Posts Tagged‘skill’

Ballistic: Like Playing Pool in 3D.

I’m not usually a fan of reaction based games, mostly because they do a great job of highlighting just how bad I am at them. Sure there’s a sense of accomplishment once I get there, but it often feels like I’ve either brute forced my way through or just lucked out. However seeing people master games like that can be quite entertaining, like watching Rocket League pros juggle a ball like it’s nothing. Ballistic falls along similar lines for me, being incredibly frustrating to play but would definitely make for good watching should someone decide to take the time to master it.

There is a vague notion of a plot in Ballistic, you being some kind of weapon of mass destruction set out to stop someone from capturing a planet (or something along those lines). What you are is a giant geodesic ball that can roll along any surface, shooting itself in any direction at incredibly high speed. Anything you come into contact with is instantly obliterated and that includes any innocent bystanders who happen to be in the way. That sets up the premise for the game: wreck a bunch of things and then find the teleportation pad to take you to the next level. Like many skill/twitch/reaction based games it’s a simple concept that’s incredibly difficult to master.

Ballistic uses the Unreal Engine 4 which means that, at a base level, the graphics aren’t bad. They’re quite simplistic, consisting mostly of highly glossy surfaces and geometric shapes, which is fitting given the Outrun-ish theme it seems to be going for. When you’re moving everything turns into a glorious blur of neon but, when you inevitably hit something you get an up close look and things aren’t as great. All the people models have to be store bought assets as they simply don’t fit the aesthetic of the game at all. The other various models (like the guns and whatnot) fit a little better but they’ve obviously been designed to not be looked at too closely. For more skilled players this might not be an issue but for someone like me, who seemed to spend more time still than blasting past, it was hard not to notice it.

The challenges the game presents you are usually pretty simple. Most of them will be a variation on move here, kill this thing and then find this other thing to complete the level. Sounds easy in theory but wrangling the ball to do what you want it to do is a challenge all in of itself. You have a couple controls at your disposal: roll, which allows you to move whilst you’re flat on a surface. Boost which pushes you in the direction of the camera and bullet time allowing you to more precisely aim your shots. You’d think that with these tools it’d be relatively easy to navigate your way around however it’s akin to trying to play billiards in three dimensions more than anything else. In order to get to a certain point you’ll have to estimate your current momentum, what you can add via boost and your time in flight before you hit there. Doing all these things whilst you’re blasting past everything at a million miles an hour is quite the challenge.

That being said once you get a handle on how things all slot together you can more accurately place yourself than you would otherwise. Mashing the boost button the second you leave a surface is most certainly the wrong thing to do, often leading you into unrecoverable situations. Nor is attaining maximum speed the solution to everything as once you get past a certain point the amount of influence you have over where you’re going is diminished significantly. In the end the challenge that Ballistic provides is one of balance: you have to figure out the right mix of everything to achieve your objective. Suffice to say it’s not the easiest game around, one that’s barely deserving of the “casual” tag it’s got itself on Steam.

Ballistic is an extremely challenging momentum based skill game, one that this writer would likely recommend for fiends who enjoyed similar games like Rocket League. The retro soundtrack is what attracted me to it in the first place and, unfortunately, the game play wasn’t enough for me to stick around for too long afterwards. Make no mistake, this is a challenging game, one that will reward those who take the time to master its momentum based mechanics. If, like me, you were seeking something a little less intense though it might be the wrong thing for you. For a specific subset of gamers Ballistic’s challenges will provide the kind of intense action they crave however, for this old gamer, I think I’ll leave my play time with it where it stands.

Rating: 6.5/10

Ballistic is available on PC right now for $12.99. Total play time was 1 hour.

Slow Learner? You Might Be Thinking Too Hard.

Back in my school days I thought that skill was an innate thing, a quality that you were born with that was basically immutable. Thus things like study and practice always confused me as I felt that I’d either get something or I wouldn’t which is probably why my academic performance back then was so varied. Today however I don’t believe anyone is below mastering a skill, all that is required is that you put the required amount of time and (properly focused) practice in and you’ll eventually make your way there. Innate ability still counts for something though as there are things you’re likely to find much easier than others and some people are even just better in general at learning new skills. Funnily enough that latter group of people likely has an attribute that you wouldn’t first associate with that skill: lower overall brain activity.

