Making Magic

[In this last part of my autobiographical exploration of how I ended up at Respawn, I want to focus on the influence of engineering, and my love of systems and their design. Part 1 explored the importance of characters. And Part 2 looked at the influence of games in my life.]

Peeling The Onion. Part 3.

Making Magic is a common cliche, but that’s not where I borrowed the title from. It’s taken from the title of an incredible blog series published by Wizards of the Coast about how – from a design and technical standpoint – the game Magic: The Gathering is built. Mark Rosewater, the lead designer of MTG, wrote a sub-series within this blog series called “Nuts & Bolts,” which is a remarkable exploration of how he engineered the game. It was this series that really opened my eyes to game design as a technical discipline that has a lot in common with other engineering disciplines.

In this last of my three part autobiographical series, I’d like to explore the influence of engineering in my life, both as a discipline and as a way of thinking. This was the most challenging one to write, because engineering is, to me, ultimately a mindset. A state of being. It’s a way of looking at and thinking about the world. Fundamentally, engineering, more than anything else, represents who I am. So it’s hard to think of it as an “influence.” Engineering is more like religion to me. It’s not an influence; it’s a core part of my sense of self and my identity. Some of that is by temperament. I’m naturally introverted and analytical. But much of it is learned, and in particular, how one applies a way of looking at the world to actually interacting with that world is very much an acquired skill. And it’s the acquisition of that skill that I hope to delve into.

[This story is a bit less chronological than my recounting of the role of books and games, because the various engineering influences in my life have rolled in and out at odd times. I would often seem to outgrow or lose interest in some aspect of engineering, only to rediscover it years later.]

My maternal grandfather, Al Demont, was an electrical engineer. He was one of two young men in the Worchester Polytechnic Institute class of 1931 – in the midst of The Great Depression – to get a job, working for the General Electric corporation. He worked for GE for over forty years until he retired, working on everything from consumer appliances to military technology (during WWII). When I think of engineers, I think of my grandfather. His workbench was immaculate. He had tools for everything. A rotary saw, a drill press, a band saw, and countless hand tools. His basement workshop was a young boy’s dreamland. And he could build – and fix – anything.

In contrast to today, I can hardly remember my grandfather throwing anything away. Toys, appliances, furniture… Everything was given a second – and sometimes third or fourth – life. Even now, when I can’t figure out how to fix some broken or worn out thing around the house, I feel like a bit of a failure. Because I know my grandfather could have done it. I try to keep my workbench half as tidy and organized as his was. I built my kids playhouse with my own hands and tools because that’s how he would have done it. While his name is my middle name – my parent’s didn’t want to saddle me with “Albert” for reasons that I am immensely grateful for, I would say there is no single person who I feel more directly related to than him. (He was, however, vastly more social than I am. So is my mother. We are more complicated than our genes…)

I first came to love engineering in the form of radio control cars. Growing up in Japan was pretty much heaven for both video games and RC cars. Tamiya and Kyosho are still two of the dominant (if not the dominant) forces in the industry. Tokyo has an entire section of the city – Akihabara – dedicated to “hobbies,” though what were considered hobbies in the US were taken much more seriously in Japan. Even when I was growing up, there were professional RC car drivers. Japan was a special place to grow up for a lot of reasons, but as a gamer and model car nut, it was truly a paradise. I can draw an almost perfectly straight line from RC cars to becoming a mechanical engineer.

My senior year in college, I bought my first nitromethane powered car, a 1/10th scale model from the Dutch company Serpent. We used to fire it up and rev the engine up on Saturday nights in our dorm room (other forms of alcohol besides the fuel for the car may have been involved… it’s still a wonder none of us ever imbibed a RedBull & Nitrometh cocktail…). Nothing quite like the sound of a 0.21cuin two -stroke engine at 35,000rpm to get you ready for a night out.

The hardest job I ever had to turn down was working in R&D for Team Trinity in 2003, when I had discovered and decided to purse triathlon. Currently, Trinity makes batteries and electric motors for high-end RC race cars, but at that time, they still made full kits. Growing up in Japan, I had always loved building radio control cars, and for a lot of college, I thought I’d end up working in auto racing. As a summer job, I worked on vintage and historic race cars at Hudson Historics, and for my junior independent work, I designed a tubular steel space frame for an FSAE car in ProEngineer (a CAD/CAE/FEA program) and then TiG welded an actual version of my design together.

