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Employee Spotlight: Ciku Karanja

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The Tech Project Manager Helps Take Lucasfilm Into the Future In More Ways Than One

First, can you tell us your current title and summarize your day-to-day responsibilities?

Technology Project Manager, Virtual Production. I support some of the R&D teams across Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) who build the software behind LED Volume shoots, motion capture, and facial capture shoots. Day-to-day I support these engineers in organizing how to best support the artists and shows that depend on our tools.

How does your role fit within your larger team?

Tech PMs are a conduit for conversation and conflict resolution. Organizing a project plan is one fraction of the job. Things are changing constantly here so a bigger part of the job is juggling the rapid context switching across the development needs based on an ever-changing show slate.

When did you start at the company, and in what role?

I started as a project manager focused on security and compliance of third party visual effects partners. But not too long after I started I also received acceptance into a dreamy graduate school program I couldn’t turn down. Thankfully, two years later, they let me back in the building and trusted me with one of the most inspiring technology projects in the industry right now. No idea how that happened, but I am grateful.

What were your first impressions of Lucasfilm?

I thought I had found my last job. The place is full of down-to-earth nerds who are genuinely excited to learn something new everyday. Felt like home.

Could you summarize your background before joining the company? Where did you go to school? What early jobs did you have?

I am from the San Francisco Bay Area, and I went to undergrad in Los Angeles. I studied film and have always been passionate about it but I really didn’t want to stay in LA. That narrowed down the options in this industry and I ended up at a media tech company, Gracenote, for a few years. That was awesome; but Lucasfilm was always a goal company to work for.

Everything about the studio’s origin story was in line with the type of media creator I aspired to be: a challenger to traditional models, and driven by ambitions that constantly stretch and test the limits of our imaginations….I can’t think of a more compelling workforce to join.

What inspired you to get involved in this industry?

I’ve been interested in media as a tool since my middle school days: I was at a small independent school where we would talk about identity and learning through difference a lot. Other than playing The Sims, the main form of entertainment for my best friend and I was developing short film projects poking fun at celebrity culture and racial assumptions. We thought we were really hilarious and clever, but our audience (a.k.a. our families) would probably beg to differ.

What is your favorite part of your job?

On the hardest of days, this place is an interesting case study in how to achieve things people have never done before. That is the thing that keeps me coming back eager to be part of that ambition.

Is there anything about your job or your team that you think people outside would find surprising or different in the way things work?

The level of humility in the building is insane– especially within technology. I work with some of the most brilliant contributors to the field — people who’ve won awards, earned accolades, changed the industry forever, and yet are still really gracious with their time and really easy to talk to.

Another thing that I have found surprising is that it is both easier than it looks and harder than it looks to achieve the things that come out of the studio. A lot of it boils down to being able to communicate efficiently enough. However, communication is HARD. There is no amount of technical experience that I would trade for an effective communicator on my team. Every success we have had I can attribute to these contributors and 99% of the failures I can trace back to communication breakdowns.

Are there any types of skills or attributes (beyond the normal qualifications) that you think are important for someone in your role or one like it?

Being an effective communicator is invaluable. It is something that is true everywhere, but especially here because of how many unknowns we are trying to tackle at any given time.

Do you have a favorite memory (or memories) of your time on the job? Any stand-out accomplishments or cool opportunities?

Last summer I was nudged into speaking up in a company town hall where we were reflecting on the current events, systemic racism, and how we — as individuals and as a community — play a role in that system. Really there was a lot of angst and hopelessness. We know that we are responsible as media creators, but a lot of the community was stuck on the “what can I do?” question.

I suggested that the first action we could take on is to learn from scholars who have dedicated their lives to reckoning with these manifestations of injustice in the world.

Thankfully our leadership rallied around the idea. They were open to digging deeper into critical media literacy and structural injustice and leveraging academic insights to get us to some ground truths about creating media responsibly.

That led to the birth of the coolest project I’ve been part of today: Good Questions Lab. It is a pop-up university at Lucasfilm focused on critically analyzing media throughout history in different parts of the world and it has been the most rewarding experience of my career so far.

Can you tell us more about the Good Questions Lab? How did this initiative evolve?

It was designed with curiosity at its core: we called it Good Questions Lab because it’s not focused on finding specific solutions; it’s about exploring the connections between our work and our world.

We also wanted to be an intentional space: people had to apply to join the Lab and come in with some forethought of what they wanted to try to get out of it.

Just like university, after each lecture we get into smaller “Lab” groups of 7-10 people and are guided through a discussion of the lecture with the help of interpersonal learning facilitators.

It is crazy — I was just talking to someone about the advice we received about being a professional in the workplace and how for the longest time, it was made clear that it is taboo to talk about anything related to identity or ideology at work.

Last summer changed everything — at Lucasfilm especially I think we’re hungry to be smart about the problem and we are sincere in the effort we put into it. We aren’t looking at DEI as a representation checklist or marketing campaign: we are trying to tease out how to trigger fundamental change in our community.

Every lecture, the discussions get more challenging and yet people still show up. We hold healthy tensions, uncomfortable silence, and heavy questions. The commitment to the work is something I haven’t seen in any other company. To be honest, I don’t think I could have pulled this off anywhere else.

It is so challenging and nourishing at the same time, I frikkin’ love it.

Have you had any favorite moments or best experiences so far in your work with the Good Questions Lab?

I love all the new people I’ve met because of it.

I am a socially awkward person and it always takes me longer to meet people I feel comfortable being myself with. Layer a pandemic on top of everything and it is virtually impossible to build meaningful relationships at work.

So when people started applying and we started talking about things that had been off limits in the workplace, it felt like unlocking some secret society of other people who were down for this type of thing too!

And folks are coming from all kinds of backgrounds: some who studied critical media literacy in film school 10 years ago, others who are just getting a chance to think about these things, others still who have lived experience and are delighted by finding validation of that experience backed by theory and history in academia.

That combination of perspectives is where the magic is: together we’re trying to break down barriers and open up the possibilities of challenging the status quo.

What advice would you give to those aspiring to join Lucasfilm (this could be specific to your type of job or the company in general)?

Come ready to learn and be patient with yourself while you are learning. This place is intricate and complex and you will be learning something new every day of your career here.

Sounding like a broken record here, but, the most useful thing to hone in on is being an efficient communicator. Expressing yourself clearly AND succinctly is a rare and precious skillset. I think that’s useful anywhere you go, but it is particularly valuable here where so much of what we are doing doesn’t come predefined.


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