Gamer Girl

She wants your kids to love video games...and create them!



Shanna Tellerman, CEO of Wild Pockets.

It was some ungodly hour in the bowels of a Carnegie Mellon University computer lab in 2003. A group of tired, haggard undergraduates was slumped over their keyboards. Character sketches for a video game based on Pixar’s Monster’s Inc. littered the table next to empty Red Bull cans and cold pizza.

Shanna Tellerman, the group’s leader, didn’t need this stress. The fine-arts major could have been nursing her senioritis with phys-ed classes and preparing to move to New York City, where she planned to work for an art dealer after graduation.

Instead, she enrolled in Building Virtual Worlds, a notoriously challenging class taught by the late professor Randy Pausch. In this course, students from different backgrounds work in teams to create a 3-D, virtual reality video game experience that is displayed in front of a 500-person audience at the end of the semester. “The class completely changed the direction of my life,” Tellerman says. “180 degrees.”

Paired with computer scientists, Tellerman was out of her element. When she was growing up in her hometown of Baltimore, her lenient parents had only one rule: no video games. But Pausch saw her portfolio of oil paintings and knew that, with a lot of work, her creativity could translate to a virtual environment. While creating video games from scratch seemed fun on the syllabus, the work soon turned grueling, and on the night before the final project was due, Tellerman’s team was frantic, bleary-eyed and nearly burnt-out.

When Pausch popped into the lab around 2 a.m. to check on his students, they yearned for just a glimmer of inspiration from their professor—a slice of the always-sunny positivity that he would later deliver in his “Last Lecture,” the stirring speech that Pausch gave to colleagues and former students—and later millions around the world after the video spread on YouTube—in September 2007, less than a year before he died of pancreatic cancer at age 47. But Pausch simply looked at the project and said, “You know, I don’t think this is coming together.”

Shocked, the team disbanded for an hour. “I cried for a while,” Tellerman says. “But then our whole team regrouped and worked through the night to make sure we nailed it. That’s when I knew I wanted to create games for a living.” After wowing crowds at the course’s showcase, Tellerman rethought her New York plans and instead enrolled in CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center graduate program. There, she led the development of HazMat Hotzone—3-D virtual training simulations for emergency responders. Thousands of fire departments across the United States are now using the free software, including the fire departments of Pittsburgh and New York City.

Tellerman’s success opened the door to an internship at video game giant Electronic Arts in Redwood City, Calif. After graduation, she could have joined the company and helped create the next $100 million “Sims” game, but instead, she returned to Pittsburgh to be her own boss, launching the CMU spin-off Wild Pockets in 2006.

From the company’s South Side office, the now 28-year-old CEO and her team started with a simple vision: Everyone should be able to create video games, regardless of educational background or economic standing. To achieve this, the team created a simple, straightforward online platform for teaching computer programming to the masses. Instead of downloading pricey software that requires a high-end computer to run properly, users simply log on to WildPockets.com, fire up the free interactive toolbox and start creating 3-D worlds with the help of common-sense tutorials.

 Wild Pockets demo video

 

"Seeing an environment that you created up and running in just seconds is a magical experience,” says Tellerman. “Computer science can seem daunting to young people, but we want programming to be viewed in the same way as taking piano lessons or dance classes.” The approach seems to be working. Wild Pockets already has a community of more than 5,000 registered users, from high school students to professional game designers.

While the young CEO still lives off of pizza and energy drinks, now her main responsibility is to raise capital to expand the fledgling company. Tellerman recently relocated to San Francisco to have better access to the “tech start-up ecosystem." However, she decided to keep the majority of her development team in Pittsburgh. Despite the challenges of being two time zones away from her colleagues (she conducts weekly staff meetings via Skype videoconferencing), Tellerman saw something special in Pittsburgh that she couldn’t find on the West coast. “In San Francisco, people jump around from one trend, one company to the next,” she explains. “The loyalty and commitment you find in Pittsburgh is truly unique.” 

Tellerman’s long-distance gamble paid off. Last year, the company secured another $3 million in funding, even in the face of a crippling global recession. Business Week took notice, naming Tellerman as a finalist for its Best Young Tech Entrepreneurs of 2009. Next stop: the classroom.

Tellerman and her team are now developing a curriculum for middle school and high school teachers so they can use Wild Pockets to introduce students to programming, and they are hosting game-building workshops for students around the country, including two free camps open to eligible students here this summer. “We’re living Randy Pausch’s philosophy with Wild Pockets,” Tellerman says. “We’re not afraid of our dreams. We just go after them.”

>> Summer Game Design Workshops in Pittsburgh

Techno Teens Camp, aimed at high school students: July 6-23. Info: Lori Rue, 412/227-4166.
Build Your “A” Game Camp, for Pittsburgh Public Schools students in grades six to eight: July 12-Aug. 6. Info: Eddie Wilson, 412/622-3985.

