Self-Management leads to Self-Loathing

On January 29, 2009, in Opinion Pieces, by Steffen Itterheim

“Ok, we’ll do Scrum from now on. Team, you manage yourself now!”

Uhm … yeah.

This is exaggerated what i feel has happened to me personally. I say this because i can’t speak for the rest of the team i work with but i’m very certain that i’m not the only one feeling the effects.

What effects?

Like, feeling overwhelmed, for example. Needing someone who you can at least talk to, in an ideal case to share some work as well, in order to keep things in check. Managing everything that is thrown at you yourself … well, in my case, it eats away a lot of time and energy. I’ve tried both … reducing the self-management clearly doesn’t work and reducing the quality in my work isn’t satisfying either. However, either of the two have to suffer. Or both.

It’s not that i’ve had to do too much work to do. I certainly didn’t need to go into “crunch” mode. No. I’m talking about a different kind of stress that appears when you are trying to manage all sorts of requests and bug reports from all kinds of people on the team, sometimes even outside of the team, and then also trying to go about your normal (expected) line of work.

When i was looking for help, the typical response was “Please take care of that yourself.”. Yes, we are an empowered team. (but are we? after re-reading this, i have my doubts) … However, there are times when you need help, and you may not know how to express it other than crying for “Help!” in some way or another. You know, who is able to exactly say why things feel like they’re going out of control, at the moment the control is being lost? So yes, being told to take care of it yourself – it’s in a way correct and it works but it also offloads a shitload of responsibility to me that i wasn’t looking for, with no way to defend against it. Plus now i feel bad because i had to be told to clean up my own mess. Thanks mommy (not!), for the friendly reminder …

The work i do – on at least 4 major code components and tools – plus a little managing people on the side, is regularly too much weight to manage all by myself. I simply have too many open loose ends, or strings that could break any moment, sometimes also things that i ignored because there was no time but they keep coming back at the worst of times. Behind each of these ends and strings is more than just one stakeholder, any of which could approach me at any given moment in time. These open ends and lingering work and ghostly popping in of stakeholders creates a lot of ongoing tension and unease. There’s a lot of people asking for information or support from me because two of the things (Scripting, Database) i worked on are very central things for the work we do and are used by a lot of people. Roughly 20-30 at any given time. Add to that such hot topics as localization and the process to get it safely through translation, proofreading and correctly back into the database.

And now please tell me again why i don’t need a person who keeps these things away from me as long as possible. In other words: a filter, a gatekeeper, a human shield … an effective Scrum Master!

It’s all those daily little disturbances, questions, small requests, the different stakeholders at play and what not that really drain the energy from me pretty quickly. Plus it disturbes my concentration, and that is often key to getting anything but the basic stuff done with quality (remember: i’m a coder). So to cope, what i did is to drop quality (heya, Mr. Schwaber, sound familiar?). Unnoticeable at first but once you have one of those days where everything seems to be going downhill, there’s just no room for testing, following up, looking for alternate solutions. At times like these i basically stopped caring for the work i do. On the other hand, i never did, but occassionally i get asked by peers wether i still care about the work i do – which hurts even more because i do, i really do, it’s just … i can’t. It’s sometimes impossible to care because if i would, i would … go crazy!

Now this whole situation isn’t as dramatic as it may sound but for me personally, there are days where it really feels like the end of the world is upon me. While from the outside it may seem to work pretty well indeed, i can imagine. Sometimes i even get praise for doing the work so quickly, so effectively. And this praise fed to my self-loathing because it’s just not true. I mean, it’s not what i feel to be true. Little do they know … about the quality that is lost. About the missed opportunities. About … almost anything, i fear. Rightfully?

Well, it’s still praise but it feels like … damnation. And it’s not like i’m hiding anything. I can say what i do, and why i did it and i stand by it. I understand the psychology behind it. Luckily, by researching Scrum over Xmas i finally understood why it happened to me and how i should be able to solve it. Also, i’ve been working in teams before that worked well together with little outside disturbance. So it’s definetely possible.

Inside of me, i carry a little flaming ball of hatred for how we’re working that continuously gives off some energy that i try to transform into positive feedback for the things that work well, and the rest i take as incentive to change the things that don’t work.

If, from reading all of this, you have deduced that we either have Scrum Masters not doing the work that i believe they are supposed to do, or no Scrum Masters at all – you are correct. Both cases apply. I don’t blame it on them though, they are typically really great peers and do a great job … but i’m not sure they understood the importance of being Scrum Masters, or what they’re supposed to do, or maybe there’s other things keeping them from achieving true Scrum Mastery. It’s probably simply because most of them are managers and have a shitload of managing to do and just wish (*beg*) the team would work all by themselves. And the few Scrum Masters who are members of the team, they don’t even know what it means to be a Scrum Master. They haven’t been told. They got no training. They aren’t coached and mentored. The whole team never actually learned about Scrum. This is our number 1 mistake!

The good thing is: i may become a Scrum Master myself soon, and i know what i want to achieve, and i think i know how it can be achieved – and i’m ready to step onto some toes if need be. But most of all, i want to lead by example, and make it unmistakebly clear where our problems are and how i would go about solving them.

Because i have nothing to lose!

My New Year’s resolution – i haven’t told many people so far – is to make a difference in 2009. For the benefit of the team. If i fail, or the resistance is too high, or things change too slowly, or it drags me down too much – i’ll be looking for someplace else to work! End of 2009 will be the time for revisiting, and making a decision. This is the deadline i’m working towards.

