December 15, 2021

Cathy Hackl on finding the key players to listen to, building mental maps, how to see connections, and becoming a voice in your industry (Ep2)

“Jump in there really be an active participant in the industry, because it’s also about that. How are you becoming a voice, an active participant in the idea sharing and everything that’s being built?

– Cathy Hackl

Tim O'Reilly

About Cathy Hackl

On this episode we learn from Cathy Hackl, a leading tech futurist and globally recognized business leader specializing in augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), & spatial computing. She is the CEO of Futures Intelligence Group, a futures research & consulting firm that works with clients in tech, fashion, media, government, and defense. BigThink named Cathy “one of the top 10 most influential women in tech in 2020”.

What you will learn

  • Cathy is a voracious consumer of information and loves conversations (03:13)
  • But all that information is constantly refined (06:43)
  • It starts with keywords (08:59)
  • And being selective (10:09)
  • Tagging is it, especially high level topics (10:58)
  • She has developed her thought process over time (13:10)
  • Asking the right questions… (16:16)
  • …then hypnagoia (19:08)
  • Blocking time on her calendar and turning off distractions (21:48)
  • How Cathy became the metaverse expert (24:25)
  • When is the right time to share an idea (32:59)

Episode resources


Ross Dawson: Cathy, it is awesome to have you on the Thriving on Overload show.

Cathy Hackl: Awesome. Happy to be here.

Ross: Cathy, you keep across the edge of emerging technologies. There’s a lot of information to keep across, a lot of new things. How do you do it?

Cathy: It’s interesting because when I was looking at some of the questions that you sent over for this, I started to really try to think about, “How do I organize this? How am I doing this?” I’m a voracious consumer of information like a lot of folks are in our industry. How do you organize everything? How do you make sense of all of it?

How do I do it? I would say I wake up, I read a huge amount of news—mostly focused on technology, because that is kind of where I spend most of my time. I consider myself a tech futurist. I’m very much focused on the technology, having been working in this space inside these companies for several years now.

Definitely, start reading a lot of different information. If there’s something really interesting, I’ll flag it with different services that I use. Sometimes I’ll forward it to one of my assistants and ask them to put it in different programs. We have Google Docs right now—to be honest, as simple as that—on metaverse things. I’m very focused on the metaverse.

Back in January, you didn’t have that many metaverse headlines. Now, it’s like every single headline in tech is a metaverse headline or something like that. We used to have a Google Doc where we used to keep those a little bit. Now, it’s getting a little bit more complicated. We use tools like Diigo, for example, to keep things organized. I have a very well-organized Feedly to also keep tabs of things and keep organized, kind of know what are the sources I want to get information from.

I mean, lots of scanning, lots of reading lots. I will say a lot of information that I do get, I also get from conversations, especially right now with the metaverse becoming such a hot topic and lots of people wanting to talk to me about it. Sometimes it might be as simple as like, “I’m launching the X project.” Before, I might have been like, “I don’t have time.” But now, I want to hear what they’re doing. What is it that they’re doing in the space?

Sometimes those conversations, not always, they don’t lead to anything. But sometimes I’ll find out something I didn’t know, or I’ll know this is interesting. This brand’s thinking of doing this. That’s gonna be happening, what does that mean? What is that a signal of? It’s a bit of a process. Especially in my field because it’s evolving so fast, it’s hard to keep up. What was new yesterday might be old by today in the technology space, because it’s moving so fast.

Another thing I do is I publish a weekly column in Forbes called Metaverse Weekly. That forces me as well to always keep on top and try to make sure that I have the freshest news and the most relevant news and those sorts of things. Sometimes I do get that information via a PR pitch; it’s not my preferred way. So, it’s a combination of all these different sources of information. I don’t have one place I go, it’s a multitude of places and sources.

Ross: You say in the morning you scan and you look around. You mentioned you use Feedly. Essentially, you’re choosing feeds to go into your Feedly, and that’s been curated over some time I guess? Do you continue to refine or add?

Cathy: I continue to refine all the time. They’ve got some interesting AI tools called Leo that you can use to help you as well, make it more tailored. But I don’t only do that. I use my Feedly, but I also go into Google News. I go into Apple News. I like to see how the different algorithms and everything presents the news to me. Of the different things, there might be something I missed.

When I go, for example, into Apple News or Google News, I tend to always go to the technology tab because you know they’ve got headlines. I tend to always go to business or tech. But I force myself to go to international or go to other ones, even though that’s not necessarily my main interest. But I’m forcing myself to go to these other tabs because there might be something I’m missing here. There might be something happening in X country that I was not aware of that could impact X. So, forcing myself like that.

