Posts Tagged‘developer’

Steam’s Greenlight: The Two Sided Echo Chamber.

With this whole 1 review a week deal thing I committed to at the start of the year I often find myself getting towards the end of a week without having a game fully completed for review. Most of the time its because a game will overrun the amount of available time I have to complete it (like Borderlands 2 did for this week) and then I’ll usually do a mad rush looking for a recent release that has a shorter game time in order to make deadline. Yesterday’s review of McPixel was one of these such occasions and whilst I’d like to say that I came across it due to it being the first ever project to be Greenlit onto Steam I instead found out about it due the hubbub it made on the various game sites I frequent.

Of course I found out about this afterwards when I went to post my review to the Steam community boards for McPixel. What surprised me though is unlike many of the other discussion boards which usually focus on issues, improvements and just generally talking about the game I found a thread¹ with over 100 comments wondering why this game was brought to steam in the first place. Whilst there was no shortage of people defending McPixel it certainly seemed to be an argument that split the community right down the middle. That seems rather strange as Greenlight is predicated on the fact that the community wants that game to come to the Steam platform and it raises some questions about how it will function going forward.

Steam Greenlight, for the uninitiated, is a crowd approval system developed by Valve in order to tap the collective desires of their customer base. Put simply it allows developers to put one of their games which is not currently available on Steam up on the Greenlight site and should it prove popular enough by votes from the larger Steam community it will find itself on the platform in short notice. For unproven and independent developers it’s a great way to use their community in order to leverage onto the biggest digital distribution platform around and I’m firmly with (I feel) the majority who believe its a good idea. McPixel’s addition to the Steam catalogue via this process seems to have set a fire underneath a part of the community, something which you wouldn’t expect given the nature of how it came onto the platform.

As with anything that attempts to tap into the wisdom of crowds not every decision that is born of that process will be unanimously accepted by said crowd. Thus it was inevitable that McPixel’s release would be met with some less than stellar sentiment. The thread I stumbled across then was a kind of two sided echo chamber with the supporters, who were likely involved in getting the game Greenlit in the first place, rallying against the other side who derided it for the confusing game play and seemingly crude production. Strangely enough Sos, the developer behind McPixel, cites these very characteristics as things that previously stopped McPixel from appearing on Steam in the first place when he tried to get it on there through the official channels.

What does this mean then for Greenlight as a service? I’m not entirely sure, if I’m honest as realistically it’s not an uncommon thing to encounter with Internet based communities. I think it’s probably telling of the wide range of gamers who are present on Steam and whilst Greenlit games will be a good indication of those who support that title it’ll be less obvious how the wider community will react to it. It’d be interesting to see the numbers of support vs not interested as that’s captured within Greenlight (although whether people actually click that button or simply ignore the game is another question entirely).

In all honesty the reaction shouldn’t have come as a surprise but I definitely wasn’t expecting it, especially for a game that was met with such universal approval everywhere else. Whilst the first game that was brought to Steam via the community might not have attracted an unanimous approval rating it certainly hasn’t been met with universal criticism so there is still a lot of value to be derived from Greenlight. It will be interesting to see if this dual echo chamber effect comes into play on other Greenlit titles as it certainly has the potential to do so.

¹At the time of writing I was unable to get into the Steam community boards in order to link to the thread directly.

I Think I’m A Challenge Junkie.

My last two years have seen me dabble in a whole swath of things I never thought I’d dip my toes into. The first was web development, arguably inspired by this blog and the trials and tribulations that went into making it what it is today. Having been out of the development game for quite a long time before that (3 years or so) I had forgotten the thrill of solving some complex problem or finding an elegant solution to replace my overly complicated one. This then led me to try a cascade of different technologies, platforms and frameworks as ideas started to percolate through my head and success stories of overseas start ups left me lusting for a better life that I could create for myself.