Learning Stuff

Research out of the University of California – Santa Barbara has shown that people who are most adept at learning new tasks actually show a lower overall brain activity level than their slow learning counterparts. The study used a fMRI machine to study the subject’s brains whilst they were learning a new task over the course of several weeks and instead of looking at a specific region of the brain the researchers focused on “community structures”. These are essentially groups of nodes within the brain that are densely interconnected with each other and are likely in heavy communication. Over the course of the study the researchers could identify which of these community structures remained in communication and those that didn’t whilst measuring the subject’s mastery of the new skill they were learning.

What the researchers found is that people who were more adept at mastering the skill showed a rapid decrease in the overall brain activity used whilst completing the task. For the slower learners many of the regions, namely things like the visual and motor cortexs, remained far more active for a longer period, showing that they were more actively engaged in the learning process. As we learn skills much of the process of actually doing that skill gets offloaded, becoming an automatic part of what we do rather than being a conscious effort. So for the slow learners these parts of the brain remained active for far longer which could, in theory, mean that they were getting in the way of making the process automatic.

For me personally I can definitely attest to this being the case, especially with something like learning a second language. Anyone who’s learnt a different language will tell you that you go through a stage of translating things into your native language in your head first before re-translating them back into the target language, something that you simply can’t do if you want to be fluent. Eventually you end up developing your “brain” in that language which doesn’t require you to do that interim translation and everything becomes far more automatic. How long it takes you to get to that stage though varies wildly, although the distance from your native language (in terms of grammatical structure, syntax and script) is usually the primary factor.

It will be interesting to see if this research leads to some developmental techniques that allow us to essentially quieten down parts of our brain in order to aid the learning process. Right now all we know is that some people’s brains begin the switch off period quicker than others and whatever is causing that is the key to accelerating learning. Whether or not that can be triggered by mental exercises or drugs is something we probably won’t know for a while but it’s definitely an area of exciting research possibilities.

On Rating Systems, Competitive Play and Jerks In Online Games.

Have you heard of the term “Ladder Anxiety“? If you’ve ever played in competitive 1 on 1 games you’ll the know the feeling intimately, that sense of dread you get before you hit the find match button that builds upon itself until you see that final score screen. When I played StarCraft 2 a lot I would get this all the time, to the point where if I was just a little bit cold my whole body would shudder violently until the nervous energy turned me into a raging furnace. I’ve eventually learned what I can do to tame that wild beast but by far the best thing for it was simply to not play 1 v 1 as I found my stress levels were far lower when I was playing in a team. For StarCraft 2 this kind of defeats the point since it’s balanced for 1 v 1 but for other games, like my current addiction in DOTA 2, it’s par for the course.

Dotabuff Rating Player Distribution

For all of these games the in built ranking system is usually very coarse, serving as an indication of where you fit in with the larger gaming populace and only giving solid rankings for the highest level players. The reasoning behind this is pretty simple as anything more granular than that leads to some rather undesirable behaviour within the greater community. The ELO ratings that were used back in the original WarCraft 3 DOTA map were a good example of this as players would often use it as an excuse to force people into certain roles (your ELO is too low, you’re playing support), criticize them for not playing the way they think you should be playing or just simply being jerks for the sake of it. You might be thinking that this is all par for the course for something that’s on the Internet but the simple fact is that you never want to give jerks tools that enable them to be better jerks, especially if you can avoid it.

You can then imagine my reaction when I heard about the upcoming release of the DotaBuff Rating system. I first came across it when they had a poll up to determine whether it should be a widely available stat or something you can only see for yourself and was hopeful that the community that struggled against the perils of the previous ELO system would make the right decision. Whilst the Reddit DOTA 2 players appeared to be on the right track the wider player base apparently voted, in 2 to 1 odds, to make it open to everyone. The backlash against that idea was strong enough for them to rethink their position on the matter with them saying that they’d move it into a “paid only” feature. Whilst its debatable as to whether or not that was their plan all along the furore generated by the potential implementation of DBR caught the eyes of Valve and they decided to go nuclear on the situation.

