Weeknotes S3 E6 2020

Back to school, Boringly awesome, Just enough digital, Remote revelations

Back to school

Despite the mixed feelings about the kids going back to school, the little dose of normality is welcome. And for me it means I can work from home minus parental duties, although towards the end there I was really only intervening to settle the odd dispute and ensure everyone was actually eating and drinking at the appropriate times. I have pangs of guilt about this which I’ve written about before, but the kids seem happy so I’m trying go easier on myself.

On the flip side it means starting the school routine up again, which means school runs, washing uniforms, making lunches and doing homework. Although I’m sure all of this will be easier than when we were attempting to do this when both of us commuted to/from work every day.

So now the ‘proper’ remote working begins. Will be interesting to observe at the end of this week what’s changed and what’s stayed the same.

Boringly awesome

I’ve been thinking about mature technology. Things that aren’t mind blowing, but work really well and are both predictable and reliable. Stuff that is boringly awesome at what it does.

Perhaps I’ve become a bit jaded by the talk of transformation or disruption. Mostly we don’t want either of those things because they are destructive or disruptive (duh) processes. In these contexts change isn’t gentle, it’s a lurch or a jolt to the system. Perhaps this is just me in 2020 craving for a something that doesn’t feel like a rollercoaster!

Basecamp is a product that’s being going since 2004. People joke because Basecamp has a bit of an anachronistic look to it that harks back to an earlier era of web applications. But this is somewhat intentional, they are a slow growth company by design. They pride themselves on mastery and polish of their product. It’s small tech. This level of permenance is rare when even well loved services can pop up and go away based on the whims of venture capital or being bought and absorbed by a larger company. (I still mourne Google Reader and RSS in general)

It makes me think about what this looks like when applied to work. Obviously, there are countless tales of archaic IT systems slowly turning toxic within organisations that eventually require a mammoth effort to extract. Equally there are examples of good products that eventually get purchased by a bigger entity looking to absorb the best bits or even just stamp out emerging competition.

What if the technology wasn’t toxic? What if it was amenable to gentle but continuous change? What if the people who worked on it or with it were given time to master it? What if it wasn’t driven by unhelpful market forces? What does all that look like?

Just enough digital

Gerry McGovern wrote a thought provoking post on the environmental impact that cloud computing has. The phrase “only use as much digital as is needed to get the job done” feels like a strangely radical call when the lightbulbs in my house have their own Internet connection.

To me, this seems to resonate with the concept of donut economics. That is, too little digital might see some people falling short on life’s essentials but too much is extractive/unsustainable and damaging to our environment. Therefore there’s a sweet spot between the ‘social foundation’ and the ‘ecological ceiling’ that is sustainable.

Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet.

Remote revelations

Due to the nature of her work and who she works for, my wife has spent much of lockdown continuing to go to a place of work five days a week. This week however, that wasn’t possible so I had a co-working buddy at home.

It‘s been fun to witness a delayed home working revelation unfold.

“I get so much more work done when I don’t have to commute. And there’s no interruptions!”

“I just had a phone conference call and it was awful. Everyone else was in the same meeting room and I couldn’t hear anyone properly. My head hurts!”

And then…
“I just found out that I can pick my voicemail calls up remotely! That’s amazing!”

I suspect this has played out enough times to the point that many (if perhaps not all) of us have felt the benefit with not being in the office by default.

With offices still not yet ideally suited to housing everyone as they did before, I suspect that distributed working is here to stay for a while in some form espeically whilst many have found it really beneficial.

Some people will need to be in the office for some of the time, either because it suits them or because there’s something there that can’t be done remotely.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this is the next hurdle to overcome. How might we ensure that wherever you choose to work, that you can communicate and contribute in an equitable manner.

Blood, sweat and pixels

I’m currently reading a book that follows the development of various large and small game development teams.

“Making games is like making a movie, except we have to invent new camera every time.”

There’s a running theme of the tension between time vs cost vs quality. In order to secure funding, most game development teams have to pitch their idea to a publisher. For larger games, this budget can run into the tens of millions.

This means not only having a design for a game that seems appealing and marketable, but also an estimate for how long it will take to complete it. Most Dev teams work on the principle of a “Burn rate” of $10,000 per day per employee. The burn rate may go up or down depending on the complexity of the game and how cutting edge the technology used is.

Of course, the estimates tend to be wildly off because it’s only once the team is nearing the end of the work that they really know if the game is coming together as envisaged and whether it’s actually entertaining to play. This involves different teams working on different components (audio, AI, level design, assets, story etc.) to bring everything together in a cohesive whole. Even just the microcosm of how these teams are managed is fascinating, with smaller developers adopting flatter structures and larger ones appointing a creative head who gets a final say on everything.

“Crunch” is a term that means working lots of unpaid overtime to get the game done and ready to ship. Almost every game in the book thus far (I’m about 2/3 in) has required 15–20 hour days to finish. Everyone states that it’s “not mandated” in their company but everyone does it.

That final last gasp effort of releasing the game will often result in burnout for many of the people involved in this effort, which will sometimes be the culmination of 2–3 years of their working lives.

It’s honestly amazing that any of these things ever get made. The pressure to deliver a product based on a speculative up front estimate must be huge. It’s a weirdly archaic way to make things. I can’t see how it’ll hang around for all but the most well trusted dev teams with the most secure sources of funding.

Games as a Service and subscription models are currently being experimented with as a way to avoid the Big Bang approach to development. Some companies are also blending iterative development with crowd funding to fumble their way toward the goal of discovering the best version of the game.

I’ve been reading…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *