I'm finishing my third week of looking for work, following the COVID 19-related layoffs at BigFish Games, and I'm coming to a very depressing conclusion: there aren't that many interesting new worlds to conquer.
During my interviews, I comment-- it might be more of a complaint-- that during my tenure at Isilon parts of the system I built were slowly taken away from me. I was employee number 8 there, the fifth engineer. Isilon built the hardware platforms for what is now called "cloud storage," and they needed someone to write a dashboard, and they wanted it to be web-based. This was a radical decision twenty years ago! Even more radical was my choice of using Python as the basis of the dashboard back-end server.
What got me the job was that, at the time, I had a commit in the Linux kernel. Just one. It was one line of code; I owned an obscure joystick (probably why I was able to buy it so cheap), and I had to add the model number and potentiometer settings to the joystick driver. I submitted my addition and they were accepted. That was enough to convince my interviewers I wasn't an idiot with a kernel.
The first year I was there, I wrote kernel plug-ins for our BSD-based kernel to expose controls and metrics, and I wrote a server in C++ to keep statistic and persistent information relevant across all of nodes in an Isilon cluster, so customers could use the web interface from any machine and it would work.
First the kernel components, and eventually the server, were given to
other teams. One became part of the kernel reporting suite, and the
isistatsd, our statistics gathering server, with APIs
that suited not just my web app but also the CLI and third-party
plug-ins. It made sense, but it meant that I did less and less
low-level C/C++ programming. I became "just the WebUI guy." Eventually,
I became project lead of the WebUI, with three juniors to do the work
When the Web started, there was so much to do. NCSA became Apache, and I wrote a part of Apache. I have a commit in the Linux kernel, but the code has long been condemned as obsolete. (Do they even make machines with "gameport" serial connectors anymore?) I physically assembled servers by hand, and patched Linux kernels to support multihosting of IP addresses. I have a commit in the Python standard library, but that too has been obsoleted by the death of Usenet. There were new worlds everywhere. There was a universe to build.
I built part of it. Small parts, to be sure. Tiny, but significant.
Every single job opportunity I've been offered in the past three weeks has been exactly the same. "We need you to help streamline, build out, or put a dashboard in front of [complex but familiar business problem] that we're [doing in a slightly different way] in the hopes that [we might convince people to give us money]." Nobody's trying to save the world anymore. Nobody wants to change it. They just want to figure out how to extract money from it.
One opportunity that broke my heart was for an English as a Second Language app. Maybe the in-house recruiter was just bad at his job, but the pitch was all about the money, not the helping people learn ESL. "There's a lot of competition in this space, and right now there's not a lot of money, but we think we have a more attractive product and could attract more investment when the pandemic crisis ends." Not "better." Not "more engaging." Not "more successful." Just "more attractive."
There's just not that much more that can be built by a skilled dilettante like myself. It takes big teams to do big things these days, and I get that, but the people with the money to do things at scale want financial results and no major disruptions of their cashflow. Scale is for companies like Facebook, Amazon, Uber, and Google-- all companies that are deeply engaged in destructive, value-reducing, global-surveillance projects in order to maintain market dominance. I don't want to be a part of that.
Although my team's work at BigFish wasn't at all oriented around the games themselves-- we were C-Suite decision support, mostly-- because I came out of a game company, I've been getting pitched by game companies. And despite the reputation of game companies for crunch time and high stress, I'm sorely tempted because, sure, game companies want to make money, but the people working in them are much more dedicated to making their audience happy and engaged. I'm avoiding the behaviorist-driven projects (and yes, I've been asked about at least one of those) and going for those looking for honest entertainment and serendipity.
Because if there aren't that many new worlds to conquer, at least we can always make new ones, as long as we have the one left to stand on.