For each of these new technologies I pursued I always had, at least in my mind, a good reason for doing so. Web development was the first step in the door and a step towards modernizing the skills I had let decay for too long. Even though my first foray into this was with ASP.NET, widely regarded as the stepping stone to the web for Windows desktop devs like myself, I still struggled with many of the web concepts. Enter then Silverlight, a framework which is arguably more capable than but has the horrible dependency of relying on an external framework. Still it was enough to get me past the hurdle of giving up before I had started and I spent much of the next year getting very familiar with it.

Of course the time then came when I believed that I needed to take a stab at the mobile world and promptly got myself involved in all things Apple and iOS. For someone who’d never really dared venture outside the comfortable Microsoft world it was a daunting experience, especially when my usual approach of “Attempt to do X, if can’t Google until you can” had me hitting multiple brick walls daily. Eventually however I broke through to the other side and I feel it taught me as much as my transition from desktop to web did. Not long after hitting my stride however did I find myself deep in yet another challenge.

Maybe it was the year+ I had spent on Lobaco without launching anything or maybe it was the (should have been highly expected) Y-Combinator rejection but I had found myself looking for ideas for another project that could free me from the shackles of my day job. Part me also blamed the frameworks I had been using up until that point, cursing them for making it so hard to make a well rounded product (neglecting the fact that I only worked on weekends). So of course I tried all sorts of other things like Ruby on Rails, PHP and even flirted with the idea of trying some of those new fangled esoteric frameworks like Node.js. In the end I opted for ASP.NET MVC which was familiar enough for me to be able to understand it clearly without too much effort and modern enough that it didn’t feel like I’d need to require IE6 as the browser.

You’re probably starting to notice a pattern here. I have a lot of ideas, many of which I’ve actually put some serious effort into, but there always comes a point when I dump both the idea and the technology it rests on for something newer and sexier. It dawned on me recently that the ideas and technology are just mediums for me to pursue a challenge and once I’ve conquered them (to a certain point) they’re no longer challenge I idolized, sending me off to newer pastures. You could write off much of this off to coincidence (or other external factors) except that I’ve done it yet again with the last project I mentioned I’m working on. I’m still dedicated to it (since I’m not the only one working on it) but I’ve had yet another sexy idea that’s already taken me down the fresh challenge path, and it’s oh so tempting to drop everything for it.

I managed to keep my inner junkie at bay for a good year while working on Lobaco so it might just be a phase I’m going through, but the trend is definitely a worrying one. I’d hate to think that my interest only lasts as long as it takes to master (well, get competent with) and it would be a killer for any potential project. I don’t think I’m alone in this boat either, us geeks tend to get caught up in the latest technology and want to apply it where ever we can. I guess I’ll just have to keep my blinkers on and keep at my current ideas for a while before I let myself get distracted by new and shiny things again. Hopefully that will give me enough momentum to overcome my inner challenge junkie.

I Will Never be Rid of my iPhone (Not for lack of trying though).

The date is fast approaching April and that means the Fringe Benefits Tax year is about to roll over. For most people this is a non-event unless you’re salary sacrificing a car but for contractors like me it means I can write off another phone and laptop device on tax, effectively getting them for half the market price. Whilst it’s not as good as it used to be (you were also able to depreciate them, making said devices basically free) there hasn’t been a year yet when I haven’t taken advantage of at least getting a new phone, and last year was the first when I purchased my Macbook Pro. So of course I’ve spent the last couple weeks looking through the available selection of phones and tablets with which to gorge myself upon and the more I look the more I get the feeling I won’t be able to leave my iPhone behind like I did with my other smart phones.

The tablet choice is pretty easy since I’m not particularly fond of the iPad (I don’t need another iDevice) and getting something like the Motorola Xoom would cover off my need for an Android device to code against. To have all current platforms covered then the smart phone choice (HA! See what I did there?) would be a Windows Phone 7 handset. Taking a look around I found a few pretty good deals on various handsets with contracts comparable to what I’m on now with tons of extra value. My handset of choice is the HTC Mozart which appears to be the cream of the current crop of WP7 handsets, anything else is just too far off on the horizon to be worth considering.