In the latest patch to hit DOTA 2 an option was introduced into the game settings that allowed you to choose whether or not sites like DotaBuff would be allowed to view your match data. This option was disabled by default meaning that the vast majority of the data that DotaBuff had been collecting since its inception would no longer be available to it. Additionally it’s no longer possible to reconstruct the download link for the replay file meaning that the more in depth statistics are simply unavailable. People like me who are interested in their ongoing statistics would of course enable it again but as some of my recent games have shown I’m not in the majority of users. Whilst I might abhor the introduction of a rating that arguably made an elitist community worse it doesn’t bode well for the ancillary developer community that was trying to add value to one of Valve’s burgeoning ecosystems.

Now its easy to argue that its foolish to base your business around someone else’s business, especially in this web driven age where API changes like this can spell death for your nascent company. However it’s also hard to ignore the fact that if you don’t do it someone else will and there’s every chance that they’ll see some level of success for it. DotaBuff is, to me at least, a great resource for personal statistics tracking and being able to compare myself to the wider world (but no the other way around) was an invaluable resource. Valve I feel went too far in its reaction to the DBR situation and could have easily resolved the situation without resorting to nuclear level responses. Hopefully this is just an overcorrection and they can reach a happy middle ground as in its current form the API is a shadow of its former self.

To be truthful the DOTA community has grown a lot since I used to play it back in WarCraft 3 and whilst I wouldn’t want to poke the bear by giving everyone unfettered access to DBR I don’t believe it was particularly threaten by having it available privately. Sure it might be a bit more granular than Valve’s preferred system (searching the replays with your name and selecting the skill rating) but I’m sure that’s nothing that couldn’t be fixed by a few friendly emails rather than a whole of game API limitation. There’s probably more to this story than what I’m seeing however and time will tell if this change will spell the end for stats tracking sites like DotaBuff.

Pushing Through The Self Hate Barrier.

I’ve been on a bit of a rediscovery of photography of late, driven by my desire to fulfil the promises that my red-wine laden self proclaimed loudly over the Internet just a couple months ago. I’ve always had something of an interest in it dating back to the time when I wanted to capture my wife and I’s first trip overseas together all those years ago. However that interest was put aside for other things that seemed more important at the time: attempting to build my own start up, trying to build 100% passive income streams and all manner of things that, more often than not, left me burnt out and wondering why I had bothered in the first place.

I’ll have to admit that my knowledge of photography was average when I first started out on this journey, although I didn’t know that at the time. Ever since then I’ve been feeding myself on a steady diet of Wikipedia articles, photography blogs and lurking continuously on the photography subreddit. In that time I’ve come to realise that many of the assumptions I made about certain things, like the reasons why people spend so much on Leicas or why the TSE lenses are actually useful, were totally wrong and that’s had me doing a hell of a lot of self reflection.

The biggest thing to come of this seems to be an incredible distaste for nearly every picture I’ve taken since I first laid my hands on my new bits of camera equipment. I should have expected this, I even blogged about this very phenomena twice in the past, but it seems that every time I set out with the best of intentions I end up looking back at all the pictures I took and feeling like I’ve wasted my time. It’s a really painful feeling, especially when you’ve hyped up everything in your head before hand.

The reality of the situation is actually something that everyone who sets out to improve themselves goes through: the stage where you realise what it takes to be the thing you want to become and the desperation in knowing that you’re no where near there yet. This isn’t a bad thing at all, it’s in fact a critical step to progressing forward as up until this point you were operating on the rush of starting out in new territory, picking up a few quick wins but still being blissfully unaware of all the challenges that lay ahead of you. This self realization is usually what kills most people’s motivation to continue on in a particular pursuit but realistically this should be the point where you push through the pain barrier in order to make it to the other side.

Unfortunately there’s no quick fix solution other than pressing on in spite of your feelings to the contrary. You’d think having been through this process twice in recent memory that I would’ve predicted this feeling of ennui and planned accordingly but for some reason I just…didn’t. Thankfully other parts of my personality, namely the fiscal one, scream loudly enough to force me to continue on. I absolutely detest the feeling that I’m simply doing photography for the sake of getting my money’s worth out of the equipment I bought but it’s enough to keep me going and hopefully enough to drive me through to the other side.

This post will also form part of the strategy for me to keep on developing as a photographer. I’ve already put myself in many situations that I wouldn’t have otherwise for the sake of photography and, whilst I might not feel like I’m doing anything of worth at the time, I have produced some pictures that, on reflection, do meet my criteria for being “good”. I keep making a promise to myself that I’ll do 1 post here a week based on my latest photographic excursions and maybe its time that I made good on that instead of getting caught up in a circle of self loathing.

