Taylor Bancroft, Stern Insider Connected technical producer | Interview

In September 2021, Stern Pinball launched a new feature: Stern Insider Connected. This feature allows you to record your scores, add missions in addition to those included in the pinball code, and rankings for events organized by the manufacturer, exhibitors and distributors.

Pinball has been slow to enter connectivity, but Stern is catching up fast. The manufacturer has high ambitions and is consolidating its skills. As such, Taylor Bancroft joined the Stern team at the end of 2021, as technical producer.

Meet this atypical profile, which is characterized by its enormous enthusiasm!

Hi Taylor, nice to meet you. To get to know you better, let’s start at the beginning: what is your first memory of pinball?

Hello! It’s nice to meet you too! I grew up on the Outer Banks of North Carolina on a literal strip of land straddled by the Atlantic Ocean and the Albemarle sound. That being said – I spent every day at the beach. The Avalon Pier used to have some machines that I honestly rarely played. I wish I had a more starry-eyed story from when I was a kid, but luckily, I got to experience that childlike excitement years later.

I was working as a bartender in Portland, Maine at a place that had a Bad Cats.  I’d spend HOURS on that machine after shifts. We’d be slammed and that sound of “seeeaaaafoooood” in the distance really got me through those tough nights. She’d always be there waiting for me when I got off. I was hooked.

On which pinball machine did you start playing? I mean « really », the pinball machine that got you hooked.

So… at first, I was much more focused on keeping the ball alive and hitting my shots. People would explain the rules while I played, but I would get overwhelmed. That first year I was entranced by the whole experience: the community, the arcades, the late nights watching my friends absolutely blow up these machines. Having that communal energy centered around a machine was magical.

It wasn’t until I was going to the arcades by myself that I focused on the stories the machines were letting me be a part of. I picked Game of Thrones to learn by heart. For the first time, I was able to truly appreciate the thematic choices that were made with such a limited set of player controls. It was brilliant. I have always been fascinated by what people can make under tight constraints. I’d play for HOURS and then hit up a little coffee shop and (no joke) transcribe the rules from Tilt Forums into a notebook to bring along with me.

Taylor Bancroft

I really enjoyed the shots on Game of Thrones. Hitting the Stark ramp on the PRO was challenging on this machine but very…very satisfying.

Do you have one or more pinball machines at home?

I do not and have not ever owned my own pinball machine. It is a dream of mine that I am so close to… I can almost taste it. Alas! Stern has allowed me to house one of their Godzilla PRO machines so I can test new features before they get released. I can assure you that while it primarily is used for work, I always make sure it gets love after hours 🙂

Taylor Bancroft
Dying My Hair to Match Godzilla

Why these ones? What is special about them in your eyes?

When I discovered they would be lending me a Godzilla for testing, I had butterflies in my stomach the whole week. I still get them when I step into my office. I just looked – yep, I still get butterflies.

The best part about having a Godzilla in the house vs. playing it on location is discovering all of the little callouts that would be drowned out in a busy bar. My favorite is “How Embarrassing!” – I love when machines poke fun at me. I also love getting to jam to the DJ Mixer feature when I don’t have time to play. 

You are a member of Belles & Chimes network… Can you explain what this is about?

Absolutely! It’s my favorite thing to talk about. Belles & Chimes is a worldwide pinball organization for women and non-binary players. There are chapters in many cities across the globe. I am fortunate to have been a member of two chapters so far (Portland, ME and Austin, TX) and I am about to start up with the Belles in Chicago.

Le logo de Belles and Chimes

Belles & Chimes has been the best in-person and online community I have ever been a part of. The members are supportive, involved, and do an awesome job of keeping the environment fun and safe for all. Tracy Abrahams, who runs the chapter in Austin, would organize a regular meet up for IFPA tournaments. The folks in Belles not only taught me about the rules, but also about tournament strategy (something I am NOT good at yet, but can’t wait to keep trying). I am so proud to be part of space that is so welcoming to newcomers. I think Belles has a massive part in growing and diversifying this hobby.

Why did you join this organization?

I needed friends and I loved pinball! I was new to Portland, Maine and I had been spending a lot of time at Arcadia National Bar. I decided to sign up and check out some of the pingolf pre-season meetups they were having and had a BLAST! I had no idea how fun tournaments could be.

Now let’s get to your work. First of all, can you tell us about your career path before Stern?

Certainly! I attended North Carolina State University and received a B.A. in Psychology. I originally wanted to be an electrical engineer, but I changed course halfway through my college career. Although I loved math, physics, and problem solving, I wanted to be work more closely with people to help improve their quality of life, which is why I worked for years with people of all ages with various disabilities.

I wanted to be an occupational therapist, but I took a couple years off to experience the world a little more before diving back in to graduate school. I ended up moving to Portland, Maine where I got my computer science associates degree whilst bartending at a local brewery. From there, I worked as a front-end intern for a fintech startup that was building a product to educate folks and help them develop financial literacy. I was promoted and ended up becoming more of a full stack engineer.

Afterwards, I was hired to co-create and teach a course at the University of Texas for the Arts and Entertainment Technologies major. The course was Media and Technology Foundations where we aimed to build technical confidence amongst students who otherwise may have been intimidated by the subject. Students learned how to creatively wire up hardware and build software to tell an interactive story. Our goal was to enforce that technology as a tool in your creative expression, and in doing so I think we made these complex topics more approachable.

How were you recruited at Stern? Did you apply or were you approached?

