Zooming Up A New Engineer

Today was a rough day on the project. My problems started a few days ago when a newly hired engineer left the project. He had spun up to speed quickly and I had great plans for how to use him. But, a replacement would need to be found.

WORKING HARD TO MEET A SELF-IMPOSED DEADLINE

We are working on a tight schedule for this game. Our goal is to announce the game at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco at the end of March. Roberta and I will be there and do some press interviews, to start letting the world know about the game. We’ve been laying low lately, refusing all interview requests, in order to wait to have something that we’re willing to talk about, and show, regarding the game. 

Once we announce the game, we’ll start beta testing. I still don’t know how many beta testers or how we’ll choose them, but I’m hoping to have three (or four) months just to polish up the game and make it as perfect as it can possibly be before we let the paying customers start ripping into it.

THE SEARCH FOR A REPLACEMENT

So … 

I had what I thought was a clever idea; to hunt for an engineer on a site called Freelancer.com. I posted the job listing and within hours I had twenty-four proposals! That’s pretty amazing given that I was asking for a senior game developer who had experience with the Unity Engine. Those are hard to find these days.

But when I looked at the proposals, here’s where the applicants live:

Armenia(1)
Belarus(1)
Canada(1)
China(1)
India(2)
Kazakhstan(1)
Libya(1)
Macedonia(1)
Pakistan(7)
Russian Federation(2)
Serbia(1)
Ukraine(5)

In today’s connected world, it is certainly possible to work with someone in a foreign country. Currently our game is being developed by a team who are all working from home, scattered across the United States. it’s a small team of ten people, and we collaborate all day, every day, via a fancy chat program called Slack. I say “chat” which implies “text” but we mostly use a Slack feature called “huddling” to speak with each other, and to take turns sharing screens with each other. It really feels like we are all in the same building and isn’t a bad way to work. Most tech companies, because of Covid, are remote working like that now.

We do somewhat have time zone issues. I tend to work 6am to 6pm, 7 days a week. Thus, I’m around when the east coast team members sign on, as well as overlapping the west coast contingent. It’s not perfect but works, and truthfully, I look forward to the weekends when the rest of the team isn’t around so I can get some work done. That said, I’m typing this on Sunday and was up earlier than usual this morning to hit my computer early, and within minutes of signing on I was chatting with most of my teammates. The same thing happened yesterday. It isn’t that I’m charming (which I’m DEFINITELY not). But, it is that game development gets in your blood. This is hard work, but incredibly fun! 

Anyway, I probably would hire someone internationally if there were no better options, but, all things being equal, I’d rather not deal with cultural, language, and time zone issues. If I could press a button and teleport my existing team into my office every day, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I do believe that people are more efficient when working in close proximity. We’re making our scattered geography work, but I can’t say it is my favorite option.

I gave up on the Freelancer website, after having paid them $29 to feature my ad. Oh well .. I then turned to Upwork.com and posted the job. 

This went a little better. I was immediately flooded with responses. Once again, most were out of the country, but twelve of them were US based! So, I set up a first round of phone calls. I was confused during the calls in that people with very American names, living in American cities, had foreign accents so thick that we had trouble communicating on the phone. I’m not great at hearing (too much time spent in mainframe computer rooms early in life) and trying to understand the applicants was impossible. 

So, I posted this message to everyone, requesting a Zoom call

For our zoom call, the best is if you can have audio/video going, and have Unity on your computer, and something in Unity we can talk about and look at. If you don’t have anything .. just put in a plane and bounce a ball .. or do something interesting., I just want to be able to discuss Unity and your experience with it and get a sense of your skill level .. my hope is you can share screen and we can talk about some code you’ve written

I need someone who can hit the ground running immediately .. is there anything I can tell you prior to the meeting that can help you decide if this is something you are interested in or not?

The site for the game is: www.cygnusentertainment.com — although there isn’t much there. The 30 second story is: Google me – “Ken Williams sierra” .. We’re doing a 3d adventure game, similar in nature to King’s Quest .. for computers, and VR platforms. It’s a small team — 4 coders, 4 artists, a designer and a project manager. It’s a very visible project and will get a lot of attention in the media when it comes out”

You may already have guessed what happened. I scheduled all twelve interviews spread over two days, each starting on the hour. 

One guy argued with me, “I prefer a test task rather than screen sharing. Let me know your thought on it.” I refused. He was my first appointment yesterday morning. He “no showed”. 

My next appointment showed up and said his camera was broken and he couldn’t share video. I asked him to share his computer screen so I could take a look at some code. He disconnected the call. Two down.

My third appointment started better. But, instead of a live camera feed I was looking at a static image of a very danish looking gent who was talking with a distinctly non-danish accent. I asked to see his code and he did share his screen, but when I asked him about the code I was looking at he had absolutely no idea what it did. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but when it became clear he hadn’t written the code, and said so, he hung up.

My fourth appointment showed up in zoom explaining he was on a telephone and couldn’t show video or screen share. I said to contact me when he could and we rescheduled (he didn’t show up when the time came).

Appointment #5 was the first person I talked to who actually came through with video! It took him half an hour to get his video working, while constantly explaining it would work “any minute now”. I waited patiently, while he suggested several times that we continue without it. Once I could finally see him the image was so grainy I could barely see him. However, I could see him enough to tell he bore no similarity whatsoever to his picture on Upwork. I asked why his internet connection was so bad. He said something I couldn’t understand. His poor internet connection was a major problem. I asked him where he was at. He said, “Pakistan.” His Upwork profile claimed he was New York based. He said no problem but that in Pakistan he had a whole team of people who would help me. I said, “No thank you. And, wished him well.” 

