I have a confession to make: I was on Twitter over the winter holidays when I should have been spending time with my family. What was the trending topic that caught my eye, you might ask? Last minute Christmas gift ideas? Pictures of pets in Santa hats? No, but I wish I could say it was one of those things. Instead, it was about work culture toxicity in tech.
It started with this:
Pretty harmless, right? Of course tech twitter wasn’t going to let this stand without controversy.
I’m not 100% sure if these were the first tweets to start off the debate about work life balance, but they were major players. The fact that this debate sprung up during the winter holidays. The only significant chunk of time off most Americans get, already says a lot about the toxic work culture we have in this country.
What makes it worse is that tech elevates this capitalist propaganda, glorifying workaholic ism. I’ve encountered many people in the tech industry who share this attitude. They are the last ones to leave the office, and they judge you if you don’t work the standard 9-5 hours. I worked at one company where my coworker was asked by his boss to talk to me about arriving to work earlier. He believed that working later hours was a privilege only seasoned developers ought to have.
At another company I worked at we had an AMA with the CEO and someone asked about working from home. The CEO’s response was “sure you can work from home, but you won’t be working for this company anymore.” Its so common for developers to tout all the unorthodox benefits that working in tech can offer. Often the first benefit that is discussed is work from home, but there are many companies where that is not allowed.
Of course, the above examples are far from the worst ones. In game development working 80+ hour weeks is not uncommon, especially during crunch. It is considered such a privilege to get to work on creative coding projects that developers are expected to be thankful regardless of the crunch. It’s also not uncommon in early stage startups. Consulting is another area where workaholics runs rampant. I had a stint at a consulting company that didn’t last long because I saw my coworkers burning out. They were actually suffering physical symptoms for months on end.
There are plenty of companies who abuse their engineers like I described above. They can get away with this abuse a lot more easily when they brainwash engineers. Brainwash them to perpetuate the belief that working weekends and nights is the way to a successful career.
Some engineers believe that they have to work extra long hours because they are making more money than people in other industries. However engineers are not like lawyers. They do not charge their clients by the hour, so working those long hours does not actual equal more pay. Certainly it’s not fair that teachers and social workers make way less money than software engineers. But working longer hours out of guilt does not do anything to make the situation less fair. It also won’t make the company you are working at appreciate you more. If anything, they will just start taking your extra hard work for granted. But don’t take my word for it… here are some more tweets that say it a lot better:
I’m going to end my post with this tweet from the creator of Ruby on Rails. Here he responds to someone who agreed with Ryan Selkis about working long hours. Except he took it even farther by saying workaholic ism = changing the world. If anything exemplifies work culture toxicity in tech, it’s this guys hot take.
People tend to glorify confidence. In interviews, we tend to think more of the person who expresses themselves loud and bold, with their held head high. This tendency is especially true among Americans, the most obvious evidence being the current President of the United States, Donald Trump. After all, most psychologists agree he is profoundly full of himself. Despite his failures in business and real estate, he continues to believe he is the smartest man on Earth. Unfortunately there are many fields where people like Trump get promoted and software engineering is no exception.
I wish that the tendency didn’t extend beyond politics, but it does. Entitled, loud, and opinionated engineers get promoted faster than their more subdued peers, regardless of actual skill level. Managers without technical knowledge have no other way to evaluate the skills of these developers. So they end up judging engineers the same way they judge managers.
I’ve seen this first hand in the six different programming jobs I’ve had thus far. It was difficult for me to gain any significant respect in the companies I worked at because I was not outspoken. Being a creative coder has also led to instances where I was underestimated, because sadly some developers still look down on designers and believe that their work is less important. Over the years I’ve learned that I need to open my mouth more and advocate for myself. I’ve gotten better at it, but it still bothers me that silence and creative leanings is mistaken for a lack of competence.
Here’s something I want any manager reading this right now to consider. What if the quiet engineers are not incompetent, or shy, or lack social skills? What if they are just being careful to speak up because they want to verify accuracy? What if they feel intimidated?
When you are starting out as a developer, especially if you are underrepresented in tech, it’s difficult to speak up about things. Even if you know someone is saying something patently false, it’s easy to hesitate about correcting another developer. They might get angry and hold a grudge against you, who knows? Getting the confidence to confront another developer can take months, even years. Some developers never gain that confidence at all, even if they are competent.
I’ve had this happen on a number of occasions. The most memorable was when I was discussing a UX issue with a backend developer who tended to dominate all of the conversations. Despite knowing nothing about UX, this developer consistently argued with me about every choice I advocated for. When I pointed to research and specific examples from my classes, this developer would fire back. He argued he saw the UX choice in interfaces that he had personally used (like JIRA – yes, JIRA). It became quite heated on several occasions.
The promotion of loud engineers is a problem because the more those loudmouths get promoted, the more people are afraid to challenge them. Since they were prone to interrupting other developers even before they were promoted, the problem gets a lot worse when their ego grows.
The other problem with promoting such engineers is that it validates a certain communication style. That is one of blurting out the first thing you believe to be correct, without proper investigation. Over confident developers are notorious for jumping to conclusions. If your team sees that the loudmouth engineers are the ones who get promoted, they are more likely to adopt this communication style themselves. Is it helpful to blurt out the first idea that comes to your head? In brainstorming situations, sure. But when you are trying to fix a difficult bug it can derail the problem solving and send the team down the wrong path.
