Do Things The Hard Way, Unicorn: Cooler Heads Prevail

I wrote this for one of my mentees who is still in university that I’ve known for 4 years. I hope she reads it. This is a blog about what counts when planning your career path from a mentor to a mentee written in a way that I wish someone had written for me. I already know you’re a unicorn and you have 2 more years to spend wisely.

This is your heads up.

You may be writing your ’23 resolutions. Or feel like you have to. Developer relations people wrote that you should spend your free time picking up new skills…as if you aren’t already. Get all the AWS, Azure, GCP, Kubernetes, and Unity certifications! Take a bunch of Unreal courses! You are invincible! You have unlimited budget and no debt! Right…Right? And if you aren’t doing this then you are, what’s that phrase, ah, studying, no wait, “quiet quitting,” no wait, “not leaning in enough.” Did you know, you can also raise a family at the same time? Learn how to become a social media influencer for yourself to stand out? While half the women you look up to never make it past 7 years in games and your mentor in her 30s has a crisis of faith in this industry every 2 years as women leave it en masse? You’re allowed to work remotely too. Wait, maybe not. You are also supposed to have great work-life balance, see the world, and have good mental health. You’re supposed to build a TikTok following while simultaneously being told it’s not secure. You also have to be careful about what you write on your website.

Someone may think you’re an asshole. Oh no!

Want to know not one, but two secrets?

The first is: My favorite people in games love it when I’m an asshole in blogs to hold us all accountable for how we treat women and only ask that I strategically place my curse words for maximum impact. And the second is: You don’t have to write f*cking resolutions in sappy LinkedIn posts and get certified, but you do need to use your time with a plan that makes you happy. With that in mind, cooler heads prevail. Let’s make you a portfolio and a network the right way.

Finding kind people who recognize that you want to help them, knowing how to help them and if they have the resources to connect those dots when you both need it is what matters. That is what this blog is about!

In my 20s I learned that what attracts success is (A) understanding timing against business and (B) doing anything personal for people and (C) making them laugh. That’s it – If you practice those three things it will eventually make you successful for at least a few paychecks. In my 30s I learned you can’t make everyone happy and instead new year’s resolutions should make you happy. 😀 For me that’s:

  • Practice banjo
  • Become a better manager for the people I care about
  • Use the writing superpower to plant some careful seeds in advance…

Real Research Leads to Opportunity Every Time

Let’s talk about your success – because if you’re still trying to nail “(A) timing” while thinking about your career path, it may be hard to know how to do it. The wise practice timing and it takes a lot of failure to get right.

When you look for a job: You want to build where other people aren’t building enough. New industry technologies not only don’t appear on certifications but sometimes come from mid-market companies that do not have certification programs. What’s risky to a business? Gaps in recently invested and launched projects. That’s an opportunity for you. I never made money by following – I listened real hard, used the Wayback machine a few times and documentation of endpoints to reverse engineer choices, and spent time in the areas I had questions until I saw patterns that looked like real voids – either architecturally or in business. In the gaps, someone makes or loses money and both are opportunities.

I’ll use this website as a parable:

In trying to get this Lightsail-hosted site to work better, I realized MariaDB was too coupled and had to reset configurations. I also had to setup Amazon SES, but I still kept it in sandbox mode. That’s when I realized the Amazon Lightsail walkthrough for SES integration was dated. I appreciate their struggle – it’s wildly difficult to keep docs updated. The WP Mail SMTP plugin now wants to charge engineers $50/year for integrating with Amazon SES API because it’s “more secure.” Meanwhile, the walkthrough in the documentation, because it existed before the Plugin owners took advantage of being featured by Amazon, implies one should use the original option, copy in your secrets, mess around, and find out. Either way, the screenshots are old. Someone’s got to fix them.

You want situations like this. Building and then reading “this password is stored in plain text” and evaluating that statement against if you lock down digital identities in SES will tell you what really is the blast radius depending on your use case – security is a perspective that requires context. Also if you do what I ask at the end of this blog, you will realize that Lightsail isn’t actually simple because you are going to land in a Bitnami administration Vim loop to update your wp-config.php file every other tutorial. And none of this is using infrastructure as code – This means later you may investigate extending it to Cloud9 to avoid setting up a GitOps flow or be forced to setup Terraform/Git/Jenkins Deployment which adds more cost just you can use a free IDE. Eventually, you will run out of disk space for all your cool photos and gameplay videos so you will want to offload to S3 your images and media or figure out if you’d like to use file storage (EFS). For the record, I have done none of what I just said. I have spun this up and set up SES to send emails, the SSL cert, and the domain because I’m cheap and have a fully functional working blog I’m typing this on which is literally all you need right now. Lightsail is only simpler because while setting it up I ignored 60% of what makes the cloud great. Ignoring what makes the cloud great is what makes Lightsail great which is why their target customer persona is probably SMBs with subscription boxes and ex-FAANG and Microsoft people and fancy restaurants.

“Which option should I use for my WordPress website?” depends on which month of which year the question was asked since 2003. I digress. If you are a mentor of mine who had a perfectly acceptable WordPress blog but still used Substack, there has to be devils in those details. Stop laughing 🙂

I haven’t explained the actual opportunity just that Lightsail is simple, and a solid effort at finally making deploying WordPress suck less, if we ignore most of the cloud parts. Like all of us who build anything, they are guilty of having dated documentation. Committing updates to documentation is one way to get your foot in the door because there is no way in hell any of us have really paid down our documentation backlogs at the speed we’d like. Open-sourcing does not really solve that (Invest in Lightsail’s UX team, AWS, and put them on other things to consolidate the 250 services instead of building more – They clearly have a good head.)