Of course whenever I’m contemplating a new phone I’ll always compare it to what I currently have to see if it fixes the things that bug me and whether or not it will be worth it. Whilst my 3GS is less than a year old it’s nipping on the feet of being 2 generations behind the current trend so any recent handset should beat it hands down. A quick look at the similarly priced handsets shows this to be true all of them bristling with bigger CPUs, more RAM and better dedicated graphics. Unfortunately however there’s one thing that all the other handsets I’ve been looking at don’t cover.

That unfortunate beast is the Apple App Store.

Despite the insane growth that Android has shown over the past year Apple is still the platform of choice for many early adopters and developers. It’s extremely rare for a company to attempt to launch a mobile application on anything but Apple first, simply because the user base tends much more towards that early adopter mindset of trying things out. Sure there are many examples of popular apps that made their debut on the Android markets (although none that I’m aware of for WP7) but when you compare them to the number of success Apple can count using its platform there’s really no contest. Couple that with the fact that despite Android’s runaway popularity the App store is still by far more profitable for developers looking to sell their wares and you’d really have to be crazy not to launch on their platform.

For me this presents an interesting conundrum. Whilst I was never going to sell my 3GS since it will make a good test bed for at least another year or two I do use it quite extensively to test out potential competitor’s applications. Since most of them launch on iPhone first this hasn’t been a big deal but with me planning to move to WP7 (or possibly Android) for my main handset I can’t help but feel that I’ll probably want to keep it on hand so that I can keep a close eye on the market. Sure I could just make a note to try an application later but many up and coming products are based around using them for a particular purpose, not booting them up occasionally to see the new features. Granted this is probably limited to social applications but any new product is almost guaranteed to have some kind of social bent baked in (heaven knows I tried to avoid it for the longest time with Lobaco).

The market could change and with the growth that Android is experiencing I may be singing a completely different tune a year from now. Still until the Android store starts pumping out billions of dollars to its developers I can’t see a future where any serious developer isn’t focused primarily on Apple first with Android planned down the line. For now I think I’ll stick with my plan of a WP7 phone and an Android tablet, keeping the gaggle of devices close at my side at all times so that I can test any app regardless of its platform. It’s the same line of thinking that lead me to buy every major console, although the Wii has only ever been used a couple times.

There’s an analogy in there somewhere 😉

Take Off The Blinkers.

Look I’m not going to say that I’m above rabid fan boy-ism. In fact there are multiple occasions where I’ve made up excuses for some of my companies of choice (notably Bioware and Sony) but I usually at least take the time to find out all the facts before disregarding them completely. Mostly I do this so I can use my opponent’s position against them, much like I’m doing in a fledgling tweet battle with one of my friends, but if I come across a hard line fact that I can’t get across I’ll do the requisite back flip and change my position on the matter. Like I did when the iPad sold like hot cakes.

However the latest storm comes from none other than the fan boys of that company. A couple days ago Apple released their latest version of their Integrated Development Environment (IDE) Xcode 4. Personally I wasn’t excited about the release since if I had my way I’d do everything in Visual Studio (and it means yet another 4GB download, eurrgh) but some of the features piqued my interest. The integration of Interface Builder into the core Xcode application is a welcome change as well as the improvements to the debugger and an intelligent error detection engine. I haven’t yet had a go with it but the reviews I had read so far are positive so I’m sure it will make my iPhone coding life a little easier.

However Apple made the controversial move of charging $4.99 for it through the Mac App store (it’s still free to developers who are paying $99/year). Whilst the barrier to entry for Xcode is well above that thanks to the Apple hardware tax it still pissed a good number of enthusiasts off since Apple doesn’t ship a compiler with OS X, leaving many to either go without or go the dark route of installing GCC themselves. Personally I didn’t care either way since I’m already well over $4000 in the hole just for the privilege of developing for iOS but what got my goad up was when people started comparing it to Visual Studio’s pricing.

