Guido Quaroni may not be recognized by name, but fans of the Pixar feature Cars know him when they hear him. In the movie, Quaroni lends his voice to a baby-blue forklift that shares his first name. The anthropomorphic car speaks mostly in Italian, throwing in the occasional English phrase. During the movie’s climactic race scene, Guido changes Lightning McQueen’s tires in record speed then triumphantly declares, “Pitstop.”
However, Quaroni is not a voice actor by trade. He began his career at Pixar in production and spent several years crafting custom software for the animation process. In addition to Cars, Quaroni has contributed to movies including Toy Story II, Toy Story III, and Monsters Inc.
Today, 23 years into his Pixar tenure, Quaroni is the Vice President of the company’s 110-employee Software and R&D group. This group builds new software that enables cutting-edge animation for the studio’s productions.
During a conversation with Innovation Leader, Quaroni shared insight into what makes Pixar’s culture unique, and discussed how the company builds trust among employees. He also touched on how Pixar has maintained its creative atmosphere during this period of remote work.
How Pixar Encourages Team Players
“We are one of the few studios where we do everything internally,” Quaroni says. “From the first [story] board to the last pixel.”
As a result, painters, sculptors, animators, computer experts, and storytellers all collaborate at Pixar’s Emeryville, Calif. studio. Quaroni says that employees recognize the values other disciplines bring to the movie-making process. “There’s a lot of trying to make everybody feel [that they are] participating equally,” he says.
Bonuses also reflect cross-department appreciation. For example, Quaroni says bonuses are evenly spread across the company — not just allotted to people who worked on a certain movie.
“A culture of too much individualism and putting very few individuals on the spot is always a dangerous place to be,” Quaroni says. “Make sure that your team [is] happy when somebody else that is using some piece of your work gets the praise.”
When hiring, Quaroni says his team looks for candidates who are team players that have a healthy attitude toward risk. That can deliver benefits and growth to the company as a whole, while employees that stick to business-as-usual only preserve the status quo.
“I did more advancement in my career by trying things and sometimes failing than not trying them and pretending to be a company man,” he says. “I actually felt that when I tried stuff, and sometimes I failed badly, [it] actually helped my career in the long run, because it gave me a different perspective.”
Trusting Employees to Solve Big Problems
While Pixar’s early-stage projects may be kept secret, Quaroni says that all employees have access to images, storyboards, and code through the company’s intranet.
“It’s kind of risky in a way to be open to everybody, [for] every employee to have that access,” he says. “But the whole idea is to make it feel like you’re part of the company. … You can see a piece of software that another group is working on, and that’s totally fine.” The company has also begun to open-source some of its software projects, releasing them so that others can add to and adapt the code.
Quaroni says he will often ask producers to screen projects in the early stages for his team. This allows the engineers to find opportunities to improve the movie using technology. According to Quaroni, his employees will also participate in six-month or year-long rotations where they can embed on a particular project and solve technical challenges.
R&D team members also accumulate two days a month for working on projects of their choice. “People can use [the time], regardless, just to look…at a problem in the company, or if there is something they want to work on,” Quaroni says.
Preserving the Culture During Lockdown
Like many other companies, Pixar shifted from the office to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic. To stay connected with his team, Quaroni schedules check-ins with employees and encourages the use of webcams during meetings. “Seeing their faces is always something that [builds] a little bit more of a sense of community,” he says.
The company has also used its films to help employees and their families cope with current events. For example, Quaroni says, the studio offered employees the opportunity to stream an upcoming Pixar movie in their homes.
While team members balance their personal lives and work, Quaroni emphasizes the importance of flexibility. “We already anticipated, for example, to not stress out the engineer, [and] assume that they’re not going to be as productive — and that’s okay,” Quaroni says. “People shouldn’t feel bad about it.”
Telling Diverse Stories
When asked what has changed in the company over his 23-year career, Quaroni says that the team has put a greater emphasis on diversity. “A lot of our movies are…two guys — a Bud and Woody, McQueen and Mater,” he says. “I’ve been happy to see the culture change, and really proactively…making a point of really increasing [diversity].”
On the engineering team, Quaroni admits that the team is not yet “50/50” in terms of gender balance. However, his team has put a greater emphasis on hiring members from all genders and a wide range of backgrounds. “When we go hire now, we try to be very careful and look at a broader spectrum, because we actually saw value in so many ways — and especially from having multiple different perspectives,” he says.