Most friends of mine will already know that this January, after being a Senior Systems Engineer for over 4 years at Linden Lab (the makers of Second Life), I embarked on a journey to find something new, different, fun, and challenging (no, I wasn’t looking for — nor did I receive — additional financial compensation for switching jobs). This blog entry is a bit late, I know, but I figured I couldn’t readily sleep tonight, and just got back from an amazing showing at E3 in Los Angeles, so it’s appropriate to put some things down in virtual ink.
After looking around for about two weeks and working with an awesome recruiter at Hollister in Boston, I found what I was looking for. Since January, I’ve been a Senior Systems Administrator in the LiveOps group at Harmonix Music Systems.
As the video game industry grows more internet-connected, social, and network-dependent both in synchronous and asynchronous multiplayer capabilities, the rhythm, dance, music, and beat-matching games that we make at Harmonix need to as well. And all of that requires server infrastructure. Not just a hodgepodge of a few dozen boxes in a closet in the back of the office run by one guy, but an actual redundant, reliable, and well architected infrastructure that can hopefully serve the needs of all of our customers, contribute to the joy they get from playing video games, and grow and adapt for future titles with minimal financial and human investment.
As we saw from the piss-poor launch situation of Diablo III, this can sometimes be a challenging and daunting task, and I look forward to being on the team that makes sure all of our multi-player and backend functionality continues working without a hitch — even during the hopefully huge launches of new games coming up later this year in the Rock Band and Dance Central franchise that will both rely heavily on a newly architected and constructed backend infrastructure.
No, it’s not as huge or as technically challenging as running a virtual world with 16,000 servers and over 150 well-organized and configuration-managed high-load mysql servers spread over 3 remote datacenters, but it’s somehow more “fun.” At least so far it has been, and I hope it remains that way. In short, I love my new job and I love the company (we’re hiring, by the way). The organizational, personal and corporate-level challenges of designing, maintaining, and growing a smaller infrastructure with a smaller staff in a smaller company in many ways trump the far-out optimizing of an infrastructure with tens of thousands of servers and crazy-over-optimized solid-state-disk mysql clusters with 20+ slaving nodes each running an entire 3d virtual world the size of denmark and with the economy the size of Brazil or whatever country it is equal to these days.
The stuff we do, and will do, at Harmonix might not be the basis of any papers I’d be able to present at ATC or LISA, but it’s actually more reproducible and applicable to the vast majority of systems operations groups out there that we rely upon in our daily connected lives. And I look forward to sharing some of it with you, my faithful readers, as I hope my time here at Harmonix draws on through several awesome upcoming projects.
I used to think that working on SL was cool, and would occasionally see news stories or emails from residents saying how they met their mate there, or learned to escape a debilitating mental or physical deficiency by existing in the virtual world and could easily grasp the impact of what we were doing. At Harmonix, In addition to my work at the office in beautiful Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I get a chance to accompany our amazing community team to demos, conferences, and expos (to set up on-site backends for the games given lack of internet connectivity) and see just how much the once-derided (by my parents at least) video game industry has matured and risen to prominence in American culture. Harmonix’ games have brought fun and happiness to millions, and no doubt introduced (or re-introduced) many to the joy of music itself (and now, with the Dance Central series, dance). Remember the first time you played Rock Band with a few of your friends, and experienced that rush of pleasure and appreciation playing through a good tune properly and getting in the “groove”? Talking with some of our customers and fans at PAX-EAST and more recently E3, it really does kind of hit home.
And besides, I’ve said it before, but I get great satisfaction from working for a company that actually makes something real. We ship code on discs (ok, it’s downloadable content too these days) for people to buy, and play, and get enjoyment out of. This is not a shady business model of exploiting our customers by gathering up their personal information to spread around to the highest bidder (*cough* Facebook *cough*), or leveraging internet search (which, call me naive, is kind of a solved problem) and email account provisioning (also a solved and uninteresting problem) to also gather up personal information, track users, bubble them into predetermined categories and force feed them advertisements all the while violating their expressed wishes for privacy in many cases (*cough* Google *cough*).
So, what if my new job is less intense, less technically challenging or “awesome” in a geeky unix tech way? In many ways it is more rewarding, and I feel good about what I do when the day is done. I don’t think I could say that if I worked for any of those aforementioned silicon valley behemoths (despite being hounded by their recruiters regularly). But even more importantly on a personal level, and my main reason for switching jobs, is that it is quite a bit of a shift out of my comfort zone and more challenging in other ways. I’m now working with a smaller group and company of diverse talents and far different attitudes, personalities, and skill sets than I got used to at the mostly-all-computer-geek IT departments of universities and Linden Lab where I previously made my living.
So let’s lift a glass to change, sometimes even if it’s just for change’s sake. And also to all of the different types of people that make the video game industry, and our lives, work — the artists, musicians, talkers, writers, dreamers and thinkers, along with us nerdy engineers. And most of all I propose a toast to fun and joy, both of which I hope to be contributing to for many millions of players during my time at Harmonix.