Now since Visual Studio is aimed at corporations its pricing is, how would you say, corporately priced. The cheapest version you can find on the site is $549 a whopping 110 times the price of Apple’s offering. Now whilst I could argue that the value of Visual Studio is well worth the price of admission (and it is, even if it’s just for the debugger) you’d have to be a loon to pay that price if you just wanted to develop apps for a single platform. The reason behind this is because Microsoft offers up special platform specific versions of Visual Studio for free under the Express line of their products. There are 4 different versions on there currently and combined they cover pretty much all types of development on the Windows platform. Apple does not offer Xcode free in any form anymore so realistically the comparison to Visual Studio is apples to oranges, as one is either 110 times the cost or reversed its infinitely more expensive (literally).

Perhaps I’m getting too worked up over an issue that in reality means nothing, since most people who are retweeting this nonsense are probably not developers. But still when people show a blatant disregard for simple facts (hell even a simple Google search) it gets me all kinds of angry. Couple that with a complete lack of other inspiration for today’s post and you get this ranty, nigh on pointless post about Apple fan boys. I probably shouldn’t be so angry at those people who are simply retweeting the nonsense but it’s this exact kind of me-tooism that causes the kind of zero-value blogging that’s reducing the signal on the Internet to be nigh on indistinguishable from the noise.

 

Passion Misplaced: The Dark World of Game Leaks.

The last thing you want as a developer is your code to go out into the wild before its ready. When that happens people start to build expectations on a product that’s not yet complete and will form assumptions that, for better or worse, don’t align with the vision you had so carefully constructed. Most often this happens as a result of management pressure and there’s been many a time in my career where I’ve seen systems moved up into production long before they’re ready for prime time. However the damage done there pales in comparison to that can be done to a game that’s released before its ready and I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’ve delved into this dark world of game leaks before.

The key word there is, of course, almost.

I remember my first steps into this world quite well. It was late 2002 and news began to make the rounds that someone had leaked an early alpha build of Doom 3, the next installment in the series in almost a decade. I was incredibly intrigued and began my search for the ill-gotten booty scouring the vast recesses of e-Donkey and Direct Connect, looking for someone who had the magical files. Not long after I was downloading the 380MB file over my dial up connection and I sat back whilst I waited for it to come down.

After it finished downloading I unzipped the package and waited whilst the crazy compression program they had used did its work, feverishly reassembling the code so that I could play it. This took almost an hour and the eventual result was close to double the size of the file I downloaded, something I was quite thankful for. After a few tension filled seconds of staring at the screen I double clicked the executable and I was greeted with the not yet released version of Doom 3. The game ran extremely poorly on my little box but even then I was awe struck, soaking up every second until it crashed on me. Satisfied I sank back into my chair and hopped onto Trillian to talk to my friends about what I had just seen.

It wasn’t long until I jumped back into this world again. Just under a year later rumors started to make the rounds that none other than Valve had been subjected to a sophisticated attack and the current version of Half Life 2 copied. The gaming community’s reaction was mixed as we had been promised that the game was ready to be released this year but as far as everyone could tell the current build was no where near ready. Instead of jumping straight in this time however I sat back and considered my position. Whilst I was extremely eager to see Valve’s latest offering I had seen the damage that had been done with Doom 3’s premature release and my respect for Valve gave me much trepidation when considering taking the plunge once again. Seeing the files on someone’s computer at a LAN I couldn’t let the opportunity go by and I snagged myself a copy.

The game I played back then, whilst by no means a full game, still left a long lasting impression on me. The graphics and environments were beautiful and the only level I got to work properly (I believe it was the beach level) was made all the more fun by the inclusion of the makeshift jeep. I couldn’t bring myself to play it for long though as whilst I knew that the code leak wasn’t the sole reason Valve delayed Half Life 2 I knew it wasn’t going to bring the game to me any faster. This time around I deleted my copy of the leaked game and waited patiently for its final release.

Most recently it came to my attention that the Crysis 2 source, which apparently includes the full game and a whole host of other goodies, made its way on most popular BitTorrent sites. This time around however I haven’t even bothered to go and download the game, even just for curiosity’s sake. There’s less than a month to go until the official release and really I’d rather wait that long to play it legitimately than diving back into that dark world I had left behind so long ago. The temptation was definitely there though, especially considering how much fun I had in the original Crysis, but a month isn’t a long time to wait especially with the other games I’ve got on my current backlog.

