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Human After All

Hello all! My name’s Alisa and I’m an undergraduate student who interned at Bungie this past summer. But getting there was quite the journey: Like many other students during the pandemic, I reached a point where my mental health, motivation, and confidence were at rock bottom. Interviews and applications led nowhere, all while I mindlessly logged into class from my bed. During that time, Bungie sent me a take-home programming test for their internship program. I was ecstatic to be given this chance, but the anxiety and dread immediately settled in. I pictured a round table of super geniuses, meticulously reading my code and jotting down every single flaw.

In the games industry, it’s undeniable that there are millions of talented creators and developers, many of whom become our idols. It’s natural to compare yourself to the people who created your favorite games (and feel completely inadequate afterwards). Sure, everyone needs to start somewhere, but how do you know when you’ve become “good enough” to join your role models?

In this post, I want to briefly discuss my personal journey of building my confidence as an engineer and as an undergrad student who had the privilege to intern here at Bungie this past summer. And specifically, how low confidence and anxiety affected the work I did and why it’s crucial to foster a supportive work environment for the sake of people’s mental wellbeing.

Impostor Syndrome – No One is Safe

Lots of people throw the phrase “impostor syndrome” around, especially when it comes to younger people who struggle with finding what they’re “good” at or where they “belong.” How do we break this cycle of self-doubt? It’s an expected obstacle for new hires and students, but it doesn’t have to stop us from succeeding!

As these tech blogs are meant to provide insight into the many trials and tribulations that our developers face, I’d like to explore this common struggle that is applicable within all our lives. Whether it be school, work, or daily life, we are constantly comparing ourselves with others, for better or for worse, and your favorite game developers are not immune—even at Bungie!

The Interview

My low confidence sabotaged any motivation I had to finish Bungie’s take-home assignment and I handed in my solution two weeks late. I fully knew that I had shot myself in the foot and showed everyone that I couldn’t finish tasks on time. I didn’t even reach my solution with ease. To my dismay, I needed to relearn basic CS concepts that I’d already covered in freshman year because I had forgotten so much. After submitting a brute force solution, making corrections, and submitting a final optimized solution, I grew even more disappointed and upset at myself for everything; for forgetting everything I’d learned in school, for wasting my recruiter’s time for submitting late, and for failing to even conjure up my initial, un-optimized answer without struggling greatly. I continued to spiral into my ever-growing rabbit hole of self-hatred.

A few days passed. I was sure I would never hear from Bungie again… until I did! They wanted to schedule an interview with me. Me?! The same sense of dread and anxiety bubbled up every time an interview came up. I felt like I barely scraped by with my take-home programming test, I couldn’t believe that I passed. Now that I had to prove myself all over again, I couldn’t help but conjure up scenarios where I messed up so badly that my interviewers would never want to talk to me again. I wanted to give up. After all, there were hundreds of other more qualified applicants, right?

I Have to Actually do Something?!

Nevertheless, the interviews began. To keep my head above water, I desperately had to escape the mindset of “if I say something stupid, my interviewer will grab me through the screen, shake my body as they shame me, then ban me from the entire industry.” Really, the worst-case scenario would be receiving a gentle rejection email. In the end, I powered through my anxiety and finished all my interviews, sweaty and red-faced.

Expectedly, interviews are like any other test and come with their own set of consequences and stressors. But at this rate, if I were to survive “real life” and its many application processes, I needed to rethink the high-stakes mindset that made interviewing so daunting, even for a temporary moment. Teaching myself to lower the stakes in times of overwhelming pressure helped boost my morale and attitude; as a result, interviews became much more approachable, and less like a death sentence.

When my recruiter called me to offer the internship, I was ecstatic, but I still couldn’t believe Bungie wanted me! I almost asked, “Are you sure? Is it really ok if I say yes?” While I was overjoyed, my anxiety warped the internship into a three-month long interview to measure how well I would do. My own self-sabotage was never-ending, and I continually tortured myself by turning everything into a test.

Prior to the internship, James Haywood, a senior tools engineer, (you may have read his recent blog post!) sent me an email welcoming me to Bungie, noting that he was “looking forward to hearing about all the awesome improvements” that I’d be making to Destiny’s tools. Both fear and excitement hit me; I knew I would be doing work… but “real” work? Wouldn’t they just give me some filler intern project to waste away the summer? As a student, if I did a bad job on my homework, that was on me. I never had hundreds of people rely on me to improve their quality of life and workflow before! They really trusted me to make full-fledged changes that would go live to the whole company?!?

