I, Migrant IT Worker, Part 2
I go where the games development is
By the end of 2001, I’d managed to be fired twice from throwaway gigs and hired for a soulless but steady gig in games hardware testing. Apparently, you gotta kiss a few pigs to find the right one. Failing that, you can always be accused of incinerating the pig, instead. Oh. Right. That joke needs context you're missing if you haven't read Part 1.
But at my hardware testing job, I merely restarted four Xboxes all day and marked how many times each console failed to boot up properly. Failures were rare. I rebooted those bloody things eight hundred times a day. Combining this output with regular bathing habits meant I was promptly moved over to the software test lab. No raise involved, I stayed at $9.25 hourly. But the work was as advertised finally.
In my first of a dozen or so software testing gigs over the next twenty years, I was tasked with being the Rabbit. Far from my pale, pimple-peppered butt frantically bobbing up and down atop an Xbox console, Rabbit duties involved completely finishing any game put in front of me. I took to this act with alacrity as it was something I’d done my entire life anyway. The challenge of the thing was getting it done in a standard work week of forty hours. This can be difficult with RPG titles which often last sixty, seventy, or even eighty hours. On rare occasions, overtime was worked. As usual, a combination of black coffee, smokes, and aspirin saw me through.
This is similar to the speed runs you can watch on YouTube, except I’ve never played the game in question before. They have. Thousands of hours. And their games work. They don't have to stop and write reports when the thing stops working, either.
Perhaps my favorite project in this position was when a horribly unfinished game called Knights of the Old Republic was submitted to my tender affections for the first time. Many developers would submit their titles to us prior to finishing them as we would then tell them what we needed them to change or fix in order to be released on the Xbox. But this is still, to this day, the most broken submission I have ever seen. Fun, since the finished product is so phenomenal.
An illustration is required. Since the year was 2002, digital recording technology hadn't quite picked up yet. We used what archaeologists call VCR's. We would record as we tested so when we encountered an issue to report we had video evidence of the thing in action. One VHS tape per issue. We had to do this as a developer's first reaction is always to accuse a tester of making it up. Otherwise, they’d have to fix it, which they end up doing eventually anyway.
By the end of the first day, a mere eight hours of testing, I found myself surrounded by a respectable rampart of black tapes. By the end of the second, only my head and shoulders were visible above the VHS stronghold I’d erected. And by the third day, the title was pulled out of my hands along with my beloved tapes. The report would be brutal enough as is. No need for another sixteen hours of this.
This urbane savaging put me on the map so far as management was concerned. It was impossible for anyone to enter the test lab and somehow miss the bald guy utterly encircled by black tapes muttering a variety of obscenities. Within the week, I was moved over to the Compliance testing lab, with a raise to $15 hourly and a place among testers with neck and hand tattoos and piercings strategically placed to let you know their owners are weirdos; but weirdos so competent in their craft a little eccentricity was a small price to pay for their labor.
In Compliance testing, the work is infinitely more targeted than the functional testing my Rabbit work centered on. Compliance refers to complying with technical and stylistic requirements. All electronic devices go through a compliance test of some sort, just as all games available on a gaming console do. These requirements range from building your application using approved libraries to what the B button is supposed to do. It provides a certain continuity of experience. More importantly, it also paid my rent.
The pay was an astonishing amount of money to me at the time. But I would have to earn it and learn to properly test software, rather than merely play. These days, you can pull that kind of cheddar down forgetting to put cheese on cheeseburgers and spitting in people's drinks.
By 1995 I suspect I’d developed a respectable addiction to caffeine. By 1999 I couldn't live without it. This crippling love affair continues to this day, paired with cigarettes. I don't lead the healthiest lifestyle but without coffee and cigarettes I’d kill you all. Big Tobacco and Bean are doing the world a service by slowly killing me softly.
Around the time I moved over to the Compliance lab I started developing an abiding interest in alcohol, too. I’d split up with my girlfriend at the time and moved to an apartment in Shoreline. It was weird and excellent and the first time I’d ever actually lived alone. I already knew how to craft a Flaming Dr. Pepper and I made it my mission to educate the savage locals on the subject.
