Interview with a Software Engineer - Part 2

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 2 is the second interview, by Anthony Hammen.

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

What hours do you typically work?

I usually get to work anywhere between 9am and 10:30am, and leave between 5pm and 7pm. This is pretty typical of my coworkers as well. I'm trying to get myself into a stricter 9am to 5pm schedule though!

Are your hours constant?

No, as you can tell from my previous answer, there's no real incentive to be at work at exactly the same time every day, though it might make for a more efficient routine if I did! As a programmer, it's hard to know when I'll be leaving work any given day, as I don't like to leave until I've gotten to a good stopping point so I don't forget what I was doing when I come back the next day! Though I have heard some people say that it's better to stop in the middle of a task, so you won't procrastinate on starting up the next one when you get going again. I guess it depends on how good you are at remembering!

Who do you report to?

The way my team is structured at Linden Lab, I report to both a manager and a product owner for the project I'm working on. The manager keeps track of the productivity of myself and the other developers on my team, estimates how long it will take to finish the project based on our previous progress, and helps negotiate when other teams want us to help them with stuff. The product owner comes up with the goals that we are actually working toward, basically taking the perspective of a customer and describing the product that we developers are supposed to actually build.

What education or training do you have?

I have a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science from the University of Washington (BS with College Honors). I also had a couple internships with software companies while I was in college, which taught me a lot. Even more so, the jobs I've had working full-time as a programmer after graduating have really developed my skills over the last few years. And of course, I've taught myself a ton of stuff from free resources online, like how to program in ActionScript for Flash games, or how to make ragdoll physics engines.

Are your tasks scheduled? Who handles that?

Our work is divided into two-week periods called "sprints". At the end of each sprint, we decide what we will take on for the next sprint, with the aim of planning out exactly the amount of work that we can finish completely in two weeks. Our manager and product owner oversee this planning process, but they don't directly break our work into tasks for us or tell us what we need to do when - that's our job, as developers. Since we are the ones who actually know how to do the work, we have to estimate how long things will take and commit to an appropriate amount.

What languages do you currently code in?

I've been mostly coding in C++ for the last few years, both at Linden Lab where I work now and at my last job at Fugazo. I've recently started coding in Python as well. For my side projects, I use ActionScript 3.0 for Flash.

What's your work environment like?

I work in a building that originally was a brewery, and now is an office building with three floors and lots of open space. It's pretty cool. Desks are clumped together, and spread out in clusters around an open office plan - no cubicles, though a few people work in separate offices. Most of the separate rooms are used for meetings though - there are lots of those scattered around. Of course, everyone has a computer or two on their desk. I use an exercise ball for a chair, though most people use normal office chairs. There's a fair amount of natural light, though there's a lot of fluorescent light too, unfortunately. I was able to get the lights above my desk turned off, at least, so they're not in my eyes while I work.

What is your actual job title?

I'm a Software Engineer at Linden Lab.

How do you progress in your current workplace?

My understanding is that if you're a Software Engineer, you can become a Senior Software Engineer if you become awesome and experienced. From there, you can continue along that track to be a Senior Architect, or switch over to a management role as a Dev Manager. There's not a huge ladder to climb, though. Most people will just be Software Engineers, which is totally fine. Of course, there are other tracks at the company in addition to the Software Engineer track, but I don't really know how those work.

What development processes are used at your company?

As you may have guessed from my description, we use Agile, or Scrum. This is actually a relatively new process at the company, as originally it was just a bunch of programmers working on whatever they felt like, more or less. Now we have dev managers and product owners and daily standup meetings and two-week sprints.

If you could change something about your job, what would it be?

I'd much rather be working on experimental new games (or "shared creative spaces" at Linden Lab) instead of just adding more stuff to the giant machine that is Second Life. I like working on smaller projects where I can build from the ground up, and I have lots of ideas for cool projects I'd like to try, so I'm really hoping I can switch over to that.

What do you like about your job? Dislike?

I like that I'm constantly learning new things and improving my skills. And I like the people that I work with, and the respect and autonomy I have in general. What I don't like is that I'm not working on what feels most meaningful to me right now, and that I struggle to find time and energy for my own projects outside of work.

What do others think about what you do?

