Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Third Computer Programming Job - 1995 - 1997 - Welcome to Illinois

My Arrival To Illinois

As stated before, I found a gig in Buffalo Grove, IL.  For those not in the know, I was born and raised in Illinois... from 1969 until the 7th grade in 1983.  I lived in Riverside and Lake Forest until my dad found a new job in Southern California and relocated all of us.  So coming back to Illinois wasn't totally unexpected and I still had some relatives and distant / vague friends in the Midwest.

People ask me why I went to cold and dank Illinois from beautiful Southern California.  I still answer: for a job and a change.  Southern California is beautiful and has a lot going for it, but it has also a LOT of negatives and I got to the point where the negatives outweighed the positives.  I believe everyone needs to make that judgement call for themselves.  Mine came in 1995 and I have absolutely no regrets about my decision.  Sure the winters sucked, but life goes on....

The company that I fell in with was huge.  They have businesses in all forms of entertainment, mostly television and cable channels.  They also owned amusement parks, movie production studios, a video store chain, as well as liquor.  They had about 100 or so people in the Buffalo Grove office and our primary existence was to take their intellectual properties and make computer games out of them.  Some had been successful, while others, not so much.

Either way, they paid 100% for my move, put me up in the Marriott Suites in Deerfield Illinois for a week until my stuff arrived from California.  24 hours after landing I went to the Glenview Saturn dealership and bought a car - I had looked at a Saturn in Santa Maria, CA but I fell in love with it after driving it.  Plus Consumer Reports gave it a best buy.  Best car I've ever owned (I'd wind up driving it until 2010 and it was still running great then).

I suddenly had a very much needed, new lease on life...

Life in Illinois

I had rented an apartment site-unseen on the corner of Smith and Dundee in Palatine.  I don't know how I got lucky but it turned out to be a nice place.  I just saw the picture in a catalog and the price seemed good enough so I called and did everything by the phone (again no apartments.com).  I was really fortunate; it could've been a disaster.  I wound up living there for about 18 months...

I was still doing the country music thing and Illinois actually had two country bars that I would frequent with some regularity.  The Sundance Saloon in Wauconda (which has since moved to Waukegan),and the Cadillac Ranch in Bartlett.  I had some success in dating for a change. I suspect the change had more to do with me: I was 3000 miles away from "home" and I was more independent and confident.  I ditched the glasses and found a set of contacts that I could actually wear without wanting to rip my eyeballs out.  I also ditched cable TV, which forced me to seek entertainment anywhere but in front of the idiot box.  I also didn't have home Internet.  So I was really were forced to find entertainment and subsequently I was always on the "go".  I'd get up early, go to work, do my thing, and come back late at night having lived a full day.  I'd go fishing or hiking all weekend and just be plain busy.  I didn't have time to be bored.

I also quickly made friends from a variety of sources.  I was finally getting somewhere in my ability to meet and have lasting friendships with people. Within a few months I had a large piece of paper with people's phone numbers on it (outside of work).  I went fishing in St Charles, hiking in Starved Rock, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana.  I attended White Sox games and people's family gatherings who I hadn't known just a few months before.  I even got an occasional date... so things were definitely looking up, especially compared to my social life in Santa Barbara.

The Job

The job that I went to had awesome benefits, great pay, discounts at major retailers, etc.  I had my own office, with a door, telephone and spacious conditions.  There was an onsite gym, showers, Karate classes after work, basketball courts, a suite with Nintendos and Playstations with every imaginable game.  An arcade room (with actual coin-op games) -- just super nice working conditions.  When I arrived, I felt like "wow, now I am getting somewhere"

I was put on a game that was being developed for the Playstation, which was just coming out at that point.  You may ask yourself, "I didn't know you had PS1 experience".  Well, up until that point, I hadn't.  The only thing I had developed for was DOS using Pascal and C.  

So suddenly I was throw in an unfamiliar environment.  To compound matters, the documentation for the PS1 was spotty.  Much of it was translated Japanese.  They had plenty of examples to work from, but the comments in between the lines of code as to what they were trying to accomplish were, as you might've guessed, in Japanese.  

Keep in mind that this was before StackOverflow and other sites, so mostly I was on my own in terms of learning, and I struggled mightily.  One of my first tasks was to figure out how to play a movie on the Playstation, look for ways we could possibly reverse engineer it to do things that other companies could not as well as to make a new encoding program so that we could generate movies in hours, rather than days (the existing Windows program for the PS1 took about 24 - 36 hours to render a minute long movie).  It was rather vague requirements but I dove into it as best as I could while the other developer ran with developing the rest of the game.

For a guy whose toughest task up to that point in my career had been to program the ability for a restaurant to split checks, this was daunting and I spent several months stepping through non-Intel assembly language dumps, figuring out DCT algorithms, and how to encode BMPs into an MPEG.  I was completely out of my element and from all of my estimations I was failing.