Yeah, I think its time.

A Little Rational Discourse on eSports.

Before I dive into the meat of today’s article I think a little disclosure is in order so you know where my biases lie. I’m undeniably an eSports fan, watching it grow from the tenuous beginnings to the burgeoning industry that it has become today. I’m also slightly invested in the whole idea myself, even though at my current skill level I’m still a worlds away from competing seriously. Still despite my biases my inner sceptic won’t stay quiet when there’s an argument to be had that seems to be rife with emotion and misinformation, which is what has pushed me to write about this today.

So since I’ve been elbow deep in writing about other issues this week I missed a massive Internet argument over whether eSports can be classified as a sport. The origin appears to be this article on Destructoid which, like previous articles to the same effect did, sparked a debate online which inevitably turned south as both sides duked it out. The latest instalment, and the one that caught my eye, was this post from Jim Sterling which focused primarily on the community’s reaction to the post and how such a reaction showed that eSports can never be considered a real sport because of it. After reading through it all and doing some digging on the matters at hand I’ve come to a couple conclusions and believe that both sides could learn a lot from each other.

The first, and I know this is probably pointless on the Internet, is that a level of courtesy would never go astray when you’re arguing with people online. It’s really, really easy to devolve into name calling and baiting when you’re arguing with a faceless wall of text but it does nothing to help your cause when you do so. It’s for that exact reason that I tend to shy away from writing any kind of emotionally charged piece here simply because it usually removes the meaning. The problem is exacerbated when you have to confine your words to the 140 character count of Twitter, leading to sound bites like this one which can be so easily construed as meaning one thing or another.

However I also know that reasoned pieces (like this one in response to the earlier Kotaku article I linked) tend to fall by the wayside, drowned out by the vitriol and hyperbole. This is because such articles tend to attract the most page views and discussion, generating a self sustaining organism of hate that proceeds to trample around the Internet. Such behaviour gives the false impression that one side is wholly represented by this vocal minority.

But that doesn’t mean some of the grievances raised don’t have some factual basis.

The crux of the entire matter appears to centre around the idea of whether or not eSports can be counted as sports. There are good arguments on both sides so let’s have a quick look at them, starting with the supporters. For them eSports counts as a sport because on the surface they share many similar aspects with the major difference being the lack of physicality. However the IOC (which Elsa mentions in her article) includes several non-physical sports in their definition of what constitutes a sport, lending credence to the idea that not all sports need to have the physical element. This is where Elsa’s article falls down for many eSports supporters as she writes that off in favour of her own opinion instead.

However Elsa is not alone in thinking this, in fact putting this idea to my close (relatively nerdy) social circle showed that most of them supported the idea that sports require a physical element. Indeed taking it further the straight up definition of the term “sport” usually gives something like this:

A human activity capable of achieving a result requiring physical exertion and/or physical skill, which, by its nature and organisation, is competitive and is generally accepted as being a sport.

Going from this it’s easy then to make the assumption that the general public would require the physicality aspect for something to be classified as a sport. This leaves us with quite the conundrum as both sides have a solid, valid claim to their arguments even if the expression of such hasn’t been done in the most respectful way.

As we all know just because the majority believes something does not necessarily make it correct. The general idea that a sport requires some physical aspect dates back to a time before we had the capability to compete in mediums like video games and thus I would argue that the definition of sports, as it current stands, needs to be reworked for modern times. eSports tick all the boxes of the generally accept definition if you take dexterity as satisfying the “physical skill” part of it. The term sport then becomes a much broader term and realistically covers a lot of things that we don’t necessarily consider sports today.

To use a space analogy it’s much like the definition of what constitutes a planet. For the longest time it was pretty much just the large heavenly bodies we had discovered in our own solar system. However as time went by and we discovered more planetary like bodies we had to start questioning what the definition of a planet really was, formalizing the idea. The definition of sports can then be thought of in the same light as we now have new entities that call it into question. 

Sports then should be seen as a larger umbrella for skill based competition. The delineation then comes from the monikers that we then apply to the various sports in order to differentiate them from each other, although I can see many still using the generic term sports to refer to the heavily physical based variety. In reality this is just semantics that gives people an easy identifier to relate with others and should has little bearing on the larger argument.