I don't know, I guess I've never really asked! Well, sure, my parents are proud of me. ;) Generally, within the industry, programmers have a lot of respect - we make everything actually happen, and we deal with arcane, technical stuff that other people get confused just looking at, so they generally assume we must be really smart! Maybe people in the outside world think we're weird or nerdy or geeky, but I've never really had to deal with that kind of thing myself, so I don't know. I mean sure, every programmer understands the stereotype, and there's some truth in it, but I've always found that there's a strong undercurrent of respect. I mean, when you're in demand, as programmers generally are these days, people are going to think of you more highly!

Does this job leave you very much free time?

Generally speaking, no. The game industry is notorious for demanding long hours, especially if you're a programmer. The joke is that once you get into the game industry you no longer have time to play games. I've been lucky enough to avoid the worst of that, but even in my last job I spent at least half of each year in a moderate crunch (working long hours for an extended period of time) and then the rest of the year recovering from crunch, so I didn't have as much time or energy as I wanted to pursue other projects and activities outside of work. At Linden Lab things are a lot better, since it's not technically in the game industry - it's more of a typical software company. A lot of people at the company have kids and families, and simply won't tolerate the terrible work-life balance that is stereotypical of the game industry. I have to say, though - even when you are working reasonable hours, programming itself is one of the most mentally exhausting activities you can do, so it can be hard to have enough energy for your own projects after work!

What inspired you to become a video game programmer?

I've always liked making things. When I was a little kid, I was always drawing monsters, building with LEGO, and folding origami. In fourth grade I found out that it's possible to make computer games by this weird thing called "programming", and I loved the idea of making my own little worlds on the computer, so I decided to figure out how to do that! By the time I was in high school, I had been programming tons of games on my TI-83 Plus graphing calculator, and had dreams of creating my own game company.

What kinds of math do you use, and how did you learn it?

I don't often use math directly when I'm programming, but certainly in order to understand programming you have to be adept in a mathematical way of thinking. You have to be very familiar with how algebraic expressions work, and evaluating formulas made up of variables and functions operating on other variables and functions - it should be second nature to you. Or rather, it will become second nature as you get better at programming. So it's not that you have to be good at calculating stuff in your head - that's the computer's job - but you have to be very comfortable with understanding the formulas and expressions themselves.

However, as you get deeper into specific areas of programming, particularly game programming, you may need to use more advanced math. At the most basic level, when you are laying out buttons and text on the screen for the user interface of a game, you'll most likely be dealing with numbers for the sizes and positions of these objects, and doing lots of basic addition and subtraction to put them in the right spot relative to each other, or dividing the widths by two to get the center, for example. If this is not second nature to you, it will quickly become confusing. Or if you are making an action game where objects are moving around and colliding with other objects and shooting and all that, you'll be working with simple Newtonian physics and tweaking numbers relating to velocity, acceleration, friction, and so on, where you must be very familiar with derivatives - not in the sense of doing calculus, but in how things behave when they are connected by the mathematical relationship we call the "derivative". Or if you are dealing with things rotating, and converting angles into vectors and velocities and all that, you'll need to understand how to use basic trigonometric functions to switch between these formats. All of that stuff is pretty easy, not as hard as it sounds. But once you start getting into making your own physics engines you'll have to learn tricky geometric algorithms and maybe even do some vector calculus, which I still have some trouble with. And 3D graphics is a big mess of matrix algebra and quaternions and stuff that I've been able to avoid completely so far.

So really, I started learning programming on my own at the same time that I was learning the relevant mathematical concepts in school. I started reading about programming at the same time that I was just getting introduced to algebra in school. And not too long after I started learning trigonometry in school, I discovered that it was actually really helpful for making a turret rotate and shoot in a game! And when I was learning about physics in school, I started exploring physics in games. Unfortunately, game programming isn't really used as a way to teach math in schools, even though for me it was the best way for me to really understand it. I ended up learning this stuff mostly from online resources and tutorials. If you have a basic foundation in mathematical and algebraic thinking, learning the math you need from online resources is no harder than learning programming the same way. Doesn't make it easy, though! Just start small - only learn as much as you need to do the game you're working on now. As you make more complex games, you can learn more complex math.

And here is Part 1, if you missed it!

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