It’s months since GDC, and I’m still trying to unpack my feelings about Brenda Romero’s Jiro Dreams of Game Design talk. Or maybe not so much my feelings about it—it’s an excellent talk, no question—but my emotional reactions to it. Her talk confronts concepts that I care about (greatness, team structure, creation) in contexts that I care about (games, food), leaving me with immediate reactions to almost everything she said, but immediate reactions that were frequently in conflict, and with me quite sure that there’s a lot to think about beneath those immediate reactions.
I watched it again last night; I’m still not sure what I think, other than that I’m now glad I’ve seen it twice! But, trying to put together some thoughts:
She talks a lot about wanting to be great, and about the effort necessary for that. And this is where a lot of my insecurities with respect to the talk come in. Because, of course, there’s a part of me that wants to be great: who doesn’t want to be great? In the abstract, after all, it sounds, well, great. But, when it comes down to it: I am not behaving in a way that has led or will lead to me being great at anything.
Don’t get me wrong: I am egotistical enough to believe that I’m pretty damn good at some things, and even that I maintain a fairly high level of standard (relative to an appropriate baseline) at a fairly wide range of things. For example, I’ve largely made my living as a programmer for the last decade, and I’m pretty sure that I’m a noticeably better programmer than most professional programmers.
But I’m equally sure that, in an important sense, I’m not a truly great programmer. There’s nothing wrong with this, and for that matter my bar for greatness in that field may well be abnormally high: but there are significant ways in which I don’t meet that bar.
And her talk pointed at a few reasons why that might be. One is that I’m not quite obsessed enough. She talks about thinking about games from when she wakes up to when she goes to sleep; I think about programming quite a bit, including at odd hours, but it’s not that same sort of all-dominating passion that she projects. Another is that I don’t put in the hours; that’s a related concept but not at all an identical one, I’ll come back to that below.
Also: I don’t feel creative enough. Now, I’m not sure if I think that’s actually necessary for greatness, and for that matter I’m not sure how much Romero thinks it’s necessary for greatness. But it feels to me (and this goes way back, it’s not just my most recent decade) that I’m abnormally good at quickly coming to grips with others’ ideas and using them in productive ways, but there’s a certain seed of novelty that I’m not particularly good at.
Or, to put that last paragraph another way: I can be a quite good craftsperson. And that’s important to me, and for that matter it’s important for greatness. I was about to write: but maybe something’s still missing there? Now that I type this out, though: being a great craftsperson isn’t a contradiction in terms, it’s just a quieter sort of greatness.
So, I guess, if I were going to be great, that’s the sort I would be! But I still would need more passion and to put in more hours.
Actually, rereading this section: I think there’s something wrong about my angle here. What’s important in this context isn’t people being great, it’s works being great. And Romero’s talk is about great works, not (or at least not just) great people. When she raises and rejects the Triad of Constraints, for examples, she does so in the context of producing a great work. Hmm.
Teams, Control, and Responsibility
As is obvious from the talk’s title, Romero brings in food metaphors, metaphors from chefs and kitchens. But Jiro isn’t the only chef she talks about; in particular, she talks about Gordon Ramsay several times, and this was the part of the talk that I had the strongest negative emotional reaction to. Some quotes from that portion: “He had to get all these people to do what he wanted them to do”; “They screw up and he’s the one who’s going to get blamed”; “Screw it up? People remember YOU”; “Control your team or your team controls you”; “My standards, my rules, my kitchen”. (Those last two are Romero quoting Ramsay, I believe the others are her description of what she saw.)
This is a mindset that I have zero interest in: I want nothing to do with command and control, and I want nothing to do with team structures consisting of one guiding light and other people whose job it is to implement that person’s directives. And there’s an undercurrent of fear mixed into that egotism that I think is unwarranted on both parts: I simply have no idea who the chef is in, I believe, any of my favorite restaurants. I do not, admittedly generally patronize restaurants that have been awarded Michelin stars, but I’ve been to one or two, and I don’t think that would make a difference in my awareness of the chef’s name unless the chef decided to engage in self-promotion. For games, it is more frequent (but by no means universal) that I can name the lead designer of my favorite games, but even so: my focus is on whether the game is good, the designer is an afterthought.
