Ask for Olli Siebelt’s career story and you’d better strap in for a wild ride.
CoreWeave’s newest addition to the product leadership team traveled a long and winding road to end up at the cloud provider. Yet his mix of experience makes him a uniquely good fit for a challenging role—product manager in a specialized field that is poised to explode in the coming years.
We sat down with Olli to hear his story and get his thoughts on the VFX and cloud industry to see where he sees things going and what he’s most excited to work on at CoreWeave.
Tell us about your career—how did you end up at CoreWeave?
I spent most of my career in the '90s working in the music industry in New York. I was the director and general manager for Staten Island’s only radio station, WSIA and even though I didn’t know it at the time, it was my first real experience with product management. Around that same time, I started an independent record label, Hydrant Records, which taught me a lot about entrepreneurship and bootstrapping a company.
Flash forward two years—I went to graduate school in England. As luck would have it, I went to a pub one night and became mates with just the right people - a team from the BBC. They hear my outrageous American-New Yorker accent and we start chatting about music and the radio business and this goes on for a few hours.
By the end of the night, they tell me they’re hiring and that I would be a great fit and should come in for an interview. The next thing I know, I end up getting hired by the BBC three months before I am supposed to graduate. It was a total shock. While I was there, I was responsible for launching their very first version of what's called "DAB Radio" or Digital Audio Broadcasting. This is basically what we know now as Sirius/XM radio in the US only that this uses cellular repeaters instead of satellites. In doing that, I had to work with hardware manufacturers and a bunch of people across the BBC with a mission to provide scrolling text based content alongside all the BBC's radio streams in real-time.
During my time at the BBC, I had a boss who gave me some advice that has guided my career ever since. He told me to do two things: One: Do the job of everyone on your team at least once, and Two: get the hell out of the office and into the field. He said “Nothing is going to happen in the office that matters. You’ve got to go talk to people (aka the British License Fee payers) and see how they listen to the radio in their cars and at home.” And only after talking to them and seeing how they really live will you know how to build great products that matter.
Eventually, I was lucky enough to become the Head Of Production for an experiential agency in Los Angeles called The Famous Group. It was there that I got introduced into CGI, VFX and live action production. We had two green screen studios set up and did a lot of bleeding edge motion capture work, augmented reality and early experiments with virtual reality.
With some heavy duty RFP's coming in, I took my old boss’s advice and got my hands dirty learning to do every single job at the studio—One minute, I'm a render wrangler then I'm doing UX work for an AR app. Then, I'm doing live action, I'm doing grip work, I'm setting up studio components, I'm doing budgeting and compositing and all this kind of crazy stuff. I learned a ton and it was great helping my team deliver above and beyond for our clients.
What’s the biggest challenge facing heads of production at VFX studios today?
With the current pace of technology (and client demands), I would say it's balancing the feast and famine of both winning jobs and scaling up your pipeline to meet a crazy amount of different scenarios.
When you’re working with a big name client, it’s all hands on deck. You're not just thinking about how to meet the client needs, you're thinking about technology and process and the culture of your team. It's how much margin will the business make, how many awards will the creative team win, what's going to be best for both the client and the end consumer and how are you going to get that done with the resources you have? A lot of times, you’ll have specialty requests come through that require freelancers with specific skill sets and you’ve got to get those people onboarded quickly with the right tools. That takes time and expertise.
The problem is you have all these very important clients in your pipeline already, and you’ve got to keep those clients happy too. 99% of the time, your on-premises resources are going to be booked solid and there won't be any time to expand, let alone order new equipment in time, so a cloud based solution you can rely on is critical.
What excites you about the opportunity with CoreWeave?
I’ve already gotten to do a bunch of customer interviews, and there’s a problem I see arising over and over again. A few years ago, having 100% on-premises computing capability was pretty much the common thing. A lot of companies invested in hardcore CPU usage—they have a little server farm in their offices. What's the first problem that happens? Everybody and their grandmother, from the CEO to the freelancer, wants to reserve time on the system. You get all sorts of resource conflicts and it’s a total pain in the ass to manage.
I could see right away, especially from my experience, that CoreWeave was solving a key problem by moving everything to the cloud, doing it for an efficient cost, and offering transparent pricing that others weren’t.
It’s also just an exciting time for our customers in both the VFX and machine learning world. Every day, there’s a new streaming service popping up looking to make high-quality original content and that presents a huge opportunity for us to create amazing solutions for the people we work with.
What is CoreWeave doing that makes them stick out in the industry?
I'd say it's a marriage of two things - first, we control our own infrastructure. We don't lease out AWS or Google services—those GPU's are ours. So whether it's bare metal or VM's—we can provide complete solutions for our customers however we need to. The second is how we integrate customers within CoreWeave's Slack environment. Using Slack allows our customers to feel like they are embedded with us and vice-versa. Whether it's real-time support or asynchronous back and forth, we can get close to the customer and that's vital to their success. I don’t think you’ll get that from big name providers.
What’s the biggest misconception people outside the industry have about VFX work?
I think people don’t realize the extent to which movie studios are businesses. Everybody wants to make creative work, but at the end of the day it comes down to dollars and cents, and VFX studios have to think with that mindset.
The film studios are banks. They’re corporate entities, which are incredibly strict and everything is nickel and dimed to the n-th degree. It just has this sheen of creativity around it because you're making movies. You've got to really understand that it's a business that’s responsible for billions of dollars.
At the end of the day, you really need to find the balance between doing something really creative and amazing and also doing it at a competitive price that keeps you in business. It would be great if winning awards and market share paid the bills by themselves!
As a production manager, how do you get the best out of creative teams?
You've really got to know who your team is - from the creative director to the artist to the grips. Everyone has different personalities and different needs. Empathy matters - a lot. I've worked with some VFX artists who just want to be left alone in a room for days and they produce incredible work, while others really thrive off a collaborative environment where there is constant interaction. You have to adapt your management style to match these needs and always put people first.
Some say “I will tell you when I'm ready, like leave me alone.” They prefer all their communication asynchronously or just the occasional Slack or an email. Then there are other ones who want to work as part of a team. They want this sort of “Vulcan mind meld,” instant communication, where we're constantly iterating and talking to the creative director and we're really working in tandem.
You have to respect your artists and remember that they’re doing YOU a huge favor by giving you their talents, not the other way around.
How is the VFX industry changing?
I think a lot of people are still married to the old school on-premise model. And I think what's changing now is they're realizing that, because of either pipeline constraints or the cost, technology's changing so fast that cloud is really the only way to go now. You don’t want to spend tens of thousands of dollars on on-premises technology that will be obsolete in a year.
I think the other big shift happening right now is the rise of the so-called “pro-lancer.” In the old days, so much of this technology required specialized equipment or software, and the resulting talent pool was relatively small as a result because you just couldn't get access to a Houdini or DaVinci suite. Now, the computing power is so readily available to anyone and the software is becoming more accessible, you have more and more creative professionals who can build careers out of freelance VFX work. The big names will always attract people just because of the brand but I'm seeing a lot more people jump from place to place - whether it's Covid, a desire to expand their portfolio or both - the "butts in seats" model isn't really working anymore.
Back in my early days of VFX studio work, having a green screen studio was a big deal. These days, I can just buy green screen backdrops on Amazon and do my insert shots in my backyard. The one thing that hasn't changed though is the relationships. There's a lot of players in the game and while it's getting harder to distinguish yourself as a studio from a technology perspective, that relationship between people matters and that's what I'm looking forward to embracing here at CoreWeave.