To be clear, I don’t want to sound like I am demonizing anyone who leans toward the chattier side and likes to talk. A team of engineers that over communicate is better than the opposite. The problem lies specifically in the situation where one overzealous and egotistic engineer drowns out the other voices on the team.
Now that the new year has started, it’s the perfect time for companies to reevaluate their promotion strategies and consider fresh approaches. Sometimes quiter developers need a little bit more encouragement. They might not be sure if they can train people or be confident enough to lead a team. That doesn’t mean that they would automatically make a worse leader than the engineer who is always talking.
Is it possible the loud developer who thinks they are a genius will leave the company if they aren’t promoted? Certainly. But the rest of the developers will be grateful, and happier at work. They are more likely to go to the modest leader for questions, and learn more. It will also be easier for them to explain what they are struggling with without feeling stupid.
There’s one more thing. Maybe you are reading this and going: okay, but what if my loudest engineer really IS a genius? Maybe they have a PhD in physics, or four masters degrees, or they wrote their own game engine and sold it to Bethesda. Even if that is the case, consider deeply if their personality is really good for leadership.
Ask the following questions. Are they the kind of person who is willing to delegate tasks, or do they think they can do everything themselves? Might they become a bottleneck in the future if given too much control? Are they actually good at explaining technical concepts to juniors or do they like to overcomplicate things to make themselves sound smarter?
I know not everyone reading this is going to take my advice. Maybe it’s not practical, and there are too many other problems to deal with. My goal with this article was to highlight why these patterns in promotion are not as great as they might seem at first. Even if only a small fraction reading this actually change their promotion practices, I will feel like it was worth it to write this. As a developer myself, I know that having a positive relationships with my manager and lead engineer makes a world of difference.
The world of technology is a complicated one. With titles like “rock star”, “ninja,” it can be hard to take job descriptions seriously. It doesn’t help that many hiring managers ask for ludicrous credentials. Is a UI Developer a real thing? Maybe they have job descriptions like this:
Job descriptions for UI Developers can look like the one above. Like full stack developers, UI developers are expected to be familiar with more than one area of expertise. While full stack developers know frontend and backend, UI developers are familiar with the front end and how to design user interfaces. In some cases they also know how to conduct user research. I like to call them “creative coders.”
Don’t take the excessive list of requirements seriously. It’s like the hiring manager’s letter to Santa Clause. Don’t do yourself the disservice of not applying because the requirements seem excessive. The person who wrote the job description has nothing to do with the people you will be working with.
I know a lot about being a UI Developer because it has been my title throughout most of my career. When I got my first job with that title I had about a year’s worth of experience with AngularJS. In addition, I had a game portfolio illustrating my programming skills, a certification in Interaction Design, and a bachelors degree in Visual Arts. It might seem like a lot, but I had two years to build my game portfolio and four to complete my degree.. during which I only look about 12 credits worth of actually programming.
There were jobs in which I was doing the work of a UI Developer without the actual title. Tiny startups usually used the title of “Software Engineer.” It didn’t matter to me, because the important part was that I was getting to do the work that I loved. In the long run I worked at a lot of smaller companies. At big companies such positions rarely exist, because hiring managers can afford to hire specialists for everything.
Even though it is less common for large companies to hire UI developers, that doesn’t mean that such positions never crop up. For example, I was hired as a contractor for Deloitte to work on a project that involved customizing an application for an existing client. The application was focused on data visualization and had a number of complex and confusing widgets. They wanted someone with a design and front end skillet to make those widgets simpler.
Downsides to being a UI Developer
Over the years I have noticed some downsides to being a UI developer. The organizations which want to hire a developer with design skills don’t have any dedicated design resources. They also often think of design as an afterthought.
It can be an unspoken assumption that the UI developer will make some small improvements to the design and focus on code. If, in addition to having no design resources, the organization has few front end developers. Some companies even hire a UI Developer that they expect you to be a one person show, coding and designing everything with zero support.
I don’t recommend taking on roles like that unless you really want a challenge and you like the people at the company. When you are working that hard on a project, it’s easy for resentment to build up. It will build up fast when you know the whole thing would fall apart without your contribution. Make sure you have some experience under your belt and you know what you are getting into.
In lieu of design resources, some organizations allow all of the developers to be involved in deciding what the user interface will look like. If you enter an organization like that, you may find yourself arguing with a lot of other people about every little thing. On one hand it can be invigorating at times to have to defend your reasons for making a button blue. On the other hand some developers do not have any design training,. That means reasoning with their opinion about what they find to be aesthetically pleasing can be frustrating, especially for small adjustments.
If you are considering a career as a UI developer, know that the job descriptions can be intimidating. But they are often a wish list that doesn’t reflect reality. If you enjoy working on a mix of design and coding tasks, it could be a great fit for you. Most companies that offer UI developers roles will be medium to small sized, and often don’t have designers on the team. This can lead to some downsides. Like arguing with other developers about design decisions and having to convince upper management that the design is more than some small tweaks.
If you can get past these downsides, though, I would recommend applying for some UI developer positions. Don’t forget, they can hide beneath other titles. Make sure you read the descriptions before dismissing them.
Below is an excerpt from my book about my journey learning to code and teaching myself after graduating from college with an art degree and little idea of what I was qualified to do next. I had taking some coding classes but I didn’t think I’d get any opportunities to be creative if I chose that career. For a while I thought I would be a designer, but I quickly learned that working with clients was not my cup of tea. That was when I discovered creative coding, and taught myself to code by making games.
