ALUMNI PROFILE: DANNY SAETERN, IMMERSIVE TECHNOLOGY SOFTWARE ENGINEER @ SCHLUMBERGER

Danny Saetern

AGE: 30
INTERESTS: Besides VR, I do rock climbing, bowling, and I like movies.

Tell us more about where you are from and what you were doing before 42:

I was born and raised in California. I am from the Lodi/Stockton area, the Central Valley, which is a couple of hours East of the Bay Area. My family came to the U.S. in 1988, the year I was born, from the Laos/Thailand area. My parents grew up in refugee camps before coming to the U.S.

Growing up my family had strawberry farms, and my dad is the first one in his family to have a business. My family has a Thai restaurant, and I grew up in the family restaurant business. I took on different roles in the restaurant. Sometimes I was a waiter, sometimes I was a cook, sometimes I was the manager, and sometimes I was just the dishwasher. For a family business, you have to do a little bit of everything.

You’ve been at 42 since the beginning. In the last 3 years, what has your time as a student been like?

Nonstop studying. Honestly, I used to sleep only 6 nights a week out of the 7. When I first got here, my roommate used to snore like crazy. So I slept during the day for 4 hours and stayed up all night. I did that for so long it just became a habit over the years I’ve been here. It is great that 42 is open all night. I am definitely not a morning person.

I have met some good people here. 42 is a unique environment where everyone has the same interests and can understand why code isn’t compiling. You definitely cannot have that conversation anywhere else. In the beginning, it felt like we were definitely in a building where the culture was different, and they were doing things we didn’t understand. It has become a more family-like environment over the past 3 years.

What did you like best about your 42 experience and what will you miss most?

I really liked my experience in 42 Accelerate. I found that it really represented a really unique aspect of 42. 42 is the only school I ever heard of where if you are really passionate about something and have a plan to make a change you can present it to the bocal. There is a chance that they will accept the plan or run with the idea.

Josh Trujillo, who used to manage 42 Accelerate, came from a business background. I did the piscine with him, and his dream was to make an environment where students could have a space to create their own startups. And he saw that was missing for students and his idea was to create something like that for 42. So he worked with staff to create 42 Accelerate. You don’t see that at other schools where you can do something to make a change. Because of that, I was able to make my own change. No one else was doing VR here, and I wanted to change that and showcase how we are working with new technology here. 

How did you know what path you wanted to pursue in tech with VR?

My friend bought the Oculus Rift Developers Kit Dk2 and I got to try it. It was a very simple demo where you had to sit in a chair, you could move your head and look around a virtual room and look at objects. It was simple but gave you a sense of wonder, and it gave you a sense that this type of technology could change the future. That was the first time I tried technology that was groundbreaking, it was truly life changing.

I had been working in the restaurant business since I was 12, so I was looking to change my outlook, and my career. In the restaurant business, you build it all up and break it all down, and the next day you do it all over again. Overall, there is not as much change day to day. I loved growing up in a small restaurant business where everyone in town knows your name. But you know you can do more than just order to-go, or stock the back, or take someone’s order.

Can you tell us more about your time in 42’s Accelerate?

My main goal for 42 was to give myself the ability to code and to learn other languages besides C so I could do VR development. I had no experience with gaming, but with 42 I had a good foundation with learning languages. Learning C# and game development was a lot easier than I thought it would be. I went in prepared and found all the right tools I needed to learn. 

When the opportunity to join 42 Accelerate came, I knew exactly what kind of startup I wanted to create. With a couple of other cadets, we started a VR game studio called Bad Honey Bun Games. In the beginning, we had to show proof we could do this quickly. In 3 months we needed to have a working minimum viable product.  Then that goal changed to not just MVP but releasing the game to the Oculus Store. This pushed us to learn a crazy amount in such a short amount of time. Coding was the easiest part. We had to learn modeling, sound, character animation and even the business aspects of it all. It is a lot like starting your own restaurant, we needed to do a little bit of everything. We ended up building 42 Silicon Valley’s first VR game called Conversion: Artificial Dawn.

Eventually, we split the roles up where the other co-founders were working more development and I started working more on the business side. That allowed us to do things and go places that I never thought we would go.

What are some cool tech events you have been able to participate in?