I’m very lucky that I have a team. I also have my team finding news and curating those. I have them send me a small metaverse review of the of the Daily News, things that could be of interest to me. They’ll send me something on a daily basis. It will be like a headline, small summary, and then the link if I want to read more. So, I also have that added bonus of having a team that also helps me with this.

Ross: When you’re scanning and you see all of these articles, some of them you say, “I want to bookmark that, I want to put it in a list.” What is it that makes it something which is worth seeing? What switches the trigger to say, “This goes in my database” or “I got to pay attention to this?”

Cathy: It starts with keywords, especially with the metaverse. It started with the keyword “metaverse.” Now that there’s a lot more metaverse content, we have to be a little bit more selective. What is the actual topic here? Who’s actually interviewed? Who’s actually saying this?

There’s an article a couple weeks ago when you had Mark Zuckerberg say that Facebook was going to go from being a social media company to a metaverse company. You pay attention to that, right? That’s something you save. Satya Nadella in an earnings call saying the metaverse is one of our goals, you save that article because that is a significant statement by significant figure.

I think it started off with a keyword, just anything metaverse, because we didn’t have that much metaverse coverage. Now that there’s a lot more, it’s being a little bit more selective. Who’s interviewed? What’s really the topic? I love going, for example to Medium, to find maybe some new voices. But it doesn’t mean that every single article on Medium that uses the term metaverse is relevant to me or that is a well- thought out article. Be very selective on the sources. Who wrote this?

It’s interesting because I’ve seen the evolution with the metaverse on who is writing about it, who’s writing about it now, what is the context. Are they just using it for clicks in the headline nowadays? It evolved. Whereas before, you might have metaverse in your in your headline and it wasn’t necessarily something that people would click on. Now, a lot of people are putting it in the headline because people will click on it. It’s been interesting to see this evolution on how I’ve been tracking metaverse as a general mega trend.

Ross: When you put in Diigo or Google Doc or whatever, what happens to that then? Is that for later reference? Do you have some tags to that? You’re accumulating all of this, when do you refer back to that, or how does that help you build that bigger picture?

Cathy: When we’re doing Metaverse Weekly, sometimes we’ll tag Metaverse Weekly, so we know we got to pull this in, and at least I know some of the stories that I’ve organized for Metaverse Weekly in Forbes. I’m writing a book. I got an international book deal.

Ross: Congratulations.

Cathy: I’m very happy about that. It’s on the metaverse.

Ross: Surprise, surprise.

Cathy: Of course. I’m saving things there as well, tagging it in the book, whatever we’re putting there. Definitely tagging with different things, and it’s going depend on what I’m doing. I’m working, for example, on an article on defense in the metaverse, working with it with Lieutenant Colonel Jake Sotiriadis who’s widely known in strategic foresight. I’m keeping tabs on that so that when he and I have to actually sit down and write the article, I can just pull that information.

Sometimes those links just live there. Sometimes I won’t do anything with them, sometime I will. You just really never know in the tech space, to be honest. Something could happen tomorrow where I might have tagged something, synthetic humanoid robot, for example. Then Elon Musk’s goes on stage and talks about his Tesla AI, and everyone’s like, “What is this synthetic humanoid robot?” Sometimes they’ll live there, nothing will happen. But sometimes something will just happen in technology, and of a sudden I have all this research already done on some of these things.

Ross: You build up your own tag taxonomy or structure? Do you virtually tag a book or just high-level topics?

Cathy: High-level topics. But they’re high level topics to me, right? Synthetic humanoid robots is a topic for me because I’ve been writing about it for a while. That seems pretty specific for someone else, it’s not just robots.

Ross: What always intrigues me about this is we got this wealth of information. You’re obviously understanding the space, as well as anyone else in the world. Does that all just happen in the gray matter in your brain? Do you do some mapping to draw correlations? Do you draw out themes, or does it all just happen as you’re writing your weekly articles and your books? What is that process of taking all of those sources, those inputs, “I already know that, that’s new, that’s another angle?” How does that add to the comprehension that you have?

Cathy: I think it’s something that you build through the years, to be honest. I started off my career as a journalist, right? When you’re a journalist, you got to keep your sources straight. You got to keep all that information. I think it comes from having been a journalist and having kept things organized in my mind, as you write the story and as you report on the story, especially if it’s something that takes you months to report on. It’s interesting, it definitely brings some of that things I learned from journalism into the space. I would say it’s something that you’ve built through the years when you start to see some of the things.

