Erin Hoffman's Inside Job

Erin Hoffman's Inside Job
Inside Job: Why the Future is Important

Erin Hoffman | 1 Feb 2008 21:00
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"The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them."
- Albert Einstein

It's a story as old as business itself:

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Hardworking Young Person (HYP) joins company A, keen on proving herself and staking out a living. HYP works overtime to show her dedication to the company, learns fast, is promoted and works for company A for 10 years. Along the way HYP falls in love, gets married, has kids and everybody's happy. Then a new HYP (HYP2) joins the company, also intent on proving himself. HYP2 works lots of overtime because he doesn't have a family to go home to; he's Focusing On HIS Career. Company A asks HYP why she isn't working more overtime. HYP stretches between job and family. Budget cuts, more HYPs, new management arrives and, despite years of service and expertise, HYP is out of a job.

This cycle can be charted in any business in history, but it started to run rampant during the business boom of the late '80s and through the '90s, when "downsizing" became a disturbing household word.

The game industry, with certain large corporation exceptions, remains largely immune to the sweeping layoffs utilized by public companies to temporarily inflate financial status, and therefore also to the local effects of such behavior: a team of 10 reduced to five with the work of those "downsized" distributed among the remaining; then rinse and repeat until that 10 becomes a one, and suddenly corporate is baffled at the steep plummet in production quality. However, the smaller scale impact of the same trend - exchanging older, more experienced (and therefore expensive) personnel for fresh-faced college kids - does as much quiet damage here as elsewhere. And it is especially ironic for an industry that frequently considers one thing and one thing only on a person's resume: shipped titles.

This problem is common knowledge, but only on an immediate, visceral level: a sense of dread that creeps in once a game developer has a spouse, a family - a reason to be home for dinner; a haunting feeling of guilt when one leaves the office before dark. But the reachable source of the problem is lower on the food chain.

I will never forget the parting words of my 3-D animation instructor at NYU. "If I ever catch one of you working for less than $20 an hour," he said, "I will personally come to your house and beat the crap out of you." He understood the employment dynamics in his field to a degree of rare insight. He knew that if any of us scabbed a job making models for $10 an hour, sooner or later he and his family would be the ones who suffered. And as with computer programming, he also knew that a project that would take one of us six days he could complete in two hours, because each year of his experience translated into innumerable context-specific shortcuts, tricks and techniques that would take us years to attain. Yet we held power over him through our place in the economic ecosystem. And that was one of the reasons he became a teacher.

In a perfect world, employers would fully comprehend the value of building an experience-balanced team and have the resources to act on that comprehension. They would understand that nothing, but nothing, is a replacement for quality team members. But increasingly those with access to company accounts seem to understand less about the value of experience in software development, and as the industry gets larger, this problem worsens. Teams are filled not by the people who will be producing content, but by HR departments frequently brought in to fight fires and fill seats: the natural and continuous ones resulting from the high-movement nature of creative industries, and the unnatural ones brought about by top-down multi-layer corporate management.

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