I was not the only person to lose my job last year. Change visited all of us in 2020 whether we liked it or not. And lockdown did not offer much choice as to how we rang in 2021. But with vaccines available, the New Year promises new possibilities and whether one has felt freedom from their office or trapped at home, this time to reflect is coming to a welcomed close. I have been asking myself what I could do now to make sure my future goes in the direction I want it to take. And come to think of it, where do I want my future to go?
One of the first things I did after I officially joined the ranks of the unemployed was give my website its first update in about a decade (this website, I mean — thanks for joining us). Overhauling my site and deciding how I wanted to be perceived quickly boiled my contemplation of the future down to a more fundamental question: who am I now? My typical job title has been Software Engineer or the like, but I was fortunate in my last position to have a boss who let me grow into many new directions. If I may compare it to a haircut, my previous untamed generalism was merely the wild bangs atop a cleanly shaven proto-fascist haircut until the last few years saw it explode into a bushy fro of distinct career directions. I needed a trim. So I asked myself, is Software Engineer still me? My answer had to be personal, but I wasn’t looking to capture the whole, rich tapestry of Chris J. Rock.
I’ve been in entertainment long enough to know that no audience in the world is begging for my “rich tapestry.” I needed to know my ideal, marketable, two-word title. As someone who tends to reject boxes, I needed to put myself into one stat and I wasn’t going to get anywhere with made up stuff like “Game Guru,” “Play Ninja,” or “Fun Fucker” (that last one had real potential as an attention grabber, but I’m still not convinced it would work outside of the VR space). Whatever my rich tapestry was, it was going to have to squeeze through a two-word professional formula and onto a business card.
The last time I put a website up, I was in LA, working on games, doing comedy, and could still tolerate hand-typing straight HTML. It was 2010, half-way through Obama’s first term, and I had only been out of the country once on a recent trip to Europe. But in the US, same-sex marriage and medical marijuana were in and we were due for healthcare reform at any minute because “Yes, we can!” Make that “Yes, we could have.” Not the most inspiring political slogan in the past perfect tense, but we didn’t know what kind of a future imperfect we were in for at the time.
Now I live in Germany. I’ve since traveled through a couple dozen countries. I still do comedy, but it’s become a much smaller part of my life. And my work has taken a turn for AR/VR, writing, photography, and design. Glad I could add some focus to my life. As I have followed my interests, I have come to crystallize a uniting theme. Through the ups and downs, what connects my story is storytelling itself.
Citing my parents, I give you what might work as an origin plucked from my very own rich tapestry. My Mom is a painter and former museum docent for Asian and pre-Columbian art. Her background might explain why she still brags about the days when I was obsessed with drawing. As my biggest fan and curator, her tour would note that my sketches of mostly dinosaurs, cowboys, ninjas, and superheroes tended to be drawn from a specific perspective and illustrate action. I wanted to make comic books, but as she put it, I was interested in telling a story. Please join my father downstairs and to the left where you may complete the remainder of today’s public exhibit.
My Dad is a retired industrial machinery salesman, but he spent my childhood pursuing his passion for comedy on the side. He read books by Steve Allen, constantly watched stand-up and discussed it with my brother and I, filled notebooks with his own jokes, and even squeezed in an improv course and performed in a play. Most parents remember their child’s first words, but before I could talk, he had an eye out for my first joke. He says I was standing on a child-sized, wooden house in a diaper, pretended to leap off the edge, and laughed out-loud when my Dad dived to save my life. What a sucker.
Something more than my parents’ DNA had merged to make me. They collaborated on the legend of me which I had to learn and interpret so I could riff on the role. It was the kernel that sprouted into my short films and first games in high school, to getting a degree in filmmaking, and to a career in game development and always facing an audience. Was it a story shaped by me or was I shaped by the story? I didn’t have time to Hamlet the answer. Jobless and with my parents in retirement across the Atlantic, the story they started was mine to finish and I was on deadline.
Block to Love
My professional commitment to narrative has typically been overshadowed by what I could offer as a software engineer. Just about every company could use another software engineer and while HR might love the arts angle and sing that well-rounded candidate song, the team is behind schedule and your new manager wants you to shut up and write code. I took pride in opportunities to write and do game design, but I had to bust my ass to make time for extra-curricular activities and prove that I was more than a code-monkey. Nevertheless, whatever creative contribution I made was never going to be valued as much as the framerate that the game could maintain or the pathfinding or the modular UI system that could speed up our pipeline and by the way, Florian said your last commit introduced a bug, wtf? It wasn’t until 2020 that I really accepted that the one thing that didn’t fit into my story was my job title. I had to face the reality that before I can nail my role in life, I need to walk away from the primary role I have played in the work place for over a decade, a role that has actually been pretty good to me.
That realization was part of the reason that I planned the theme of my new website to be storytelling and narrative. I am still an engineer and a game developer and I love technology, experimenting, building things, and using them to tell stories. I am sure to keep doing those things and I expect I’ll want to share them. But, ya know, I actually had a paragraph in the “Origin Story” section above about how I was into coding from a young age and you didn’t read it because I cut it. As important as those elements are to who I am, I will need a trim before I can fit into my next two-word title. Oh, so what is that two-word title anyway?
So far I’ve narrowed it down to three words: I don’t know. I like it, but I’m holding off on printing new business cards. I have concretely decided that one day I would like to start my own business. I am open to doing that soon, but I’m not rushing it. I have done some freelance writing work, I am putting a lot of work into an indie game project (expect news in the near future), and I have my eye on some positions as a Narrative Designer or Product Manager. I still operate on the assumption that any product I am behind will be audience-facing, narrative-related, and at least game-like.
I started 2020 with a lot of questions and I am happy to say that I have started 2021 with a lot of answers, but naturally, the questions keep coming. Will I have to take a pay-cut? Will the switch hurt my seniority? Will employers get the switch I’m making or pat me on the head and tell me to call them in six months when I’m ready to write code? If doors don’t open, will I go back to engineering? Can I expect to truly commit to this when I always have the out of just taking an engineering job? Is it wise that I’m publishing all of this on the internet?
Struggling with Fate
If 2020 has taught me anything, it is that even when we write our own stories, we are always collaborating. We collaborate with family who now must limit their judgment of our life-decisions to zoom calls. With friends who flail their brows and roll their eyes with self-awareness as we bump elbows over winter, walking coffees. I collaborate with my girlfriend, who moved in with me and turned a miserable lockdown into a wonderful year together. And we are all unwitting collaborators with every bat who just might bite off a piece of someone on the other side of the world or get a piece bitten off of them and have a helluva viral vengeance. We’re always collaborating with fate. We might not like all the input we get, but it doesn’t have to be a battle for creative control. We work with it, keep what we like, and cut the rest if we can.
For 2021, I got a few suggestions I’m working on. I can only hope they go over well in the writers’ room.