There were a lot of people that helped me along the way but also times where I really felt like I could use a guiding hand to help me with some scary decisions. I hope that this book can act as that guiding hand for people who are just starting out their careers and are interested in tech.
My start in tech happened well before I actually had the title of “Engineer” or “Developer”. It started in a small town known primarily for being home to one of the most liberal (and most hipster) colleges in the country. I had mixed feelings about attending school there and was pressured in part by my parents to apply to schools in Ohio (they were moving there at the time).
Moving to Ohio meant leaving behind my friends and boyfriend (at the time) in Minnesota where I had gone to high school. We settled on Oberlin because it gave the opportunity to study lots of different things. At the time I was passionate about at least a dozen different things and had no idea what I was going to do for a career. Naturally I wanted to put off that decision for as long as possible, hoping I would figure it out during college.
I was always interested in technology, but before starting college (and also during a fair amount of college itself) my leanings were toward art and writing. That’s not to say I didn’t spend a ton of time in front of screens — my unofficial babysitters were my Gameboy, Nintendo, and PC running Windows 2000 —but as a kid my best friend was an extremely talented artist. Drawing together was one of our favorite past times. I loved to go to museums and could stare at my friend’s art for hours. I also loved to read and wrote numerous short stories in middle school, and wrote for my high school paper.
Basically, I was a creative generalist and loved all things that involved the imagination. However, my parents kept pushing me toward a practical path, because they were still struggling with their own careers and worried about employment options for creatives in the USA. Of course they were right to worry, since very few artists succeeded in getting their work into a gallery, let alone selling that work for enough money to make a living. However, I learned in my late teens that there was another option- which sounded much more practical than being a writer or an artist. It was an area of overlap between art and the internet, and it was called web design.
Technically I began learning to code a lot earlier than college, though I didn’t know it yet. I dabbled in web design during middle school and high school, when I participated in roleplaying forums and later decided to create my own which had a very generic look that I wanted to modify. Essentially it was just a monochrome colored forum with no background images or icons, and I wanted the forum to look like it was part of the website where I described the world the roleplay took place in. I wanted the design to fit the mood of the world.
Essentially I was using CSS to make these changes. Unfortunately it was back when there was no such thing as developer tools (which would allow you to see the CSS alongside the site and actually make modifications to see the visual changes in real time) and no documentation. So the level of frustration accompanied with something as benign as altering the background color was shockingly time consuming. Despite all that, I enjoyed the challenge and it was fun and rewarding to see my websites come to life.
By the time I was starting college I was thinking web design was a pretty likely career option. Then I found out that Oberlin does not actually have a design degree. What it did have was a creative writing degree, one of the best undergraduate creative writing programs in the country. If I had known that my future would be pretty much solely focused on web development, I probably would not have given Oberlin another glance.
Though I knew art was probably not much of a viable career, I thought maybe if I got into the creative writing program I could become a successful writer. All thoughts of design and technology basically went out the window at this point. There was still a part of me that hoped to become a bestselling author, and that snowflake wasn’t going to melt so easily. I suppose the snowflake never fully melted, since I am writing this book.
It took a number of events in college for me to revisit web design. The first was that I was never accepted into the creative writing program, the second was the economic recession which happened while I was at Oberlin, and the third was breaking up with my long distance boyfriend, who had a tendency to put down my technical skills because he was insecure about his own.
Even as I continued to take art and design classes, I began to wonder if it was the right path for me. I enjoyed aspects of it, such as the strategic thinking that was necessary to identify audience and tone. But the 2D limitations of the medium frustrated me, and my classmates and professors who were more interested in conceptual work didn’t always mesh with my desire to master craft.
I wondered if I could do more with design if I started learning how to code. I also wondered if a career in design was going to be sufficient to make a living wage. Hearing from friends and acquaintances that they couldn’t find a job didn’t help. The future was starting to look a lot scarier than it had before. It seemed that technology was a major threat to many other fields. Though I had never doubted this before, when I looked at designer portfolios online I could hardly find any that were made by beginners. I was extremely intimidated by the senior design portfolios that I came across, and wasn’t sure that I would have what it took to compete. I even considered transferring to another school.
It wasn’t until I got a job working for the Oberlin Office of Communications that some of my fear about post college life was assuaged. If you are in college or soon to be starting college, I highly recommend that you also find some sort of part time employment. I did all sorts of things and learned a lot about myself in the process, possibly more than I learned from all the classes I took combined.
I did some freelance work as a graphic designer, and this taught me how to work with people in different age groups and what it was like being in a client-contractor relationship. It also showed me that freelance work involved being very good at navigating different personalities and clearing up any confusion, while also putting your foot down repeatedly. In addition there was the age old mantra: the customer (or client) is always right. That meant that even if I knew a design decision might turn out to look poorly, I often had to make compromises for the sake of pleasing the client. It also meant that sometimes I might have to change something I was really proud of because the client didn’t like it.
Here is a list of some of the other jobs I took while in college: obituary writer, photographer, interviewer, dance instructor, and archives assistant. I hope this helps to illustrate that people come into tech from all sorts of backgrounds, and there is not one clear cut path. I’ve met women who used to be social workers, physical therapists, filmmakers, and everything in between.
Not everyone who enters programming goes to college. I went to college, but much of what I learned there did not directly apply to my future career. Non traditional students come from all sorts of backgrounds, and by talking about my degree I am not trying to imply that it is necessary to get a job as a developer. In fact, it is not necessary at all.