If there’s one common theme I’ve seen when these leaks come out it’s the passion that the community has for these game development companies and their flagship titles. Sure its misplaced but the fever pitch that was reached in each of these leaks shows just how much people care about these games. Whilst it might damage the project initially many of them go on to be quite successful, as both Half Life 2 and Doom 3 did. Crysis 2 should be no different but I can still understand the heartache that those developers must be going through, I don’t know what I’d do if someone nicked off with the source code to Lobaco.

Will I ever download a leaked copy of a game before it’s release? I can’t be sure in all honesty. Although I tend to avoid the hype these days I still do get really excited when I hear about some titles (Deus Ex: Human Revolution for example) and that could easily overwhelm my sensibility circuits forcing me to download the game. I do make good on purchasing the games when they’re released however and since I’m a bit of a collector’s edition nut I believe I’ve paid my penance for delving into the darker side of the gaming world. I can completely understand if game developers don’t see eye to eye with me on this issue but I hope they recognize passion, however misplaced, when they see it.

Were Casual Games Always This Good?

As a rule I used to avoid any games that were labelled “casual” as they were usually aimed at the bored housewife, cube dwellers on lunch break or those who wouldn’t identify themselves as gamers. Additionally they tended to be of very low value game wise deriving their replayability from pseudo-random puzzle generation or simply luck based game mechanics. Still when my copy of Half Life 2 came with a free (albeit gimped) copy of Peggle I decided I might as well give it a go, I didn’t really have anything to lose. I must say it was pretty enjoyable despite the short length but my stigma about the casual game scene remained in tack and I left them to whom they were built for.

Fast forward and the game has changed significantly, so to speak. Whilst just 3 years ago it was nigh impossible for a lone developer to build, distribute and profit off a game they built today there are a multitude of platforms that enable them to do just that. For the most part games made by independent developers would fall into the casual genre (although there are many notable exceptions to this), usually due to the fact they don’t have the time or resources to develop anything more in depth. What that also means is that the indie/casual space has seen an explosion of titles over the past couple years giving those typically non-gamer gamers a whole wealth of choice that they just didn’t have previously. For someone like myself who used to shun the genre I’ve found myself playing quite a few more examples from this fledgling genre and I have to say I’ve been surprised with how enthralling they’ve become.

Whilst I snoozed on the Humble Indie Bundle I was intrigued by the idea and kept my eye peeled for any other deals like it that might cross my path in the future. After buying a couple indie bundles on Steam (mostly for a single game out of the lot) I eventually came across the Bundle of Mega Love from Cipher Prime Studios which I snapped up since I had been meaning to buy at least 2 of the games on the list already (World of Goo and Captain Forever) but I figured that the others would be worth the price of admission, and boy were they ever.

The first of the unknown lot that I got into was Eufloria a sort of colony simulator where you direct your little flying “seeds” to inhabit other worlds, turn into trees and fight other colonies vying for the same habitats. I think I lost 2 hours in it initially, losing myself in the tranquil music and muted colour palette. What kept bringing me back was that most levels could be done in 10~20 minutes but there was still a real sense of completion afterwards, something I had found lacking in many of the other casual games I had played previously. Flush with success from playing one of the unknown games I set about looking for another and I eventually settled on Auditorium, an online light and sound puzzle game.

The concept of Auditorium is pretty simple, a single source of particles that when passed through the meters starts a music loop playing. You’re given various implements which can redirect the stream in certain ways and there can be a multitude of colours in one level. Since each of the meters plays a different loop the full song develops right in front of you as the puzzle progresses, hopefully culminating in your success. It’s absolutely addictive and the possibilities of emergent game play are quite spectacular. There have been many times when I’ve managed to complete a level in a completely random way by some random interaction between the modifiers that would not work if any one of the pieces were a fraction away from their positions. It has the added bonus of really annoying anyone who isn’t playing it, especially if you’re stuck on a single level for more than 30 minutes (ask my wife about it ;)).

