Head of Product Design Engineering · Oculus VR
If you’ve ever used a Mac laptop, experienced virtual reality or checked yourself in automatically with Facebook, you can thank Caitlin Kalinowski, who helped build these technologies.
When Caitlin was five, her parents got her a fancy remote control car, which she promptly disassembled that same night to see how it worked. Her frustrated parents vowed never to buy her another remote car, but she finally wore them down years later. They bought her a Batman racecar as long as she agreed not to take it apart. “I lasted about five days before disassembling it.”
Caitlin pursued product design at Stanford, which is a mix of mechanical engineering, product design, studio art and psychology. In school, Caitlin often felt constrained by the programming. “I couldn’t use the full breadth of my creativity. Concurrent to studying, I took the most interesting internships I could find. Working in industry was a better match to my personality than school, where you are often working on problems that other people have already solved. In the real world you are confronted with new problems, problems that nobody before you has solved or even faced.”
After three years, she left Stanford and started working at the startup OQO on the world’s first ultra-mobile handtop PC. Caitlin left to work at Apple under Kate Bergeron (now VP of hardware engineering), who was critical to her engineering development, and supported her in completing her BS while working half-time at Apple. “You can be the most skilled designer in the world, but without learning about how things are made practically, how to weld, how to machine, you’re limiting your potential. Finishing school was a powerful means to getting the design opportunities and the career I wanted.”
Caitlin became the thermal lead for the MacBook Pros then led the design and manufacturing method for the bottom covers for the MacBook Airs. “At that time, nobody had ever machined anything that complex at the volumes we were looking at. We had to buy the majority of all the CNC machines in the world for several years, and invent totally new manufacturing processes.” One day, a couple years later, she remembers walking into a coffee shop in San Francisco and seeing four different models of Mac laptops that she worked on. “I had this huge feeling of satisfaction about the impact of my work. It was incredible to see my ‘babies’ out in the world.”
Caitlin went on to Facebook where she designed free Facebook Bluetooth Beacons so customers could see useful information during their visit to local businesses. After Facebook acquired Oculus, in December of last year, she joined as the Head of Product Design. “I’m most proud of Oculus Touch, which we just announced this summer. The first thing someone did when they experienced virtual reality was reach out to see their hands, but until now they haven’t been in the VR experience with you. With Oculus Touch, suddenly your hands are there in front of you, able to shoot lasers, hit tetherballs, and launch arrows. It’s the best virtual reality feedback input out there. It’s really exciting to be a part of the team driving both Rift and Touch, and to ensure that people are not only blown away by the technology, but by the experiences that bring that technology to life.”
Caitlin subscribes to the fail early and often mantra. “The only reason we fail is because we are growing fast and hitting new ceilings as we move up. You have to have grit — you can’t get discouraged. It’s important to honor challenges and difficulties as teaching methods.” Her advice for young women in engineering is to stay focused. “Remember there is a reason you are here, even if it feels like you are out of place. Trust that deep-seated passion you have for designing, building and taking things apart. You have to hold your ground when you are starting out. Find a mentor, someone who will be your champion. If you are more experienced and you see that fire in other young women making their way through the ranks, call it out and share with them how special you think they are.”