This is a funny story. I was at a coffee shop working for the startup when I started to brainstorm what a dream job for me would be. Obviously, I went straight to pinball. I reached out to Technical Support asking if there were any shadowing opportunities for someone who wants to learn how to program the games.

Stern’s lead systems engineer, Mark Guidarelli, was kind enough to start consistently communicating with me after business hours. I was thrilled at the opportunity to ask him questions about his position at Stern and he became a mentor to me. He recommended I take a free online course called “Nand to Tetris” that takes you through the creation of a computer from the ground up.

I am so thankful for him and having the opportunity to learn from his experience before being employed by Stern. His guidance and support were integral to how I landed this position.  Months later, I was over the moon when I got a response from George Gomez that he was working on a project I may be interested in.

How were you introduced to your job? What did Stern expect from the applicant?

I’m not sure what was “expected” from the applicant, but I am deeply grateful that Stern welcomed and valued my various experiences, enthusiasm, and beginnership. When I was finally able to digest that working for Stern may be a real possibility, I worked hard to learn about Insider Connected more and think about where it could go.

I think the enthusiasm helped a great deal.  I was fascinated by every aspect that would go into building a new digital product in this creative and massively successful manufacturing company. I was so enthusiastic about the prospect of connecting the world of pinball and, in turn, spreading the hobby to a whole new generation of future pinheads.

Can you explain your work as a technical producer?

I am still in the process of onboarding and learning about the various teams and processes that work to transform an idea into a feature of the product. Eventually, I will act as the voice of Insider Connected to the organization.

I work closely with the executive team to prioritize features and releases. I also work closely with IC developers and designers to help develop feature designs, I work with support to resolve issues related to IC, and I work with business, sales, and marketing teams to collaborate on feature definitions.

Can you describe a typical day as a technical producer?

I am thrilled to say that every day is different. Especially as I am still onboarding.  Generally I use the morning to touch base with team members and determine the tasks that are highest priority and go from there. 

Who is your direct boss?

George Gomez is my boss and I love working for someone with such a clear vision of Insider Connected’s direction. He is an excellent communicator and always spends the time with me so I can understand and work with the brilliant folks on every team to execute his vision.

George Gomez, the legendary pinball designer

He also listens to every idea I have which has given me a sense of freedom and complete ownership over my work. It’s important to me to feel responsible for the work that goes into reaching company’s goals. Conversely, George has also created an environment where I feel that I can learn from failures and carry that knowledge with me into the next release. Mistakes are integral to the learning process and being the best critical thinker you can be! 

Can you tell us what features you are working on at the moment? What can we expect ?

Nice try!

Is a mobile application planned ?

Yes, absolutely! We are a small team, but we are working very hard to get these frequent requests out into the world. Insider Connected is such a fun project to work on because how highly we appreciate and will pivot based on feedback from the community and operators.

From your perspective, what will the future of the Stern Insider Connected look like?

Insider Connected, in my head, will be a completely seamless integration of the machine, the player, the community, the operator, and technicians. In the future, I see it as an essential tool for operators in servicing and leveraging features that bring folks into their business to play pinball and buy their products (food, beverages, comics, whatever it may be). We all know how one game of pinball can turn into hours at a location.

This next one is very important to me: I see Insider as a layer of design on top of the machine that can expand the narratives and engage new players in ways that resonate with them based on their experience and identities. 

Do you regularly work with people that the Pinheads know: Jack Danger, George Gomez and Gary Stern for example?

Jack used to be in the cubicle right across from me, but then I got moved! It’s OK though, because now I get to be work neighbors with the legendary Mark Weyna and George Gomez. I am also very lucky to say that I work with Gary Stern as well, mostly during big picture and forward-looking discussions.

How many people are working on the Stern Insider Connected? What are the team’s profiles ?

The IC team is small, but since the system interacts with the games, essentially the whole studio works on it in some way. 

At Pinball Mag. we love the Stern Insider. Personally, I don’t even see the point of playing an unconnected Stern pinball machine anymore! How many owners of connected pinball machines regularly use the feature?

You are so sweet! I love hearing this! I am stoked to say that thousands of owners using Insider Connected and requesting more features every day.

Stern was very careful to include the operators in the operation of the solution (e.g. validating certain achievements only at a professional). What was their reception at launch? What about today?

I wasn’t at Stern for the launch of Insider Connected, but since I have been brought on, I have had the luxury of getting to know some awesome operators and get their opinions of Insider. They have had massive success in using leaderboards to draw in players and are really excited about the ease of use for players now that they can add their QR code to their mobile wallet.

Just like everyone else, they want MORE! We can’t wait to keep putting out cool features that bring customers in and tools to keep their machines up and running.

What do you think needs to be improved on the Stern Insider?

Everyone is doing a great job of working on creating games alongside working on Insider Connected. Eventually, I envision that we will have staff that is fully dedicated to Insider Connected.

Finally, how would you describe the atmosphere at Stern?

It is inspiring. When I walk into the factory I see the efforts, expertise, labor, creativity, and passion that goes into making each title. I am overwhelmed, daily, with the fact that I have this opportunity to learn from the masters. Each person at Stern is incredibly supportive to this newbie. I hope I get to be a lifelong learner and creative problem solver at this company.

A big thank you Taylor! Is there anything else you’d like to say before we part ways?

I hope we get to chat in person sometime soon so I can be the one asking all of the questions next time 🙂

Nick_O
Nick_Ohttps://pinballmag.fr
Collector of friends who have pinball collections.

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