Darkened Software

Managers review duties do not just start at review time.

by on Sep.15, 2013, under Lessons

Review time can be a little nerve racking for employee’s at Microsoft given a rather large chunk of your yearly wages are based on it.  In addition to stocks and money the ranking also controls the possibilities for promotion and transfer during the next year.  While the employee creates the body of work that will be judged in the end, its is not even close to 100% in their control how they are going to be judged & ranked in the end.

The 3 well known factors at work here that cause employee’s to have so little control of their fate:

  1. You create objectives at the beginning of the year, you get to make some modifications at mid year if your manager approves.  But between then and the end of the year if the business objectives change you are likely going to be graded on something you have not been working on in 6 months.
  2. You are stack ranged against everyone else in the company within your level.  Its not enough that you were great in your engineering job but you have to be perceived as better at that than the same level producer, artist, designer, HR, sale, and marketing person is at their job.  Not sure there is a possible formula for figuring this out so as in any subjective process things are going to be off.
  3. As you get compare to a ever growing group of people in your band, you manager has to fight to keep their suggested ranking for you.  Then at each level after that the next manager up has to fight to keep you at your suggested ranking.  Thus it is crazy important that your manager not only has your back but is persuasive as well so that all managers in your line will also have your back.

 

Feeling a little nervous yet that all your hard work could be for not.  Don’t worry in reality you have even less control than that as there is one more huge variable at work.

4.  End of year only peer feedback.

At mid year you get a forced check in from your boss were you write up how you think your doing and he corrects you if needed.  This is great as it solves one big problem were people think they are going good but are really not and get surprised.  In this system someone now has 6 months to correct it before they get locked down for the year.

What this system does not prevent is both you and your boss thinking your doing great but at the end of the year when all the co-worker feedback comes in there is some discrepancies.  Now your completely screwed, if you had known earlier (mid year) you could have cleared up any real or perceived issues.  But since there is only 360 feedback at the final review, you find out just in time to realize your extra hard work was wasted.  This is not just a Microsoft issue, many companies use this non symmetric system.

One can try to protect themselves from these issues by asking their boss at every single one on one “how am I doing in general and am I on target to hit my end of year ranking goal?”.  Then everything gets corrected in two week intervals ( make sure your boss is showing up ) and if you do it consistently your mid year feedback will be only positive with hopefully plans on how to grow the next big skills set you need for the next band.

If your at the lead level or above you should already be talking to the other Art, Design, Production groups to find out if your team is meeting their teams needs.  This is a good time to find out feedback on how your individual team members are doing and if they are willing to share, how you are doing.  Not everyone is confident enough to give you feedback about yourself straight to your face, but I have never had anyone not tell me their thoughts about my employee’s are doing.  So there is really no excuse if you ever get review time feedback comments for your people that that you did not see coming.  If all the manager up the line are doing this then the system works out even if they will not give you your own feedback and thus no one gets surprised.

So there is 4 big things employee’s do not control that make their review an stressful nightmare of uncertainty.  The manager have the ability to control or minimize all of them.  It requires only a little bit more work above what you should be doing already, so there is no excuse for not to do it.  The payoff is massive as stress and uncertainty kill peoples productivity, and the trust gained from them knowing you have their back is massive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Interviews: Pay attention to the instructions.

by on Nov.14, 2012, under Industry, Interviews

This might be the funniest interview I have ever conducted.  After introductions and a min of baseline conversation I give him the back round for the problem and 3 instructions for the question.

“Topic is X, there is usually around 4 issues that arise from it, for each”

  • Write down the issue on the whiteboard.
  • Write down the data you would collect to track and understand each issue.
  • Write down how you would display the data to the user so they could solve each issue.

I ask him if he understands which he nodes to and then I hand the kid the marker and prepare to be amazed.

He stands there for a few seconds and then says the first issue must be “Y” and starts telling me how someone on the last project solved it.

So I get up and take the marker from him, step over to the whiteboard, write the issue on it and hand him back the now open marker and cap.  He says “Oh right” and then continues to talk.  Not an amazing start, I hope this kid is just a little nervous and gets it together.

He finally runs out of things to say about how someone else attacked that issue before so I prompt him think about what other issues there is with topic X.  He again goes silent for a little while and then says it could also be “W”.  Tells me he has never had to deal with it but thinks it could be solved and starts rambling on.