For me, it’s a little bit strange because I do get a chance to try a lot of things that a lot of people don’t get to try or get to see, a lot of things that people have never seen or will see in a couple years. I can’t necessarily store that somewhere because there’s NDAs and stuff, so I can’t just be storing it. But I’ll keep it in my head. Eventually, if I see something else I’m like, “That’s how that’s going work,” or “That’s related to that specific thing that I saw the other day.”

I think it’s a lot of mental models in some way. Sometimes it’s something that I’ve seen, that I’ve written an NDA and I can’t really go write about it or share it. I just kind of start it, I guess, in my mind. That has happened, I would say, in a lot of some of the things that I’ve been able to demo and see. Eventually I’ll see something, a startup or something, and I’ll be like, “That startup is related to this other thing to this.” I think it’s a lot of mental maps for me. I’m probably very different than some of the people you interviewed because my work is a little bit different. Sometimes I can’t even put it down on paper. There’s way too many in the AI side, and I just have to store it here. I would say it’s about mental mapping, for me.

A lot of it comes from the conversations I have, the questions I ask when I’m demoing a new piece of tech or things like that. It might be different to some of the folks that you speak to, because I do have to keep some of these things stored in my mind without being able to publicly speak about some of the things—or even writing things down.

Ross: In the questions you ask or the conversations you have, I suppose part of those questions then are trying to uncover what is new, which is different, whether it fits or not with your existing models?

Cathy: Most of the things I’m trying are different and are new. Whatever question I ask is going to be new. Even though I’m not necessarily the most technical person, sometimes there will be technical questions, because I do have a grasp of some of the technical things that go into building some of these devices of the future.

Sometimes I’ll try something that is so new that I’m just quiet, I’m just in awe. I’m like, “How did you build this?” My question won’t be as informed or technical. Sometimes when it’s something that is exciting but it’s something that isn’t as new—new to me—I’ll have more technical questions. I’ll pull them and be like, “I had demoed X other device, how is this different?” I can pull those questions.

But sometimes when something is so, so new and you don’t have a frame of reference for this something new, you’re just trying to make sense of what this is. Some of the questions might be more elemental, not as informed. But I love what I do because it’s so exciting and it’s so fresh. Sometimes it doesn’t always happen. But sometimes I’ll demo something and I’ll just be like, “What was that,” just trying to, in my mind, to make sense of it, let alone the rest of the population.

Once again, to that point, I feel like my experience is going to be very different than a lot of other folks. I’m very hands on, very tech focused, and I get to demo some of these things years before anyone does.

Ross: Anyone that’s familiar with your LinkedIn feed, for example, and imagining some of the things which you can’t share—which are even beyond that—they’ll know you’ve seen some pretty amazing stuff.

Cathy: If someone were to hack my brain, I think they’d have a lot of information. So, don’t do it people, please don’t.

Ross: The problem, I suppose, is the synthesis. Is there a state of mind? Do you find that sometimes when you get these “ahas” you sort of get this into perspectives and to framing things? Is there anything which makes that more likely to happen? Can you design those times when you get those insights?

Cathy: I tend to have really some of those moments. I think there were a couple of times that I know I have those moments. Something I learned from Amy Webb is brown noise. She uses it a lot to concentrate. I’ve started to use it, and that really, really helps me get to that next level and really focus, when I need to be very focused and very productive. That’s one little thing. I’ll have those moments, right? It’s kind of a state of flow where your mind is just in it, and eventually this connects and this connects. So, I have that.

Other times—and this happens to me all the time, my husband hates it—is right when I’m about to fall asleep, I’m trying to calm my mind—which is not calm—it will come to me. It will just come to me and I’ll make a connection of it, this and this, and then grab my phone and write something, grab a piece of paper or something, He hates it. Everyone’s trying to go to sleep at home and I’m like, “No, but I have an idea and I need to do this.” I’ll have those moments that happens sometimes, and it’s usually at that time. I’m trying to calm my brain. I’m trying to disconnect from the world. All of a sudden, boom, it’s there and connection is made; I totally understand, and I see something I didn’t see before.

If it’s me wanting to have that time to really kind of start to make some of these connections, it’s focused time, brown noise—really very focused and studious. Sometimes it’s just that, I’m at a point where I’m relaxing, I’m getting rid of all the craziness of the day. I’ve got three kids, it’s one of those things, I’m getting rid of the craziness of the day. All of a sudden, boom, there it is. Sometimes it’s deliberate, the brown noise time. But sometimes it’s just like this moment where, boom, it just happens.

Ross: It’s called hypnagogia, the time between sleep and waking. Thomas Edison, amongst others, used to use that and have some notes ready, so that when he when he was falling asleep he could jot down his latest invention.

Cathy: I’m not necessarily inventing things, but it comes to me at times.

