Interview with a Software Engineer - Part 1

A couple years ago, my cousin interviewed me for a school project, which I posted as Interview with a Game Programmer. Recently, a number of students have found my blog and asked to interview me for their own school projects! Here for Part 1 is the first interview, by Yair Granados.

Needless to say, the views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Linden Research, Inc.

Could you explain a little about what exactly Linden Lab does?

Linden Lab is the company that created Second Life, which is probably the most well-known online virtual world. Second Life launched in 2003 and started getting a lot of media attention around 2006, which was when I first heard about it. The unique thing about Second Life is that anyone can create things in the virtual world - clothes, buildings, artwork - and fully own the rights to their creation, including selling copies of their work in the Second Life marketplace. As a result many people are able to create or participate in a wide variety of virtual experiences that they would not be able to in more gameplay-focused virtual worlds like World of Warcraft, where your only option is to kill monsters and earn gold.

Today, Second Life continues to be the primary source of income for Linden Lab, so most of the company's resources are devoted to maintaining and improving Second Life. And that's what I'm working on - programming new features and fixing bugs in Second Life. But last year the company started branching out, with four new projects - Creatorverse, Patterns, Dio, and Versu - that all fall under the theme of "shared creative spaces" kind of like Second Life. The hope is that as Linden Lab can continue to have some people developing new projects like these, and eventually at least one of them will become big like Second Life has. This is definitely what I'm most excited about, as I really like the idea of building virtual spaces where you can use your creativity and share with other people.

How long have you been programming, and how did you get started?

I've been programming professionally (getting paid for it!) for about three years now, but I first started learning about thirteen years ago now. So it took ten years between my first attempts and when I started making a living from it! Of course, I was about twelve years old when I first started so things were pretty slow at first. I didn't know anyone who could teach me programming, so I started out trying to find books about programming at the library and at bookstores - but it was hard to find books for beginners back then! It wasn't until I got this educational software in fifth grade called "Learn to Program: BASIC" that I actually managed to try out some of the stuff I had been reading about. I remember working on a simple game like Frogger, where you are an ant trying to get to the top of the screen while avoiding slugs and snails that move back and forth, but I never completely finished it. Not too long after that, my parents signed me up for a summer course on Visual Basic at a community college right before I started middle school, and I ended up making my first finished game in Visual Basic as part of a science project that year, in sixth grade. After that I started reading about C++, and tried making an artificial life simulation in C++ for my seventh grade science project, but failed spectacularly as my lack of programming experience finally caught up with my ambitions.

Fortunately, around that time we started using graphing calculators in math class, and so I began learning to program the TI-83 Plus graphing calculator using the language TI-BASIC. This was great because I couldn't get too ambitious - I made tons of little experiments and games, and just ended up doing a lot of coding, instead of spending so much time reading about it! In eighth grade I released my first calculator game on ticalc.org, and also started learning z80 assembly language, which is used to make more sophisticated games on the TI-83 Plus. By that time, programming games on the calculator was my main hobby, and I continued to release more games and grow in my programming skill over the next few years in high school and even college. As I got busier, becoming a university student and taking real computer science classes, I stopped doing much calculator programming, but it wasn't long before I found a new platform for making games - Flash. I taught myself the ActionScript language for making Flash games, and made a number of games in Flash on the side while studying computer science for my university degree. By the time I'd graduated, I'd gotten pretty comfortable with Flash and had done a few internships (some paid, some not) making use of my Flash programming skills.

My career goal has always been to make a living by making my own games, and my parents were nice enough to give me a year to try the whole indie game development thing while living rent-free, so that's what I did. I learned to use the Flixel game engine for making Flash games, and started making little experiments, hoping to come across an idea that would be worth developing into a full game. Unfortunately, I found that my lack of experience was really holding me back, not just in terms of programming but in terms of how to be consistently productive and how to manage my energy and all that, and on top of all that, I realized that I was really lonely trying to spend all day coding in my room. So, when that year was up, I had finished one game, Flydrill, but it wasn't successful and I wasn't able to finish another one, so I realized that I had to get a job.

I was fortunate enough to get a job soon after at Fugazo, a casual game studio, as a C++ game programmer. Despite my initial reservations about becoming an employee and working on other people's games, it was exactly what I needed. I ended up staying there for over two years, learning much more there than I had in any two years of college, leveled up several times in my game programming skill and understanding of the business, and emerged as a very valuable member of the team and a desirable target for recruiters, which brought me to Linden Lab. And I kept making Flash games on the side, of course. My most popular game so far, The Love Letter, was released last year while I was at Fugazo, and I'm looking forward to releasing even more games this year while I'm at Linden Lab!

What exactly does a Software Engineer do?

