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Breaking In - Jay Spang

There are a lot of people working on Destiny. The team that we've assembled to make this game is larger and more talented than any group of developers that Bungie has ever called their own.{{more}} As exciting as this may be, all those people writing code does create new challenges for us. Fortunately, to make sure all that code lands in the same place, we have people like this guy…

Who are you, and what do you do at Bungie?

I’m Jay, and I’m a Release Engineer. Exactly what that is depends on who’s asking. If it’s my parents asking, I just tell them I’m a developer. It’s simpler that way. For those of you who are reasonably tech savvy, a Release Engineer does a lot of support development and administration to facilitate the actual release of software. At Bungie specifically, I do source-code integrations. When two engineers edit the same file, I have to merge the two changes together (or decide whose changes to stomp).

You sound like an orchestral conductor, keeping us in synchronicity. When people finally play Destiny, where will they spot your fingerprints on the sheet music?

My work is pretty abstract from the actual shippable game. I get excited about nerdy things like automated integrations, complex revision graphs, and faster development iteration. 

We’ll chalk you up as another unsung hero from the development floor in that case.  When you’re not helping our engineers to work in concert, where does life take you?

I like reading nerdy Sci-Fi books (anything with a spaceship on the cover), playing video games (I just finally beat Heart of the Swarm and am looking to start up the new Bioshock), and outdoorsy things like hiking/biking/camping (preferably in the rain, I’m from Seattle after all). Oh, and I like shooting aliens in the face.

Shooting aliens in the face seems like a requisite skill here.  Did you always fancy yourself a guardian of humanity? What did you see yourself doing when you were your younger self?

A rock star / racecar driver / baseball player. Motion Sickness and Bad Knees made two of those impossible. I practice my singing whenever I’m in the car though. I’m getting pretty good!

With the exception of Bungie Karaoke night, what happens in the car, stays in the car. Okay? Since there is no such thing as Rock Star University, what sort of learning did you seek out?

High School Diploma, no college degree. I take night classes at a local community college, but at this point in my career, it’s more for personal fulfillment than a job. I’m currently interested in studying English Literature or History or some equally un-marketable skill.

Very interesting.  Since you’re self-taught in the fine art of source-code integration, where did you pick up your skills?

I was a Release Engineer at a web company before this. Before that, I was an Xbox tester (my name is in the credits of a certain racing game for the first Xbox).  And, before that I worked at various retail jobs like Costco. My first job was at a video arcade though, so I’ve had gaming in my career from the start!

Since it’s not likely that your experience with coin-op games was relevant to the work we do, what single experience do you think prepared you the most to tackle the challenges that we face?

I think it was a combination of two things. First, I’ve worked in the industry in the past as an entry level tester, which isn’t difficult to get into, but is very difficult to advance at. Second, I spent a great deal of time doing source code integrations at a previous job. I was able to effectively automate myself out of that particular task, which I’m sure sounded very appealing to the hiring managers at the time! It’s all about specialization.

What was your strategy for proving that you were special enough to be a good candidate for Team Bungie?

I submitted it with a 2lb bag of Peanut Butter M&Ms. Who doesn’t love those things?!

[Disclaimer: Bungie has a strict policy against distributing food sent to our studio from unknown sources. Not everyone supports our goal of world domination, after all. Please don’t ship us candy.  M’kay?]

Moving right along, after your attempt to poison our hiring managers, how did you survive your interview at Bungie?  What would you say was the hardest part?

White-boarding complex coding problems. I’m terrible at explaining my thought process, so I’m pretty sure I sounded like an idiot while drawing pretty flow charts on the whiteboard. I guess my artistic talent won them over!

We do love some white board art here. Aside from creating amazing graffiti that lives on our wall for one whole day (if it’s lucky), what makes Bungie a great place to work?

Being excited about the project we’re working on. I love seeing demos of the new stuff the cinematics or audio or graphics guys are working on. I can’t wait until Destiny is released and we can share the hard work we’re doing with the whole world.

There many days between that day and today. Take one of them, and describe how you might spend it.

I come in around 10am. I have some oatmeal and coffee for breakfast, and start catching up on e-mail. Around lunchtime, I take a quick trip to the gym just next door, and then on the way back, I grab a sandwich from one of downtown Bellevue’s 50 sandwich shops. Sometime around 2-3pm, the Guy Who Sneezes Really Loud does his thing, and the whole studio applauds (seriously, that guy rules). Then I have an afternoon snack of string cheese, crackers, or a bag of chips along with an afternoon coffee. About 4:30, the oatmeal and coffee catches up to me so I disappear for about 15 minutes. Dinner usually arrives around 6pm, so if I plan on staying late, I hover by the kitchen area so that when the dinner bell is rung, I can be one of the first in line. Usually I go home by 6:30 or 7, where I immediately VPN back in and keep working (while playing video games) until bed time around 1AM.

Snacks and bodily functions off the record, what’s the hardest thing about the work you do for us?

Untangling a particularly knotty (not naughty) source code conflict. Engineers A and B edited a file in one location while Engineer C moved it to another folder and Engineer D deleted it altogether. What do you do? Oh, and you have to do it in 10 minutes or you’ll miss a very critical deadline.

It sounds like you need to be pretty cool under pressure. Is there something we do that helps to keep you in that zone?

All the free t-shirts we get. It has two upsides:
1) When I’m out-and-about, random people say “you work for Bungie? That’s awesome!” and high five me. I love high fives.
2) I don’t have to do laundry as much. I hate doing laundry.

If you don’t mind some advice, your Dead Orbit shirt could use a spin cycle. Of all the sweat that you’ve invested in the development of Destiny, what has been the sweetest payoff?

The first time I stayed up late to finish a complex integration and the test team brought me a six pack of beer the next day. It really made me feel appreciated. You love me, you really do!

They probably just stole that from the beer fridge, but it’s the thought that counts.  Right?  What’s your master plan for how you intend to earn your next six pack?

I try to keep on top of new technologies, languages, and frameworks. The key to future-proofing your career is diversifying your skill set!

Not everyone has the ability to teach themselves how to understand code.  Your story is rare for that reason. What sound advice would you offer to someone who is embarking on their own personal exploration of this industry?

Find something and become the best there is at it. Being a Jack of All Trades usually implies “and master of none”. If you can convince an employer that you’re the best <insert very specific skill> in the region, you’re in!

Nothing’s ever gonna keep you down, Jay. Please sweep the leg of this last question: Experience, Work Ethic, or Talent?  Rank them in order of importance to your role.

Experience, then Work Ethic, then Talent. A talented super star isn’t going to get anything done if he surfs the internet all day long. Conversely, a wealth of experience (and a good work ethic) can make up for any lack of talent you might have.

There’s no telling what Engineers A, B, C, or D might be doing right this minute, so we need to end this conversation right here and (wait for it) release Jay to his work. With so many people on our development floor, the stories for how to make video games for a living are as varied as the people themselves. If you’d like to shop for a path that fits your specific passions, check out the Breaking In archive.
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