Inside Job: Why the Future is Important

Inside Job: Why the Future is Important

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.

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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.

Maybe instead of becoming teachers, maybe people like him should become entrepreneurs. Maybe what he needed to really change things wasn't tenure, but venture capital.

I'm as harsh a critic of capitalism as you're going to find, but I'm also a realist. It seems what you're saying in the first part of the article is that managers don't know the value of their human resources--they're like the StarCraft player who looks at Carriers and goes 'oooh! they're big! let me build just them!' and we all know what happens to those players.

I think maybe rather than waiting for managers to come around, why not just, um pwnz0r them? If the ecosystem doesn't favor you create your own ecosystem. If an experienced programmer is really that much more valuable, isn't it just a matter of convincing some venture capitalist to invest in your 2.5-hour work week firm of craftsmen and craftswomen long enough for that competitive advantage to show a return on investment large enough to quash any misgivings the VC might have about allowing Patty the Programmer to put in one ten hour day a month, the day her husband takes the kids to see their paternal grandparents, that is the equal of a month from an HYP?

Aren't VC's always looking for these people who are thinking 'outside the box'? Or are the craftspeople of the video game industry *themselves* too timid to put what they believe into actual business practice?

Unlike the world where I am king and you all think I'm funny and gorgeous, isn't this a "perfect world" we can make happen if we're willing to fight for it? Isn't the only thing standing in the way of this perfect world some venture capital and the guts to out-compete all those managers we say are dumb?

If they're so dumb, why can't we out-compete them in the open market?

edit: Maybe it's just that we're (and I mean YOU, all you talented programmers reading this, I am no programmer, nor an entrepreneur. I'm at best a teacher.) unwilling to recognize that although our programming skills are stronger on an absolute scale, our managerial skills--knowing the value of veteran programmers--is even stronger on a relative scale.

Maybe the lesson is that if you want to be a programmer who doesn't have an HYP on your tail, you need to give up being a programmer for a while and become a business person until you've changed that economic ecosystem to one that *does* favor you when you move back into programming.

And maybe you can call this firm 'Rapture' :-P

Cheeze, thanks for your comment.

I've heard this argument frequently, particularly from friends of mine that are both programmers and entrepreneurs. They have a very capitalistic "no sympathy" viewpoint on the issue and think that if programmers are unhappy they need to go out and start their own companies. Like you say, rewrite the rules.

The problem with this is that it basically demands not just that these individuals (regardless of whether they are artists, programmers, or designers) learn a new trade -- business -- but that they have fundamentally different personalities. It takes a certain kind of personality to be an entrepreneur. Some of it is risk-taking, an attribute that a LOT of people who make the best programmers and artists do not have. And I do not think that we should demand that they become this way, or that people who do not have the risk addiction and interest in mastering business should be excluded from contributing to the industry. Which is basically what happens.

There is a tendency to dismiss quality of life problems with the blanket "if you don't like it, go somewhere else", and the "if you don't like it, start your own company" is IMHO a variant on this approach, it just has a nicer wrapper and takes a challenge tack rather than a dismissal one.

The reality is that people who fundamentally don't have entrepreneurial personalities but are very talented in art or programming -- who genuinely love those disciplines and become remarkably good at them -- given the existing climate will continue to leave the industry. I believe that those of us who remain have reason to be concerned about that, and I believe that we would all be better off if we tried to prevent it from happening as much. And as a corollary to that greater thesis about the value of quality of life, I think, based on my experience with those on the edge of entering the field, that education about the long career game -- not just the mechanical abilities -- makes a difference from the HYP dimension. There are always going to be people who are going to be shortsighted and live for today instead of tomorrow, and some of them will be coming into the game industry. But there are also a great number of HYPs who don't want to ensure that their game careers are terminal, who want to see themselves making games 20, 30, 40 years from now in a healthy industry. And I believe that those with greater talent have a tendency to demand better environments because they know that they can; the people willing to destroy themselves don't wind up being the most valuable type of developers in the long run anyway. And the ones that are receptive to talk about the long game, that I've spoken to, are very passionate about their futures and want this information and to know HOW they can push back against being asked to put in unreasonable hours.

I personally have a business interest and the desire to be an entrepreneur on a small scale. I currently run my own small game design consulting business. I know how complicated even that is, I know how much MORE complicated it would be if I one day decided to employ others, and I certainly know that my life is not for everyone. The bottom line is that it doesn't do people like me any good to drive out people who don't want to do what I do. Talent comes in a variety of packages and if we want to take advantage of all of it, particularly given how creative and eccentric game talent can tend to be, we need to keep the field as open as possible if we want to be pushing the limits of what games can accomplish.

ErinHoffman:
Cheeze, thanks for your comment.

I've heard this argument frequently, particularly from friends of mine that are both programmers and entrepreneurs. They have a very capitalistic "no sympathy" viewpoint on the issue and think that if programmers are unhappy they need to go out and start their own companies. Like you say, rewrite the rules.

edit:

Welcome! I guess my response--now that I think about it--to people who "are both programmers and entrepreneurs" would be 'wait, why are you telling this person to go out and become your competitor, or keep working for your competitors? Hire them!'

I always find it strange how people with a "very capitalistic "no sympathy" viewpoint" on things have such terrible business viewpoints on what to do when they cross paths with talented, disgruntled workers who are making their competitors richer.

Why do people get so caught up in trying to change the ideologies of others who they could be making money off of by indulging their gripes? I just don't get it!