I enjoy feeling stupid while learning because it turns me into a customer and that’s a rare opportunity you should document every second of for the people who care.

When you commit to someone’s documentation you’re basically onboarding yourself to their team in advance. That always lands at money when you need it (but not necessarily in the form of a job on that team…). You may discover a repo’s documentation is opensource. When you find dated documentation and time to submit a pull request you meet people. You could submit an edit to that exact part of the branch. My point is, pick the repo for the stack or technology that interests you and meet it’s contributors or find a team that uses that repo. Start talking to that team about it. Start pushing fixes and figure out why they are there, where the opportunity will be, who is hiring and why. Read their writing. Understand who they are. I used this documentation as a parable for getting jobs when it looks like you can’t because the ones posted are too far-reaching, but committing to the repo isn’t the only way to rapidly build your network. It’s a parable: Research what your target game companies are building, read their blogs, and what they need…understand what they can’t do and be there right before they need it with answers on a network you manifested yourself over the next 2 years.

Reverse engineer the stacks from the job postings you want at the company you want to work (Hint: Take-Two is an option when you graduate, lady) for which are public and learn those specific tools to live the same problems they are living, then show them you’re the solution. Find the link between what you love doing and why a company or a team of people you like don’t have postings – it may be an unannounced title where the team is still forming. It may be now is not the right time for hiring. It may be they don’t need it yet. If you find enough things to help with over a long period of time and check in, and they need you, they will ask you to fix those things when you need your job.

Build and write “towards” specific audiences with your voice.

Write about what you love they use and deliver it to the one person who needs to see it as a premium LinkedIn message. Repeatedly show you are valuable, slowly, and understand their problems. Get their whole team excited. Remind yourself: You are a unicorn and they need you. Come measured.

Then tell them how amazing they are.

Writing about other people graciously, caring about them in your voice and your platform while proposing specific things that will help you both succeed together as someone in their ecosystem has landed me more opportunities than I can count on two hands and typically I do not wait until I need them. Ask anyone who has ever seen it in real time they will 100% tell you it’s true. You are talented. You are brilliant – don’t waste this advice. This is a two-way street. Now re-read this paragraph.

Let’s Do This

I bring you good news. The Venn diagram of having built multiple games and working in a cloud is a massive talent void. That’s an opportunity that all engineers have a few years to capitalize on no matter where you are in your career. There aren’t many entry-level positions for backend in games because universities haven’t figured out how to train for that depth and intersection in a way that can make up for lived experience…yet. But someday soon universities with games tracks will have to face the infrastructure-as-code problem with a plan.

To discuss games architecture engineers need context about Unity, Unreal, Xbox (Microsoft!), Playstation and a ton of other third parties that affect a real games stack. It helps to have lived as a player, a client-side developer, and as much as possible also in the cloud to be great at looking around those corners. This makes games programmers that demonstrate they can cross the void of client/server by showing experience in both on top of understanding the business, unicorns, because they lived in “the void.”

People who are hiring in games backend need architects to know cloud infrastructure and services. They also need them to know how to make games. The only way to get that is to live in both for a while and hiring managers to pay the cost for the years you did OR for the hiring manager to take a risk on someone who doesn’t know games because that specific path takes years which is the more likely path. Yup – people who didn’t get a games degree are the ones getting into games – it’s why great game studios put in a lot of work to retain engineers who ever void crossed (moved to infrastructure from a game instead of to games from infrastructure). In related news, I updated the first half Games & Architecture page with a few past architecture adventures until I can share some past game stories up there. The public ones anyway. If I told you the private ones I’d have to rm -rf us both.

Build and write about the intersection of games, the engines, clients, and the server infrastructure until you write your way into containers, application monitoring, and triaging at scale. Understand how games are built across the board. Those engineers stand out in ’23 and beyond. If only part of this post made sense, start by looking up the terms you do not yet know. Figure out which team you want to live in in this big world of games, whether its a big company or a small one, and then learn by reading what the engineers who live in those worlds use and focus on that.

How to Be Seen: New grads in games who are programming and need a portfolio – setup your websites in a cloud to dive at this with purpose instead of using Squarespace or WIX as an introduction to a future you will almost certainly have your career depend on: the cloud. If you want something really simple and really cheap with no templates, setup a static S3 website. I hope at a minimum this post showed the “why” – Show me you know the cloud alongside your games in any way even if you’re a game designer, or a producer, or a programmer – if you are learning games programming but not learning infrastructure, you need to start dipping your toes in the cloud waters today whether it’s through your portfolio or calling API calls from your game to a server-side application, multiplayer interaction, a website to promote it – something. Infrastructure touches every team. You have time to capitalize on that gap, but it would be ill-advised to ignore it.

Cost: Anyway, padawan, you were worried about the cost of hosting your portfolio on a cloud. As you should be – it’s your money. I can only tell you what I know. Always be cautious with cost and read a lot. So I stuck it at the top of this blog for you as your mentor – that’s about $14 after two months. This tracks against the $6/month estimated cost in the pricing tiers (Example 1). Your domain, if you don’t go too wild, will cost you about $12/year in Route53. Doing it the hard way will help you get a proper job that is highly lucrative in two years and after two years you will have spent about $170 in 24 months (+ a few dollars for CloudFront when the free tier runs out). If you don’t think you can afford it I will create you the IAM user myself as your mega guardrail after all this time. Obviously, I’m invested in you as my opportunity if I took my vacation to write this.

This is a personal blog – expect me to be as cheap as possible and test in production 100% of the time and break it repeatedly. I expect you to do exactly the same. I will find out well before you do just how expensive I can make it. Take time to build the hard way, research where you want to be, and show the world the unicorn you really are. What will you build for what you bring to games in preparation for 24 months from today, unicorn? Text me and we can set it up together.