UniJam2012. Making Your Way in a Competitive World.
No long ago, those of you who have been reading the blog will know that I attended and reported on the inter-university gaming, twenty-four hour programming competition, UniJam2012.
As a writer I could see many parallels, both in the need for a storyline for even the most basic game, but also that ‘under the hood’ of any properly functioning game program is a well written script (the program code) quietly running away, out of sight.
While I was at UniJam I got the chance to talk to Lee Stott, who works for Microsoft. Although it may have been his job to spend the whole weekend there, it became clear while watching him talking with and helping the students, that he lives and breathes computer programming.
I you are a writer don’t switch off now, because much of what Lee has to say can be translated into concepts that writers will have no trouble relating to. It’s also important to realise that ‘under the hood’ of every e-book is a code that works to create, not only the appearance, but also the function of the book.
Later in the interview, Lee talks about computer science students building portfolios and creating apps. This translates easily to the writing field, as someone wishing to write for a living needs to build up a portfolio of work or a CV. Apps relate to physical work done as a writer. Just as computer science students now have the chance to get their work out there in the form of small apps, so do writers, who can utilize Facebook, blogs and even e-books.
The longer I spent talking to Lee, the more I began to realise how powerful social media has become as tool for networking and giving a writer the opportunity to promote themselves. Now their work can be seen and heard for relatively little financial outlay; something that would have been inconceivable ten years ago.
Some of the more technical parts of this interview may not appeal to writers. However, before you turn to another webpage, consider this; the computing industry is now a multidisciplinary workplace and writers may be as important to a game programming team as a computer scientist.
As with the students who took part in the competition, it’s worth considering that going outside your comfort zone may be far more rewarding than you ever thought possible.
Describe your job?
My role within Microsoft is running the academic section. I look at how universities and colleges are teaching their curriculum and what technologies they’re using, to make sure they’re teaching appropriate technologies and resources for improved employability of students. So my job is ensuring that when students go to college or universities, they come out with the number of keyset skills that help employability or work.
How do you do this?
We have a number of different resources across the world and specific to the UK. We have a resource called ‘Dreamspark’ which is a free developer and platform tool for all students. If students go to http://www.dreamspark.com and sign in with their university user name or college’s name, they can download the necessary tools. These tools are there to enable teaching, but if the universities or colleges aren’t teaching those technologies, students can at least download them and be able to show at interview or assessment that they had have some vocational understanding of those tool sets and technologies.
The other resource provides academic curriculum, written by academics for academics, so we have a resource called ‘Faculty Connection’ http://www.microsoft.com/faculty and that’s where academics contribute curriculum based on Microsoft technologies, so that other academics can literally pick that up and teach eight, ten, or twelve week semester course modules.
How has the curriculum been structured and put together?
The curriculum has been structured by academics for other academics. Really good examples are lecturers in the UK such as Rob Miles of the University of Hull, where Rob has written a number of different curriculums using Microsoft technology such as Windows Phone or Kinect and he’s based those on academic content. So it’s a blended learning approach where he’s taken some of the Microsoft official course materials, which you can get from private trainers such as Remark and QA and mixed up those with academic content. This then provides tutorial materials, samples and PowerPoint presentations that other universities can adapt and adopt and mix with their learning techniques. This allows them to rapidly produce curriculum. The real focus is allowing universities to have this rapid change in curriculum, so they know it’s been certified and gone through necessary approval.
How do you maintain the quality control, because there will be there will be an academic standard required for a degree course with regard to the content and execution?
These aren’t degree courses. These are very short-term modules, on Microsoft technologies. The people we use to produce to these are Microsoft Valued professionals or certified trainers or current practicing academics, who we’ve built and developed a relationship with. So they understand the academic standards and these modules have been through the QAA sector in terms of quality assurance.
We do have lots of short-term materials and case studies other academics have produced or industrial partners have produced to build up the content of available resources see http://www.microsoft.com/itacademy
Do you have an indication of how well this is working?
At the moment there are about 140,000 downloads of this content being used across the curriculum. In terms of the UK we’ve got over 300 courses currently using this curriculum in computer science and technology. So again it’s very much of a hidden resource that Microsoft and other vendors do offer, to try and enable academics to teach more modern technologies.
Does Microsoft use academics to do research into the effectiveness of the resources you’re providing, to see if it’s actually doing what it is supposed to do?
We don’t do any specific research in that area. We focus more on the technology side and look at usability. In terms of the faculty connection resources, it’s based on user feedback and acceptance, so we do look at the number of downloads, where the content is being used, revision changes, comments etc. This is all from an academic perspective and this is how we’re getting an idea of how the materials impact on institutions. The university lecturers who are producing this material do get citations, awards and recognition for that work.