The Project

Sometime during the first couple weeks of my internship, it grew clear to me that Bungie’s priority was to teach me, not test me. My team wasted no time welcoming me, and even at their busiest, they never failed to make time to help me out. Both my manager and mentor checked up on me regularly, not only to make sure I wasn’t blocked but also to give me a plethora of advice whenever I needed it the most. They built me up as they taught me core concepts, good habits, and helpful tips and tricks. As I continued onboarding and taking on small tasks, my team played a crucial role in building my confidence as a programmer.

By the end of June, I felt good enough to take on my overarching internship project: the animation preview panel. The plan was to add this panel into our world editor’s animation browser. When users select an animation, the panel would render a preview in real time. If this preview panel was a success, nearly 100,000 animations would be able to be rendered and previewed on the spot! This kind of feature would make it easier to iterate on and verify animations quickly, so I knew that it would be useful and appreciated! However, there were several uncertainties and potential blockers going into the project.

One of the most pressing questions was whether WPF (the UI framework used to build our tools applications) would be performant enough to handle complex animations. Rendering thousands of vertices within a mesh was out of the question for a summer project, so I focused on only rendering skeletal animations. For a character rig, this meant updating the transforms of ~70 bones every frame (at 30FPS), which seemed a lot more feasible than handling thousands of vertices.

Another obstacle was loading our 3D models and animations inside our tools codebase. While Destiny’s engine knows how to read and parse these animation files into our own intermediate data structures, the specific functionality I needed for the panel only existed in the engine and not yet in our tools code. This meant I needed to dig into the engine code to understand how to do the same thing within our tools, resulting in data we could use in WPF.

Despite the many “what-ifs” that could’ve thrown my entire summer plan off course, I realized my self-confidence was winning over my anxieties and I didn’t think twice about taking on this project. Of course, I knew I was going to be reliant on others to find my way to the finish line. While my mentor and manager didn’t have much experience with the animation browser, there were many colleagues who went above and beyond and helped me overcome obstacles and answered my questions. I learned that knowing when to ask for help is a great strength that ultimately served me in boosting my confidence throughout the project.

It’s Never the End of the World

In a way, I challenged myself with this project because I was desperate to prove to myself that yes, I deserve to be an engineer here, and yes, I could make a lasting impact that would help others. I knew my team already trusted and believed in me, so it was a matter of convincing myself of my own worth. Even if I completed the bare minimum of only loading the animation files into our tools and didn’t deliver the full panel itself, my work would’ve still been useful. Evidently, the subtle ways that my team and coworkers encouraged me resulted in developing a better attitude towards my work and myself. My entire team had my back, and I formed several meaningful relationships with my peers, which were all crucial factors for a healthier relationship with myself. I feel extremely lucky to have had that experience at Bungie, as not everybody gets the opportunity to be in a supportive work environment.

Ok… But What Does It All Mean?

In the end, you are ultimately in charge of how you perceive yourself and your own self-worth, but that doesn’t mean that external forces don’t play a role; especially being in an environment full of people who you think of as super-geniuses. It’s important to show everyone that they are welcomed and valued without basing their worth solely on the work that they do. You simply cannot measure people’s worth by how much they push themselves past their limits, or the amount of experience and knowledge they possess. Instead, it’s important to put your trust and support in them so they can be the best versions of themselves.

I want to be fully candid; the people who work at your favorite game studios are not gods. Not everyone here has a college degree in their field, and many of them switched into games mid-career. They are regular people just like us. When you’re in a studio full of people with diverse backgrounds and skillsets, comparing yourself with others becomes meaningless.

In these tech blogs, you will often see the technical struggles that Bungie developers go through in order to accomplish their goals. However, even if they’re not as visible, the mental and emotional struggles we all go through are just as valid. Impostor syndrome is a genuine problem that affects every one of us, but as you continue to navigate your life, remember that you’re not on this journey alone. I hope this blog inspires you to find new ways to recognize your worth, and to realize that there are people around you who aren’t just willing to help, they’re rooting for you to succeed.

- Alisa Chen

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