I won’t bore you with all my other meetings. They all went roughly the same way.

THAT WAS, UNTIL...

My first interview on Sunday morning was at 6am. It began with a gentleman named Cory appearing without his camera turned on. My first thought was, “Here we go again”. Cory clearly sounded American and said he was in St Louis, but didn’t have a camera on his computer. I said, “No problem. I really only care about your code. Go ahead and screen share.” 

And, he did!!

Cory had a strange background, in that he came out of college as a chemist, but after working in that profession for five years he quit to become a game programmer. He had taught himself Unity and was passionate about games. He worked full time for the last year on a game and was proud to show it to me. I was impressed! The game looked great for a single-programmer effort, and when I asked him to walk me through the code I could see what he had made some smart decisions. 

I “hired” him (technically speaking “contracted” him) on the spot, and shut down the dozen or so interviews I had scheduled. Yay!!!!!

After nuking all the ads I looked at my email and there was a resume that had somehow found its way to me. I’m not sure how. I thought about sending a rejection and saying the position was filled, but for some reason decided to do just one more interview. I replied to him (Kyle) and got an instant response. Kyle said he’d look forward to a Zoom call, and we did it instantly. He appeared on camera, and showed the game he was working on. It was a multiplayer game that was fairly early in development. He walked me through his code and my “takeaway” was that he was a very smart coder, and I liked his style, and personality, but I had no opening, so I wished him well.

Then, when talking to Roberta and mentioning that I had talked to someone I liked but that we were over budget, she said, “Well if you like him, we can pop the budget a little.” I didn’t hesitate. I was typing the email to Kyle within seconds of Roberta saying those magic words. 

So .. I added two new engineers! 

Some stories DO have happy endings after all!

PS I didn’t think to ask Kyle where he lived until the end of the call. You may have guessed the punchline to this tale — Thailand! Oh well .. I may have to wake him from time to time to keep him focused during the work day, but I’m REALLY looking forward to having both him and Cory on our team.

10 Responses

  1. […] dealing a low blow here. I can imagine your engineer quitting can be frustrating, but making such assumptions in public is just not done. You are a famous person in the gaming-world and you have a big audience, the person in question cannot defend himself/herself against such insinuations.

    In fact, this kind of behaviour might scare other people from applying to your company. Nobody likes to be roasted in public for what is essentially a personal decision, especially by an employer.

    1. Jeroen: I edited my post based on your comment. For those who missed it, I speculated on why an engineer left and should not have done that. There are a million reasons why someone might leave a job. Apologies to anyone who read my comment and thought I meant anything negative towards the gentleman who left. I certainly didn’t mean it that way. Quite the opposite. He was one of the finest engineers I ever worked with and I would rehire him in minutes. My error.

      1. Maybe I interpreted it a bit differently as English is not my native language. So, my apologies if my reply seemed a bit harsh as well.

  2. Hi Ken,

    It would be impossible to not start this comment by thanking you and Mrs. Williams for the countless hours of fun I had playing your games during my childhood.

    So I am eager to ask you, since you probably learned about Microsoft acquisition of Activision. A lot of fans are excited about a possible reviving of the Sierra brand, all the more since remakes and remasters are a current trend in gaming. So, it maybe soon, but do you have any take on this, have you been contacted or have any plans to make contact with Microsoft on that part. Or maybe about publishing of The Secret?

    Best regards from Greece

    P.S. Did the winds brought you sailing around here yet?

    1. It is an interesting idea to talk to Microsoft about publishing our game. I’ve thought about it, and they would certainly be on the list of companies to talk to.

      Currently, I’m avoiding worrying about it. We’re pushing hard to get a fully playable game. Once I get to something resembling a finished product, I’ll start thinking about how to publish the game. If the game turns out as awesome as I think it will, we’ll have our choice of publishers. And, if it doesn’t, I’ll dig a hole and bury the game and pretend I don’t remember where I put it.

  3. This post was like reading another chapter of your book, Ken. Wonderful.

    Also, you should be aware that you (and Roberta!!) are a legend. heck, I would falsify my resume for a chance to get a one-on-one zoom call with you, and I don’t know the first thing about Unity!

    (I would certainly not do that for real… but you get the point… being legendary can have it’s ups and downs.)

  4. Really nice adventures to hear!
    It’s a pity that people lie that much, doesn’t Linkedin work for finding jobs in the US?
    Keep it up!

    1. With 20/20 hindsight, LinkedIn would have been a good place to search. I needed a short-term contract worker (3-6 months) not a regular salaried employee, so I focused on places that offer part time workers.

      Thank you!

  5. Indeed, working for Ken would be a dream to me. Sadly, last time i worked on games was year 2000 and using plain C
    Wish you success. looking forward to send my resume once i did some training on unity

  6. Haha. I could come back to Sierra and work another game! Some of the most fun I’ve had in my life/career. Best of luck with the new game Ken and Roberta! Let me know if you need young new graphics talent. I gotta guy… Seattle too! Cheers.

    Willie Eide
    Kings Quest Anthology
    Lost Mind of Dr Brain
    Mixed-up Mother Goose
    Shivers 1&2

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