An Important Decision…

(A open letter of personal conflictions.)

If you religiously scan everything about me on the Internet, you would be a little creepy. And, while there isn’t too much out there to go on, you’ll know I am a university student. I am finishing soon, expecting to graduate within months with a Bachelor of Computer Science. As my classes come to a close, I have some important decisions to make.

Most people are asked throughout their student lives the same question: “What will you do when you graduate?”

How do we answer? Often, we don’t know yet. Some people, even after college or university, don’t know exactly what they want to do.

At least, that’s what they say. I think, deep down, everyone knows exactly what they would like to do. The problem is that it may or may not be viable or realistic, or are just too strange for people to be willing to admit. If you have a passion for becoming a Fortune Cookie Writer or Professional Whistler, then great, but that might be a difficult job to obtain, let alone what your family or friends would think.

Certainly, when I talk about pursuing game development, that’s the sort of thing I think about. It’s an unrealistic pursuit. But in the modern, digital age, we have the luxury of being able to do many things from the comfort of our homes with nothing but a computer. We can do what we want. But one needs money, and needs to get a real job from someone willing to pay you.

So what does one do after graduating from school? Two options usually appear: industry job, or continue school (research).

I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to talk with people from a handful of large companies, both tech companies and AAA game developers. Also with academic researchers and advisors. And this is the impression I got from both:

Most large companies have taken the attitude of hiring people based on how badly they want to work there, and whether or not their personal interests and hobbies fit the company. For example, the first questions I’ve gotten at job interviews are

  • “What are you interested in doing?”
  • “If you worked for us, what would your dream position here be?”
  • “Why do you want to work for us?”

These companies have learned that productive workers that perform well usually love what they are doing. If a person could make their job feel like a hobby they loved, they’d be perfect. It’s not enough to just say how qualified you are, dedication and passion are just as important, or as some companies have told me, are even more important. Especially in companies that require a creative mindset.

So compare this with getting a Master’s or Phd degree. This involves research, and the selling point is usually that you are doing what you love, whatever your academic interests may be. Now, companies can state the same feature. And with secret research opportunities within companies taking place, the enjoyment you get from your work becomes nearly identical on either side. The main difference is that one pays a lot more, and the other gives you a piece of paper.

“And what about freedom?”

Continuing school has always used the selling point that you have more freedom as a student to do what you want as research to complete your degree. This is true… to an extent. Most programs require you to be supervised by a professor or researcher, who must agree to the topics you want to study.  You are able to negotiate to an extent, but most of my conversations with research supervisors have become “You want to do A? I’ve been working with B, which is somewhat similar to A… would you like to do B?”

Considering this, the topics you work with and research about are identical from a job and from school. No, not the same topics, but the same level of freedom you have choosing the topic. Which is unfortunate, but understandable… someone is paying you to do something, they expect to get something of interest out of it.

Students do get a little more freedom. The freedom a student gets is what they do outside of school. As a student, you can do stuff outside of class. You can create a start-up company. You can make an app. You can use what you’ve done with your research to do it. But at companies, it’s a different story. I’ve been told that if you wanted to make something in the same field as the company on the outside, that would be a conflict of interest. Working for a company that makes apps? You can’t make apps outside the company while you are employed. I’ve been told that I would honestly be better off quitting a job if I wanted to make something outside the company.

I’m sure that’s why so many game developers are leaving large companies to go “indie.” They are sick and tired of being restricted and being told what they can and can’t do. Game development is an art, one of the most creative and challenging things that you can do. It would be great to do it for a living, but to then be restricted on what and how I do it is like telling an artist they can only paint with red paint.

What’s worse, most companies involve making things without knowing what they are doing. From past work experience and conversation, making something requires a lot of communication and thought. A lot of revision. If I really want to do A, but am told to do B, when my boss doesn’t know exactly what B is yet and constantly changes B over years of a production lifespan, it becomes exhausting. This is true for both industry and school. Often, projects that have taken years to finish spend most of that time just thinking about what you’re trying to do.

Further, both companies and researchers seem to expect me to continue what I do for them for several years. My past bosses may have spent most of their lives towards their projects, and have since become blind to the rest of the world. When I told my research supervisor I wanted to take a break outside of school to finish my own projects, he immediately assumed I would be doing research related to his in my spare time. I can’t dedicate myself to continuing their work for the rest of my life, I just can’t.

“What about becoming your own boss?”

Ah, yes. Making your own company. Going “indie.” The dream. Being able to do exactly what you want, exactly how you want and getting paid for it.

Also called “unemployed.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to go indie. I technically am indie for now. But thousands of other indie developers exactly like me struggle to make more than a couple thousand dollars on their work each year, even if they’d call it their life-long dream to make the project exist. It goes back to my earlier comment: you can technically do it in the modern age, but you need someone to pay you. In this case, that’s the community. You. And hopefully indie artists you appreciate make things you are happy to support and buy.

Being indie isn’t about the money, it’s about doing what you love and making enough to get by. The thing is, I think I can do it. But I have nothing to prove it. Not yet.

“What will you do when you graduate?”

Whatever I do at this point, I’m exhausted trying to do what other people want. I feel guilty not completing something as desired and still getting paid an hourly wage. I’ve grown frustrated with people telling me a incomplete description of a project, to tell me after making something to go back and change it, a necessary but inefficient part of project cycles and taking years more work than should be required.

With that in mind, I’m convinced that I need to do what I want. I haven’t come across true freedom yet working for someone else. Money be damned, I need to at least spend a few months or years away from commitments to other people. I know exactly what I want to do, and believe I have what I need to realize my ambitions. But I can’t do it while committed to other jobs.

I’ve had about four or five people ask me to be part of their projects during this summer, some indie, some paid part-time jobs, some actually requiring skills I’ve studied, some requiring skills I’ve only developed as a hobby and am unsuited to use professionally. Some of them I actually want to do, but I can’t, not now. Over-committing to work has not served me well. The truth is that I have projects of my own that I really want to finish; not just one (I currently count six fully-developed ideas for complete games, not including others still dancing in my head, that I swear to finish before I die). I can’t afford to spend too much time making stuff for myself, but want to carry out as many of my ideas as possible within the time I have. Against my better judgment, I’m trying to turn down projects from other people, to allow myself to be selfish and work on my own.

I wish I concentrated on this sooner. Already finishing my undergraduate degree, I wonder if I would be in the same position of questioning my next path had I seriously begun years ago. I now encourage every student, no matter how busy or unprepared you think you are, to chase your dream while you are still in school, just to see how close you get.

And that’s where I stand. I’m biding my time and have been accepted to continue studying at my University towards a Masters degree in Computer Science. I’ve taken a firm stance on having full control on what my research contains, fully intending on using my research outside of school. I start in the Fall, and finish in 2016. For the first time in years, I have four months until then where I have no commitments, no jobs, no expectations. I plan other long breaks like this in between semesters. I tell people that I’m taking a long deserved break this summer to prepare myself to hit the ground running in September. The truth is, I expect to get more done by August then I’ve ever done in my lifetime. I’ll still be exhausted, but because I truly love it, it isn’t a chore, I’d have it no other way.

I have until 2016 to finish as much as I can. Let the coding begin…

(To be fair, after some well-received job interviews, most companies politely turned me down and encouraged me to try again years later. I had made this decision weeks earlier, but this feedback did help assure my thoughts…)