How do you, as an individual, manage such an apparently large remit?
Within the UK there’s me and a marketing team, which manages our online presence, such as the Microsoft Student Facebook group and resources see http://www.microsoft.com/uk/faculty
The remit of the academic team is to look at how we engage with universities and how we define best practice. The benefit is that we’re part of a worldwide virtual team, so I have colleagues in the US, Europe and across the rest of the world. We do work very much as a team so we can identify a problem, and find a solution to it. That solution can come from anywhere in the world and then we have the issue of converting this into the native language, which is dealt with by our translation group.
As you’re working on a worldwide basis how do you communicate with each other?
Because we’re Microsoft we own Skype, but we also use a product called Lync, http://lync.microsoft.com which is part of Microsoft Office Suite. That’s an online collaboration tool, which allows instant messaging whiteboarding and video conferencing tools and we have numerous online calls and conference meetings on a monthly basis. This is where the worldwide team gets together to discuss the strategies and how we implement them and how we use the latest technologies.
Why are you here over the UniJam2012 weekend?
The key goal is really to demonstrate that we are a potential employer and a member of the ecosystem software development. I’m also here to show that we’re supporting students and that we’re here to help these students find employment by having a portfolio of Windows 8 and Windows Phone apps which demonstrate their skills. The students who are here today have shown two key things and that’s enthusiasm and passion, because they’ve given up their weekend to come and build games and I’m here to provide some reassurance and guidance, keep morale up and really show them the opportunities provided with the latest technologies. So for me it’s great to see their passion and hopefully we can get that into good portfolios for them, to get them jobs in the future.
Something you brought up earlier was interesting, because as a writer and considering the writing industry, the portfolio approach is very much the same.
Yes, getting a job in any discipline requires some form of experience and demonstrable skills. The majority of interviews are now five stages, so to get to those stages you have to stand above the crowd and the way of doing that is by creating a portfolio. Again it’s about making a portfolio tangible. So something I always tell gaming students is that ‘it doesn’t matter if your game has one level or a thousand levels. It’s still a game. So don’t try and build a game with a thousand levels, just build a game with one level and try to make that game available to as many people as possible. Because if you can show and demonstrate you’ve got a game that 10,000 people have downloaded for example from an app store and you’ve got a user rating of three out of five, that is far more powerful than any academic qualification in the industry’. This is because 1) you’re demonstrating you’ve got the skills to be able to do this, 2) you really appreciate and understand the ecosystem, 3) you’re taking onboard that feedback. This is because, if you are getting 1 out of 5 for example, you know that you need to change something, because the 1 out of 5 can be very damaging. So it’s really about getting students to think more commercially and the Apple Store, the Google Play Store and the Microsoft Store are shopping windows for potential employees and for potential games developers to demonstrate what they can do.
The other thing I’m noticing today is that there seems to be a great deal of team work going on. Is this common in the software industry? My view of a computer programmer is someone sat in a cubicle, on their own, isolated.
That is so different to real life today. The majority of development teams are made up of groups and it is a team. It’s a team of mixed disciplines and that’s where as Microsoft we really want to make students realise that if they walk into a development studio or a design studio, there are so many different skill sets required within that team. So you might have a designer, you might have an artist, a developer, someone who’s doing the quality assurance, or even a musician. The teams are made up of mixed disciplines, but they’ve all got individual strengths. The strength is them being a team. So we have competitions like the Imagine Cup http://www.imaginecup.com, where we want universities to create teams of students with mixed disciplines. For example, they may take some students from the business school because they know about marketing or how to sell the products. The people from the computer science department are the programmers. The art department has people who can make the application look beautiful. The way we’ve changed our application set from Window 8 and Windows Phone is very much based on that user interface design and making apps look beautiful, because if they appeal to the end user the end user will use them more. Again, we’re in an industry and a time where everything is now media, for example Twitter, YouTube or Facebook. Everything’s about the consumption of media. So we have to make sure that content fits appropriately within our applications.
What does make a successful game?
I don’t think there’s a golden ticket, but there is something called ‘bus stop gaming’ and I think this is the way society is today and the way we’re playing games. 89% of students at university have a mobile device, 20% of students at school have a mobile device and the gaming attitude now is for very fast gaming. So it’s a case of being stood at a bus stop, quickly playing a game, you get on the bus, you get your ticket, you sit down and you carry on playing. It’s about having something that’s captivating. ‘Angry Birds’ had always been a very good example. This was Rovio’s 50th application. They made lots of mistakes and had lots of failures, but they kept on trying, which was the tenacity element.