What is necessary, however, is a passion for learning. That is the main thing I got out of college, and the main thing that I think is important to understand for those thinking about entering the field. In front end development especially, there is a new framework to learn every couple of years. So feeling comfortable with learning to code and not hesitating to ask questions when you have them are crucial skills.
There are many ways to practice learning how to learn. As a non traditional developer, you will probably end up teaching yourself a lot of the skills to get your first job. It’s important to know what techniques help you learn best. I learned in college that it’s easier for me to master new information when I can translate it visually. In the absence of that, I learn better if I am writing my own notes as the teacher is talking, especially if I translate it into my own words.
Another important thing I learned in college was time management. Especially during my programming classes, which I talk about in the next chapter, I had to get pretty good at estimating how long the homework would take me, and stay disciplined on the weekends to get it done.
I don’t know if I would have had the discipline to get through my classes without the support of my professors. That is the nice thing about college: you get in-person mentorship and structure to get through your work. But there are plenty of students in college who spend their time at parties, neglecting their assignments, and simply failing to pass their classes. So obviously college is not the answer for everyone. It’s also very expensive, especially in the case of liberal arts colleges like Oberlin.
What I’m trying to say is that it’s important to get those basic skills and knowledge about yourself and how you want to approach learning to code before you sink in to any serious programming training–especially if you are considering something like a boot camp where you have to stay dedicated to your work for three months straight, with longer hours than your standard 9-5. Picking the right courses and learning approach is crucial, as my next story will hopefully illustrate.
My own husband experienced the problem of taking the wrong course for his learning style and sadly, never gave programming another chance since. He graduated with a degree in history and was feeling lost after college, not knowing what career to pursue. He took some classes in psychology in Cleveland and volunteered with Spanish-speaking immigrants at an organization downtown. I suggested that he try learning to code, because I knew he was determined and hard working enough (he now works as an attorney and graduated from Georgetown Law University).
A week or so ago there was a thread on Twitter that caught my eye. It was a tweet asking people what they would pick: a job making 50K per year that they love or a job making 100K that they hate? Working for money versus passion is often the central question many people face in their career.
It was interesting to see the range of responses. I was expecting it to be a pretty mixed bag, but from scrolling through for a while a lot of people said they would choose making 50K per year at the job they love.
Maybe because I am jaded, or maybe because I live in a big city where programmer salaries start at 80K and the average 1 bedroom apartment costs 2K, but I was surprised at how enthusiastically and unflinchingly people said they would choose the 50K option.
As I mentioned in my last post, I started a new job recently. When I am in this state of transition, I always find myself considering my choices up until now in my career. Especially whether I am still happy with the path I am going down.
Usually what I end up wondering about the most is if I made the right choice avoiding game developer positions. Granted, even if I had applied to them, there was no guarantee I would get them. But I often didn’t even look very hard. It felt like I was almost deliberately denying my dream. Picking the cold and calculating approach to my career that made me feel like something akin to a career grinch. To be fair, I have been making games in my free time (which I talk about here and here), but it is not the same.
One reason I felt like I had to sacrifice my creative dreams was because I was born to immigrant parents who fought tooth and nail for everything they got in the United States. My mom especially ingrained in me a belief that money was really hard to get, and that pursuing my passion might leave me penniless and starving on a street corner.
Following your passion was risky business, and taking risks was dangerous (it didn’t help that I was an only child). To those of you who don’t have immigrant parents (or siblings) this might seem a bit extreme. Thing is, they were born in Soviet Russia where clementines were considered a spectacular Christmas gift. So a little bit of imagination is required.
I did see some that shared my cautious attitude about pursuing my passion in the twitter thread.
So did all these tweets change my mind about whether I made the right decision? Is there an answer to which one wins over in the working for money versus passion debate. Was I right to choose web development instead of game development? I wish I could offer a yes or no answer. Unfortunately, as some people also pointed out in their responses, the question is rarely so black and white. My greatest fear about taking a game development job was that I could end up taking a pay cut and also hating my job.
I wrote about what it is like for women in the game development industry in another post. From sexism to harassment, and even rape, there is a frightening amount of horrors women in the game industry experience. Naturally, I feared facing these same kind of experiences myself. To make things worse, if I didn’t like my game development job and then tried to go back to web development? I might never make the money I was making before.
To be clear, I always was seeking out creative coding opportunities, but those types of jobs were tricky to find and game development felt like the most creative option by a long shot. In my head, a game development job would be the dream. But in reality who knows what it would be really like? It’s hard to say whether a job will be one you love or hate until some time has passed. It’s also hard not to chase your dream when you’ve been raised your whole life to do that exact thing. My parents tried to implant a practical attitude. But I still got the same treatment at school as any other millennial. Teachers encouraged me to dream big and never give up. So naturally, it’s still hard to let go of the idea of being a game developer.
I am certain this is not a dilemma I face alone. Many people go into programming as a career from lower paying fields. I met a woman once at a meetup who wanted to get into coding because she was burnt out as a social service worker. I also have a friend who was a professional artist and became a programmer so they didn’t have to worry about paying their bills. There are many others like her who work in rewarding but taxing jobs that eventually become intolerable. Did they love the job when they started out and begin to hate it later? Maybe they didn’t realize how unpleasant the job might become until later. Or they told themselves they loved helping people, and that helping people should be their passion.
