What Unemployment Taught Me

What Unemployment Taught Me

I was recently laid off, it sucked, the end.

I wish that was the whole story, but it never is.  Fortunately(?) life moves on and we have to pick up the pieces and find other opportunities out in the wild.  This entire process has taught me a lot about a lot of things, and certainly a lot about myself right here and now:

  • My interview skills are about as smooth as a cat’s penis
  • The industry sure has changed in 12 years
  • Having a family means swallowing your pride

Smooth Operator

I always go into interviews prepared to talk about what I’ve done.  The who, what, when, where, how; just the facts ma’am, that’s how I think of my work.  My accomplishments are a series of hurdles that I’m racing over, trying not to stumble, never looking back.  I guess you can say I’m a bit of a “futurist” which means I spend a shockingly little amount of time reminiscing about how awesome I was that one time that I pulled an extra millisecond out of the critical loop.  If I’m asked, “Have you done ___ before?” My answer is simply yes, no, or I’ll discuss what mild familiarity I may have and under what circumstances I had learned about it.  If I’m asked an open question like, “Tell me one challenge you’ve come across and how did you solve it?” my armor starts to crack.  Sweeping questions send my mind into a flurry of possible answers; none of them feeling adequate enough to respond with.  Do I talk about the time I wrote a video texture library because the engine didn’t support it?  Do I talk about a higher level issues like deciding how I stored my data and how it was used by the system? Do I go even higher and talk about Object Oriented Design problems I had to consider?

I’m also someone who has been working from home for nearly 7 years, for a company I’ve been a part of for nearly 12 years.  It was like warm apple pie on a cool day.  While I could go on for days about all of the amazing benefits to employees and employers this brings, that’s not the focus for today.  Today I’d like to talk about how I’ve spent most of those years interacting with a 2D projection of humans 1k miles away.  While I regularly did plenty of “Facetime” and “Hangouts” with video cameras, there was something in the back of my brain that acknowledged I was still speaking to a computer monitor.  At any point, if my eyes drifted or focused on the work being discussed I was always facing forward and interacting without necessary making eye-contact with pixels on a screen.  I don’t consider myself to be “anti-social” but there are situations that give me deep anxiety like walking in with no control, objective, or game-plan, expectations of small-talk and ice-breakers, rooms filled with strangers who know each other but don’t know me, being a focus of attention in a public speaking forum.  Lucky for me, these are exactly ALL parts of the job interview process – hurrah!! *dripping with sarcasm*

I Feel Like Encino Man

Working for the same company for over a decade has it’s benefits and disadvantages.  One of the biggest disadvantages however is one that I’ve already discussed.  It’s easy to get rusty with the interview process when you aren’t out there doing it.  To some degree, I’ve been frozen in ice, and getting laid off is that moment when the ice melts and you wake up in a strange place.

As I interview with several companies I begin to detect a pattern.  There is a strong bend in the hiring process today that was not there before.  A lot of programming tests have moved away from the whiteboard and onto web-based “speed coding” automated websites.  I do take some issue with this new way of testing, only because the artificial injection of a 20 or 30 minute window to read, design, and code a solution to a problem you’ve never heard of isn’t a real-world scenario you’d often find yourself in.  But I suppose it helps you know if that person at least understands the language.

Another thing that is new to me is the “Millennial” twist.  Like I said before, I’ve always focused on the facts of what I’ve accomplished – no frills, get ‘er done.  What I want from a company is something that I can’t ask for in an interview.  I want to relate to my co-workers, and work on interesting problems, but these are the types of “wants” that come with time and experience in the position.  I can be promised the world by a recruiter but that doesn’t make it true.  Still, I’ll be asked questions open questions (you know how much I love those) about what I’d want the company to reflect to it’s employee’s if I was the CEO.  It sounds like such a bubbly Millennial thing to assume I can inject real change in an established company of hundreds or thousands of employees.  Maybe this is my own burden for being born in a weird muddled time between Gen X and now, with Millennial technical skills and Gen X cynicism.  I never know how to answer these questions and it doesn’t seem appropriate to say, “I don’t believe you,” or “I don’t care.”

Dreams Have Expiration Dates

I like video games… No I take that back, I love video games.  When I stop to think about what makes them amazing I think I’d have to say that it’s the blending of so many highly trained skills coming together for a singular creative vision.  Sure you can go write a song, or a book, or paint a picture, or write a cool algorithm, or record yourself reading lines from a script.  But where else can you bring all of these together, and then let a consumer take control of your creation?

All of that is amazing…  What’s not amazing is what it takes to bring everyone together.  In the United States, most developers are huddled around the most expensive properties in the country.  In an industry that has eclipsed most other forms of software and entertainment, we have developers living in rent-controlled apartments or managing to find a home at the cost of no savings, and likely long commutes.  Most contracts are 1-sided, in favor of the publisher, with hard deadlines and freedom to cut budgets.  This makes the industry very unstable, and it feels like a weekly event to read about another developer who shut their doors.  Or even worse, we don’t hear about the mobile or indie developer who had to let go of their entire staff of 10.  It is a hurricane of instability most of the time, which makes raising a family very hard.

If you are having to find new work every 1-3 years because the studio shut down, you are likely spending most of your savings as you search for the next job.  And you are less likely to invest in a home, making your chances of building equity for retirement very low.  That means that your time there is kind of a wash.

It’s around that time that you start asking yourself if it’s worth it.  Working for a larger studio might improve your employment stability but it would likely mean uprooting your family into one of the gaming mecca’s where most of the large publishers house their developers.  Seattle, San Francisco, LA, Austin, and NYC; those are your choices.  Otherwise your chances of stable game development in an affordable town become nearly zero.  They do exist out there, but they may also be the only gig in town; are you prepared to uproot again if things don’t work out?  For a single guy who is renting an empty 1-bed apartment with a blowup mattress, this is nothing.  For a husband, and father trying to provide some stability at home, this is soul crushing.

I consider myself an anomaly to have lasted at the same company for almost 12 years.  Though there were rough times, more specifically, I consider it an anomaly that the company remained operational for those years.  I lived through a lot of layoffs that swept the company and it was my turn.  Now I have to ask myself if I want to be back in that fight for a game job or if I want to search for more stable ground, a place that won’t have me questioning every month if this is the month that puts me back on the market, again.


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