So I think the answer is to have something that looks really appealing, something that’s very simple that can be that ‘bus stop’ game.
Again there is massive opportunity with social networking and it’s about being able to captivate and use that social network to amplify your game. That’s your viral marketing now. For example you can be playing your game, you can be sharing your high score with friends who are also playing the game and therefore encouraging people to play the game. This could potentially bring in 10,000 downloads. So it’s about using the technology to make something very pleasing to the end user interface and making something that can be easily distributed to the end users.
So there is no bullet to what the best game is, I think it’s about using the technology that’s available.
You’re providing a software as a framework that enables students to build game?
Yes we’re providing the necessary software and tools for Microsoft 8, Windows phone application development with Dreamspark. DreamSpark is providing students with technologies that the industry is paying thousands of pounds for so that 1) they’re aware of what the industry is using, 2) Know how to use it, 3) be able to publish content for Windows and Windows Phone, so it can demonstrate a portfolio of their practical use.
How do you make sure you keep up with the constantly changing landscape of software?
The team I sit in is a very forward looking part of Microsoft software. We’re dealing with technologies two to three years ahead, on a daily basis. We’re refreshing our training every three months, so we’re keeping maintained in terms of what’s on the road map and it’s part of my role to be able to educate academics specifically on where the road map is going. The university curriculum is fixed for a number of years, so we need to ensure they’re not going down the wrong path. So we need to be able to say ‘this technology may be coming to the end of its life, have you considered X and Y’. It’s really about ensuring universities teach the fundamentals. One of the biggest issues we face is the skill demand of programming and mathematics. So it’s important universities maintain those levels of skills and increase those levels. The changes to the GCSEs this year is great news. We now have a proper computer science GCSE. This is because we’re trying to keep that inspiration through the age groups, but also the inspiration of the academics. Because we do continually change technology, we need to encourge them to gradually change and experience the benefits of the changes. It’s not wholesale change but an incremental change, which they can build into their curriculum plans.
You’re keeping ahead of the technology changes, but what about policy changes in education? How do you keep up with that? Surely that must affect your delivery of material?
Yes, but it doesn’t necessarily affect Microsoft’s delivery. Microsoft has professional training complete with certification and there are certifications for partner needs to make sure their staff are up to speed with professional content. For example we work with changes in the GCSE exam where we work with a number of committees and the Royal Society for computer skills, British computer Society where we advise and give direction to our technology roadmap. We are able to show what the enablers are and what the barriers are within education. So for example ‘Dreamspark’ is a service that reduces licensing costs for universities, colleges and schools, because it’s free and it helps maintain the latest technology at no cost. Also, looking at how their curriculum changes, we align our Microsoft curriculum changes according to that. What we’ve actually done is set certifications against academic curriculum. In terms of the QCF http://qcf.skillsfundingagency.bis.gov.uk mapping process. So when we are having these discussions, we can map against A-level or BTEC or degree level. This allows the academics to have a blending approach when teaching A-levels, or HNDs or degrees, so as added value they can get professional certification as well from Microsoft or a trade body, which will then enable a student to, hopefully, get a job more easily.
What have you seen so far this weekend, having worked so closely with the students?
There are several things that are really coming out already. Number one is the enthusiasm, which you can hear in the buzz in the background. The absolute challenge and passion they are showing in terms of taking on new things, is exciting. There are a number of people trying Windows 8 games here, which they’ve never tried before, and are using it as a learning experience. So it really shows the students are prepared to put a lot of effort in to learning and step outside of where they feel comfortable. There are some great examples of tenacity, where a couple of teams have come up with ideas that are really too ambitious. So they’re taking on feedback and learning through challenging the problem then trying things to adapt and resolve the issue. The teamwork is also important. In fact some of the teams are made from different universities. Some of these people haven’t met in person until this weekend. So we’re looking at students of mixed ages and mixed courses all working together. If you look over there at the chap who’s got a guitar, keyboard and a PC. He travelled in on the train. So straight away it shows me that these guys are really enthusiastic and I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes out tomorrow.
What about the sorts of A-Levels is computer science students should be looking at?
One of my key passions at the moment particularly from the schools perspective is the whole debate of modules and courses. There is a huge demand from mathematics and art. This seems like a strange combination. How does it fit? If you look at what everyone is doing today, you’ve got a massive amount of design skills. Designing a computer game is very visual, but you have all the mathematics and physics in the background driving it. So I can see a really good option, looking forward, that A-levels consisting of maths and art will become the norm. Six years ago that probably would have been shunned. It would have been ‘oh no you need to do the maths and sciences’. So I think there be a huge change and huge opportunities.