At the end of this post, it seems I don’t really have an answer to the question in my title. It’s almost impossible to put a dollar sign on passion. Not just because thats a good quote to put on an inspirational poster. It’s hard because our imagination is not the same as reality. A job involves more than just doing something you are passionate about. It involves coworkers you may or may not get along with. Benefits that may or may not be good, among other things. Bosses who may or may not see where you’re coming from. And you won’t know all of those things until you take that risk. For now I’ve taken the safer road and worked as a creative coder in my free time, but perhaps in the future I will change my mind.
Would you take the 50K job you love or the 100K job you hate? What does working for money versus passion mean to you as a tech worker? Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts! I also highly recommend checking out the original thread on Twitter, or join in the discussion yourself.
I am writing this after just surviving my first week of a new job that gave me the worst imposter syndrome I’ve had since I first started working as a software engineer. To be clear, it had nothing to do with the job itself or how anyone treated me. In fact, I was pretty surprised to feel imposter syndrome at all because I’ve had a lot of different jobs in the past four years and have been pretty good at transitioning. Let me provide some context before I dig into what helped me overcome this syndrome.
In that first week the logical part of me knew that how I’m feeling is silly
because I’ve proven myself many times and worked in multiple challenging
environments. Still, the emotional part of me has not caught up yet. My first
real coding job was at a startup that was growing rapidly but since then I’ve
worked in more corporate environments where work was done at a slower pace and
the stack was less than modern. That made my new environment seem more intimidating,
which triggered feelings of insecurity. Of course, the other big cause of my
imposter syndrome was my own lack of confidence, stemming from some negative
experiences I had in the past.
In my first tech job I learned AngularJS, and there were plenty of other jobs available using that framework that I could apply for. Naturally, I did just that – and ended up with several years in a row of pure Angular experience. In retrospect, this was perhaps a more questionable decision, which I discuss in another blog post. Over the past few years I settled down into a role as a front end developer, leaning toward positions where I could find a creative coding niche. I had some interest in learning back-end or other areas of technology, but I was afraid of veering away from my strength (since I started out as a designer with a bachelor’s degree in visual arts, front end was easier than back end). What I didn’t know at the time was that front end developers and designers are sometimes looked down on by full stack and back end developers.
My non-traditional background combined with being a woman in tech were two of the reasons for my negative experiences in the past that led to my imposter syndrome. Often I felt like these things were counted against me the second I walked through the door. That is another reason why, for years I was applying for jobs with AngularJS. It felt like the safest and most secure path, because I knew that framework already and it was hard enough to prove myself without extra burdens. This is something I believe a lot of women and non-traditional programmers experience, and what holds many of us back.
Basically, we learn a technology stack when we enter the tech industry and stick to it because with every new job it already feels like we have an uphill battle to prove ourselves. Sometimes that means taking an extra coding test, because the hiring manager “just wants to be sure” you can handle it. Other times it might mean accepting a mid-level role when you applied for a senior one. Why add more stress and risk failure when it feels like the deck is already stacked against you? It is a big risk too, especially if you are the breadwinner in your family (as I was for three years while my husband was in law school). It also makes the new job imposter syndrome more intense.
A lot goes into the decision of accepting a new job, including the work environment, the coworkers, the location, and other factors. I think for underrepresented folks in tech we often feel the worst imposter syndrome when we are in a job that intimidates us, which sucks because that is also the kind of job where we grow the most. Even if we receive positive signals from our coworkers we might still feel insecure and insufficient. Maybe I decided to take the risk now because a subconscious part of me was aware that my husband was going to start working soon and therefore I could afford taking on a more intimidating job, because even if I failed I still had a financial safety net that didn’t exist before. All I can say for sure is that I’m here now, and that I’m glad I didn’t shy away from the challenge.
I want other women and underrepresented folks as well as nontraditional
techies to also be willing to take on an intimidating job without fear, so I’m
hoping I can offer some useful advice. One thing that has really helped me with
imposter syndrome is reminding myself of everything that I have accomplished.
It might seem cheesy, but making a master list of every cool thing you’ve ever
done is a great confidence booster. I also think this is a great thing to do
because while you can try to downplay your accomplishments, you can’t say you
didn’t do the things that you did. These projects are completed, they’re in
your portfolio, and they are part of your history.
Another useful thing you can try is a technique commonly used in cognitive behavioral therapy. Start by making a two-column chart. Then list all of your negative thoughts about yourself on the left-hand side. Specifically, the ones related to work. An example might be “my coworkers gave me a ton of negative feedback on my last code review so they probably think I’m an idiot.”
After you’ve listed your most negative thoughts, try to challenge them on the right-hand side. If you’re thinking “well they are all reasonable thoughts so I can’t challenge them,” then I suggest for you to take a look at a list of common thought distortions. In the one listed above, a thought distortion known as “mind reading” is being used. That is because in the example, the person is assuming that all of their coworkers think they are idiots. The problem with this line of thinking is that this person cannot possibly know what their coworkers are thinking, because that would be mind reading. So, that is something the person could write on the right-hand column.
One last thing that I recommend is searching “imposter syndrome” on Twitter. If you’re not on Twitter, I recommend getting an account, even if it’s just to follow other developers. It’s a quick and easy source for tech news, quick tips, and advice from experts. If you search “imposter syndrome” you will see that there are tons of people tweeting about imposter syndrome all the time and their experiences with it. Many of the people who experience imposter syndrome are accomplished and impressive professionals. They have no reason to feel the way they do. Hopefully that will help you see that imposter syndrome is not a reflection of who you are or how good you are at your job.