Ross: It’s inside.

Cathy: “I get it, I totally see it now.”

Ross: You talked about these focus times, there are times when you block out. How do you block that out? When do you block that out? The brown noises are usually interesting, how do you how do you organize your focus time?

Cathy: I’ll put blocks in my calendar on a weekly basis, it doesn’t mean they happen.

Ross: The world happens.

Cathy: Kids happen, pets happen, lots of other stuff happens during those block times sometimes, pediatricians or whatever it is. I have blocks, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they happen. I have two blocks on my calendar, and it bothers me every single time I look at them. I’m like, “Am I really sticking to this block? I don’t know like. Friday afternoons I’m trying to block off to do those sorts of things, it just ends up being something like, “Mommy, take me to the pool.” So, I’m trying.

Sometimes, even though they’re blocked on my calendar, it might be something that just happens. I’ve got an hour in between calls, let me do some of that now. I’m not maybe as structured or as rigid as some folks with their calendar, in that sense. I have blocks for it, it doesn’t always happen though. Sometimes it will just be I’ve got an hour, like I said, between calls, let me focus and really get this project done or this research done.

Ross: Do you turn off social e-mail distractions during that time, or do you have any other rituals which gets you into that space?

Cathy: I would say my LinkedIn, I close my LinkedIn. If I’m on my desktop or laptop, I have to close my LinkedIn. That’s my most active network, so I don’t want it pinging me every five seconds. DMs, I get way too many dams. LinkedIn, I have to immediately close it. I know that it’s just going to start pinging and pinging. I’m not as bothered by Slack or other stuff. But when it’s LinkedIn, I have to close it. So, I would say that’s one of the things I definitely do.

I always keep my phone around. It’s never something where I don’t look at my phone, just because I do have three children. That, for me, is just not an option, and one of them has got some food allergies and stuff. For me, it’s just not an option to turn off my phone. I’ll have it on the side and I won’t look at it, or I’ll cover it up. But I’ll make sure I have it where I can actually hear it ring, or whatever it is that that needs to happen. But I would say my biggest distraction when I’m doing something like this is LinkedIn, for sure.

Ross: Changing tack a little bit, I think one of the most important things is to find your area of expertise. You can be the world-class expert and know what it is you’re doing. I’d love to hear the story of how you’ve ended up in your area of expertise at the moment. What was that journey? How did you find your calling as it were and what you’re an expert on?

Cathy: I kind of have to trace everything, and it all kind of comes together at some point. The way I explain it to people, the reason I got into the immersive technologies and the metaverse and all the things I’m working on, I would have to trace it back to 2004. I was working at CNN, and part of my job there was to look at all the raw footage that was coming in from the war in Iraq. As you can imagine, not pleasant things. It wasn’t the only thing I did, but it was one of the things I did.

I always joke in some way and say I was a Facebook moderator before there were Facebook moderators. When you have a type of role where you have to see this type of content and that’s your job, you have to turn your humanity dial or humanity switch off a little bit or turn it to the side, just to kind of get through the day and go home and have regular life. It was about seven years ago, I went to a conference, and I got invited to put a virtual reality headset on. I put the VR headset on, and I was put into this 6 x 9 very tiny, virtual solitary confinement cell and VR where prisoners in solitary confinement spent 90% of their time. Within a couple of minutes, I just felt something. It was claustrophobia, but it was also something else.

I took the headset off and I said, “This is the future of storytelling.” I just saw the future—or whatever that was—and that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. For me, it was very clear moment. At that moment, it’s like the switch got turned back on. That’s the only way I can describe the feeling. I felt something different. I felt something that made me feel human again. I don’t know what the right term would be, but it was that moment. After that, I was very intentional with my pivot. Everyone thought I was crazy. My friends and my husband were like, “What are you doing? What is this VR thing?”

Fast forward, 2021, I’m very lucky to have worked with some of the top companies. I’m considered one of the people that is very much, I guess, an expert in the field. I’m very much at the center of the conversation and everything that’s happening in this immersive and now metaverse space. I would say it was a very clear moment for me when I knew that’s where I was heading. That’s where I’m going to go. That’s exactly what I want to do. It’s evolved and changed. But, for me, it was a very clear moment.

Ross: You saw it and you recognized it. How did you go about it? Presumably, you weren’t the expert when you put on that VR headset. You took it off and you said, “I’m going to become that.” What was that journey? What did you do to follow that path?

Cathy: I did several things. One of them was voraciously consume absolutely everything there was that I could find that relate to VR and AR. Another thing I did is try to figure out, who are the key players here? Who are the people I need to be paying attention to? Figuring out, what are they saying? How are they saying it? What are they working on? Who are they working with? Going through that and figuring out who are the people that I needed to keep tabs on.

