex desktop apps I had worked on and wonder how I would be able to design a slick mobile app experience. This is when I lucked out again in finding a startup that was making a consumer-oriented voice wearable, and needed people with experience in audio, hardware and manufacturing.
How long did it take you to be where you are now? What was the biggest obstacle?
The biggest obstacle overall was fighting an uphill battle against stereotypes about women, especially within the audio industry. It’s even more male-dominated than tech, so it was hard to find role models or allies who had navigated the same challenges. In many environments, it was hard to figure out who I could trust. Early on, when I was working in live events, a coworker secretly re-wired parts of the audio system so that when I went on shift the next day, nothing was working as expected. Everyone else was waiting on me, and we nearly had to cancel a show because of it. Once I discovered that the wiring had changed, we were able to work around it, and it was clear who had been at fault, but in the meantime it created this perception that I didn’t know what I was doing. That was one of the more overtly hostile challenges. The much more common case later on was that most customers assumed that because I was female I didn’t know anything technical, so it was a continuous struggle to fight against those preconceived notions. But despite the hostile working environment in some places, I knew I was doing the work I wanted to do, and wasn’t about to let anyone stop me.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
There are a couple of things that I’m really proud of. One is getting to build out the whole ecosystem of products at Orion – hardware, firmware, mobile, web, integrations and voice bots. I’ve led the roadmaps on all of these, and seeing the whole system take shape and evolve into products that our users are excited about has been really rewarding. Along with that, I’ve been guiding the growth of Orion as a company from the beginning, and creating a culture that is inclusive and supportive of everyone doing their best work has been extremely gratifying.
What does the #WomenInTech movement mean to you? What are the challenges of being a woman in wearable tech?
The #WomenInTech movement is meaningful to me for a couple reasons: One, it’s been the impetus for a lot of valuable conversations around validating people’s experiences. There are so many working environments, both within tech and outside of it, where women are harassed, disbelieved and minimized. This movement has brought to light that these experiences are real, they are harmful to everyone, and that companies need to take a hard look at which behaviors and individuals they are accepting, and which ones they are implicitly excluding as a result.
The other reason why this movement has been valuable to me is in the visibility it’s provided to other women doing awesome work. In the past couple years, I’ve met so many more women in tech, both online and offline, and it’s been so inspiring to see so much creativity and fearless ambition.
In your opinion, what will be the key trends in the wearable tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
Voice and accessible AI have been emergent technologies in the past couple years, and there is a lot of opportunity for ubiquitous access to people and services via wearable voice interfaces. Most wearable tech is inseparable from a conversation around personal style, and we’ll continue to see interesting crossovers here that will fall more on the side of tech-enabled fashion. Wearable sensors also introduce both challenges and opportunities around security and privacy, and we’ll see things that continue to blur the line between data collection/aggregation and personal authentication.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech?
The women I’ve been most inspired by in the past couple years are:
Jeri Ellsworth – She has worked on so many different projects in so many areas, from building and selling computers, coding, electronics, chemistry, radio, and of course, wearable AR/VR. She has a consistent drive to share what she has built with others, and when you hear her stories about what she’s working on, you can’t help but feel excited about new possibilities.
Cathy Pearl – Cathy has been working in interactive voice for some time now, and even wrote the book on designing voice user interfaces. AI and voice have become more ubiquitous in the past couple years, and her work has been focused on the importance of making computers behave more like humans so we can interact with them more naturally, especially in times when our attention is pulled in so many directions at once.
Kate Compton – Kate has literally turned bots into an art form, including bots that generate interesting fabric patterns for skirts and scarves – wearable tech in a different sense! She brings a sense of fun, whimsy and accessibility to procedurally-generated content that is a refreshing change from the “everything complex must be difficult” mentality.
Personal website: www.ellenjuhlin.com
LinkedIn: Ellen Juhlin
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.