But then I discovered rowing and, when I graduated, the idea of sacrificing my own athletics dreams to support those of another just wasn’t something I was prepared to do. I wanted to at least leave the door open for rowing, something that going into either Formula1 or NASCAR would have precluded. But RC cars? That seemed like something doable. Trinity is based in Edison, NJ, and it seemed like the perfect way for me to continue to pursue engineering and auto racing in a way that would still allow me to remain involved in sport. So I applied out of college. And I never heard back. Until a year later, when I was ready to leave my job working in Product Management at ALK, a GPS navigation software company founded by my college advisor. They offered me a job working in R&D, the coolest part of any company, but especially cool at a company that makes 1:10th scale race cars… It the hardest decision of my life up to that point to say no. But I just had a feeling that triathlon was something special, and it was calling me. I did wonder if I’d ever again be lucky enough to work on something “fun”… But I always thought I’d find my way back to engineering somehow.

When I applied to Princeton, I knew I wanted to be an engineer. I also knew that, specifically, I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. Because I loved to build things. And, in particular, to build things that move. I still have my nearly forty year old copy of the Richard Scary classic, Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. My kids all love this book. And I love reading it to them. And that’s what I wanted to build. Ironically, there was a freshman seminar at Princeton taught by one of the legendary professors in the MAE department about bicycles. (I didn’t take it, because – at that time – bikes just weren’t all that interesting to me. One of many missed opportunities, but isn’t that the story of every college career…) As far as I was concerned, only mechanical engineers really got to build things.

At Princeton, I came to really love civil engineering, and for a while I thought I had missed my calling. Bridge design, in particular, really resonated with me. And I became a bit disillusioned with mechanical engineering, because there was just way to much on work cycles, which remain entirely uninteresting to me. I just don’t actually care how internal combustion engines work, only that they do. Princeton wasn’t my first exposure to computer science – I was lucky to have a high school that offered it, but it was there that I really started to understand programming. Within mechanical engineering, I was captivated by the magic of CNC – write a program, and then watch the thing take shape before your very eyes inside of a 3-axis mill – and FEA – doing the stress analysis of my race car frame before I’d built it. And outside of it, I finally started to realize that programs were actually things – that computer scientists also got to build stuff. That this all also happened to coincide with the release of the iconic Matrix trilogy by the Wachowski sisters certainly helped me start to understand the nature of computer science as an engineering pursuit.

For reasons I still don’t entirely comprehend, I never really grasped that video games were computer programs. At least not in the entirely logical way that someone had to build them. I think some of this was because at that point, sport had taken over my life. I sometimes joke that I majored in rowing and minored in engineering. Programming was ultimately most useful to me because it provided me with a way to earn some money. I did small programming projects throughout college, and then – once I decided to pursue triathlon – freelance web development was how I paid my admittedly modest bills until my breakthrough in 2009.

I’m grateful to Jon Mayfield, Zwift’s creator and co-founder for many things, but the thing that I’m most grateful for is leading me to finalize realize what software could be. Software is magic. Until I started at Zwift, software was a tool. SQL, still the language that I would say that I am most fluent in, is a way to ask questions and get answers. And web programming is great, but it doesn’t transform your world the way a game can. In learning C++, I finally learned how to build a thing. An application. I learned how to make magic. The things that I’m most proud are the systems inside of Zwift that I built. The places where my code became something.

As a triathlete, engineering gave me a lens through which I could see the world. It provided me with a tool kit to solve problems in training and on the race course. For most of my life, engineering has been the way that I’ve made sense of the world. Precise. Analytical. Logical. Systematic. Engineering is a way of thinking. But I don’t think I grasped it as a creative way of thinking until I started working as a game designer. Not that I wasn’t creative as a triathlete. It’s just that I didn’t perceive myself as creative. And I didn’t see the importance of being creative in the same way that I saw the importance of being logical. And I certainly didn’t see them as inherently related until I started needing to design and build systems inside of Zwift. The Drops currency, the level 25-50 progression, and Boost Mode were all creative exercises. But they are all grounded in logical and mathematical approaches to design.

While I never lost my love of drawing, it changed from a more creative pursuit to something more technical. My last year at summer camp (I attended a very traditional all-boys camp in Maine called Agawam for eight years from 1989 to 1996), a friend of mine and I were pursuing the highest level of skill in the outdoors program, called Ranger Trail – the rank of Senior Ranger, which had only been awarded about 20 times in the hundred-ish years of the camps existence. It required deep familiarity with the natural world of the camp, including the ability to name every bird, tree, and plant on camp property. But my favorite task was the construction of a free hand topographical map of the camp property. Armed with a compass and a fairly well tuned sense of our measured pace length, we mapped the entire camp property. Then, with a protractor and ruler, we laid it all out on a piece of posterboard. That was as satisfying to me as drawing any comic strip. It also showed me the importance of creativity in technical pursuits. Map making wasn’t just science; it was also art.

Edward Tufte’s iconic The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is a constant on my desk. And it, more than any book, served as a reminder that the logical can be creative. And it can be beautiful. Indeed something can be beautiful precisely because it is logical. And I think that’s as good a summary of my belief in engineering as I can offer. It gives order to the world. And in doing so, it gives it meaning. And beauty.

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