I wasn't terribly happy working in this role and once we had gone as far as we could with the MPEG encoder (we actually did get one to generate movies in hours, rather than days) I got some small tasks like the save / restore screen, but mostly I was relegated to a few other research projects and quietly pushed aside so the head developer could complete the game.  

For some reason, they did like me, it would seem.  I got a mini promotion and a nice bonus / raise.  I am not sure why.  I was learning, but I wasn't accomplishing much.  I suspect they saw me as an investment, as computer programmers were suddenly in demand: salaries were suddenly skyrocketing and finding the right person was becoming more of a challenge.  I heard rumors of what people were making at this place and suddenly the light went on: the more I knew, the more I could make.

At this point Java came out, and I was given a research project to convert one of our games.  While I never finished my game, this is the Game I started.  Whether they used any of my stuff is another question (my guess is probably not, but I did get it to work in a crude format).  I quickly dove into Java and loved it, despite Java having a lot of bugs and incompatibilities in its first rendition.  I bought a TON of books on the subject and came up to speed pretty easily. I just about bought any book that came out with Java on it.  It was refreshing to be on the cutting edge of something and seeing it through.  This knowledge would actually pay great dividends three years later, but again I digress.

I also learned MFC / Windows programming and was put on a small project that was going to used in the now defunct Westwood Studios Online.

While it may sound like I was busy and happy, I wasn't.  When I wasn't stuck, I had very little to do and I spent a great deal of time reading.  There was also a long period after the Playstation game where I was on no one's team.  So I'd go to work, check in with someone (sometimes), be told to sit tight and come back tomorrow.  Suffice to say, that my lunches got longer to the point where I was in the office for a few hours a day, if that.  And sadly, I think I mostly fell off the radar there and wondered half the time if I didn't even come in, would anyone notice? (Answer: no)

The End

I knew the job wasn't what I wanted soon after arriving there.  After about 8 months I dropped a hint to someone that I wasn't happy and was considering looking.  Turns out that I needed to read the fine print on the moving clause.  I discovered I had to stick it out for a year or pay my moving costs.  I wound up sucking it up for another year.

I really wanted to be working on something and the long wait in between projects was killing me.  Every now one would materialize but after seeing the track record of the previous projects and the way they were handled I knew they would never see the light of day.  We (or I should say the lead programmer and project manager) would gather ideas for a week or two or three on a particular project idea.  Ultimately it required major staffing, major funding, and license acquisitions and eventually someone would put the kabosh on it and we'd be back at square one.  Also people were starting to think about building online games and have it ready in a year, with 2 programmers and one artist, only.  Nuts.  Either way, multiply this over the course of a few months and you'll realize why I nearly lost my sanity.  

To make matters worse, the parent company was starting to make noise about selling the entire unit off. Strangers would come in, look at the offices, analyze the talent, and hushed meetings would occur.  Rumors of layoffs were abound.

It was time to move on.

I did interview at a major financial institution.  I didn't get the job and thank goodness I didn't.  It looked horrible and knew it the minute I walked into the place.  I think I purposefully failed their financial test that they gave out so I wouldn't have to deal with it.  To this day, I've never really gotten a good lead from a head hunter and I suspect that is the reason why: they are pushing jobs that nobody wants.  

I also almost got a job at a computer reseller.  The interview went really well but for some reason the job never materialized.  I did finally get a job, by chance when I took a walk, and that story I will tell in Chapter 4.



The year and half I was there was perhaps the most frustrating and agonizing of my career.  I worked with some incredibly talented people there -- some of the smartest and most inspiring computer "gods" I've ever had the privilege of working with.  Sadly it wasn't the right place for me in the long run.

However, my life suddenly felt on track: I had a girlfriend and had a strong social circle.  I really loved living in Illinois: the sports, the fishing, good eats, money in the bank, country bars that weren't an hour away, ample job opportunities... the only thing that didn't fall into place was the job.  Exactly the opposite of what I had in Santa Barbara.

In closing, I had always wondered how the Playstation game I had worked on had done (I never heard anything about it after it was released).  I remember looking at a Playstation magazine in a bookstore about a year or two later which reviewed all the existing Playstation games.  I picked it up, thumbed through it and found my game.  I'll paraphrase here and it pretty much sums up those tough years:

"Shooters come a dime a dozen in the Playstation world, but this one is the worst.  Frustrating, unforgiving, and just plain not fun. Avoid"

And next to it was an abysmally bad score (like less than 20 out of a 100).  Sadly even during the brief testing I had done, I could hardly play it for more than 5 minutes without feeling the exact same way...

You can read another review by going here: Gamespot Review  Please don't ridicule me about it.

Life would get better, but that story I will tell in Chapter 4.

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