I was able to go to the African American Leaders of Tomorrow Program (AALT) Conference in LA and I showcased the game at the lu-Mien Student Conference in Sacramento. There were students with similar backgrounds as mine. Growing up, I hadn’t met a software engineer. When I went to the conferences I asked students if anyone in their family were software engineers, and all of them said no. I think it is important for us to showcase these opportunities in areas like Sacramento and Stockton. Educating the valley where I grew up about 42 can help a lot of kids change their future. 

I also got invited to go to MIT for the Reality Virtually hackathon. That was really cool, going to MIT seems like going to the moon, you never expect to go there. It was a crazy experience and I met some really cool people. On my team was a designer from Harvard, a machine learning student from MIT and another designer from the design department of an NYC college. Out of the group I was the only one who had game development experience and VR skills. 

For that hackathon, I actually brought something to the table and was able to help people around me. We didn’t win but I met a lot of friends and helped people who were starting out in VR. What I did there helped with future projects, especially since I want to work on connected VR experiences. I was able to apply that experience for one of my interviews. They asked me relevant questions and I was able to tell them what I did. I can apply what I am doing now to what I want to do in the future. That wouldn’t have been possible without 42 Accelerate.

How did starting your own game studio help prepare you for the workforce?

With the entrepreneurship background from my family, you had to switch hats quickly and be a generalist, and continually be learning. When I was interviewing with Schlumberger, they said we are interested in your passion, how well you work with us, your thought process, how you work through problems, and how you will approach something you haven’t seen before. That worked out well from my experience with 42 Accelerate. We were doing things we didn’t know how to do and had to work through it, didn’t give up, and failed a lot. I told them about that experience of failing, and how we had to work through it. I told them how it was the first time we tried to make a VR game. 

What preparations and practice did you do to prepare for the interview process?

So when it was time to start looking at companies, I wanted to start in a VR environment, maybe VR and AR.  I applied to those specific roles, and you either had to interview in C++ or C#, so I started looking at those whiteboard interviews. I did the interview piscine which helped, I did sorting algorithms, and I did a lot of Leetcode. Grabbing advice from Gaetan, he said even if you get that job you want, interview anywhere and everywhere. I applied to a bunch and interviewed with Schlumberger, HP, Google, and Byton as well as a few LA companies for VR game development.  

What was your job hunting experience like?

It was definitely a lot harder than I was expecting. Everyone is really nice to you, you think you come up with good answers. Life happens, you never know what will happen. One of the car companies I interviewed with had a big leadership change, and another place changed their focus.  Out of 60 people who interviewed for my job, I was the only one without a college degree. I was able to prove my passion and my skills were what they were looking for. 

I interviewed for basically the same role at a few companies but each interview process was different. One focused on system design and OOP questions. One focused on VR UX and game design. Another was connected experience. All had some algorithm and data structure question but only one interview had that as the main focus of the interview process.

Can you describe what you will be doing at Schlumberger?

I am joining the Schlumberger Software Technology Innovation Center (STIC) in Menlo Park.  I will be joining their emerging technologies prototypes team, as their Unity/XR expert. XR includes virtual, assisted, augmented and mixed reality because this reality is not enough. At 42, I was fortunate to build a career where I was able to build a little bit of everything. What I will be doing is kind of like a hackathon project, where you have weeks to months to make something new and combine it with older technologies to create something you haven’t seen before. We have to keep innovating and creating.

What is your biggest piece of advice for 42 students?

For the last few months, I have been focusing on job hunting and interviewing. You know that C alone is not enough to get a job, once you get a good foundation, it is up to you to learn other languages on the side. Keep on practicing and code every day, and you have to just focus. So I have been specializing in this over the past few years. I built my resume up with XR hackathon projects, Global game jams for VR, small game dev contracts for other VR game studios and starting Bad Honey Bun Games.

I know software engineering is a big field, but choose something. Be better than anyone else and you can be hired for that. When I started at 42 and we finally launched our first game, Kwame took me aside and asked me, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” He told me to do everything I can to get to that. I understood indie VR game development wouldn’t make me rich right now but I wanted to keep on working with VR and AR. If I became an expert in my field, my skills will be what someone will need on the enterprise level. So I kept taking on different XR projects and kept adding to my resume. I guess that worked out great for me. Thank you, Kwame.

Connect with Danny on LinkedIn

Black and white photograph by Steven Branstetter

Color photographs by Priscilla Vongdara

Interview by: Stacey Faucett

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