I get up and pick up another marker, walk to the whiteboard and write down issue “W” right under issue “Y”.  I again hand him the uncapped marker so now he is holding two open markers as he continues to talk.  This time he says nothing as I hand him the marker.  Eventually his mumbling goes silent so I ask what the third issue might be?

He loudly declares there is no more possible issues under the topic “X”.  WTF kid it is not likely I am giving you trick questions.  So after I ask him a few questions he gets to realization of the next issue and declares “well I guess there could be an issue Z”.

This time I am going to see if he eventually figures it out and I just wait in silence for him to write it down.  A full 2 min of mumbling later out of pure amusement I go get the last marker, uncap it and write issue “Z” on the whiteboard.  Then I go to hand the marker to him again but he is standing there with an open marker in each hand already.  So I put the cap back on it and attach it to the bottom of the one in his right hand.  He just stands there silently for a few seconds, so I ask him to go onto the next part of the question and “Write Down” what data he would collect to resolve the issue.

He then loudly declare there is no way to resolve it and thus it is not worth worrying about.  Your right kid, it is quite likely I am giving you problems I really don’t want you to solve.

As amusing as this is it is time to walk you to the door.

 

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Book Review: Sparks of Genius

by on Feb.26, 2012, under Development, Industry

This book hits on a topic a friend of mine and I have been arguing about for years, do people need to be multidisciplinary or should they specialize in one skill set and focus their time learning to do it perfectly.

I took the theory that our worlds of knowledge are growing way to fast for one to have time to become skillful enough in the other fields that it would help your main career that much.  My friend took the theory that it was still possible to learn multiple different skill sets and that they will make your main discipline much strong.  A few years back I realized that after learning new types of poker my Hold’em game became significantly stronger.  Then I started collecting new programming languages and my C++ code became much cleaner.  Thus I started to believe my theory was on shaky ground and I might soon be sending someone a bottle of scotch soon.  After reading this book though I realized just how wrong I was, but at least the book was nice enough to fully explain why and what I could do about it.

Their theory is to take your mind and problem solving abilities to the highest level you need the following 13 skills:

  • Observing
  • Imaging
  • Abstracting
  • Recognizing Patterns
  • Forming Patterns
  • Analogizing
  • Body Thinking
  • Empathizing
  • Dimensional Thinking
  • Modeling
  • Playing
  • Transforming
  • Synthesizing

Looking at this any my own game programming career thus far it actively trains maybe about 5 of those skills really hard and another 3 of them moderately.  Thus my career is not providing very much practice time in about 1/2 the skills needed to really excel in this field.  Unintuitive as it seems I need to spend less doing software development and more time in another field that is mainly about these other skills.  Looking at this list it is clear I have to either pick up music, drama or  painting to complete the tool set.

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Companies, aim for the win instead of aiming to just stay alive

by on Sep.06, 2011, under Industry, Lessons, Start ups

Here is a hypothetical question, imagine that you own a small game company that is just getting started, and you have been offered 2 contracts.

First contract: Standard 1.5 year slightly aggressive schedule to take an IP from company X and do something with it at basically cost plus a small profit.  It is pretty safe, the publisher needs to have something out with the movie / book / whatever and thus it is almost guaranteed your company will have the money to survive for contract period.  If you play it right you might build a relationship with the publisher and even have more work lined up for when this contract is over.

Second contact: Not so standard 4 month very aggressive prototype to see if you can either take or create and IP that the company can use to fill one of their publishing slots.  This will take everything your little company has got and when it is over if the publisher does not pick it up you are 95% likely to go under as there is really not enough time to line up anything else up.  If you succeed in impressing them with the demo they have the resources and are willing to go big with it which could make your company a known entity.

Many CEO’s would take the first contract as they believe it less risky, they know they will be able to pay their employee’s for the next 1.5 years and keep the company afloat.  They will not have to go through the painful process of laying people off or shutting their doors and all those other fears that keep CEO’s up at night.  The sigma of having to close down your studio is often too much and most CEO’s will take many tradeoffs to ensure the long term survival of their company.

Few CEO’s would take the second contract as they believe it is reckless to take such a high chance they will be shut down in 4 months.  While true it might not be the contract a CEO would want to take if they just signed a 5 year office space lease and put their house up as a deposit.  It’s higher short term risk is more than made up for by its much lower long term risk.  Now, how to back up this theory.