I guess it just goes to show how powerful these platforms are at enabling those with a desire to create to have that work made available for the world at large. There’s some amazing stuff coming out of independent studios these days and in a world where the major titles will set you back $100 or more here in Australia the mere pittance that they ask for their wares is far beyond the value that they deliver. You can then imagine my excitement when I learned that one of my good friends started up his own independent games house, TOME Studios, and is currently working on his first title Lost Company. Whilst I might not have made the cut for an alpha tester I’ll more than happily shell out for a copy of the game once it’s released just so that he and people like him can keep doing the great work that’s kept me away from the 2 other major titles I have sitting by my desk, waiting to be finished.

On The Importance of Focus.

Back in the days when I was still a naive university student dreaming of someday being a project manager I remember being in a particular class discussing the idea of sunk costs in projects. For almost any project there are going to be costs for things that you won’t be able to recover such as time spent in research or marketing. Unfortunately for a lot of projects sunk costs will often lead projects to go long on after they were no longer viable, in a vain hope to recover some of the resources that were already sunk into the project. This is often referred to as the sunk cost fallacy and is aptly demonstrated by the dollar auction thought experiment. It is then a completely logical behaviour to see people act in this fashion, even when it seems to be irrational.

For an engineer like myself it’s usually pretty hard to give up on something once I’ve got it going. I’m a completionist at heart not wanting to leave a project unfinished lest it tug away at the corners of my mind for weeks on end. This kind of mentality has often lead me into sunk cost dilemmas where a project or task will take considerable time to finish but the opportunity cost of doing so far outweighs the benefits. I think that behaviour changed after my recent snap mindset change at the end of last year as after a recent talk with my current boss revealed there are some things I’ve just not followed through on, as I’ve come to realise how little benefit they actually provide.

Looking back over the previous six months I found that many of the times when I would get caught in a sunk cost dilemma would usually be when a core goal, say developing my new products, usually spawned several non-critical tasks that would be in some way beneficial. For the most part these would be quick win scenarios and for the most part they were done and out of the way in no time. Still there were several occasions when a simple problem, say getting movie information from IMDB¹, would consume an enormous amount of time whilst providing a very small amount of benefit. Realistically these kinds of things should have been left by the wayside until I had some spare bandwidth to use on them, but sometimes you don’t know how much time you’ve wasted until you’ve wasted it.

Unfortunately for me I had yet another one of those lightbulb moments when thinking about Geon and the direction its heading in. You see the initial idea I had almost a year ago (“What’s going on there.”) was taken over with the idea of getting as much information about the location as possible all stuffed into the one application. Whilst all this data is easily available and developing the components was a great introduction into the world of web programming at their heart they’re just not what Geon is about and realistically provide little value. After looking over many of the players who are in the location space I realised that most of the features I’ve included would more than likely detract from the actual purpose of my application, rather than help it.

So it’s with a painful glance towards my codebase that I realise I might need to drop a good chunk of my work before I get too caught up in chasing down yet another information feed to aggregate into it. It was a painful decision as the majority of the code is based around these ideas and I’m really quite proud of some of the tricks I implemented to get them to work. On the other hand I’ve started to get so many other ideas to improve the core functionality to make it more functional and most importantly more desirable for end users. It might pain me to take the axe to my last couple months of work but if I don’t do it now I could be chasing sunk costs for many more months to come, and that’s something I can’t really afford to do.

It feels like growing up all over again.

¹ I know right, there’s heaps of applications out there using IMDB data in their applications, so it should be really easy. What suprised me was that, although IMDB provides the vast majority of their data in flat text files, they have no API to speak of. Whilst their terms of service explicitly exclude any service from scraping their pages for information every single library or api out there does exactly that, meaning that they’re all a layout change away from being completely and utterly broken. I went through at least 5 different libraries all with varying results, and the text files seem to be missing a good chunk of information (where are the TV episode listings?).

