How Programming Changed My Life

I will never forget sitting in that bar, wondering if my future colleagues would smell the fact I’d only just endured a 15 hour cross country trek in my old VW golf without aircon. For them it was just an excuse to kick back with end-of-the-month friday drinks. For me it was the first drink of the rest of my life.

Several things about my world changed in the space of those few days: moving out of the house, starting fresh in a new city, saying goodbye to a girlfriend for the last time, starting a strange job in a new career. They say change is inevitable, but I had just dived head first into a storm of change. I also had no idea how different life would be 3 years later when I would be saying my goodbyes to my new co-workers and starting the next chapter in my life.

Up until then I was working a low paying job as a sound technician in a recording studio. Despite the pay, it managed to be pretty safe and comfortable: how many people get to work in the music business? Plus my hours were pretty relaxed and there was definitely no dress code. I was also dreadfully bored. Realising this though would take many years and the gift of hindsight.

My life was, essentially, in a rut. Perhaps it was a lack of life experience that kept me blind to it, but I was in a go nowhere job (as kind as the company was). And to be honest, career growth was so far off the table I didn’t even bother thinking about it. More disturbingly, the lack of engagement could be so bad I would sometimes catch myself nodding off while sitting mere centimetres from my producer at the same workstation! It’s an awful thought to think that could have been the next 40 years of my life, and I thank fate for sowing the seed that steered the rudder toward better waters.

The company’s websites were supplied by a brother of a co-worker. They looked good, but had some crazy rough edges. Despite many complaints and requests for improvement, the reason for this eventually came to light. The dude was illegally ripping templates (back in the day when flash was still cool), mangling in some content, and charging us full price for web development. The company was horrified! I was adamant that even I, despite knowing barely anything about flash, could do a better job customizing a legally purchased template. Well it seems the company believed me too.

I struggled along at first. Programming and its mysteries were completely opaque to me. Simple successes felt like monumentally epic victories. It was slow going, but I soldiered on. And slowly but surely things started coming into focus. The “aha” moments started becoming more frequent. On the surface I had discovered programming, but deeper down I had found my challenge, my purpose, my zen. I was hooked. Deciphering lines of code was exhilarating – giving birth to that which had previously only existed in my mind. It was genesis and I the binary god.

It wasn’t long before I had a cheap pc to keep me busy with web dev during the studio down time. I would long for these moments, so I could pour myself back into the challenge of programming. By then I even had my first programming book: a dense and dry reference manual on Actionscript 3, my language at the time. I read that book cover to cover, making notes along the way. I don’t think I even realised that I was basically studying the same way I used to for exams. Of course there was no exam, just a pressing thirst to know more about this new world. I was learning at an incredible rate. And it was fun.

The avalanche eventually culminated in me sitting in the bar on that friday, a thousand miles from home, nervously awaiting the first encounter with my new co-workers, the creative geniuses I had so admired from afar. The next monday I would be working alongside them at one of the countries hottest digital agencies as Flash Developer. Only the day previous I had packed all the belongings I could fit into my car, said my goodbyes and set off into the unknown.

What I couldn’t know is from then on the pace would only accelerate. Battle scars soon replaced the stars in my eyes – these were just people slugging it out the same way I was. But the learning didn’t cease – being out of my depth meant finding new ways to swim. This gave me the resolve to voice my opinion whenever I saw problems. And then people started seeking out my opinion, not only that, but respected it too. My confidence skyrocketed – it took seeing it reach new heights to realise it had even been lacking in the first place! This of course spilled into the other areas of my life – I felt like a big boy now, grown up, reading to deal with life’s challenges.

*****

Looking back it’s easy to see the difference in my professional life before and after. As Daniel Plink outlines in his book Drive, I had found the three keys: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose. Although I’m not really sure I had found them, as much as they had found me.

The reason I write this is because I once again find those things lacking in my professional life. The more you level up, the more you learn, the more you achieve – the higher your standards become, and the more difficult it is to level up again. I think one has to be too careful that your standards are tuned right. I had done this to myself before: my standards for music were so high that instead of a actually creating music and learning how to get good at it – my frustrations would paralyse my development.

Also one has to be careful of setting yourself the right type of motivation. I wanted people to respect me for the music I made. I wanted to be successful. I wanted to make good music. While I was no stranger to toil and hard work, what i couldn’t realise is that my motivations were all wrong. No matter how many hours I put in, wasn’t enjoying music for myself first. Whenever I would create I would be so obsessed with what people might think of it, that I’m just get stuck in a loop, and never actually get past the blank page.

Now that I’m on my path to becoming an indie games developer, I need to remind myself to avoid the same trap. Whether or not other people like my work is of course a real concern, for if they don’t I’ll have learn about the nutritional value of old leather boots first hand. However it pays to remember risk aversion is why big companies never make anything interesting. Make games/music/art for yourself first and foremost. If your creative output makes you happy, chances are others will be grateful for giving them a chance to play in your universe too.