Over the past month, I've been working hard on our business plan's second iteration. We've accomplished a lot in our first year and things look very promising for the future. Writing a business plan helps an entrepreneur flesh out various concepts, including one's core competency and niche market. We illustrate in great detail what makes LavaBlast such a great software company for franchisors and the process of writing it down made me wonder about what made improved my software engineering talents, personally. Luckily for you, this post is not about me personally but rather an element of my childhood that impacted my career.
I don't recall exactly how old I was when I received an 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) for Christmas, but I do remember playing it compulsively (balanced with sports like baseball, soccer and hockey!). The first game I owned was Super Mario Bros but I later obtained its successors to augment my (fairly small) cartridge collection. For the uninitiated, the NES does not incorporate any functionality to allowing saving the player's progress. Countless hours were spent playing and replaying the same levels, allowing me to progress to the end of the game and defeating my arch-nemesis, Bowser.
I enjoyed the time during which I played video games and it irritates me to hear people complaining about how video games will convert their children into violent sore-loser bums. In any case, I'd rather focus on the positive aspects of playing Super Mario Bros and other video games during my childhood. Just like mathematics develops critical thinking and problem solving skills, I strongly believe these video games influenced my personality to a point where they are probably defined my career. Disclaimer: I don't play video games that much anymore, but over the last year, I did purchase a Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS Lite because I love the technology and the company's vision.
Quality #1: Persistence
Some people say I am a patient person, but I would beg to differ. I have trouble standing still intellectually, and although it is a strength in my industry, it isn't the best personality trait :) However, I am VERY persistent. I will attempt solving a problem over and over until I find a solution. Although I don't experience many painful programming situations on a daily basis, I very rarely give up on any programming problems. If I can't solve the problem immediately, it will keep nagging at me until I find a solution. A direct parallel can be traced with playing the Super Mario Bros series where the whole game had to be played over and over again to make any progress. (Anyone else remember trying to jumper over a certain gap in the floor in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES game only to fall in the gap and have to climb back up again?) The games helped me train my persistence, a tool which any entrepreneur must use every day.
Quality #2: Pattern Recognition
Software engineering is all about pattern recognition. Refactoring the code to increase reuse, extracting behavioural patterns inside the strategy design pattern, creating object inheritance trees, or writing efficient algorithms based on observed patterns. I feel pattern recognition is one of my strengths, since I can easily see commonalities between seemingly different software problems. I believe this skill was refined by playing various video games, because the the player must observe the enemy's behaviour in order to succeed. In some games, agility doesn't really matter: it's all about knowing the pattern required to defeat the enemy (to the point where it sometimes become frustrating!). The most challenging parts of video games is when the game deliberately trains you to believe you'll be able to stomp an enemy by using a particular technique but, to your surprise, the technique fails miserably. You need to adapt to your environment, and think outside the box.
Quality #3: Creativity
Mathematicians and software engineers are creative thinkers, more than the uninitiated might think. I see software as a form of art, because of its numerous qualities that are hard to quantify. Software creators are artists in the sense that regardless of their level of experience, some will manage to hit the high notes while others could try their whole lifetime without attaining the perfect balance of usability, functionality, performance, and maintainability. Playing a wide breadth of video game styles lets you attack different situations with a greater baggage. I'm not totally sure how putting Sims in a pool and removing the ladder or shooting down hookers in Grand Theft Auto helped me in my day-to-day life, but it was still very entertaining :) The upcoming Spore game is very appealing to me because it combines creativity with pattern recognition, thanks to generative programming. If you haven't heard about this game, I recommend you check it out immediately!
Quality #4: Speedy reactions
At LavaBlast, such as in many other software startups, it is critically important that all developers be fast thinkers. Indeed, when your core expertise is production, as opposed to research and development, you need to be able to make wise decisions in a short period of time. Personally, I can adapt to the setting (research environment versus startup environment) but my strength is speedy problem solving and I consider myself a software "cowboy". By combining my knowledge of of how to right reusable and maintainable code with my good judgement of what battles are worth fighting, I can quickly come up with appropriate solutions, given the context. In video games, the player needs to react quickly to avoid incoming obstacles while staying on the offensive to win the game. Of course, the mental challenges we face in our day-to-day lives of developing software is much more complex than what we encounter playing video games (which trains physical reaction time), but there is still a correlation between the two tasks.
Quality #5: Thoroughness
What differentiates a good software engineer from a plain vanilla software developer is their concern for quality software, across the board. Software quality is attained the combined impact of numerous strategies, but testing software as you write it, or after you change it, is critical. For the uninitiated, a popular methodology is to test BEFORE you write code. In any case, this talent can also be developed by video games such as the classic Super Mario World (SNES) where the player tries to complete all 96 goals (72 levels) by finding secret exits. Reaching thoroughness requires the player to think outside the typical path (from left to right) and look around for any secret locations (above the ceiling). Finding secret exits is akin to achieving better code coverage by trying atypical scenarios.
Quality #6: Balance
Playing Super Mario Bros as a child helped me develop a certain sense of balance between my various responsibilities (school) and entertainment activities (sports, games, social activities). If you're spending 16 hours a day playing World of Warcraft or performing sexual favors in exchange for WoW money, your mother is right to think that you have a problem. Launching a software startup is a stressful experience, and it helps to be able to wind down with a beer and a soothing video game. A quick 20min run on a simple game before bed can work wonders! Of course, it is no replacement for sports or social activities, but it sure beats dreaming about design patterns.
In my opinion, there are two major qualifies that video games don't impact. Having these two qualities is a requirement to becoming a good software engineer. First, video games do not help you interpret other people's needs. Second, video games do not help you communicate efficiently. What does? Experience, Experience, Experience. Being able to deal with people on a daily basis is mandatory, and the video games I played as a child did not help. However, this statement may no longer be true! Today, many massively multiplayer online games require good collaboration and organizational skills. Furthermore, the new generation of gaming consoles are using the Internet to allow people to play together.
Furthermore, I find games like the new Super Mario Galaxy (Wii) very interesting for future mechanical engineers. Indeed, the game presents a three-dimensional environment in an novel way, training the brain to think differently about three-dimensional space. You have to play the game to understand, but because the camera is not always showing Mario in the same angle, you have to get a feeling of the environment even if you don't see it (you're on the opposite side of a planet) or are upside down on the southern hemisphere. I can imagine children and teenagers playing the game today will have greater facility to imagine an object from various perspectives, while in studying physics or mechanical engineering in university.
In conclusion, I admit my whole argument can be invalided by saying that I played these types of games because I was inherently inclined to the software engineering profession, but the commonalities are still interesting to review! What are your thoughts on the subject? What do you think drove you to this profession (or drove you away)?
Legal Disclaimer: Did you know that the usage of the title of "software engineer" is much more regulated in Canada than it is in the United States? Although I detain a bachelor's degree in software engineering, and a master's degree in computer science which focused on requirements engineering, I can currently only claim the title of "junior engineer", as I recently joined the professional order.
Follow up: powerrush on DotNetKicks informed me that I'm not the only one who feels games influence software engineers.