I know these are just three pieces of advice and there is much more I could say about this topic, but for now I am going to wrap up this post. If you enjoyed this post consider following me on twitter @nadyaprimak where I write more about related topics in technology and creative development. I do want to leave you with a book recommendation if you found the charting exercise helpful. It has many useful exercises and assessments, though it is more focused on anxiety and depression than specifically imposter syndrome. It’s called Feeling Good by David D Burns and its one of the best self-help books I’ve ever read. I hope you will feel less new job imposter syndrome after trying out some of these techniques.
In light of the reports of sexual assault from game developers Nathalie Lawhead, Zoë Quinn, and Adelaide Gardner at the hands of male industry legends this week, I felt like I needed to make this post. I’m not going to be the first or the last person writing about this topic. But their stories and their bravery in sharing them despite risk to their careers should be spread as widely as possible. I have been very interested in being one of the women in the game industry for years, as you can probably tell by some of my other posts (here, here, and here). Yet the fear of what goes on there kept me from making a serious effort to break in.
Nathalie Lawhead was the first to release her story. She published a long account on her personal blog that included screenshots from emails as evidence. The extremely abusive treatment (unpaid labor, gaslighting, extreme crunch, humiliation) she experienced at the hands of Vancouver based game company combined with the sexual assault and harassment from Skyrim composer Jeremy Soule (who used his connections to make her experience at the company as horrible as possible) had me reeling. I can hardly begin to imagine the pain and suffering Nathalie went through. The way she described it made my entire body ache with compassion.
It is not news for those who pay attention that the game industry is toxic. There is a movement for game developers to unionize because of game corporation’s frequent layoffs, tendency to underpay, and mistreatment of workers. Game journalists publish accounts detailing how many companies resort to long periods of crunch to complete a project. During crunch, companies expect developers to pull all-nighters, skip meals, and generally work till they drop. There are no tangible statistics that I know of tracking how many game developers literally drop from burn out. But, if they exist, I am certain they are extremely disturbing trends.
The thing is, women and men share the burden of overwork in the game industry. It is a horrible standard, but there is an even uglier side that women experience. Riot Games has been under fire for years for its sexist culture. There have been abhorrent reports of sexual harassment, almost farcical in their extremity. “One woman saw an e-mail thread about what it would be like to ‘penetrate her,’ in which a colleague added that she’d be a good target to sleep with and not call again. Another said a colleague once informed her, apparently as a compliment, that she was on a list getting passed around by senior leaders detailing who they’d sleep with. “
Game companies like Riot have been getting away with this disturbing bro culture for years because of their extremely popular game League of Legends. Riot and many other AAA companies also has raving fans known to pile on to anyone who criticizes the company or their game. Plenty of game developers have lived in fear of these fans. This is because they often aggressively demand changes to the game whenever it doesn’t fit with their expectations. This leads to women in the game industry to live in fear of speaking up about sexism. Angry fans have gone so far as to release developers personal information, or engage in prolonged online harassment of their targets.
Then you have the game industry legends. Criticizing a game company can bring down the wrath of hundreds of fans. Criticizing a legend can be even more dangerous. These are the darlings of the industry, deeply respected with more connections than most game developers can dream of. They have the power to make or break the career of an up and coming developer. It’s no wonder that Lawhead lived in fear for years of speaking up about what happened. She knew how immense the backlash could be. Even though she has won many awards for her fantastic work, as a woman and an indie dev she knew her name did not carry the same weight as that of Jeremy Soule.
The closest I ever got to working for a game company was when I went to a a IGDA talk. The CEO discussed his game and said he was searching for more developers. I spoke with him and told him about my Unity experience. He invited me to come to another event a week later. It was at that other event that I witnessed him blatantly touch another woman’s chest under the guise that he saw a hair there. I remember the shock and sinking feeling in my chest when this happened. It occurred to me that this was likely going to be the behavior I would witness (and maybe have done to me) on a regular basis if I worked for him. I had witnessed sexism in tech many times. Yet this was on another level from what I had seen previously, and crossed the line into sexual harassment.
You might be wondering what I’m trying to get at in this piece. I guess it’s nothing that hasn’t been said before, but until I see change I feel like it will just have to keep being said. Over and over and over again. No aspect of how women are treated in the game industry is OK. What happened to me is a pale ghost in comparison to what happened to women like Nathalie, Zoë, and Adelaide. Yet I have seen and read enough to believe that what they say is true. My heart goes out to all of them, and to all of the other women in the game industry who have experienced sexual abuse in the game industry. More of them are coming out of the woodwork with their stories even as I write this. None of them deserve to suffer like this.
If you agree with what I’ve written here, consider following me on twitter @nadyaprimak. I post updates about my blog, coding projects, and creative work. I also write a fair amount about the tech and game industries. If you’re interested in delving deeper into what its like specifically for women in gaming, I recommend checking out this book.
My life has been full of work transitions lately, which has caused me to spend quite some time thinking about them. About a month ago the company I was working at was acquired. A few weeks prior to that I had a recruiter reach out to me about an exciting opportunity and I decided to bite, just to see what would happen. After the acquisition I received a job offer and decided to accept, partially because of the acquisition at my current company and partially for other reasons. If you read my last post, If Da Vinci Lived in the 21st Century, you will also know that I just returned from Italy so there is also the transition back to American life.