A pattern I see over and over again is small companies start out with tons of energy as they believe they are going to take over the world.  That first project is tough as they are just starting out and have a shoe string budget that they make up for by putting in their blood, sweat and tears.  Now that first project is a safe project which is much more likely to not sell 3 million copies ( > 90% don’t ) and does not make them all billionaires.   So the company starts their second project but this time it will not be with nearly as much energy.  The tools and tech are still just as crappy this time around but with the new found reality check from shipping a dud this time it really starts to bother people.  People quickly get upset that things are not vastly improved this time around and they are still being asked to put in a lot of hours to compensate / compete with bigger budget development houses.  Its not that people don’t want to fix things but the company does not have the money or means to do it so everyone is forced to live in frustration.  Soon people start to leave and the churn just makes the situation worse.

How many good people are still working there after the second project also fails to sell crazy numbers and the third project starts?  It is typically a very small number.  So the big risk is not so much starting a company and going under in 4 months when everyone can still get jobs again.  The real big risk is starting a company and struggling in misery for 8 year before finally going under because even college graduates know better to work in your sweat shop.  When you own a small company your only goal is to get from broke to well funded before all the good will of your employees is used up.  In the highly competitive game world that means going after the high risk but high reward situations that can get you to the big time.

As much as I dislike the term it is very true, the game industry needs to learn to “Fail Faster”

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Design does not yet rule in game development

by on Jun.30, 2011, under Development, Industry, Lessons

This debate has been raging for ever since I joined the industry, lets just end it right now with the results of the Gamasutra Salary Survey for 2010.

Programmers: $85,733 ( Avg.  4 year degree )

Artists: $71,354 ( Avg.  4 year degree )

Designers:  $70,223 ( Avg.  High School Diploma or GED  )

You can argue as an industry based in entertainment we should value designers more than artists and programmers but the facts clearly state we currently do not.  Now stats like this are tricky, it is hard to say if they are the cause or effect.  Are designers paid less because the market is flooded with great designers and thus do not need to be paid as well?  Or are designers getting paid what they are worth but do not yet provide the same value to the industry that the other disciplines do?

To me it is very clear just by playing games out there that we are not even close to having an over saturated market of great game designers.  Most game designs are just painfully derivative, most levels are unimaginative and the game play systems we are forced to learn are repetitive and far to basic.  The level of thinking these games require is often minimal, often it comes down to just pure memorization or repetition.  If there is any fun in the game at all you either have to sit through 1/2 the levels before you run into it or you have to fight with so many other bad systems that it is just not worth going after.

So I am going with the theory that designers are not yet providing the same value as other disciplines, in fact when I saw the survey I was blown away by how much they were getting paid.  Know many other careers were people with no formal training can end up making 70k a year?  For what the game industry is getting the average designer salary should be much closer to 45k than the current 70k we are seeing.  That delta of 25k is just how desperate the game industry is to attract good people into the game design field.

If game designers want to rule the industry like they should then they need to get some training in skills that would really help ensure every game is great fun and worth buying.

Currently it seems the curriculum for game designers is:

  • Play a lot of games
  • Come up with a big list of reasons why any game mentioned sucks.
  • Declare they could do better and should already be working  at blizzard.

New curriculum you could get at any university:

  • Study psychology: stop guessing why things may or may not be fun and learn what really makes people want to accomplish goals, drive for payoffs and stay interested in the pacing of rewards.
  • Study human learning: stop making games frustrating by being to easy or overwhelming.  Learn exactly what people can handle, how they process information, how they attempt to solve puzzles, how long it takes to makes skills permanent.  There are many different learning types but most games are only set up for one.
  • Study biology:  go learn exactly what information people process out of images, sounds.  How the brain shuts down or speeds up by stress, sound, threat and reward.  Build games that are paced to work with the body instead of taxing it to much and being a drain.
  • Introductory writing,  game theory,  coding, art just so you know what the other disciplines are doing.
  • Play a lot of games from all time periods and categories.  Understand were they have been, why they have evolved and were they are going.

When designers have the skills sets that they can consistently take even primitive tool sets and build great levels for their target audience then they will be the highest paid people in the game industry like they should be.

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