Eventually, I’m very lucky some of them became my mentors. As a woman, as a Latina woman, in tech, I was also very lucky to be able to see two other very strong Latina women leading the way. That, to me, was very helpful in saying there’s a place for me here. I can do this. If you can see it, you can be it. I think that was a big motivator for me as well, when I saw them. I used to admire them from afar, they were my north stars. Now, they’re both my friends.

It’s been an evolution. But I think I got educated, I made connections. I said I’m going to work in this industry, got my first break, and then made everything I could out of it. It’s been great. I worked at HTC Vive, worked at Magic Leap, worked at Amazon Web Services. I mean, I’ve got a pretty solid career track there. For me, it really started with that pivotal moment. How can I educate myself and learn as much as I can, and then go into these companies and really be a part of it?

It’s interesting, as a tech futurist and very much focused on what I do, I’m a little bit different because I’ve actually been inside these companies. I don’t necessarily just read articles, I know these people, I’ve worked on some of these projects. There’s a lot of stuff that I’ve worked behind the scenes on that people don’t necessarily realize. But I know it’s one of my projects or something I had a part in. It’s been quite a journey and exciting one. I’ve been very lucky, I have to say.

Ross: You made it happen.

Cathy: If you can see it, you can be it. There you go.

Ross: What advice would you give to anybody that’s wanting to follow a similar path to you to become the expert? Essentially, in a space of emerging technologies, to keep current, keep ahead, to make sense of it, and become at the center of that, what would your advice be?

Cathy: If you know enough about the technology, if you’re interested in something, for me, it’s about getting to the right place at the right time. It’s almost about recognizing a rocket when you see one. I’m sure many people saw some of the same things I did, but they didn’t see it. They didn’t see the rocket. I saw the rocket and I jumped on it. I’m taking this trip to wherever this is leading, and it’s paid off really well. So, I think it’s about being able to recognize some of those rockets, the new things that are coming.

If people are really excited about a new technology, get in there, jump in there really be an active participant in the industry. It’s also about that, how are you becoming a voice, an active participant, in the idea sharing and everything that’s being built? The metaverse, for example, as a greater vision doesn’t currently exist, we’re building it. But now is the time to start voicing what you believe this metaverse should be, how you think it should be built. That was a time to be a participant and have your voice out there. We’re all slowly building it. I would say those are some of the things.

Making connections, making lots of connections in the industry. Who are the people that you should be paying attention to? Being open to being educated and being open to being teachable, I think that’s very important, especially in my in my space. Another thing I think, specifically, for people that are interested in becoming tech futurist is you can’t know everything about technology and you cannot be an expert in all the technologies. That is way beyond anyone’s capability really. Not even Elon Musk attempts to do that. He has his arms in a lot of different things, but not everything in tech.

Sometimes being a generalist in some other areas might be beneficial. But I think in tech, you have to be kind of focused. And you have to realize, what is it exactly that I’m focused on here? There are some folks that are very focused on artificial intelligence, folks that are very focused on more on the bio science side. It’s trying to figure out exactly what you’re going to focus on.

Ross: You’re obviously wonderful at sharing. One is to actually share ideas. There is the of having the ideas or having the fresh ideas. At what point do you, I suppose, gain the confidence to feel, “I’ve got a fresh idea and want to share it?” Do you do it right away, just sort of throw it out? Do you do sort of develop enough confidence in your own ideas before you start opining on the industry?

Cathy: It’s a slippery slope. The only reason I say that is because I am a woman, and I am a woman in tech. I think it’s a little bit different. I do pause before I tweet, because I know that maybe a guy can tweet what I’m saying and they wouldn’t get the some of the pushback or things that I might get. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I do see it sometimes. As a woman in tech, sometimes I do take a step back and say, “Should I tweet this?”

I remember sharing an article with a friend. I said, “Hey, do you think this is going to make anyone angry?” He’s like, “Why do you care? Someone’s going to get angry somewhere.” It’s true, but I think sometimes as a woman, I think it’s a different game—especially if you’re a woman in technology, in a very male-driven industry.

Ross: To have something solid to share in that case. I think that’s that value.

Cathy: Yes, value. But still, I think that there’s a lot to unpack there.

Ross: I think that’s a whole other conversation.

Cathy: That’s a whole other podcast, issue, book, anything.

Ross: Cathy, it’s been such a delight to talk to you. I so admire what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Fantastic to get your insights, and I’m sure many other people will really appreciate it. Thanks so much for your time, Cathy.

Cathy: Thank you, Ross. Appreciate it.

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