IT Career Paths.

I’m constantly amazed by the number of people who say they work in IT yet have very little to do with anything in the field (apart from doing their work on a computer). Admittedly most of these people are in management so saying that they’re “in IT” is about as applicable as them being “in field X” where X can be any industry where you need to organise a group of people with another group of people for a common goal. Still there’s quite a variety of career paths in IT and as far as the everyman goes most of them get lumped into the same area “guy who knows computers”. I thought it might be interesting to take you down the road of a couple career paths that I have been down and where I’ve seen them lead people over the past half a decade or so.

IT Support:

This is probably the career path that everyone is most familiar with, those guys who fix computers for a living. Landing a job in this area doesn’t require anything more than any other entry level job you might find around the place but you’ll usually end up in one of those dreaded call centers. Good news is that for anyone looking to break into IT there’s always going to be positions like these going as the turnover rate is quite high for entry level work, somewhere in the order of 30~50% for most places. Still if you can stick this out for a good year or two (depending on how skilled you are) there’s light at the end of the help desk tunnel.

Funnily enough the next “level” of IT support is just that, Level 2 Support. In essence you’ll be one of the behind the scenes guys who has more access and more knowledge about the systems the front line people are taking calls for and will be the one they come to for help. At this level you’ll probably be expected to start doing some outside learning about products that you (or your company) haven’t had any experience with yet, usually in the hopes to move you up into the next level. Second level guys are usually not responsible for adding new things to the environment and are best suited to being support to the first level and being the conduit to the next level guys.

The final incarnation of the IT support person is usually referred to as Level 3 Support or Technology Specialist. After spending a couple years at the second level most people will have gained a significant amount of skills in troubleshooting various software and hardware issues and hopefully acquired some certifications in various technologies. At this point there are a couple options open to such people: continue down the support line (generalist) or focus on a specific technology (specialist). Both of these have their advantages as the generalist won’t have trouble finding a job in almost any organisation and the specialists will attract quite high salaries for their specified skill set. Generally most people become a generalist first for a year or so while they work out what they want to build their career on.

This is the level I’m currently at and I initially tried to specialize in virtualization and Storage Array Networks (SANs) however my current position uses neither of these skills. It’s a good and bad thing as whilst I’m learning about a whole lot of new technologies (like Hyper-V) my specialist skills go unused. In all honesty though my most valuable skills as an engineer have gone for the most part un-used since I got my degree back at the end of 2006 so it’s really not that suprising and traditionally I’ve found that the ability to quickly adapt to the requirements of your employer seems to land me more jobs than my skills in one area.

They did help me get my foot in the door though 😉

Developer:

Behind those who support the things you’re viewing this web page on are those who actually built the software that it runs on. In a general sense these guys are referred to as developers and there’s quite a few different types ranging from your more traditional desktop application programmers to the current rock stars of the programming world the web programmers.

Starting off a career in programming isn’t as easy as IT support. For the most part you’ll have to have some level of academic experience in the field before most places will give you a second look. Most programmers will have done a bachelor degree in either Computer Science or Software Engineering (or Engineering in Software Engineering for those true engineers) with a few starlets from the generic IT degrees making their way into the entry level programmer ranks. Junior programming jobs are a bit harder to come across but there’s usually good opportunities to be had in smaller firms who will help nuture you past this first hurdle.

Senior developers are someone who’s had a demonstratable amount of experience in either building systems of a certain type or in a certain language. They’re much like the second level of IT support as they’re usually responsible for helping the juniors out whilst working on the harder problems that their underlings would be unable to do. Again at this level there’s some expectation of training to be done in order to sharpen your skills up to match that of what your employer requires and this is the time when they should look to specializing.

Developers don’t technically have a third level like IT support however once they’re past the junior level specializing in one kind of development (say SAP customizations) becomes far too lucrative to pass up. There’s varying levels of specialisation available and this is when many people will make the jump into a field they’re interested in, say games or web, that demands a certain level of experience before taking them on.