But …. don’t get me wrong! I love my work. I love what we do, i think we have great talent in the team and many have the right mindset. We just don’t know how to get the most out of it. In some areas, we’re pretty much blind and deaf. Day-to-day work efforts make us miss opportunities for improving or executing long-term goals. I want to change that because i really want this, my job, the team, the work we do, to go forward. This fuels my little ball of flaming hatred. I see the wasteland before me. And i don’t want to have to decide to quit my job at the end of the year!

Through my experience from last year, or the last two years, i decided that my number one priority when working as a Scrum Master should be: shielding the team from outside influences. I will have to become the bad conscience to those who can’t be held back, just to raise awareness that this isn’t the normal way to do things anymore, it’s the exception!

On second place comes training, coaching, providing feedback – actually anything that raises awareness and allows the team to truely manage itself – making sure everyone is aware of how we work and why we work that way and accepts it even if some might not like it. About everything else, we can talk, and we should.

PS: check that Scrum Resources link to the left if you are curious to know what Scrum is and/or if you intend to learn more about it.

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Resident Evil Dead

On January 27, 2009, in Games, Opinion Pieces, by Steffen Itterheim

I’ve never been much of a Resident Evil player. So i wasn’t really looking forward to the new Resident Evil 5 demo on the Xbox 360. And honestly, i didn’t play it much, just enough to know that it’s not a game for me.

The demo just drops you right into the game, no tutorial or anything. Instead the demo expects you to get up to speed with one of the dreaded demo control scheme loading screens for a few seconds.

Ok, so i’m in the middle of nowhere, i walk for 20 meters, jump down a ledge, and enter a hut. CUTSCENE!

Yeah, i just played for 20 seconds and you make me watch a damn cutscene? Ok, it’s a japanese game, i should know better.

During this cutscene i watch someone getting beheaded (no, you don’t actually see the gory details). All around this scene there is a huge horde of enraged, red-eyed zombies ranting wildly. They look grim and even more aggressive than the Zombies of Left 4 Dead. Next, i am spotted and the zombie horde is directed to the hut i’m in.

My reaction: i’m in deep shit! What now, what now?

Uhm … nothing, actually. At least not for another minute or so as the zombies slowly crawl over the fence and scuffle around the building, not minding much that i shoot at them. What the … ? Where’s all the aggression? Gone?

And of course, after just 20 shots i run out of ammo. Ok, so it’s a game where ammo is sparse, i remember that. But which one is the melee button? Then the zombies enter the building. They surround me, slowly. There isn’t really much going on except for occassionally pressing B to help my teammate. But doom is inevitable and picking up ammo while being surrounded by zombies seems so … embarrassing.

In my book Resident Evil is one of those games that has outlived its zenith. It’s probably going to be a treat for all it’s fans and i’ll probably get flamed by this post if one of them happens to read it. But it won’t win any significant number of new players. It plays slow and it feels weird and inconsistent.

It’s now official: Resident Evil is the first game franchise gone hollywood of which i enjoy the movies a lot more than actually playing the game!

UPDATE: Penny Arcade’s Tycho has more experience with the game, and he seems to love it. So if you don’t share my view, read up on his “review”. Yin and Yang.

UPDATE #2: i’ve just read the latest EDGE (#200, gratz!) and they have this to conclude about Resident Evil 5: “The surprising, and sad, thing about Resident Evil 5 is that it feels old.” – giving it a 7 out of 10.

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On a handheld far before the DS …

On January 15, 2009, in Experiences, Games, by Steffen Itterheim

Aaaaah, the memories. Just today i found out that people actually care to put up footage of old Gameboy Color games on Youtube. And this is the first commercial game i’ve worked on, back in 1999!

Armorines – Project S.W.A.R.M.

It kinda looks and seems awful now but back then it was awesome! I’ve put a lot of thought into scripting the behavior of the enemies, those green jumper aliens for example. They actually try to charge at you if they’re at the right distance, they leap forward and when they are close to the player they’ll just try to run away with some zig-zag jumps. And if the player shoots at them they jump away at a 90° angle. It seemed pretty organic to me back then, i guess it seemed more random than anything to most people though. But … these were my first experiences creating what you might call AI!

Those were the days …

… and then came Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX! If i remember correctly i’ve written most of the design document over the course of 3 months. There really wasn’t much else to do at that time. I don’t remember exactly what the production hold-up was but the polish that went into the game design document payed off in the long run. Everything fell in place almost naturally and the team was so excited about this game, everyone put their best efforts in.

Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX

I’ve basically scripted 99% of the frontend and ingame menus of this game. That included designing the screen layouts and flow. So basically this is were i learned a lot about screen design and user interfaces. To this day i still think it’s the greatest game i’ve helped build, simply because i also appreciated the experience crafting it as part of a jelled team.

Oh yeah, that intro video (!) you see before the title screen … you know, we’ve had like 50 Kilobytes of unused space on the 1 Megabyte cartridge left and, you know, we didn’t want to see it go to waste. So we’ve spent some time capturing this video and compressing it until it filled exactly the remaining space on the cartridge. We also recorded some of our best runs for each level which you can unlock by beating a level’s objectives. This goes to show how dedicated we were!

Sadly, NEON Studios is now defunct but they formed a new company, named Keen Games.

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