And this was supposed to be vacation? I’m exhausted. And all I’ve really been doing the last two days is speak to some people. Maybe it’s time to relax by doing some serious software development.
Yesterday it was only really two people, the first was a Googler. (I had a great breakfast in a Google restaurant…) Today it was lunch with two MediaZone employees, followed by a third in their offices. Then this afternoon I visited someone at EA, had a tour, and an interesting discussion. Apart from the Google breakfast, it’s mostly discussions and conversations revolving around the entertainment or the gaming industry. I have a headache.
The question? What do I want to do in life…
This relatively long post is mostly a thought stream relating to capitalism, money versus value, and “making a difference”. I develop my thoughts while writing, so likely I’ll end up contradicting myself.
What does it boil down to? It is basically a question of what provides motivation and job satisfaction. Many people are motivated by making it big, earning a good salary doing something they’re happy enough doing, working in an area in which they’d like to live. Capitalism and Wall Street hold the reigns.
I think I lack that. I am not motivated by money. I look for “value”. Of course, the capitalistic ideal would have value rewarded by money. Or not quite, rather, value is directly measured and represented by money. The bottom line, the number of zeros, that’s what they call “value”. A bigger pay check implies you’re making a bigger contribution. There is much to be said for that. Money has become a token to facilitate the exchange of goods. Make more money, and obviously you’re making a larger or more significant contribution to the people giving you that money.
It makes much sense, except, it also doesn’t. Not to me. Not right now.
The things we value are shaped by our past experiences. Often we value the things we lack. With a life insurance policy and a generous mother, my years were spent learning to live modestly without having any budget pressure. Or even more significant: limiting my own pocket money. More than a dozen years of arguing “no, I do not need a raise” does something to your financial ambitions: it destroys them. It results in no particular desire to increase your budget. Wealth doesn’t bring happiness. So value, in my mind, is not attached to money. And I carry this into my perspectives on choice of business.
The second thing that doesn’t bring happiness, is entertainment. Entertained people are not the same thing as happy people. (Consider this forum discussion on Brave New World, you’ll have to log into Facebook I believe. Do you also have to add “Visual Bookshelf” to see it? Likely.) My concerns are that the entertainment industry replaces that which is truly important. Virtual friendships often replace real live friendships, reality TV provides fake “one way relationships” with the participants. Of course, that doesn’t mean the tools or the entertainment are bad, it rather means we need to learn how to better use such tools and avoid letting them use us. Facebook is a communications platform, ultimately it is up to the end user to use it responsibly or irresponsibly.
But they don’t realise this… Who works on educating people about this kind of concern? Well, some churches, at least. Stellenbosch Gemeente for example. What about the secular community? Where do they learn about such concerns and challenges? Other than directly from wise parents? The hard way?
For such reasons, the great capitalists and business people’s motivation to climb into whatever business has significant market value (letting the financial market decide value), does not really appeal to me. “The entertainment industry is a zillion dollar industry” has me responding with “Yea? So what? That doesn’t mean it’s good…” Am I old-fashioned to believe that children playing outside, or creating their own games, or reading books, are healthier and happier children than those that are spoonfed their entertainment by the latest market research, focus groups and capitalist monetizing schemes?
And there then my dilemma. My idealism about other people’s happiness, my altruism, may sound good, but it runs the risk of being detrimental to my effectively contributing to the economy, and potentially detrimental to my own happiness. Then again, I believe happiness is found in deeper meaningful relationships. Get the latter right, and the former won’t be so important? But right now, I’ve got to worry about making decisions about the former. The latter should develop with time, wherever I end up settling?
And this is how my mind thinks. Imagine my anguish when, in a recent conversation, where I found myself defending the realities of publicly traded companies with regards to the limits to your ability to assert your own personal values in the context of business decisions (you have to make decisions on behalf of shareholders), I was placed into a box of “you people that care only about the bottom line, about the financial returns”… Ouch. Methinks I can give some kudos to myself for remaining calm while explaining that that’s a kind of personal attack that is not relevant or conducive to effective discussion. No point in getting personal about it, especially not when it’s *incorrect*.
Right, so if I’m to enter the entertainment or gaming industries, I’m going to have to focus on the positive, and possibly on putting some effort into promoting the positive and fighting the negative. Let’s see what I can come up with, with regards to the value of typical entertainment.
Social Benefits of the Entertainment Industry
I think the world is realising the importance of relationships and social interaction, and business seems to be adjusting accordingly. The gaming industry is discovering a demand for multiplayer games. People playing together, that’s where it’s at. MMORPG’s like World of Warcraft do lead to new friendships and spill over into “real life”. Facebook is used to organise real life events. These days books are not complete without a website fostering a community built up around them. And the TV-over-IP industry is heading in the same direction. This is the social revolution.
Not without it’s own challenges. Simply having user participation isn’t good enough. Consider comments on YouTube clips, arbitrary and meaningless anonymous comments attacking one another. A lot of “social interaction” has no value if it isn’t with people you’re walking a path through life with.
And that’s where online apps start plugging into social networks and friends lists. Show comments by friends, rather than random anonymous strangers, and you immediately have more value. Make media an experience mutually shared by real friends, and you’ve got yourself some real value.
People have jobs. They provide products and services to other people. They make money. Now this money is exchanged for further products and services. This is how the economy flows and grows. These people then want stuff to spend their money on. They do want games, they do want movies and media and television. These things do have value to them. They want to watch rugby. Climb into a media company, and you can give them what they want. (Not that getting what you want is the source of happiness: see Dan Gilbert’s talk at TED, or various ancient spiritual traditions. But I digress.)