Generally speaking, the term "software engineer" is pretty much interchangeable with "programmer" or "developer", but it tends to imply a more systematic approach to creating software than just hacking things out in a quick and dirty way. As far as what a software engineer actually does, that of course varies from company to company, and from project to project, but you can be pretty sure that if you're a software engineer you'll be spending most of your time writing code. Programming.

You'll probably also spend a fair amount of time thinking about how you'll program something before you actually do it, and investigating possible ways of doing things, and learning new technologies and tools and programming languages as needed, and debugging and revising old code, and talking with other software engineers on your team about all this. And depending on how big of a company you work at, you might have to spend some time in meetings, but hopefully not too much. ;)

In other words, there will be non-technical people (game designers, producers, product owners) telling you what they want you to make, and then your job is to get with the other software engineers on your team, figure out how to actually make what you're supposed to make, and then make it. You're the maker. You know how to make things happen. Other people tell you what to make, but they don't know how to make it, so it's your job to actually do that. It's not always easy, but that's why there are smart people like you to figure it out.

At first, this was kind of frustrating to me, because I like thinking of my own ideas for what to make instead of just making what other people tell me to. But one thing I discovered is that there is a creative aspect to building software that is entirely invisible to non-technical people, which means that as a software engineer, you can have a lot of creative freedom in designing the structure of the software itself, even if you don't get to decide what it does. Software engineering is largely about this invisible structure, and one of the nice things about having the job title "software engineer" is that you are more likely to have the opportunity to give this structure the attention it deserves, instead of having to do things in an ugly way just to get the job done, as you might find as a mere "programmer" or "developer". But of course it varies a lot from company to company, and project to project.

What skills or training does a student like me need to become a programmer? Especially a game programmer.

Well, as a programmer (or "software engineer") you really need to get good at programming, because that's what you'll be doing! If you are good at programming, it won't be too hard to find a job as a programmer. And if you're not good at programming, why would anyone want to hire you? Of course, when you're just starting out, you don't have to be perfect - there's something to be said for raw potential - but you still need to be good at programming. Kind of like if you want to be a professional athlete - if you want to be paid to play basketball, you better be really good at playing basketball. Except that there are a lot more jobs out there for programmers than for professional athletes!

The point is, you can't just decide to start learning programming when you want to get a job - you need to start programming now. It doesn't really matter what kind of programming - as long as you enjoy it, and can start getting good at it, there's probably going to be some demand for that skill. And even if it's something like TI-BASIC for the graphing calculator, which no one would pay you for, the skills you learn in one programming language can transfer very easily over to other languages and platforms. What really matters are the fundamental skills. So start learning one programming language, and then if you're not too into it just try a different one. There are a ton of languages out there, and a ton of different types of software you can make (or even types of games, for that matter) so keep trying until you find something you really like. And at some point you may want to branch out and you can try something new. The important thing is just to do it. This may take years - it certainly did for me - but so does any real skill, whether it's learning to play the saxophone or getting a black belt in Taekwondo.

Of course, there are easier ways to start and harder ways to start, and it can be tough to know where to look if you've never programmed before. So I can give you some suggestions. First of all, don't start with C++. I know there's some macho thing about C++ being a more "serious" programming language and that you're a noob if you don't know it, but seriously. Don't waste your time learning C++ if you can help it! Until you've had several years of experience with other languages you won't really "get" what C++ is all about even if you technically know everything about the language. That was certainly the case for me in seventh grade. Nowadays I code in C++ for my job, but I still use Flash for my side projects. I don't hate C++, but I would only use it when I absolutely have to. It's powerful, but it's heavy and cumbersome, and unless you're working on a huge project with a bunch of other experienced programmers it's like carrying around a big sledgehammer when you could be using a nice, ergonomically shaped hammer that fits in your pocket instead. No matter what you think, you don't need that extra power. Seriously. Just don't.

Okay, so if not C++, where should you start? Well, there are a lot of possibilities out there, but for general programming your best bet would be Python. Python is just an awesome language overall, whether you're completely new or have years of experience. I use Python just as much as C++ in my current job. But if you try Python and you're not too into it, you could try Processing instead. I don't think anyone would call Processing an "awesome" language, but it really lets you dive into graphics and input right away, so if you're drawn to programming because of games this may be an easier place to start. Then if you try Processing and it's still not game-focused enough for you, you could give Lua a try. In particular, you should try the free Love2D engine, which lets you make games with Lua. If you try all of these and you just can't seem to get the hang of typing in all this code, I'd suggest checking out Stencyl, which is a game-making tool where you can program by dragging code blocks around, which can be a little easier to learn at first. Then once you are comfortable with that you could try learning an actual programming language again.