Jim Sterling makes the point that he can’t take eSports seriously until there’s some actual debate about the topic as opposed to trolling and flame baiting. I was going to attempt to take him down on this one, saying there was a whole lot of reasonable debate to be had if he looked in the right places. Unfortunately it seems that there isn’t too much to be had out there, especially if you look at the comments on the articles in question and the various musing around on Twitter. We then seem to be at the mercy of the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory where all of eSports most rabid fans are hiding behind the veil of anonymity where they can spout their vitriol to a large audience. This, I agree, does the case for eSports no good at all.

However it also does those on the opposite side of the argument no good to write something off completely because of the most vocal parts of the fan group. It is of course hard not to judge when all the evidence you have points towards the other side being full of childish twats, so hopefully this post can be the beach head into the realm of constructive discussion. I may be one small voice in the deafening choir that is the Internet but it only takes one to pave the way to a more rational debate.

These kinds of questions (are games art? can they be sport?) are a sign that games, both as an industry and a medium, are now as much a part of our society as print, movies et. al. have been before them. It’s unfortunate that such times are marred by the vocal few who so fervently support them leave their better manners at the door but that does not mean their ideas do not have merit, nor warrant further investigation. Even this rather long post barely scratches the surface of the questions that have been raised in my investigation of the topic and I’m very much looking forward to debating them openly, courteously and rationally with any who would take up the challenge, so long as they extend to me the same.

Working Yourself Out of a Job.

One of the most common bits of career advice that I’ve been given is that you have to make yourself valuable to the company or organisation your working for. The thinking goes that if you’re valuable then it’s more likely that you’ll get a promotion and much less likely that you’ll face the chop if things start going south. It’s a good little nugget of advice however I find that many people get the idea of what constitutes value completely wrong, to the point of thinking that they’re valuable when in fact they’re being anything but. I found this to be especially true in the field of IT, especially in the areas that tend to be more insular and less socially apt.

Most often the idea of being valuable goes hand in hand with the idea of being irreplaceable. Usually this happens when someone either designs some system or process that does what is required of it but for all intents and purposes is a black box for anyone but the original creator. This person, although it can be multiple people, now feels safe in their job as since they’re the only one who knows how it works (and how to fix it when it breaks) and this gives them the feeling of being valuable to their company. For a short time they are but in the long term they’re being extremely detrimental, both to themselves and who they work for.

Their negative impacts on the company are pretty obvious. A system or process that relies on a specific person in order to keep it functioning has a major single point of failure. Whilst the system is working and that person is available everything seems fine, but take the unfortunate notion of them getting hit by a bus (commonly referred to as the bus factor). How long would it take an outside person to deconstruct the system or process in order to be able to understand it to the same level that they did? That amount of time is usually quite high, especially if this kind of behavior is allowed to continue unchecked for years. Thus these people who thought they were invaluable to their place of work are really quite harmful, but not just to their place of work.

Making yourself irreplaceable like this however is extremely toxic to your future career prospects. If you’re the most important cog then it’s far less likely that your superiors will want to promote you, why would they want to take you away from a critical process that you’re the expert on? Quite often people mistake getting looked over for a position as their value not being properly recognized when in fact it’s that same “value” they created which keeps them firmly rooted in their place. This also usually goes hand in hand with a lack of skill development meaning that the skills that were once valuable (like in the creation of said system or process) are now no longer so highly sought after, making them an undesirable candidate on the open market.

This is exactly why I’m always working myself out of a job, which I’ve actually done once before. Back when I was working at the Australian Maritime Safety Authority I was hired with a specific purpose. A year later I had designed, implemented and fully documented the system that they wanted to the point where they couldn’t find any more work for me to do. Since I was a contractor I was under no impressions that I would have a job at the end of it and sought employment elsewhere before my contract finished. In the end they did find additional work for me to do, but I had already signed on to my new engagement. It might seem like a bad career move to make yourself redundant, but if you’re a skilled individual there will always be more work available and the reference from the place you left will speak volumes to your worth.

It all comes down to the misguided notions of value that people tend to hold and the idea that being replaceable somehow diminishes your own value. Realistically given enough time and resources anyone is replaceable so it is far better to assume that your job could be done by someone else than believing you’re immune to being usurped. Personally I find the idea to be quite liberating as it has led me to pursue many different avenues with which to improve myself in order to differentiate myself from the crowd. If I had simply made myself irreplacable I’d probably still be working at the same place I was 7 years ago, and that’s not a thought I relish.