I never got past the junior developer level mostly because I jumped into a System Administrator position before I had the chance to develop my programming career any further. I’ve kept my skills sharp though through creating automation scripts and various programs that served specific purposes but none so much as my current pet project Geon. I don’t think I’ll ever develop for anyone though as the last large project I worked on was more clerical admin work than actual programming.

Communications:

Whilst not terribly distinct from the IT support career path those in the business of providing networks and communications links for the varying computer systems they deserve their own mention as their technology predates the first real computer by over 70 years. Ostensibly they will spend most of their career using computers but only to administer the communication technology they’re responsible for.

At the heart of the career path is the same 3 levels with the first level being an almost identical help desk hell. However instead of working on the computer systems that you know and love they work on the cables and interconnects that keep the information flowing around the world. The number of jobs available is heavily dependant on which brand of network devices you choose to base your career around with the largest one currently being CISCO. Specialisations tend even further down the telecommunications path with most of them either being things like CISCO Certified Internetwork Expert (with a test that has an 80% fail rate on the first try) or something like a PABX/VoIP (basically telephones) expert.

I have a minimum amount of knowledge in this area as I skipped out on my college’s computer networking course and found my career in IT support much easier 🙂

System Design:

I’ve struggled to find people who understand the term Business Analyst but don’t work in IT. In essence these people are the interface between the real world who want some kind of computer based system and those of us who have the skills to provide them. This is yet another position which usually requires some form of academic accreditation before anyone will take you seriously, and even then some people might feel like you’re still getting in their way.

People employed as business analysts are probably the most removed from actual IT whilst still being counted as part of it. There’s very little technical experience required to become one but you do have to have a keen eye for identifying what people want, managing their expectations as well as acting as a glorified telephone between the everyman and the IT nerds. Interestingly enough this is one of the areas of IT where a healthy percentage of the employees are women, something that is quite rare in the world of IT.

The next step for business analyists is usually that of what is wrongly referred to as an Architect. These are the people who are responsible for setting out a strategic direction for whole systems and whose work is usually of a fairly high level. Traditionally these kinds of people work side by side with project managers to organise various resources in order to deliver their vision but that’s where the tenuous relationship to real architects ends. In fact its more common to find third level IT support people graduate to the architect position thanks to their grass roots level experience in delivering systems that were set out by architects for them.

I’ve worked with a few architects and for the most part they’re worth the top dollars they’re paid. The ones that weren’t just simply didn’t communicate with their experts and promised things that just weren’t possible.

Sales/Consulting:

Once you’ve reached a certain point in any of the previous career paths I’ve mentioned there’s always an option to switch over to the sales side of IT. Whilst this position isn’t highly suited to many who join the ranks of IT (high levels of social interaction? Say it ain’t so!) I’ve known more than a few who made the jump mostly because of the money and travel opportunities it provides.

For those who come directly from IT they’re usually placed into what’s called a Pre-Sales role. Rather than actually selling anything directly they’re responsible for getting into the client’s environment and working out what they need, much like a business analyst. They’ll then draw up a bill of materials for the system and then hand it off to their sales team to close the deal. The reason pure IT people are attracted to these kinds of positions is that you’re still required to have a high level of knowledge about certain systems but don’t have to be involved in their support, which can be quite refreshing after many years of fixing someone else’s problems.

For the softer IT career choices there’s the option of becoming a consultant or basically a gun for hire. Once you’ve achieved a high level of specialization it becomes profitable to work either freelance or part of a larger consulting group who will hire you to clients who have very specific requirements. Usually consultants are used in order to get an outside opinion on something or to analyse a certain system or process. It’s quite lucrative as there’s little overheads past what your basic entry level employee has, but the going rates for their time are almost an order of magnitude higher.

There are of course many more ancillary positions in IT but with this post dragging on a bit I thought I would leave it there. In essence I wanted to convey the breadth of careers that IT offers to people and how far away from computers you can be yet still be “in IT”. Maybe next time you’ll think twice before asking your friend in IT to fix your computer 😉