The Alex St. John Wage-Slave Debate Sh*t-Storm I Created

Developers – you are likely the unappreciated rock stars you think you are.

In over 20,000 tweets, nothing seems to have resonated more negatively than my simple tweet about a “Great developer post” from Alex St. John which was based on this article. My weekend was a whirlwind of negative tweets as I waded into an issue I wasn’t even aware existed.

For example, I was semi-insulted for being a CEO and agreeing with Alex.

Before we continue though it’s worth pointing out a few things. I started out in a mailroom at age 9, working for my father for 11 hours a day for $17 dollars a day. I worked because I wanted to buy a stereo system and especially wanted a pair of Bose 901 speakers which at the time you could get from Crazy Eddie for $650 dollars. I picked up programming on my own and decided if I computerized my father’s company, I could change jobs from manual laborer – putting stamps on envelopes, etc. to a person who sits behind a terminal, writes code and lets the computer deal with the sorting and mailing. In other words, before we computerized, I had to sort 6,000+ subscriber cards by hand monthly in last-name and then zip-code order in order to meet post-office regulations. You might think of bubble sort as just another algorithm but for me it was life-altering code.

So yes, even though I was fortunate enough to work for my father – I did start in the mailroom and eventually got myself to CEO. I imagine this is why the piece from Alex resonated with me. Especially, this part:

I grew up in a log cabin in Alaska with no electricity, plumbing, heating, or cable TV. I grew up largely home-schooled; I never did get that high school diploma. None of those educational shortcomings seems to matter in the high-tech world. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of truly amazing and hyperaccomplished people, many with backgrounds just as unorthodox as my own. It was my job at Microsoft and later at WildTangent to develop relationships with every leading game developer on Earth.

This is amazing stuff. It’s the American Dream. I’m proud to live in a country where everyone has an opportunity to do something like this. It’s not always the smartest people who make it but the ones – in my experience, who don’t give up. Boy did I resonate with this opinion piece and really, he could have said just about anything else afterwards and I would still think it was great.

Big mistake. Alex even clued me in (see italic text) that I was getting myself in trouble when he wrote the following. I should have read this more carefully. I bolded the areas that are likely most offensive.

I know I’m going to offend a lot of people by saying this, but I do so with the hope that a few will wake up and shake off their mental shackles. I’ll grant that it’s been 23 years since I used an outhouse or had to hunt for dinner, but I’m still thrilled by the incredibly decadent luxury of porcelain toilets and fast food. I can’t begin to imagine how sheltered the lives of modern technology employees must be to think that any amount of hours they spend pushing a mouse around for a paycheck is really demanding strenuous work. I’ve hired thousands of people over the years and can’t help but notice the increasing frequency with which I encounter people with a wage-slave attitude toward making video games.

A wage-slave attitude exhibits itself in several tragic ways. I’ve known a lot of stupid self-made millionaires — really, hundreds of them — and they’re usually young as well. I’m talking about kids who made some of the worst games you can imagine and got rich accidentally, working in their parent’s basement in the Florida Everglades. They make their first game, get rich, and they’re gone, never having attended a single networking event at the Game Developers Conference, done. Contrast the dozens and dozens of these kids with the many game industry veterans I know that have long storied resumes listing dozens of triple-A console titles they have “labored” on, who decry the long working hours they are expected to invest in the games they are employed to work on. These people are smarter, more experienced, more talented, better trained to produce amazing games and they’re still working for paychecks and whining about avoiding long crunch hours to finish big titles or about not being paid fairly by some big employer. Listening to them complain about it, you would they think that they are trapped in some disenfranchised third-world country forced to dig for blood diamonds to feed their families.

This paragraph has special significance as well:

I’ve never been able to mentally reconcile these conflicting experiences. Any time I hear this stuff, I tell these people; quit, go make great games on your own, pursue your passion, you’re better equipped to succeed than any of the dozens and dozens of amateur kids I’ve seen retire early while you were still “trapped” in a job you hated and trying to rationalize mailing in a 40-hour work week making video games. To my great shock and disappointment, they never respond to this feedback with any sort of enlightenment or gratitude for my generous attempt at setting them free — usually, I just get rage. Being a victim of their employers has somehow managed to become a deeply cherished part of their core identities and any suggestion that they are far better equipped to rekindle their sheer passion for making games, do a Kickstarter startup with their other talented friends and crank out an original hit game, than a bunch of amateur kids working in Flash, is greeted with a lot of anger. They rant about the value of “work-life-balance”, how hit games can be delivered on a schedule with “proper management” and how they can’t produce their best work when their creative energies are tapped after a long forty-hour work week … sitting … at a desk…. Apparently people can even “burn out” working too hard to make … video games….

The conclusion of the article is likely just as inflammatory:

Don’t be in the game industry if you can’t love all 80 hours/week of it — you’re taking a job from somebody who would really value it.

@ColinCampbellx does an admirable job of putting the pieces together here. He explains, a new initiative from the IGDA which will take aim at crunch and unpaid overtime in 2016. Here are some excerpts:

Izzy Gramp, developer of Intergalactic Space Princess tweeted, “I’m one of those youngsters making games on my own dime. I used to work nights and not go home. It’s really unhealthy.”

The game industry is notorious for demanding unpaid overtime from workers, most especially when projects near deadline. Notoriously, this so-called “crunch” has been in issue at several leading companies including Electronic Arts, Rockstar and THQ, where workers or their spouses went public with vociferous complaints.

In the past decade, many game companies have sought to reclassify some employee levels as hourly workers eligible for overtime pay, but unpaid long hours are still the norm for developers. Surveys in recent years showed that nearly half of game industry respondents work more than 60 hours per week, and 17 percent work more than 70 hours. Of these, in 2014, 38 percent said their employer did not offer additional compensation for overtime. The same figure held at 37 percent in 2015.

“Poor working conditions are the second-leading factor contributing toward society’s negative perception of the game industry,” the IGDA said in a statement. “It also remains a major factor why game developers would choose to leave the industry in favor of non-game related technology jobs.”

Perhaps the best place I have ever seen for tech culture grievances is the following reddit thread. There are a lot of posts and people are very upset with tech companies – especially game developers. The problem is primarily the long hours followed by discussions on how to solve the problem.

I was blind to these developer complaints – hell, I thought being a developer was the best job you could ever get. In fact, for a number of years, I’ve been hearing complaints that there aren’t enough tech workers to go around. No matter how much the pay. Many companies would often call and tell me all the great things they are doing to differentiate their companies from others – to make them more tech friendly. They wanted to produce the ideal tech culture.

This is why we came up with the Tech Culture Awards which requires applicant companies to submit a comprehensive application form (and processing fee) which outlines how they try to outcompete each other for tech talent.

The submission period for the award is still open and we even did some analysis to see what sorts of benefits companies are offering – based on the applications we’ve received already. We found flexibility, fitness and fun and being clued in on company strategy are key ways to make tech workers happy.

There is a feeling among many programmers that they are slaves. Nothing can be worse for the economy than some of the most talented people in the workplace feeling unappreciated. Consider, just a handful of developers came up with Waze which quickly became worth a billion dollars and is worth more today. Other examples are WhatsApp and Slack. Great ideas which rapidly grew global GDP.

Developers – you are likely the unappreciated rock stars you think you are.

Perhaps, though, all you really need is to find a home where you are more appreciated.

This is why we came up with the Tech Culture Award. Keep an eye out for them. The final deadline is May 27, 2016 – at which point we’ll evaluate the applicants very carefully to present you with the companies we think are the best homes for your future careers.

The comments below are open. Do you think this will help the situation? If not, what more can we do to help the community?

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