So no, people won’t remember you, they’ll remember your work. And not your (singular) work but your (plural) work: the work that the team that you are part of produced. As I belatedly said above: great works are what’s important, great people are a secondary concept.
And yes, great works will (usually!) have a strong, coherent vision at their core. And yes, having that vision come from one person is one way to get there. But what’s important is that the vision is shared and made real by the team; and, as a programmer an in my prior life as a mathematician, I have a lot of experience working with visions that feel stunningly real because they’re a fundamental part of how the world works, or how our shared conception of the world works. So we can all work together to understand what zeta functions really are, we can all work together to understand what simple design really is. And there are tools to let groups of people express and produce works of shared beauty, groups don’t have to invent that from scratch.
Romero does not, fortunately, spend all of her talk embracing the Ramsayan end of this spectrum: I don’t believe, for example, that she thinks that game designers should be dictating the details of how programmers write code to support the game’s vision. And, once I got past my revulsion at the command-and-control aspect of this message, there’s a part of her message that I liked rather more. For your team to produce something great, your team has to do great work, and that won’t happen if you don’t feel responsible for that to happen. In Romero’s narrative, the “you” is a single person in charge of the team, but she also talks about trusting and helping your coworkers to do great work; in my version, it’s everybody’s responsibility, but that most definitely does not mean devolving into greatness being nobody’s responsibility. Instead, we all need to work together to figure out what great work means, to do great work ourselves, and to help others to do great work.
Food, Games, and Software
Romero is a game designer, and she talks about chefs. I am neither; and, listening to the talk made me wonder if those two fields are related in a way that programming, or at least the sort of programming that I do, isn’t. Both of those fields are, in large part, about crafting experiences: in fact, she goes out of her way to talk about how the best restaurants (at least when looked at through a Michelin lens) spend time on the experience of dining there writ broadly, not just on the food. Everything is there because it has a reason to be there, everything is done with intent, with focus, with care and craft.
That last sentence is also characteristic of great programs. But it’s a characteristic that’s only visible from the point of view of somebody working on the program; writing a program that way has an effect on the experience of somebody using the program, but that effect is not direct.
Of course, programs have an experiential component as well, and this aspect of greatness makes sense in that context as well; and that leads to a form of greatness that is directly analogous to what Romero talks about in food and games. (Indeed, given that much of her work is on video games, she is talking in part exactly about this aspect of great software!) But, returning to the previous section on teams striving together for greatness: a cross-disciplinary team striving together for greatness is going to be focused on that experiential side of greatness instead of the external side of greatness, because that experiential side is something they can all perceive and affect.
As a programmer, which do I care about more? I care about them both, of course, and they’re related. By writing great software as measured through the internal lens, I can affect its external greatness in a couple of ways. One is that well-crafted software is, in an important sense, unobtrusive to the user: it responds quickly instead of making the user wait, it is consistent instead of imposing a cognitive load, it doesn’t crash or have bugs. And another is that well-crafted software is responsive to the needs of people who are designing that experience: as somebody like Romero is experimenting to try to tease out the core and then refine the details of a vision, great programmers can help by producing software that they can adapt as quickly as possible (or even provide hooks to let designers adapt it themselves) to actively help that process.
As I said above, though: I’m a craftsperson at heart, and so my focus is internal. But one of the aspects of agile that I’ve internalized well is the desire to write code in order to meet real user needs and desires, and to enable quick experimentation to discover how to best meet those desires. So I would prefer to be part of a company that wants to write great software to deliver a great experience, and if a company fell down too far on either measure of greatness, I wouldn’t join it. Having said that: my bar on what I’m willing to consider on the programmer craft side of things is quite a bit higher than my bar for the user experience side of things.
