Live & Learn: Gerri Sinclair

The Centre for Digital Media’s educator and World of Warcraft player.

Born April 21, 1947, in Winnipeg • Currently executive director of the Centre for Digital Media • Digital media maven, educator and World of Warcraft player

As a woman in high tech, I was never treated differently in terms of technology prowess. When I was a green CEO, there was a sense of, “Oh, she’s a woman, so she’s weak and doesn’t know how to be a tough manager.” I had to work really hard developing that core of me. Sometimes it didn’t feel like it was completely me.

Up until really recently, women didn’t think of themselves as CEOs. As I was growing up, I never did, not until the opportunity to build a company presented itself. That’s because there have been relatively few role models for young women.

I can’t just do one thing. My career has included academe, entrepreneurial business, large company life; I’m also a corporate director; I’ve advised on government policy; and I continue to move between all of those areas. Just as when I was younger, I’m interested in it all.

When I was 11 or 12, I set out to read every book in the Vancouver Oakridge library. I started at A, but after my first few weeks I noticed that new books had popped up toward the beginning of the alphabet that I had missed, and I realized it was an impossible task.

I’ve always been into cars. There’s no question I like the power, but I’m really fascinated by the engineering. My father had an auto wrecking business, and I spent a lot of time hanging out in the back of the shop where all the car parts were.

My first computer was a Vic 20, and it had 8K of RAM. I was going to learn word processing, and my son was going to learn programming. Together we generated a snake that went around the screen eating up Xs and Os and getting fatter. It was an epiphany for me, when I saw what a game on the screen was really all about, and how drama had moved to the computer screen. Interactivity was possible in a way that it hadn’t been before.

I have five computers, and use three of them at once. While I’m accessing a website on one, I’ll e-mail on another and maybe edit images on a third. I skip from one to the next. It’s my multi-tasking character.

NCompass was extremely intense. We had started off without anything, just ideas about where the Internet was going. I would never do that again.

Being CEO of a tech company was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I didn’t have an MBA. I loved building a team, but I had to learn everything from scratch. I had to learn how to raise finance, for instance. That becomes an art, in terms of how to pitch to VCs, how to pitch to strategic investors.

Receiving the call from Microsoft was extremely heady. I couldn’t believe my ears. I had to learn how to be a negotiator against the industry’s toughest, most brutal negotiator. A senior VP said to me, “At Microsoft, we regard quarters as manhole covers.” I didn’t quite know what he meant until we got into the arm wrestling about very small amounts of money, and they were really unyielding.

Every day entering the negotiations, I had to get all psyched up and imagine putting on armor to be really strong and not bend on anything.

We were a product of the tech bubble, so we rose with it, and we concluded the sale to Microsoft just as the bubble was bursting underneath us.

Working for a subsidiary was not half as much fun as I had hoped. I thought I was going to be able to actually make a difference shaping strategic direction for the company. But, basically, I had a P&L, and my job was to get to profitability.

Attention is becoming the new currency. That has value to someone when you aggregate attention.

I see a huge diversion of money, time and attention into online virtual experiences, which will continue to have a tremendous impact on the way we learn, do business and entertain ourselves.

In Second Life my professional avatar is GerriTrail Blazer, and, like most avatars, she looks younger and thinner. I also have a less well-behaved avatar named WolfGal who loves to party.

In World of Warcraft I have several avatars. My favourite character is Gerundal, a huntress with horns and hooves and strong powerful thighs that allow her to run very swiftly on her quests.

We participate in a reality continuum. We are in a physical realm, but our presence is diverted between physical and virtual environments. And, as the technology develops, we’ll become even more immersed in the virtual environment.