Adapt or Die: Why I’m Keen on the Cloud.

Anyone who works in IT or a slightly related field will tell you that you’ve got to be constantly up to date with the latest technology lest you find yourself quickly obsoleted. Depending on what your technology platform of choice is the time frame you have to work in can vary pretty wildly, but you’d be doing yourself (and your career) a favour by skilling up in either a new or different technology every 2 years or so. Due to the nature of my contracts though I’ve found myself learning completely new technologies at least every year and its only in this past contract that I’ve come back full circle to the technology I initially made my career on, but that doesn’t mean the others I learnt in the interim haven’t helped immensely.

If I was honest though I couldn’t say that in the past I that I actively sought out new technologies to become familiar with. Usually I would start a new job based on the skills that I had from a previous engagement only to find that they really required something different. Being the adaptable sort I’d go ahead and skill myself up in that area, quickly becoming proficient enough to do the work they required. Since most of the places I worked in were smaller shops this worked quite well since you’re always required to be a generalist in these situations. It’s only been recently that I’ve turned my eyes towards the future to figure out where I should place my next career bet.

It was a conversation that came up between me and a colleague of mine whilst I was on a business trip with them overseas. He asked me where I thought were some of the IT trends that were going to take off in the coming years and I told him that I thought cloud based technologies were the way to go. At first he didn’t believe me, which was understandable since we work for a government agency and they don’t typically put any of their data in infrastructure they don’t own. I did manage to bring him around to the idea eventually though, thanks in part to my half decade of constant reskilling.

Way back when I was just starting out as a system administrator I was fortunate enough to start out working with VMware’s technology stack, albeit in a strange incarnation of running their workstation product on a server. At the time I didn’t think it was anything revolutionary but as time went on I saw how much money was going to waste as many servers sat idle for the majority of their lives, burning power and providing little in return. Virtualization then was a fundamental change to the way that back end infrastructure would be designed, built and maintained and I haven’t encountered any mid to large sized organisation who isn’t using it in some form.

Cloud technologies then represent the evolution of this idea. I reference cloud technologies and not “the cloud” deliberately as whilst the idea of relying on external providers to do all the heavy lifting for you is extremely attractive it unfortunately doesn’t work for everyone, especially for those who simply cannot outsource. Cloud technologies and principles however, like the idea of having massive pools of compute and storage resources that can be carved up dynamically, have the potential to change the way back end services are designed and provisioned. Most importantly it would decouple the solution design from the underlying infrastructure meaning that neither would dictate the other. That in itself is enough for most IT shops want to jump on the cloud bandwagon, and some are even doing so already.

It’s for that exact reason why I started developing on the Windows Azure platform and researching into VMware’s vCloud solution. Whilst the consumer space is very much in love with the cloud and the benefits it provides large scale IT is a much slower moving beast and it’s only just now coming around to the cloud idea. With the next version of Windows shaping up to be far more cloud focused than any of its predecessors it seems quite prudent for us IT administrators to start becoming familiar with the benefits cloud technology provides, lest we be left behind by those up and comers who are betting on this burgeoning platform.

Salaries, Skill Shortages and Market Economics.

Over the weekend I was fortunate enough to be involved in a piece for the Canberra Times on salaries in the ACT, thanks wholly to my journalist friend who set up the connection.  Whilst the online version doesn’t show me in it (you’ll have to buy the paper for that!) the main thrust of it was that, for men at least, the highest paying industry you can be in is ICT. Whilst my part was merely to put the human element into the story it got me thinking about my career to date and why the IT industry in Canberra has been so lucrative over the past half decade or so. As far as I can tell it’s a local phenomena to Canberra thanks to a few obvious factors.

I’ve always been interested in computers but when it came time to choose my career I wasn’t really looking to end up where I am now. By training I’m technically an engineer and by rights I should’ve been seeking jobs in embedded systems or at the very least a software engineer role. It wasn’t for lack of trying however, after languishing on a help desk for a year and a half I finally struck out at my first programming job, applying for a junior developer position at the Australian Treasury Department. Funnily enough I actually got that role although instead of taking it I foolishly used it as leverage to get a similar job at my current work place. That of course was an unmitigated disaster as I was put into a team that didn’t want nor need me and less than 6 months later I jumped ship into my first system administrator role.

