Two weeks ago now the Internet lost their collective minds when my former boss Alex St. John wrote an article that made the claim that working 80 hours in the games industry shouldn’t compare themselves to slaves. Then folks discovered his previous writings, and even his daughter wrote a Medium think-slash-hit piece. (which you’ll find this article doesn’t exactly disagree with).
I started writing an angry retort, but I was pulled away with Boy Scouts, yard work and a few family and school things, not to mention normal work. This turned out to be the best thing, because I have had time to mull this concept over and really break down the real issues as I experienced them working for the man himself, and seeing his Recruiting Giants philosophy in action first hand.
The background, I worked for “The Saint” from 1999 – 2002 at Wildtangent. I was one of the first 20 employees. I was fresh off closing up my IT consulting firm. I started doing QA and the IT tasks and pretty quickly ended up being just IT, I ended up having a department built up around me. I was the helpdesk manager, and acting director at a couple of points.
Let’s knock out the caveats: these are 15 year old memories, I’m a different person than I was 15+ years ago, and I’m sure I’ll be remembering all sorts of things wrong. I also wasn’t in game development. I was IT in a game company, which is its own type of insanity. I’m writing this article now as the father of a 12 year old neurotypical daughter (the PC term for a “normal” kid when you have one with autism) and a 10 year old son with Asperger’s. (Yes I know the DSM-V, but people know what I’m talking about when I say Asperger’s.)
When you read Alex’s screed on hiring giants it comes off as cocky and insensitive. I won’t deny it is extremely demeaning towards people on the autism spectrum and sexist as all hell. What doesn’t come through is that for the folks on the spectrum the environment of Wildtangent was fantastic. There were a heap of them, folks on the spectrum, a phrase which would have caused a few of them to correct me.
(I often speak in Texas style exaggerations and I’d say “It is a million degrees out there!” and one of them would correct me “If it were a million degrees you’d be dead.” I once said we were about to be buried in old phone gear, and immediately had to shout “it is a figure of speech, don’t correct me!”)
The people of the spectrum enjoyed an environment where everything they needed was provided. They had food, caffeine, the latest gadgets and a good environment where they were forced to interact with other people and learn social norms. As the father of a child on the spectrum this is something I work hard on now with him. These guys would do odd things, but there were enough neurotypical folks around to chide the others when they did things that were inappropriate.
I’m not going to go into a lot of detail, but sword/Nerf/fire extinguisher fights in the hall fell under “acceptable, rarely.” Scratching your ass and smelling your hand, would and did get one called out.
The hours were long, insanely long. For the bulk of the time at WT I managed the helpdesk, which was inherently reactive. We were there to troubleshoot for the entire company, but most of our time was spent with QA, Engineering and Sales. We tried to staff to cover 80% of the day with three of us, with a couple of us carrying a pager. There was lots of downtime, and tons of fun things to do while waiting. Engineering waited on art, art waited on the designers, QA waited on everything. When WT crunched IT crunched with them. I remember having a talk with Paul Steed (RIP man) at 2am about work ethic, he told me I worked too much because he always saw me there. I said the same thing about him.
Food was provided, and in the early days it showed up at dinner time, subtly implying that you should eat and get back to work, with the Puget Sound sun long since set. When we moved to the new building they moved the free meal to lunch time, and it shortened the work day quite a bit initially.
So we’d work hard, make neat things, I would squeeze every drop of life I could out of the hardware we had to save money since we were in funding mode. We had a ton of fun, playing games, talking and killing time while waiting for deliverables. My wife was a ‘WT’ widow for a lot of the time. One weekend when I had initially asked for the weekend off, (it might have been my anniversary now that I think about it) but ended up working for 72 hours straight rewiring the entire office and wiring in a new annex. WT bought my wife a fruit basket as a thank-you. Shades of that you can see in The Saint’s writings. (page 3)
Okay it is killer hours, but not exactly like the 80 hour weeks I pulled on the ranch when I was 16. The bad part had to do with women and how they were treated. Alex treated them fantastically (from what I could tell), they were often promoted quickly. The problem arose from having a mostly male work force that had no idea how to handle themselves with, around or near women. I rather quickly quit bringing my wife to WT events unless I know other WT wives would be there. Women at WT were treated like a gazelle that stumbled into the lion enclosure.
Again, not by the administration, but I’m sure the HR department had their hands full. Except in once instance. IT had our own issues. We had two women in our department and one was a rock-star DBA who knew her stuff inside and out. The other had crammed the A+ test and had no idea what the difference was between VNC and using dual monitors was. When it came time to get rid of the dead-weight in the department I was stopped because a director level person was “banging the hot one.”
The organization wasn’t immune to crony-ism – my department had the highest peer reviews, but our C level exec (fuzzy memories here, she might have been a VP level) lowered our rating “because it would lower the morale of her engineers.” Then she brought in her guys from her folding dot-com to do IT, and I was out the next round of lay-offs.
Alex was larger than life, especially compared to me, I am 5’4, he towered over me. He has a booming laugh, and a child-like love of gaming, technology and life itself. I was caught up in the dot-com rush, and the promise of Yahoo or Lycos level money (Google wasn’t even a thing then, and now one even knows what Lycos is.) I was a bit caught up in Alex’s cult of personality, but he had realistic goals, and the most important thing is that he was there. If Alex wasn’t there, he was out pounding the pavement to drum up funding.
He can give a rousing speech, and I still remember the speech after the first round of lay-offs. But the key thing is, he isn’t asking folks to work 80+ hours a week for him, in my experience he was asking people to work an 80+ hour week with him. I was overweight and it was killing me, so he bet me 1000 shares of the company that he could lose 60 pounds before I could. We had a blast sabotaging him, the man loves peanut butter.
The way he says things may rub people the wrong way, but he believes them, and lives it, and as I hope I’ve laid out above – for a certain type of person it actually makes for a good environment. Only once in my entire work history have I ever gone to a boss and said “It is him or me” and Alex chose me, and fired the sales guy. (A year later the sales guy called and apologized for being an ass, but that is a story for a different day.) For that alone I’ll always love the big guy.
The bigger issue:
People on the ASD spectrum are being ignored. They have some abilities that border on super powers when it comes to handling repetitive tasks. Alex sees the value in those people and created a terrarium for them. He just phrases it in his comic book supervillian style.
Let’s phrase this same concept in a non-inflammatory way:
When hiring those who are on, or may potentially be on the spectrum: recognize that they bring a unique set of skills, pay them a living wage, staff them with people who know that they are about to be part therapist and part boss. Then expect great things. They can and will amaze you.
The bottom line:
Am I glad I worked at WildTangent under Alex – hell yeah! I learned a ton about myself, about hard work, about dealing with people on the ASD spectrum which has helped immensely as a parent of one.
Would I work for another Alex St. John company – hell no! I’m 40, that is for the young. Think of it as basic training for the rest of your work life. My current job is fantastic, I work 40 hours a week with no call or weekend work. I spend tons of time with my kids, so hopefully no Medium think-slash-hit piece is in my future written by my daughter.
Would I want my kids to work for The Saint? My daughter, no no no no no no no. She’s smart, funny and I’ve sheltered the hell out of her, she’d be able to handle a building full of guys like her brother, but why should she have to? My son yes, he’s on the spectrum, he’d love the environment, he’d make lifelong friends. He’d be a better man for it.