I don’t want to spend too much time talking about my life story, but I do think that dealing with transitions in life helps to deal with transitions at work. Let me explain a little bit. I was born to immigrant parents and moved around a fair amount growing up, from Ohio to Washington and Minnesota. Honestly, it was miserable. Every time I moved I was devastated all over again. I knew I would have to make new friends and adjust to a new school as well as kiss my old friends goodbye. I always preferred to have an intimate friend group over a large numer of acquaintances, which didn’t make moving any easier.
Not until adulthood did I feel like there were any benefits from an ever-changing tumultous childhood. The biggest benefit is that I’m not nearly as afraid of change as I used to be. Considering the era we live in, where the gig economy rules, my lack of fear about applying, interviewing, and jumping ship to new companies, dealing with work transitions is kind of like my boring superpower. It also prevented me from being lulled into a false sense of security. In tech, as in a number of other industries, acquisitions, mergers, and other forms of change cane come suddenly and unexpectedly.
To be honest, the acqusition of the company that I will shortly be leaving is not the first acquistion I have experienced. There was another acquisition a few years ago that was even more jarring. At that time, the startup I worked at was acquired by a direct competitior. That meant the vast majority of employees were let go the same day of the announcement, turning the office into a ghost town. That experience taught me a lot about working in corporate America.
Some of those lessons were harsh, but I don’t regret learning them. One lesson was that you always have to look out for yourself. No matter how guilty you might feel about leaving a company (I, for one, always feel guilty) if it’s not working out for you, you should plan your getaway. Another lesson was that you should always be learning and growing, even if your job feels comfortable. That doesn’t mean that you should be working till 2 am on coding challenges. Just that there should always be something that you are learning. If you’re learning new things at your job, thats perfect. If not, you may want to dedicate an hour or two a week to experiment with some new tools. Or if that sounds too boring, join a group and learn with friends!
There is one more lesson I want to share. Unfortunately, I did not immediately take it to heart. Basically, the lesson was to always run TO something, not AWAY from. Early in my career I moved to a new city and found myself bored out of my mind. I became rather desperate to get out of there. I accepted the job despite seeing quite a few warning signs. Those signs included the company insisting on doing 6 interviews with me, one of the project managers asking me if I was okay with workplace stress and long hours, and a number of other things. Instead of running for the hills screaming, I accepted the offer and ended up leaving after just 6 months.
I don’t blame myself too much for this mistake, and nobody should. We all make mistakes in life as we do in our careers. It was a valuable lesson, and now if I’m not truly excited about a job I do not make the jump. If you are dealing with a difficult transition right now, remember that it is temporary. You will get through it. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. I was very afraid in my first job. If I didn’t ask questions though, I don’t think I would have learned very much. If change is something that scares you, try taking baby steps first. Do something new on the weekend, go somewhere you’ve never been before. You might even find it thrilling!
I hope that my thoughts and personal experience help to shed some light on going through transitions at work. Nobody likes change, but without it life would be an absolute bore.
There are thousands of indie game developers all over the world who make games. But, only a fraction of those developers have any experience working with a game publisher. I was one of those developers when I saw an opportunity to work for a start up that published educational games. I submitted my game portfolio to the company and was accepted shortly after. It was a super exciting moment. I couldn’t wait to start working with a game publisher on a legitimate platform.
Unfortunately, my experience working with the company was less than ideal. Perhaps there were some warnings early on, but I did not know what signs to look for. Also, the company seemed eager to share information with me about how to complete the project successfully. They set up a video call with me and e-mailed me the PowerPoint that illustrated the requirements needed. They immediately gave me access to the platform where other developers submitted their games so I could get some inspiration for what game I should make.
I immediately noticed many of the games submitted through the platform were very simple. This made sense, because there was a requirement to complete the game in three months. Still, I felt pretty confident I could make a game that was more interesting. There was a clear incentive for making the games more engaging. Developers were paid by the percentage of users who play their game.
What I didn’t realize, and what wasn’t made clear to me, is that the game I built had to work seamlessly on an internet browser on older iPads. This was the reason that the games I saw on the education platform were so basic. Unfortunately, during my on-boarding the technical aspects of just how simple my game needed to be were not discussed. I had no idea that I could not have a three dimensional game where you could move a character around an environment with arrow keys because the iPads running Chrome could not handle rendering at that frame rate.
It was a huge blow to my motivation and excitement about game development when the testers reviewed my game. They said that it was unplayable on the required platforms. It was also a shock because I had been using the testing platform provided by the company many times. Before I submitted the game I played through it on the testing platform religiously. It seemed very counter-intuitive for the company to provide a testing framework if “passing” the test didn’t actually mean it would run on the final system.
I attempted to re-factor my game by reducing the complexity. For starters, compressing the graphics and simplifying the 3D models in the environment. After another round of testing I realized that there was no way my game would work within a web browser on an iPad without making huge changes. I had only a few weeks left at this point.
Some of you may be wondering why I didn’t create a build of the game and run it on an iPad myself. The problem was that the game had to connect to the companies proprietary API’s, and those API’s were only designed to run on the companies domain where the testing platform was. To make matters worse, their API also didn’t run on an iPad — only a computer.
In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if the company was trying to take advantage of eager indie developers. The kind who are too new to know how to distinguish a sketchy arrangement from a legitimate one. I was one of those developers, who trusted that the information I needed to succeed would be provided to me. Maybe it was disorganization and mismanagement on the part of the company that made the technical requirements unclear. Regardless, the result was the same.