Every weekend and several nights of the week I was doing my best to get hammered into a quivering, vomitous mush of some sort. More often than not these attempts succeeded. Red Bull Vodkas were my poison and given the opportunity they remain so. Slamming those back all night makes for a fun game of Am I Drunk, I Can’t Tell. The answer is usually yes.
But for everyone else, here is my world famous Flaming Dr. Pepper recipe, taught to me by a master.
A pint glass is half filled with beer - make it a lager, but any piss beer works as well - with the other half a cola of some sort. Fill a shot glass with amaretto and add a film of Bacardi 151 to the top. You can drizzle it slowly over the underside of a spoon to get a good distribution across the top of the shot glass. Set the shot glass on fire, drop it into the pint glass, chug away, fall over, and profit.
Shitting yourself is optional but encouraged.
All of this is to say I quite often stumbled into work bleary, confused, and in pain. I made just enough money to cover rent, food, etc, in addition to attempting to put every bartender's kids through college. But I never could afford a full night of sleep.
Oddly, I found myself promoted to a Lead position after a few months. Apparently, sleep deprivation and hangovers are proper ways to comport oneself professionally. I was now responsible for other people and I did not like it in the least. I liked these people. I can order people I dislike without issue, but when it comes to people I like… they're on their own.
I spent a year as a Test Lead there. The position didn't come with a raise to accommodate the increase in responsibility so eventually I figured out I’d been had. It did take me a year. That made getting fired more tolerable, though the shock of the thing hit me hard enough. I had never been fired from a job I wanted until that moment and I was fired for a stupid reason to boot. At least when I was cut loose from Jiffy Lube, there was an actual fire involved. I prefer to be guilty if I’m going to be punished.
I was summarily dismissed for two reasons. Or so I was told.
First, I was once asked if a particular test pass would be finished by end of day. I said no. When asked why not, I said the pass was too large to complete with the scant quantity of testers available to me and the submission was so horrifyingly broken it wouldn't be wise to cut corners just because we had to get to band practice that evening. This was not what they wanted to hear. Fuck ‘em. Test doesn't tell you what you want to hear. Get over it.
Second, my boss's bitch girlfriend reported to me. I didn't think she was a bitch at the time, but when my boss solemnly and seriously drew me aside and explained she had said I didn't treat her well because of her gender, I realized both her Bitch and Liar statuses respectively. I told him as much and in that moment he fired me. Learn from my mistakes. They are legion.
I suppose, looking back in that moment, I suspected my ex-girlfriend was correct. That I was going nowhere. That she had wasted her time with me. All the usual complaints one has and the accusations they make when another human being isn't behaving precisely the way they envision they should. It was a dark and impoverishing period for me to be sure. To this day, I credit a DVD boxed set of Family Guy with helping me retain some semblance of sanity. Thanks, Seth(s).
But after cigarettes and coffee, I got off my pitiful ass and shopped around for work again. I would find it before too long and it would set me on a path to more technical test work for more interesting projects and far more interesting payouts. I didn't know that at the time, of course. Just like at the time there was no way I believed my ex-girlfriend about me.
This is an interesting effect at play in any history one writes or reads. It is called the Historian Fallacy and it results from following a chain of events from their conclusion (more specifically an arbitrary conclusion chosen by the historian themselves) to an arbitrary genesis; also chosen by the historian. Psychologists call it hindsight bias. Just imagine living your life backwards, like poor Cassandra from The Iliad. Experiencing future outcomes of actions not yet taken. That's how historians write the works people sometimes view as gospel and authoritative. Backwards, just like those accepting a historian's account as utter truth. I love reading history, but generally, historians are just the worst.
At the time, let’s say roughly 2003, I knew nothing of my future. It was, and remains, a deeply uncertain question for me.
I hope it always is. Cassandra didn't seem happy at all and outside the stock market, prophets just get killed. I just wish I’d have known my future ex-wife was the one wasting my time.
If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy a collection of my humorous travel journals available for hundreds of pennies here.