Work-Life Balance

Work-Life Balance

By Amy Phillips.

If you had asked me five years ago to predict what my working life would be like today my answer would have been way off! I thought it couldn’t get much better – I was the client-side network programmer on LittleBigPlanet, with plenty of input into game design, working as part of a small team composed of awesome, lovely, talented people. Since the birth of our son two and a half years ago life has certainly changed, but overall it has only got better! It could have been a different story, but it turns out that combining being a Mum and working in the games industry is very much do-able, and can be made to work brilliantly with some flexibility from both employee and employer.

My feelings of loyalty to Media Molecule, which were already pretty strong, have been increased by them being adaptable and understanding. As with all changes we’ve had to try things out, check what is working and what needs tweaking, and iterate. Iteration should be second nature to games developers – we use it all the time on game design, and when applied to how we work it can pay huge dividends.

So, what worked well, and what was not so successful?

In the weeks before maternity leave I found it incredibly hard to leave the office – we were ramping up to finalling LBP2, and there were so many features I wanted to add. We didn’t manage to hire a replacement to cover for me during my maternity leave, so I handed my code over to existing team members. They did a very good job finishing it up and fixing all the remaining bugs – thank you Sunmee! It wasn’t ideal timing for a handover, but there’s not a lot you can do – baby deadlines are very much immovable!

I took the full year of maternity leave, and I would have found it difficult to return to work any earlier. Not least because lack of sleep meant that my brain was complete mush for the first 9 months – I could barely string a sentence together, let alone a line of bug-free code! I found that returning to work after a year out was nerve wracking. Would my brain still work? Would my job still be there? I decided to work part-time, 2 days a week, which would mean I couldn’t do the exact same job, so what would I end up doing? You get 10 ‘staying in touch’ days that you can use to do the odd day at work whilst remaining on maternity leave. I used most of mine towards the end of my year out, and they were very helpful in building up my confidence again. And I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to have grown up conversations and drink tea whilst it was still hot! Media Molecule were very accommodating – for example they made sure that I had regular breaks, a private room available for expressing milk, and a fridge available to store it.

I started off doing one full day and two half days each week, which sounded like a good idea before we tried it. The thinking was that I’d be in the office quite regularly and so would be around for discussions, meetings, chats etc. when they arose. However, I found it hard to get settled and get anything done on the half-days – turns out programming is best done with a good long run at it – at least in my experience. The half-days also meant that my son’s naps were being disturbed and skipped entirely on some days. And a baby who has missed a nap is no fun for anyone! So we iterated, I moved to working two full days, and that has worked well ever since.

I now do a slightly different job in that I own less code, and have less input into general design decisions. Whilst I do still have plenty of input into the areas I own, these areas are smaller than they used to be when I was full-time. I work hard to keep up with what has happened on my ‘days off’, but I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I’m never going to know all about everything that’s going on. I’m a naturally curious (some might say nosey) person, and I like to ‘stick my oar in’, so do find that hard to deal with! MM video important meetings and demos so that they are available to anyone who missed them, which is very useful. I check my work email maybe once a day from home, just in case there’s anything urgent, and have my laptop set up to VPN in so I can code in the evenings, though that has been very very rarely necessary.

There are things that I miss from my child-free days.  Friday night pubbing with the Molecules, travelling to conferences like GDC, and my career is at a bit of a standstill – I can’t foresee it progressing in any significant way until I’m back working more hours.

But then I look at my days – today I dropped Kai at nursery, went to work, wrote and debugged interesting code, made tea, drank it, met a friend for pub lunch, had a meeting and discussed top secret things that I couldn’t possibly tell you about yet, but Tearaway (our next game) is gonna be awesome, picked Kai up and headed home for snack and bedtime cuddles. Yesterday we met friends at softplay, clambered over foam blocks, slid down a big slide, played peekaboo in a tunnel, got stuck in the ball pit, then after lunch we mooched around enjoying the spring sunshine, stroked the neighbours cat – very gently, delighted in the discovery of daisies, dug in the soil looking for insects, watered the garden and our shoes, swept leaves into a vague pile, then headed in for dinner, exhausted but smiling. I live a full and varied life and I love it!

I’m off on maternity leave again soon – baby number 2 is due in May, and I’m struggling to come to terms with the fact that this is an immovable deadline. Once again I have far too much interesting code to write, and far too little time left – eep!

This time round we have the benefit of having done it before – I was our first programmer to go part time. Media Molecule and I have successfully come up with a way to keep us all happy and write some awesome game code before, and I’m sure when I come back to work again we’ll do it again. We will keep talking and iterating, and because we’re all lovely people we’ll come up with a compromise that keeps everyone happy.

I’ve been a programmer in the games industry for 11 years. I spent the first 5 years after Uni working for Criterion on the Burnout series, firstly as a general programmer, then specialising in network coding. Then I moved to Media Molecule and have been ‘High Priestess of Online Code’ for the last 6 years.

Yes, that’s really what my business cards say 🙂