Don’t Quit Your Day Job

I’ve recently changed jobs and the change, although within the same industry, feels like I’ve changed careers. For the last seventeen years, I’ve been operating my own software consulting company hiring myself out to firms around the metro-Columbus area designing and implementing Java-based applications under long-term contract. However, in May, I took my first full-time gig since 1998 and now I’m working for “the man” as a Senior Enterprise Architect for one of the financial firms in the region. It’s a big change for me and I’m still adjusting.

My last contract was for a company here in Columbus that focuses on highly-specialized software for patent-discovery and patent-protection for the world-wide scientific community. The firm wrote the book on online chemical patent research. I was an employee there for nine years before I started my company and I’ve worked off and on for them over the years as a consultant. My last stint lasted over three and a half years and I’ll be the first to admit that the projects I worked on required some of the most intense, heads-down, computer science-based effort of my entire career. They wrote a lot of code to implement these niche scientific products and it really stretched your brain to wrap your head around some of the concepts.

As I wrapped up my project work before leaving, I managed to get in a few games with some of my colleagues and the table-talk gravitated to topics like “we’re sure going to miss you” but one particular one caught my attention and has really stuck with me. One of my coworkers complimented me on my ability to organize complex topics, numerous data points, and a multitude of options, and my ability to boil it all down, decide on an architectural direction, and fluidly communicate that in non-technical terms to the business and in the same breath, in technical terms to developers.

My last week ended and although I’ve switched into my new role in a completely different domain (science to financial), I haven’t stopped thinking about that comment. How have I been able to hone those skills without overtly trying? I’m not the type to spend my evenings working, catching up on the latest trends and software, testing the sharpness of the bleeding edge and all. I’ve chosen the work to live rather than the live to work lifestyle. However, There had to be something I do on a regular basis to strengthen those skills. You don’t build muscle, albeit mental muscle, from sitting on the couch.

After some thought, I’m convinced my ability stems from years of playing board games. If you take a step back, and read through a run-of-the-mill rule book, say twelve pages of images, text, charts, and flavor text you’ve pretty much describing what a set of requirements for a software project looks like. There are descriptions of scenarios the software must satisfy, interaction diagrams, charts of outcomes, performance requirements, and behavioral characteristics. Screenshots of user interfaces and minute details concerning data and timing of flow, and the order of operations all working towards a successful product goal.

As a software developer you’ve got to be able to consume all of that data, organize it in such a way to discover the hidden patterns, tease out common behaviors in seemingly disparate concepts, design the order of operations, the timing of certain behaviors for success, etc. and you’ve got to be able to quickly consume it and to be comfortable communicating your thoughts, desires, corrections, and challenges to incongruous information and scenarios.

As a gamer and teacher of games, these same skills translate directly into how I approach learning and teaching a new game. You’ve got new rules pouring over you like a waterfall and you need to quickly match patterns and categorize common themes to other games you’ve played. You need to recognize inconsistencies in your beliefs of how the rules are holding together and question them to gain a complete understanding of the goal and the steps and their order to get there in the most efficiently means possible. As a teacher you’ve got to consume lots of information and be able to reorder and regurgitate them in ways that your audience can consume them, making adjustments on the fly to how your students are absorbing the information.

I not sure what to make of this realization other than my hobby is helping me in my career in ways I’ve not readily been aware of in the past. Maybe it’s helping me in other ways I’m unaware of too. I’m sure this is not particularly isolated to the computer science industry but it felt particularly apropos.

Have any of you had epiphanies of how gaming has helped or hurt your career?

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