Obsession and Time
I don’t think I’m obsessed enough to produce really great work. Which isn’t to say that I can’t get pretty obsessed at times: over and over again, I’ll dive into some aspect of learning (frequently but not always software-related), read the most important books on the topic, dive into discussions on the topic, experiment on the topic, and repeat it until I feel I’ve internalized something at the core of that topic. But listening to Romero’s talk (this one and others): I’m not as obsessed with programming as she is with games. Also, my obsession quiets down when it gets to the stage when I feel like I understand what’s going on in some area: my compulsion is to build a world view, not to create. (And, in practice, being a craftsperson is where I end up in the middle.)
There’s another question here, though: totally aside from obsession, how many hours are you willing to put in? Her talk refers to crunch as a fact of life in the game industry; it’s not a fact of life, and I work to make it not part of mine. I’m honestly not sure to what extent my refusal conflicts with greatness: part of extreme programming is the claim that putting in more than about 40 hours a week is actually counterproductive over the medium term, because it dulls the brain and you start writing worse code. It’s clear that there’s a value of N where working more than N hours a week is counterproductive if your goal is greatness, and there are industrial studies suggesting that productivity maximizes out at around 40 hours a week.
And I mostly buy that cap of 40 hours, but not completely. For example, in Chapter 38 of The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance we have the claim (in a section studying violin students) that
All groups of expert violinists were found to spend about the same amount of time (over 50 hours) per week on music-related activities. However, the best violinists were found to spend more time per week on activities that had been specifically designed to improve performance, which we call “deliberate practice.”
And a cap a little above 50 hours feels more right to me than a 40 hour cap. But in a context of trying to produce great work, it raises some caveats:
- That study is about learning, not about producing. Admittedly, any part of great work is going to involve learning even as part of the production of that work; in fact, maybe it’s impossible to do great work without learning all of the time. (Though the converse is certainly not true: novices are learning but not producing great work!) But still: that study is measuring something different.
- The part about deliberate practice is super important. To me, this dovetails fairly well with a striving for greatness: part of doing great work involves being deliberate in what it means for work to be great, and Romero discusses the importance of having your colleagues look over your work on multiple occasions in your talk, which dovetails well with the importance of having a coach in deliberate practice. Maybe we should take a lesson from etymology here: great work requires deliberate practice, where by “practice” we return to the meaning of “do” or “act”.
- If we go with 50 hours, then I’m not sure what the texture of those 50 hours is going to be, but I’m almost positive that it’s not going to be 10 consecutive hours a day, five days a week. (Or 8 hours a day 6 days a week, or what have you.) Certainly during the times when I was (quite effectively) trying to become an expert in a subject, it would pop up in my life much more broadly than that: for example, Liesl and I had a habit on vacations where we’d be going through rooms in a museum, I’d go a little faster so I’d get a few rooms ahead of her, and then I’d sit down on a bench and read more in one of the math books I was working through. And, actually, when I say I don’t put in the hours, maybe I’m underestimating that: I only put in 40 hours a week (in a standard 8 hour + lunch x 5 configuration) sitting at my job, but I think about my work quite a bit at home, and the very act of writing this blog post is another part of my deliberate practice at getting better at my work. The flip side, though, is: I am not trying to do great work during most of those 40 hours that I do spend at work. So I should probably focus on improving that last bit!
- Even if producing and sustaining expert performance is most likely to come from working 50 hours a week, it absolutely does not mean that working 50 hours a week is at all likely to produce expert performance. The vast, vast majority of time, working long hours just means shoveling more crap; I have no doubt that that’s what’s going on almost all of the time when companies ask employees to put in crunch time.
When I put this all together, to me it leads to two recommendations:
- First, focus on being deliberate about producing great work. Constantly ask yourself and others how your work could be better, how your processes could be better, what the goals are that you should be striving for in the first place.
