Irene Schwarting 21 March 2008
Partnership builder, problem solver, people-person, specialist in reality checks
Irene comes from a long line of geeks. Both grandmothers were schoolteachers, her father is an electrical engineering professor, both brothers have degrees in chemical engineering, and her mother edits a robotics magazine. She claims to have spent her life translating between engineers and normal people, which she feels led logically to a degree in psychology and thence to a career in software development.
She grew up in the jungles of North Carolina, where tobacco fields and technology research are intermingled in ways that make perfect sense to the natives and no sense at all to anyone else. She spent several years working in technical theater and stage managing rock concerts in Chapel Hill, somehow managing to acquire a degree from the university along the way, and then decided the skiing was better in Utah. So, she moved to Salt Lake City.
There she conducted graduate research on visual attention, trying to understand what it means to ‘pay attention’ or to ‘ignore’ something, and applying this understanding to the design of displays and user interfaces so that the observer is presented with the information that is most relevant to his/her goals. Somehow this research led to a job at a national laboratory and from there into conducting and managing information security analysis for a large federal agency. The events of 9/11/2001 brought a great deal of attention onto what had been an insignificant analysis project and she spent the next several years working in a building without windows, and flying to Washington DC every month or so.
Regarding her work at that time, she says the catch phrase was, “In our line of work, when business is good, things are bad. And business is very good.”
She worked as a contractor to the federal government long enough to acquire a number of very depressing stories about the state of our national security. In 2006 she started missing the greenery, so moved with her family to Portland to begin working with high-tech startups. She applies an in-depth understanding of human behavior and human interactions with technology to developing technologies that do useful things and address real needs. Irene\’s core interest is in understanding how people need to use technology to enhance their lives, and how to develop technology that facilitates, rather than inhibits, people accomplishing their goals.
What are you up to?
Right now I’m working with a startup company that’s finding ways to help businesses and users connect, integrating your mobile device into your lifestyle. There are so many possible ways that mobile technologies can be useful, do things that interact with the real world, and yet all we’ve done with them so far really is communications and data transfer – voice, text, music. We’ve barely scratched the surface, and there are huge possibilities. I’m really excited about this company’s ideas and capabilities.
What are you into?
My husband and son, are the focus of my life. My seven-year-old is starting public school this year and I could not be more impressed with his school and his teachers. It’s fascinating to watch his brain unfold, absorbing knowledge like a sponge.
When I’m not working or spending time with the family, I spend my time with gaming, science fiction, and martial arts. I have a black belt in tae kwon do, and since I moved to Portland I have been studying an Indonesian style of martial art called silat. Gaming-wise, I love role-playing, cards, and board games. Anything that’s social, that involves creative and collaborative problem-solving. I love working with people to solve puzzles, whether it’s at work or at play.
What do you like most about Portland?
I moved here specifically because I love Portland. I love the walk-ability of the city, how no matter where you go there’s something… or someone… interesting to walk to and see. The variety of architectures and business styles, and the feeling of creativity, that everyone is willing to try something new. Or at least to tolerate it, even if it’s not their thing. I live in North Portland, which has a particularly grounded sense of reality that I think is missing in many other places I’ve lived.
What excites you about working in Portland?
I love working with companies and organizations that are going through transitions, defining or redefining themselves. Transitions are a particular problem for startups, small- and mid-sized companies, because it requires changing the way you think about yourself and your business, and when businesses are small is when they are most passionate about being who they are, and are most reluctant to change. Change is hard. All companies struggle through periods of change, most of them fail. And for many that do survive, it’s due to luck or happenstance. So with a couple of friends I formed a consulting company that aims to help companies to plan for growth and change, and accomplish their goals by design.
Why did you climb Mt. Kilimanjaro?
Really, because it was there. Many many years ago, my parents were in Africa and saw Kili from a distance. My father said, “Someday, I’m going to climb that.” So, it was more than thirty years later, but he did, along with his three grown kids. It was a phenomenal experience: going from the tropical jungles up to the almost lunar landscape in the crater and then to the glaciers. Kili is 19,500 feet high, so the air pressure is about half of what we’re used to, and it was really cold in the crater at night, and scalding hot during the day. It was strenuous, but worth every step of the way.