After making that jump the prospect of taking a massive pay cut to be an actual engineer didn’t look so appealing.

In fact the next few years saw me go on a roller coaster ride of several jobs in the IT industry. It wasn’t because I couldn’t hold a job down or I got fired for incompetence, more it was that I found people were more willing to pay market rates for new hires than they were to promote someone internally. The reason for this was simple, there’s has always been a shortage of skilled IT people in the Canberra area. The reasons behind that are twofold: all government departments have their head offices (and therefore the majority of their IT infrastructure) in Canberra and the population here is just over 350,000. This means it’s a seller’s market here when you’ve got skills in IT and it has been for the past 5 years.

Realistically it’s just another example simple economic principles in action. There’s a relatively fixed supply of skilled IT workers in Canberra and in order to increase that supply they have to make it attractive for people to consider making the move. The first, and usually primary, motivator for most people is base salary and when you’re competing against private industry in other states the wages have to be comparable for people to consider making the move. Over the years this quickly put the average IT wage well out of the reach of normal APS brackets and thus we saw the birth of the contractor industry in Canberra in order to keep the level of skills required in the region. There was of course the dark times when the Gershon Report was in full swing which kept the IT market down in Canberra for a short period of time but it rebounded with renewed gusto the second people realised work wasn’t getting done.

However I strongly believe that this is a local maxima, focused tightly around the Canberra region. Put simply the factors involved in driving IT salaries up just don’t exist in the same concentration outside Canberra as every other major city has a higher population and much smaller government presence. This doesn’t mean IT isn’t worth anywhere in Australia outside of Canberra, far from it. IT skills are amongst some of the most portable talents to have as nearly every industry in the world relies on IT for critical business functions. If you’re really trying to make the most of the IT industry in Australia (and you’re not an entrepreneur) then you really can’t go past Canberra, especially as a starting point.

The Lost Art of Estimation.

One memory that has always remained clear in my mind was from the first few weeks of engineering degree. Sitting in an introductory electronics class the lecturer began by throwing some rudimentary math our way and lamented how we were quick to grab our pens and paper or calculators to work out the exact answer. It was a clever way of showing us how much we relied on technology to do our thinking for us and so the next week was spent teaching us methods of estimating values, working out rough solutions to equations and educating us in the ways of solid guesswork. After a while it became second nature to us engineers (all 10 of us!) and I don’t think any good engineer would be without it.

I hadn’t really thought about it until I was dicussing LED backlit TVs with some of my friends over lunch. The basic premise of the technology (I’m not going to talk about edge LED backlighting, that’s cheating) is that instead of using what amounts to giant fluro tubes to light up the screen for each individual pixel you use either a single white LED or a RGB LED array. I imagined what the sales pitch to the higher ups must’ve been when they were trying to make a full 1080p display, saying that the amount of LEDs would have been huge. One of my friends then whipped out his phone to calculate it (instantly bringing back the university memories) and instantly the engineering estimator kicked in and I came out with about 6 million LEDs to make up the panel. The actual figure is 6220800 (1920 x 1080 x 3), which made me feel like I’d earned a fair whack of geek cred for being able to guess that close without a calculator.

It’s not just party tricks like doing insanely large multiplcations in your head that estimation is good for. Most of the time I spent in the labs at university were trying to get some electronic widget to give the correct output. Now all the equations you’re taught are based on perfect models, so you’re never going to get exactly where you want. That’s where estimation comes in handy, if you know your inputs and can hazard a rough guess at the outputs it can save you hours sitting down and working out the actual output. If everything comes out inline with your expectations then you can go back and verify your results using the equations, otherwise you know you have to rework your experiment.

Although the real scientists would argue that’s what research assistances are for 😉

In the real world where project managers and higher ups demand estimates to ensure resources are allocated appropriately being able to come up with figures quickly is one skill that’s saved me countless times over. It’s one of those things that once you learn you never really think about again as the answers just start popping into your head, kind of like muscle memory but in your brain. Plus being able to do large multiplications in your head is a sure fire way to get all the ladies.

Well, that’s what my lecturer told me anyway 🙂