 

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in May

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in May

The month's best bets in The 'Burgh.
Best Doctors in Pittsburgh 2016

Best Doctors in Pittsburgh 2016

The list of the regions's 687 leading physicians across 80 specialities.
Making The Rounds: What It Means to be a Doctor in Pittsburgh

Making The Rounds: What It Means to be a Doctor in Pittsburgh

In a city known for world-class care, a life dedicated to health is rewarding, challenging, and innovative at every level — from med school to the board room.
Why Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay is Cornered

Why Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay is Cornered

Can McLay reshape the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police in his polite, communication-heavy, community-friendly, racially sensitive, 21st-century image?
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Not Surprising: 'Burgh Among the Best for New College Grads

Not Surprising: 'Burgh Among the Best for New College Grads

According to a financial advising site, Pittsburgh is both affordable and a good place to find a job for those fresh out of college.
Harold Hayes' Biggest Retirement Fear, It's Not What You Think

Harold Hayes' Biggest Retirement Fear, It's Not What You Think

Hayes leaves KDKA TV after nearly 37 years with his legacy as one of the city's most respected, fair and accurate reporters – and his priceless sense of humor – firmly intact.
What to Watch Out For in This Year’s Pittsburgh Marathon

What to Watch Out For in This Year’s Pittsburgh Marathon

Marathon weekend can be a challenge for both runners, who are trying to finish the grueling race, and spectators who are simply trying to get around. We've got the info you need, whether you're running or watching from the sidelines.
Philly Chefs With Pittsburgh Roots Win Big at the James Beard Awards

Philly Chefs With Pittsburgh Roots Win Big at the James Beard Awards

Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook have picked up two James Beard awards this year, and Solomonov is in the running for one more.

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our new, daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in May

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in May

The month's best bets in The 'Burgh.
Best Doctors in Pittsburgh 2016

Best Doctors in Pittsburgh 2016

The list of the regions's 687 leading physicians across 80 specialities.
Making The Rounds: What It Means to be a Doctor in Pittsburgh

Making The Rounds: What It Means to be a Doctor in Pittsburgh

In a city known for world-class care, a life dedicated to health is rewarding, challenging, and innovative at every level — from med school to the board room.
Why Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay is Cornered

Why Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay is Cornered

Can McLay reshape the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police in his polite, communication-heavy, community-friendly, racially sensitive, 21st-century image?
The Eaglets Have Landed

The Eaglets Have Landed

The bald eagles nesting in Hays once again have given birth to a new generation. We take you into the nest to see how quickly the two chicks are growing.
Review: Justin Severino Knocks It Out of the Park With Morcilla

Review: Justin Severino Knocks It Out of the Park With Morcilla

Severino's follow-up to Cure is already winning national accolades.
Edit Module

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Not Surprising: 'Burgh Among the Best for New College Grads

Not Surprising: 'Burgh Among the Best for New College Grads

According to a financial advising site, Pittsburgh is both affordable and a good place to find a job for those fresh out of college.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Umami Izakaya (Finally) Open in Lawrenceville

Umami Izakaya (Finally) Open in Lawrenceville

The much-anticipated Japanese pub from Tamari's Roger Li and Round Corner Cantina's Derek Burnell will serve food and drink deep into the night.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The quiet rise of Pittsburgh's tea scene gives us a few favorite gems.

Comments


Digital Jukeboxes are Evil, Bar-Ruining Monsters

Digital Jukeboxes are Evil, Bar-Ruining Monsters

The case against TouchTunes, the streaming music loudspeaker that can't stop screwing up the vibe at local bars.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
A By-The-Numbers Draft Has Its Advantages For Steelers This Time

A By-The-Numbers Draft Has Its Advantages For Steelers This Time

For the Steelers, this is a draft that’s long on need but short on intrigue.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Off to the Races

Off to the Races

Want to shade yourself in style at Derby Day and the PNC Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Spring Hat Luncheon? Look no further.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Your Mother Deserves Better than This Awful Mother's Day Movie

Your Mother Deserves Better than This Awful Mother's Day Movie

Reviews of "Mother's Day," "Keanu," "Green Room" and local film news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
What Type of Favor Do You Favor?

What Type of Favor Do You Favor?

Planning your wedding and can’t think of the best favor that will represent you and your big day? We spoke with three Pittsburgh-area couples to learn more about making the best and most personalized decision possible.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
Phipps Kicks off the Planting Season

Phipps Kicks off the Planting Season

Welcome spring at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens with the Great Plant Auction, Party in the Tropics and May Market.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
STEM Event for Girls Planned at La Roche College

STEM Event for Girls Planned at La Roche College

The Tech Savvy program from the American Association of University Women aims to interest middle school girls in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

Comments