I wanted to share this story because I’m sure there are other indie developers out there looking for contracts to prove their capacity and get their work seen by more people. It’s an admirable goal, and far be it from me to discourage any indies from doing that. However, its important to be aware that many companies take advantage of indies eagerness to get professional experience. I wish I had done more research and asked more questions before diving into making the game. Hopefully this post will help those of you reading to be aware of some of the pitfalls. Especially in cases where you are working with a publisher that has very specific rules about the types of games that they accept.
It was not a lack of motivation or excitement about making the game on my part. I read through the rules, visited the forums, and took time to explore the platform the company used. Sadly, I had pretty much completed the game before I learned it would not be publishable on the platform..
Spending three months on a game that ended up not returning any profit is bad enough. Whats worse is the bad taste is still there an entire year later. I can only imagine how much worse it would have been if I signed a contract for a year. I know this has happened to other developers. It is my sincere belief that the industry needs to do a whole lot better. Especially in terms of making the technical limitations transparent, without taking advantage of indie developers passion.
Even though my game didn’t get accepted while working with the game publisher, I decided to publish my game publicly on itch.io instead. After all, it is a shame to work on something and have it sit unseen on my hard drive. It’s an educational game for middle school students where you navigate a boat through the rapids of the grand canyon. You earn points by collecting gems and answering questions about erosion.
Are you an indie developer? Have you had any bad experiences working with a game publisher, on educational games or otherwise? I would love to hear from you in the comments.
Thanks for reading and feel free to follow me on Twitter @nadyaprimak where I talk more about game development, art, technology, and more.
I wrote a post a few weeks ago about how I sometimes regret specializing in a front end development framework. Mainly because I inadvertently pigeonholed myself into work with outdated technology. What I realized I might have been accidentally implying in that post is that the tech industry therefore prefers multi-passionate people. I wanted to correct this implication because it is extremely incorrect, in fact I would argue that it is the opposite. There are not a lot of creative jobs in the tech industry, at least not if you are a developer. This is what makes it especially difficult for multi-passionate folks.
Technical interviews, especially for developers, are grueling. It is not uncommon to have one or two coding tests, sometimes with multiple developers watching you code live and taking notes while they’re at it. I’ve had cognitive assessments, personality tests, multiple choice questions, timed exams, and everything in between. What sucks the most is that almost all of these tests are designed to assess your left brain. That is, how good you are at algorithmic thinking, or logic puzzles, or your depth of understanding a specific programming language.
It’s a real frustration for someone like me, who has a mixture of skills in user experience, web design, and front end development. I often find when I’m looking at jobs that the ones which list this mixture of skills as “desired” are also the companies which are very small and basically just want to have one developer that doesn’t mind “working under pressure” (sidebar: if a job asks you about how comfortable you are under pressure, you should probably run away). Then the jobs which specifically want a “front end developer” couldn’t give a damn that I know my way around Photoshop, or that I have an online portfolio that showcases my game development, or that I have interests outside of technology at all.
The closest thing I found among creative jobs in the tech industry that I came across was being a UI developer, which crossed the boundary between user experience design and programming to some extent. But it was still a far cry from truly stretching my creative muscles.
Of course I would not write this if I thought I was the only one who experienced this frustration. There is a ton of gate-keeping in the industry, which you can read about here, here, and here. Not expressing enough passion about coding or not being up with the latest frameworks can easily cost you the job. As a result, people in the tech industry often feel pressured to give up their hobbies and their other interests and spend both their time inside and outside the office brushing up on trends, researching new tools, and making side projects to stay fresh.
This is a huge turn off for most multi-passionate folks. They tend to get bored doing the same thing each and every day. When they first discover a new interest they might become intensely absorbed in it for a while. But eventually that intense interest tapers off and is replaced with something else. Emilie Wapnick discusses this phenomenon in her fantastic TED talk, which I highly recommend.
The tech industry receives so much criticism for excluding people and ideas. Yet it continuously encourages developers to specialize in more and more specific tools. What the industry needs most right now is people who value the the long term happiness of their customers. That includes the user experience, genuine human interaction, and taking privacy seriously. To do this well, employees should be able to put themselves in the shoes of their customers. Hiring people who have diverse experiences and a wide range of interests would certainly help. Hiring people for their single-minded obsession with technology will have the opposite effect. It will continue to fuel the delusion that all problems can be solved with more technology.
Some might infer from this that I want to do away with all coding tests. No. I am not advocating for an extreme approach. I think currently the industry skews very far in demanding employees to live, breathe, and eat code. That it is not conducive to a collaborative and open minded workforce. Of course it also relates to the bigger problem of toxic work culture. That, unfortunately, is another can of worms I won’t get into in this post.
Hiring in tech is broken. Having a single minded focus on the developers technical skills dehumanizes them. It also makes multi-passionate folks feel like they need to fit a very specific mold. I believe it is also the reason why so many companies don’t invest in good UX researchers and designers. After all, those skill-sets bridge different industries and require a more multi-passionate approach. Many companies seem to not see the value in anything that is not pure code. Basically anything that doesn’t follow the motto of “move fast and break things”.
Part of the reason I started this blog was to have an outlet to talk about all of my interests. It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to write about a multitude of topics. While there are not a lot of creative jobs in the tech industry for developers, there are other ways to stretch your creative muscles. I do it by refusing to force myself into a niche that I would get sick of after a few weeks. The tech industry is changing, albeit not as quickly as I would like. I hope this post reaches the people who can spread the message that multi-passionate people in tech should be embraced rather than estranged.