The important thing to keep in mind is to just make stuff. Don't try to make your big, ambitious dream game - just mess with code and make stuff happen on the screen, and shape that into games. Make small games. Make lots of small games, and finish them. And release them online! As you do this, your abilities will scale up, and your experiments will start to become interesting games in their own right.

If you've made a few games and you're looking for your next challenge, I'd recommend learning ActionScript 3.0 and a free game engine like Flixel or FlashPunk to make Flash games if you want to get further into 2D, or check out the Unity engine with C# or JavaScript if you want to go 3D. That's basically where I'm at now, so don't feel like you have to go any further to be a "real" programmer! But if you have your heart set on C++ for some strange reason, make sure you're very comfortable with making games in Flash or Unity first. And if you want to make iPhone games, Objective-C is hardly better than C++ in my opinion, and you should check out the Corona game engine for iPhone, which uses Lua.

As a game programmer, you also need to be able to collaborate with people in other disciplines, like artists and game designers. Once you've made a number of games on your own and feel ready to tackle something bigger, I highly recommend you seek out other creators online and try to make a game with them. Most collaborations fizzle out or fall apart before finishing a game, so don't get discouraged if that happens, but learn from the experience and try again another time. If you're used to making entire games all by yourself, I'd say it's easiest to collaborate with a music composer, so try that first. Then you could try collaborating with an artist too. Then you can try collaborating with a game designer or level designer if you want. But I think the hardest would be collaborating with another programmer! Because you really have to coordinate when you are both working on the same code. So start simple, and don't be surprised if things don't work out at first.

Lastly, while I have emphasized the importance of actually coding a lot, there's also something to be said for the kind of theoretical knowledge you can gain from a computer science degree (or if you are very self-directed, from learning on your own from the many resources available online). But for the first few years, you're not going to be able to really appreciate most of it, so it's much more important just to start coding a lot, and learning from your own mistakes. Eventually, if you want to get hired as a programmer you'll probably need a computer science degree from a university to even be considered, but really, having a bunch of games that you've made yourself that you can show off is just as important. And if you're going to try to make your own way as an independent game developer, the university degree is only as good as what you make of it. So start by just making a lot of games, and then once you start to get curious you can delve into the theory of computer science and maybe even get a degree in it.

If it isn't too personal, what is the range of income you can make working as a programmer?

According to the Game Developer Salary Survey, the average annual income for game programmers who have been in the industry for three years or less is around $60,000 while the average for game programmers with more than six years of experience is around $100,000. I'd say the actual range would start around $40,000 and then potentially up to the low six figures if you've been in the industry a long time. Outside of the game industry, programmer salaries are actually a bit higher, as I understand it, but the same general range still applies.

What is good about your job, or what do you like about it? And what do you not like about it?

I think one of the best things about being a programmer is that I get to constantly exercise my brain and learn new things. That means that my work can often be frustrating and confusing, but even then I don't feel too bad about it because I know that eventually I'll get through it and I'll have gotten lots of programmer experience points to help me level up my skills!

As far as the actual programming goes, I have always enjoyed building things, whether that's LEGO sets or game engines, and when I understand what I'm doing well enough then programming becomes a very enjoyable process of building, and designing an elegant and aesthetically pleasing conceptual structure for whatever I'm building. I really enjoy that, and at its best programming can give me that feeling better than just about anything else. But programming isn't always like that - you're often running into snags, or encountering problems that you can't solve without delving into some new technology that you don't understand yet, and so you have to be prepared to spend a lot of time puzzling over some tricky problem, or trying to figure out why things aren't working the way you expect them to.

It's also nice that programming is a very meritocratic profession - if you write good code, you will have respect. Because it's about the code that you write, you don't have to dress a certain way or keep a strict schedule of working hours, and while I don't know how it is in every company, I've been lucky enough to work at companies with a very friendly, casual atmosphere.

The biggest problem I have with programming is that I have to sit in front of a computer all day in order to do it. I've learned to take breaks to keep my mental energy and productivity high throughout the day, but it's still a struggle. Because programming is such a mentally taxing activity, managing my energy has been a crucially important skill for being a consistently productive programmer. And that's another drawback - I like to work on my own games on the side, but oftentimes I'll be so worn out at the end of the day that I won't have the mental capacity in the evening to work on my own stuff. However, like any kind of exercise, you do get stronger over time, so I'm still able to get some stuff done. Just not as much as I'd like.

Is there anything else I should know about this job?

Probably. But words can only get you so far. You really just have to try it. And the most important thing to know is that you can just try it. You don't need anyone's permission; you don't need anyone's help. If you're going to be a programmer, you have to be willing to persevere in pursuit of your goals, to fail and fail and keep trying until you figure it out. Because that's what programming feels like, most of the time. Even when you've been at it for thirteen years, like me. ;)

And on to Part 2!

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