By giving them what they want (i.e., having a job), you, in turn, get money, which you can then exchange for further goods and services. Effectively, you’re exchanging their spending on games and entertainment (if that’s where you contribute to the economy), for whatever you’d like to spend money on. If you think all these gamers should rather be investing in educating the rest of the world, why not take their money by selling them games, then spend it on education yourself? Simple. (That’s Bill style humanitarianism, as opposed to Linus style.)
So where am I going with this?
Who knows. This post was written in two sessions, with a dinner conversation in the middle. I’ve made my peace with the value of the entertainment industry and the gaming world. All that really remains, is the question of where I’d be more inspired, more passionate, more motivated to make my contribution to the economy.
I still think I’d be happier doing something that seems directly useful and beneficial in the bigger picture, without being too dependent upon “correct use” by the consumer. If, for example, I’m not passionate about game development, I probably shouldn’t enter that industry. Besides, from what I hear, it’s quite cliquey. And I don’t like cliquey.
Why did the game development thought come up in the first place? I’m from a Digital Signal Processing background, but I’m looking at any Software Engineering job. The people I happen to know and talk to, pointed to EA as one of the “big guys” in the Valley. It was largely determined by the social network: who I know, and who they know.
Skip this if you’re not interested in my skills and past. This is a completely self-centred thinking-out-loud “so what am I good at then, and where am I headed?” section.
While the game development industry didn’t really cross my mind earlier, I did have game creation dreams back in the good old days. My high school computer studies project was a “game engine” (aka a game that was too ambitious for me to finish ). Another of my personal projects during my undergrad years involved physics simulations, a terrain engine and a “hover tank” (I only made some LOD-algorithm improvements to the terrain engine, it wasn’t mine). In the end, merely racing around on the terrain was fun in its own right, with no other purposes implemented. Dreams included improving the physics simulation, implementing feedback control systems (I was busy with a control systems course in my engineering degree), AI route finding algorithms, and possibly ending up with a higher level strategy game. Programmer friendly, write scripts to control your units… maybe have users sell scripts to non-techies, or share them at least. Finding the right lower-level tactical control script is like sending your units to boot camp and teaching them to do some basic thinking for themselves. (It was a pain to micromanage repetitive tasks in e.g. StarCraft.) And so I digress, but the point was illustrating a previous love for the idea of game development, to recognise that such a career choice isn’t even that far-fetched.
I was well on my way on my techie-career, but then it got somewhat derailed. During post-graduate study, actually. At that point I started contemplating the “social problems” on Stellenbosch campus, as well as re-evaluating my own social life (or relative lack thereof, or more correctly, lack of deeper connections). At that point I started losing interest in the more “mundane”. My tech dreams shifted in the direction of web development, education and potential applications of social networks, and my (vapourware) CMS/social-web project (Mengelmoes). And then there’s my interest in computer vision, stereo vision in particular… but with a complete lack of hands-on experience (I attended a course, but didn’t have time for the projects), I can’t know if I’d really be interested in taking it anywhere. (Robotics? Space exploration grabs my attention. Imagine working on a Mars rover… *drool*… ok, snap out of it Hugo, be realistic.)
Through all this, much of my post-graduate free time/energy was spent on deconstructing my own meme complex, then rebuilding a new one piece by piece. A new outlook, one that is robust (immune to further madness), ethical, compassionate, understanding and accepting of diversity without being dishonest, i.e. with the right framework to be able to speak up and challenge evils without harming the good it may be wedded to. I’m sure there will always be more kinks to iron out, but I’m very happy with how it turned out. Except that it isn’t exactly something I can write on my CV: “experience in mind-software engineering”? Hrmph. Absurd. Useless. On a résumé, anyway.
Whatever. Back to the point: I still intend to give Google my best shot, my somewhat derailed techie career during my post-graduate studies notwithstanding. My insecurities with regards to applying at Google: my experience with C++ and Java is too limited, and more significantly, very rusty. Post-graduate study saw Python used almost exclusively. And my algorithms experience is rusty too. I still have the same mind though, let’s hope they can recognise its value. I’m considering restarting the interview process, changing track: the conversation with the Googler brought the realisation that the “Software Engineer” job really is a better match for me than “SRE” (Site Reliability Engineering). From what I understand, Google remains a great first job: a great place to learn best practices, see how big business operates, a place to mingle with some of the best in the industry, and a place to contribute on a scale that potentially impacts millions of users. And “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” lines up well with my educate-the-world ideals.
The real remaining questions:
- Apart from Google, what else would I like to do? (If I don’t land the job, or possibly decide against what they offer…) Where could I best apply my skills and abilities, to benefit of humanity and my own happiness?
- How about media? The entertainment industry? If it’s a way into the Valley, is it worth it, realising I’d probably anyway be bound to a particular job by visa requirements? (Until I obtain a green card, at least?)
- What about South Africa? In particular, that really cool sounding place I mentioned previously? Many people tell me: “No, get out of the country, see the big world out there, where things are really happening. South Africa’s too small for your field…”
- Is there anything interesting in Vancouver that I should be checking out? (I’m visiting Vancouver next week. Actually, EA has “studios” there, so… yea… again, what about games development then?)
- Could I maybe develop even the slightest clue of where I’d like to be, career wise, fifteen years from now?
Big questions, no easy answers. And now is the time in my life that I’m the most unhindered by other influences and responsibilities than I’ll ever be. The most unlimited choices are definitely not the easiest ones.