- Second, listen to your energy level. Producing something even on the small scale that you’re proud of can be very energizing: at its best, doing great work can lead to a feedback loop where you have more energy to do more great work. But once you push yourself too hard, then your work starts to dull; pay close attention to that shift.
I think that second point is where Romero’s obsession gives her a big edge: thinking about games and working on games clearly energizes her. I make a different set of choices, ones that are probably more similar to Johanna Rothman’s.
The Triad of Constraints
When producing something, you want to do it quickly, cheaply, and well; the Triad of Constraints claims that you can pick two out of three at best. To which Romero’s answer is refreshing: fuck picking two, just pick one, make it great.
As she also acknowledges: this can work if you’re producing your own games on your own time; when you’re working as part of a business, telling the people who control the budget that you’re going to ignore speed and cost doesn’t work so well.
I’m not sure that that works so well for me personally as a programmer, though. My focus is on evolving software through as small steps as possible, with an external Product Owner prioritizing the customer-visible features. That means that, at any stage, I want to have written software that’s as good as I can have written in that amount of time, while preserving the ability to continue to do so in the future.
So I’ll alter the triad in the opposite direction, by picking all three. I’m very self-centered, so from my point of view, the cost is generally fixed, it’s my salary, I’m not going to magically produce twice as much work or twice as good work if you pay me more. And I certainly agree with Romero that I want to produce great work. And then the scope is what it is: you’ll get a different product if you ask for the best I can produce in a week than the best I can produce in a year, but in any case you can pick the scope however you want. Or, to put it another way: the Triad of Constraints implicitly assumes that you’re making choices up front instead of evolving; why would I want to do that?
Of course, I’m just punting certain decisions over to a Product Owner; Romero is more the Product Owner herself. That’s the way to approach the control aspects that I discussed above in a way where I’m less dubious: deciding on the sequence and details of user-facing features is an important role, no question.
Works and Creation
She has a comeback to my evolutionary design boosterism: she has no patience for the concept of the Minimal Viable Product, whereas to me it seems like an obviously good step in an evolutionary design.
But I’ve spent my entire professional career on software that is designed to be used and grow over the course of years, even decades. This is very different from a more traditional sort of creative work: where you release a work into the world, let people experience it as a whole, and move on to producing your next work.
And I’m not nearly as convinced about Minimal Viable Products or evolutionary design in the creative work arena. When I’m reading a book, I don’t want to start by reading a minimal version of that book one month, then reading a slightly more fleshed out version a couple of months later, then reading a third version that retreats in some areas based on user feedback and moves in a different direction: I just want to pick up a book and read it. And the same goes for games, much of the time, though admittedly less universally these days.
This doesn’t mean that evolutionary design doesn’t work in a context of polished creative works: you can still produce them iteratively, you can still solicit feedback from a trusted close circle at frequent intervals. And, as she says: “what if I made something as good as I possibly could every frigging day?” That’s one of the lessons she learned from Jiro: he ships every night.
So we’re returning to what I said above: work in small steps without sacrificing quality. I combine this with handing scope decisions off to a third party; she is in charge of scope, and she works in an industry where the scope that you choose for a product when it is released externally is a crucial decision.
Or at least next steps: I like evolution, after all!
One is that I should work harder to be doing my best during the times when I am working on something. If I’m spending the time on something, why not spend the time being focused and doing the best work I can? If I’m not going to do that, it’s probably better to not spend that time: instead, spend the time in a way that lets me get my energy back so that I can focus later.
And the other is that I should seek out greatness more. I’ve worked with one person whom I consider unquestionably great; or at least I worked in a startup that he cofounded, we rarely interacted at all. But, even so: those few interactions were incredibly energizing. (I was talking about those interactions with a friend of mine a couple of months ago, she said she’d rarely heard me sound so excited.) I should try to find more of that; I should try to deserve being around more of that.