An apology to every manager I ever had

I’ve worked on videogames for the past nine years and on every one of these projects, scheduling was a fundamental issue. Maybe you’ve been there too; where it feels like there are two shifts. During the daytime shift, people talk about stuff and during the night shift (ooh taco truck tonight!) the people who talked about stuff went home, and the people who made stuff got to work without the interference of endless email and meeting requests.

It never seemed like the day shift and the night shift were working on the same project. Game development isn’t software development. So what was the point of all those meetings? You and I both tuned out of them. We both knew the meetings that mattered were the informal get togethers at your desk, the chance meeting in the hallway, the shared lunch and the smoke break bitch session.

Large projects that go off the rails do so because there is not a strong vision pushed down to the people doing the work. You naturally expect people to exhibit self-expression in their work, but controlling that with a strong vision (especially in getting them to adopt that) is key to success.
– Vik Sohal, COO,  Pixelux Entertainment

Michael Ogawa’s code_swarm project investigates how people collaborate while making software. His visualizations show the history of commits in various software projects. What’s a commit? Its when someone makes changes to existing code and documents or adds new code and documents to a shared repository. Developers and files are shown as moving elements. When a developer commits a file it lights up and flies towards the developer. Files are color coded by type and inactive files eventually fade away. Its beautiful.

I feel a certain sympathy for every manager I’ve ever had. Each was faced with the task of somehow organizing this… thing. They were just doing their jobs. They would build a house of cards and blame the wind for blowing it over. They would grab torches and pitchforks to storm the castle where the monster had been made. How could anyone ever hope to control this slime mold-y thing with spreadsheets and meeting requests?

Software engineering isn’t engineering, and software management is oxymoronic. I used to think coding was art or craft, but now I understand it is magic. Coding is spell casting; we move electrons, the very resonances of existence in an ordered manner with our incantations. What an incredible age it is.
– Nick Porcino, Senior R&D Engineer, Industrial Light and Magic

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  1. Baroness Dal
    Posted November 18, 2009 at 09:01 | Permalink

    It goes further than game development – any time humans collaborate they create something organic. It drives me nuts that the research on the actual dynamics of collaborating is still in diapers. The new book by Sandy Pentland is a most recent one I read on the subject of network intelligence and social signaling. Check it out.

  2. Posted November 18, 2009 at 11:04 | Permalink

    good point Baroness. I feel that a similar organic form could be visualized for any collaborative activity. If we listen to musicians playing together and improvising, we basically hear the same thing, the sound of signal, advance, retreat, incorporate, shift mode, add noise, and a million other things.

  3. Baroness Dal
    Posted November 18, 2009 at 20:21 | Permalink

    Reminds me, again, of “Diamond Age”…

  4. The Sizzler
    Posted November 19, 2009 at 08:10 | Permalink

    Gary, I think you’re right in some ways and I disagree in others. Yes, the complexity of the beast is difficult to manage with spreadsheets and meetings, but the complexity stems from every game “needing” to be the BEST experience EVAR, instead of just being “fun.” Thus you end up with unrealistic expectations and schedules, tempered by vast hordes of people who are willing to sacrifice their lives to make those schedules happen.

    I do feel empathy for every single person in the entertainment industry, however, as you *do* give your all for years, and then someone picks up your game/movie, plays/watches it for a few minutes, saying, “meh, this sucks,” not realizing it is the very embodiment of the “code swarm” nor how many souls were consumed in the process…and for many of the souls it wasn’t even their fault.

    Cool visuals, though. :)

  5. Posted November 19, 2009 at 10:39 | Permalink

    we often speak of IP, particularly new IP. Sizzler is 110% right – the things we make are artifacts. They have a shelf life and will be put aside. My feeling has long been that the real intellectual property of any group is the way they make things. Process, not artifacts.

  6. Posted October 13, 2010 at 13:07 | Permalink

    “Process, not artifacts.”

    As an industrial engineer, I can’t help but agree with this observation. This is what separates a good band from others that produce one hit wonders.

    It’s a tricky business to create a business that’s sustainable, or a project team that’s durable, as opposed to ones that do something well once, and can’t repeat the trick.

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