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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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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What happened to leaders having values

by on May.02, 2011, under Lessons

I have ran into way too many “Lead Programmers” lately that were not really leading but more like just holding things together.  These are smart enough guys that know what needs to be done and were successful at getting people organized enough to do it.  But they were not really leading the group forward, inspiring excellence or making their work environment a better place.  In fact no one on the team really knew what they stood for, what the future would bring or even why they worked for them vs anyone else.  If people on your team work for you because “It does not suck” you kind of have a big problem (although not the worst possible one) and are not getting the best out of your team.  Which means you have failed…

What gives, 10 years ago it seemed that every 3rd lead in our industry was a serious butt kicking freak of nature that was getting crazy amounts of work done.  Today it is not uncommon to go through 3 different companies before finding on of these guys.  I have a couple theories as to why the leaders in the game industry are not what they use to be just a short decade ago.  First, game companies have been trying to “Grow Up” and might have inadvertently taken this politically correct thing a little to far.  Leaders are now judged more on the results of the “360 degree” reviews held every year and less on their ability to get their team to produce great results.  Thus leads have adapted by becoming the lowest common denominator in terms of their personality so they never get negative remarks in their reviews.  It makes them safe; Safe = Bland; bland does not inspire.

Now this be itself does not have to be a problem if leads could pick the people they work with.  They would just hire or gather people that like their motives, personalities, directions, values and then they could both inspire people and get good 360 degree reviews from everyone.  But the second problem is companies do not like the HR management restrictions this causes, they like the idea of being able to move anyone anywhere at any time and thus vastly overvalue leaders that seem to be able to manage anyone.  Well that is fine if you never want great performance and just lowest common denominator output from your teams.

Maybe I am just getting old and bitter but I do not want to spend the rest of my career trying to please everyone just to end up hating myself more and more each day.  I want to collect a bunch of people that share some common values and charge off into the world of orders of magnitude more productive and happier team than 90% of the other ones out there.  I am more than willing to accept that not everyone will like working with me or in the environments I create for my teams.  They should move on and find a place that better meets their need, companies should recognize that this is a good thing.  Because if they allow a leader to build a team that gets inspired it will make the rest of the teams in the company look like they are standing still.

Likely you can’t get your company to change their review policy’s for leads and they are unwilling to give you more control over who gets assigned to work with you.  One thing you do often control as a lead is the people you hire into the company even if they are not on your team.  So during every interview I try to impart on them what environment I am creating and find out if they are going to respond well to it in case I work with them on the next project.  My top 3 values that directly influence my teams environment.

  1. Accomplishment – My biggest motivator is to succeed at something, thus I now only pick projects that can be made to succeed and then make sure they do.  There is no more fighting the good fight but it was sadly doomed from the start, there is only time spent charging toward the inevitable ship parties.  Its not that I do not like a good challenge, challenges are the times you learn the most and I like to learn.  But I am not longer young enough to believe I can move mountains with my bare hands and old enough to know that if I am asked to I can just move on.
  2. Impact – My second biggest motivator is creating something that will make a difference, thus I now try to only pick project that when we get done there will be a shot heard around the world.  Long ago I lost the ability to make myself happy solely through the learning that came just by working on anything at all.  I am now experienced, somewhat jaded so I need projects that if completed there will be a payoff that satisfies higher psychological goals.  No more crappy clone games or another under powered engine that will be forgotten once the company eventually goes under.
  3. Intelligence – My third biggest motivator is I only want to reach my goals through acquiring and applying knowledge to the problems in my world.  I do not want to solve anything through insane work hours, taking stupid amounts of risk, or anything else that causes enough stress that my non-work life is impacted.  If our only way to meaningfully contribute to a project is by is by dropping our lives and coding 14 hours a day till it is done then I am not going to be signing us up for it.  Every day we are going to learn more so we can do it better and faster than all the rest which leaves us more time to learn and get even smarter.

Now there are 50 or so values that leaders could have selected from as their top 3, and they are all going to sound pretty good if you list them out.  Who is going to say they do not want want a leader that values honesty, family, creativity, caring, dedication or any of the other ones.  What they have to realize is that these are the 3 things that provide the greatest influence on a leaders every decision.  eg.  If I have surplus budget and the option to spend it on training for the team or pizza night at the bowling alley then given my values you know which it is likely going to get spent on.  If you are the kind of person depending on their work life for a good chunk of their social life then your going to be often disappointed and my team might not be the best fit for you.