Sympathy can be very profitable when dispensed to the right people, at least in my opinion. What's capitalistic about passing up the chance to make money? There's nothing capitalistic about not giving out sympathy if it'll make you money. Especially when holding back sympathy encourages someone to become your competitor!

I just don't get people sometimes!

Maybe because the human factor is shadowed. When you can so easily become a nameless "working unit" in any kind of large scale business - and video games aren't immune to that - why bother with emo?
I've seen the mentality of using unqualified but cheap workforces to produce content. I've seen this applied to a small scale, taking people straight out of schools and pressing them like oranges, and thanking them goodbye some time later on.
On the small scale, this makes a poor business, and the one example that comes to my mind is that of a small company which is still struggling, not producing quality games, and not capitalizing on greater talented people. Oh, sure, they cost money. They cost much more.
But they're also more qualified and apt to craft greater products.

Now, applying this to heavy companies, I guess it becomes different. Until recently, I never heard of EA having problems with their multiplicated franchises, and yet, we all remember the story of ea_spouse.

Truly insightful. I hadn't really considered the long term effects of things like lower pay or price vs quality.

First of all, the notion of teaching young people not to scab should lead to the next obvious step: unionizing. Why not call for unionization? I don't work in the industry, so I don't really know the state of the labor movement in it, but it seems obvious.

Secondly, one could argue from a free market perspective that if programmer quality made any real difference (i.e. a difference in final product that mattered to the prospective customer), then the market would have pushed organizations to hang onto senior talent. But it hasn't. That should raise some questions. You pointed out that your professor could finish in two hours what you and your fellow students could in six days, but what if there isn't enough programming work to justify that? As a project manager, you're concerned with total project cost and with the critical path, and the critical path for blockbusters seems to be the production of art assets, not core programming. (IDK what percentage of the industry this is or what the impact is.) In any case, if it takes 6 weeks to produce art assets, and 2 weeks for a senior programming team to finish everything, then you have 4 weeks idle time. That's fine if you're contracting your senior talent so you don't have to pay for the 4 weeks (essentially splitting the expense with the other contract customers), but there's real value in having dedicated staff - you get institutional memory and focus (context switching inevitably drops stuff). So the junior programmer who takes 6 days could be the sweet spot from a project management perspective.

Finally, game programming suffers from oversupply - you work in a field that is attractive to young developers, for the right or wrong reasons, so it's hard to keep the scabs out. It makes sense for a senior programmer to ask him/her-self whether to change industries. Boring programming makes money for a reason...

entaroadun:
First of all, the notion of teaching young people not to scab should lead to the next obvious step: unionizing. Why not call for unionization? I don't work in the industry, so I don't really know the state of the labor movement in it, but it seems obvious.

Secondly, one could argue from a free market perspective that if programmer quality made any real difference (i.e. a difference in final product that mattered to the prospective customer), then the market would have pushed organizations to hang onto senior talent. But it hasn't. That should raise some questions. You pointed out that your professor could finish in two hours what you and your fellow students could in six days, but what if there isn't enough programming work to justify that? As a project manager, you're concerned with total project cost and with the critical path, and the critical path for blockbusters seems to be the production of art assets, not core programming. (IDK what percentage of the industry this is or what the impact is.) In any case, if it takes 6 weeks to produce art assets, and 2 weeks for a senior programming team to finish everything, then you have 4 weeks idle time. That's fine if you're contracting your senior talent so you don't have to pay for the 4 weeks (essentially splitting the expense with the other contract customers), but there's real value in having dedicated staff - you get institutional memory and focus (context switching inevitably drops stuff). So the junior programmer who takes 6 days could be the sweet spot from a project management perspective.

Finally, game programming suffers from oversupply - you work in a field that is attractive to young developers, for the right or wrong reasons, so it's hard to keep the scabs out. It makes sense for a senior programmer to ask him/her-self whether to change industries. Boring programming makes money for a reason...

Good point. Some companies would divert certain ressources towards R&D, but not all companies have such plans. Now, seniors would be ought to actually reach situations with far more responsabilities, and having to do a bit of team management, and that's the problem, because it's not sometimes that within everybody's aptitudes.
Maybe those code brutes should simply transfer to jobs in other software companies which require pure code work, and hardly rely on any other ressources.

As a current student of computer science and burgeoning freelance writer (obviously hoping to work in the gaming industry someday,) I just want to say 'thank you' for your intent to spend the month focusing on students. I sincerely hope you revisit an issue you only touched upon in this week's entry; the baffling clash between gaming companies wanting new blood but only asking for professionals with already-shipped titles. As I skim job postings online, I'm frequently intimidated by the language and requirements used. For example, Blizzard's advertisement for the position of 'Programmer' asks straight-out that the applicant be 'brilliant' and already have at least two published games under their belt.

Doc, thanks for your note, and I hope you find the next few columns valuable and of interest. Good luck with your quest. There are tons of great companies out there, more than there have ever been, which is good news for people willing to work hard and break in. Blizzard is the Google of the games industry -- they have a ravening horde of people waiting to get in, and tend to pick up the cream of the crop. That being said, they also burn through people like crazy, so if that's the life you want, it is quite attainable! ;) But they also tend to pull from their fan-base -- they want people phenomenally dedicated to the Blizzard brand, who know everything about the worlds that they create. For this and other bits of game company advice, stay tuned!

 

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