The important thing is you figure out what your values are, how you are shaping your projects around them and make sure the team knows what it is signing up for and going to get back in return.  The right people will eventually build around it and then you can make the serious butt kicking freak of nature team that gets crazy amounts of work done while making it look easy.

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Waterfall, ISO 9000, CMM, Agile, Scrum, what fad is coming next

by on Apr.06, 2011, under Development, Lessons

Seems like every 3 years I am asked to learn a new system of project management that ends up being a 98% complete waste of time.  Why have there been so many systems created and thus so many books written about this single topic.

  • Projects are hard to manage because they are often complicated ( Budgets, locations, schedules, resources, cross group coordination, feedback, testing, customer satisfaction, marketing support )
  • People are hard to manage because they are always complicated ( Interests, skills, communication styles, personality, work habits, schedules, needs )

So “Project Management” is thus complicated * complicated = really dam hard.

The first factor is “really dam hard” problems take a lot of time to fully understand, plus even more time to develop a good solution and then several iterations to practice the solutions enough times that one will always get it right.  In terms of large projects this means people are going to fail at some level for many years before they get good at it yet less get it 100% right.  But we humans are not that patient of a species and we tend to treat big problem like small problem in terms of expecting resolution far too quickly.  If we do not get the results we want right away we conclude that the approach must have been wrong and there must be an easier solution.  Very rarely do we do enough research to predict what a reasonable path of improvement milestone would be and even if we do we commonly get sidetrack with just the rumors of someone else getting better results.

The second factor is every tech director’s misguided need to standardize across the company, they wants each group using the same systems so people are transferable within the company and their job of monitoring is easier.  But given that each project is very likely to be somewhat different than the rest of them this will only end in pain as square pegs get forced into round holes.  Still they try and after awhile a each solution fails to work across the entire company so they go looking for the next one instead of trusting their managers to build the solution each project needs.

The third factor is fear, fear that we are getting left behind in terms of process, fear that people will not want to work with use if we are not using the latest and greatest system, fear of not getting it right so covering your butt by taking a name brand solution.  Companies are more than willing to throw away all lessons learned by their teams just for the false hope of that some method will make the scary unpredictability of software development go away.

Thus millions of dollars get spent on books, courses, software consultants and seminars only to have each company end up roughly were it was before the last project management system came along.  Parts of the company will still be doing really well while other parts will still be under performing.  Not surprisingly it will be alone the lines of people have an understanding of the principles that influence development and those that do not.  So stop wasting time forcing processes onto your groups and just ensure they have the base knowledge needed to figure out what should be happening.

Our group just had Scrum shoved on it so each day the good little “scrum masters” we are gather around the whiteboard to update our color coded post it notes with what we are working.  Everyone declares what they got done, are working on next, what changed, and if they blocked on anything.  From this one tiny part of the bigger scrum process we can quickly find issues with trying to apply it to our project.

  1. We only have 8 people and this already takes 45 min – 1 hour ( wasted $’s ).  This is not going to scale well when we are 30 plus people in a year.
  2. Our dev manager and many people are out of the office quite a bit, why are we putting all our important information on a whiteboard were it can only be seen or updated by people standing right in front of it.  Microsoft spends a ton of money to give us great remote access to all our data which we have just rendered useless.
  3. Why is all our important information in paper form so it can not be shared, tracked, have versions or be compared to other groups.  I get it that it is more visible to the management people that might walk by ( also has to be a security risk ), but the price is not worth it.
  4. If anyone on my team waits an entire day to bring up someone that has him blocked I would like him removed, if your blocked there should be an email to the entire team about it instantly.

Seems if we had looked at the principles of communications we would have realized this system of post its would not work with our distributed and multi time zone team.  If we had looked at the principles of project feedback and constant improvement we would have realized that not being able to easily update and trend our data would be a issue on a long term project like ours.

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few.  The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble”.  — Ralph Waldo Emerson  (1803 – 1882)

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