“It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” …or is it?

It’s been a really, really long time since I’ve heard something that made me want to run to my blog. Normally I tap out a quick 280 characters of “WTF is this now?” and move on.

Not so much today. Today, I’ve got a stone in my shoe. And what’s more is that this is actually a quasi-work-related post which is something I usually stay away from. I mean I do post about product news or tips to help stuff, but very early on, I vowed not get into the internals of a company and I made that decision long before Zuck’s first day at college, way before there was a media that was social. Call it self-preservation if you want to, because that’s how I see it.

So, what has set me off today? I saw that Team Xbox members started to get new badges for their profiles, celebrating the 20 year anniversary of Xbox. I said, “Sweet!” and went on with my day.

…until I saw one person tweeting out to a team member and giving her grief about having employee-only badges, that “I deserve a badge too!” and the usual self-entitled bullshit that is rampant in the world today. To be clear, I didn’t get a badge today as I haven’t been in Xbox for a while now and Team Xbox doesn’t need my help in discussing topics on Twitter, so why this post?

I think… I’m not sure because it’s only happened a few times in my life, but… I think this… attitude offended me in some popcorn-stuck-in-the-back-of-my-teeth way.

What are these badges that I’m talking about? They started years ago, with the launching of the Xbox 360 console: we added a “watermark” to someone’s profile in the console’s UI, if they were on the team and worked to launch one of three products: the original console, Xbox Live, or Xbox 360 (which you might not remember had a huge launch party in the desert, as a media event called Zero Hour – THAT is something to covet!) As the 360 dashboard evolved, the watermarks came along, adding new statuses for people that helped launch the New Xbox Experience (NXE) and Kinect.

Most people didn’t originally notice these watermarks prior to NXE because the team wasn’t altogether large, but as entertainment evolved, the console hardware and software teams did as well, and the organization started to grow. Additionally, as social media kicked in, more and more people from Team Xbox started to become visible to gamers, and their notoriety grew. By the time we got to Xbox One’s launch, the “watermark” design wasn’t viable to all of the things we’d shipped, so design move to a new theme, using little images to represent these product launch milestones on our profiles, and these became known as badges.

Badging is not a new concept by any means, but the concept of employee badges for Xbox profiles has always been just a small “thanks” for people that worked on the products they ship. Same way there are credits on videos and for music.

Of course, in today’s current digital world, when people see something “neat,” the immediate reaction is “Why did someone else get something I don’t have?” followed by “how can I get that?!” and if the answer is that you can’t it devolves into “YOU CAN’T HAVE IT EITHER!”

/sigh

I can get where people might want to see something like this as feature that they can have themselves, but then that’s simply a feature request – not something that should be “no one else can have it, if I can’t!” And to be clear, I personally think that this feature request only comes from the fact that the current set of badges aren’t widespread. Another way of looking at it, I’ve seen people strut around with rare badges from Pokémon games but how many people think the “You met Professor Oak!” event is worth strutting for?

Honestly, this isn’t about badges anyway: people are chronically looking for a way to feel special. Consider avatars on Xbox 360: since everyone was guided to get one so the “special” feeling came from when you got on the service without one. In this case, people complained “why do I have to have one?!” rather than “why do they get that?” Kind of remarkable in its own way, but that’s not my point.

Working on Team Xbox is not just about business. For the people working there, it’s often personal.

I worked on Xbox tech for more than half of Xbox’s existence, so assume that I can speak from personal experience on this. In fact, I am only speaking about my personal experience – maybe others from past and current teams see it differently but I think there’s a common thread among us.

Working at Microsoft requires passion. It is required. It doesn’t mean you have to bleed in the four logo colors. It doesn’t mean you have to work 20 hours a day for years at a time. But given the scope of the impact of the products that company makes, the millions upon millions of people that see and interact with your products, the sheer volume of functionality driven by your code and hardware that then is used by the entire planet? It’s not an “office job” where you come in, punch a clock, work until a bell dings, punch a clock again, and go home, forgetting what you’ve done until tomorrow morning. The work stays with you, it’s often on your mind when you’re waiting for coffee or in the shower; as your eyes close their last of the night, you jump out of bed because you realize what was wrong with your code that morning. Passion.

Working on Xbox starts with that passion and it seems to multiply over time. I mean, how couldn’t it? Gamers are some of the most passionate people on the planet, so if you’re going to work on a product for a passionate group of people, doesn’t it stand to reason you’re going to be even more passionate about your work? When you’re working on a new console, it’s going to be a busy period of time. Very often you’re building new hardware straight from the design table while trying to build new software to run on it – turns out that bringing those to life at the same time is a tricky business, especially when every calendar you see all agree on when the holiday season is that year. I cannot speak to how it was for Series consoles, but for the original One and 360 – and PS3, PS4, and Wii as I heard it – it was a full court press. Crunch mode. Intense days that become weeks and then months. Maybe even years for the early vangard of a project.

I recall bringing a pack and play to work a few nights a week for a couple of months, to spend time with my family. I remember being greeted by a CVP at 8am on a Sunday morning, who brought breakfast and to apologize for having to come to work over the weekend; I also remember replying “Hey, it’s a console launch year,” before taking a donut and heading to my desk. That was also during a stretch of time when I had gone into the office 56 days in a row, because debugging had to happen in office at that point. Notice I said “into the office” rather than worked 56 days in a row, because some work was viable from home? I honestly don’t think I want to know that number but admittedly I am curious. Probably a triple digit number.

Most people that I know, that have joined Team Xbox has started the job with a huge amount of passion. Gaming is already in your blood, but when you make gaming products for a living, it starts to be something in your head and it eventually takes root in your heart. You take it home with you, when you leave the office. You see it in the stores when you’re buying your cheesy puffs. It’s in commercials on TV, it’s talked about on the radio, it’s in your Twitter alerts the fire when you’re waiting for a movie and watching a kid in the row ahead of you with a phone, driving a Forza car via the cloud. It’s what you’re talking about in your sleep, because you’re worried that people may not like the latest set of facial hair that you published to the Insiders’ ring earlier that evening.

It’s everywhere you go and you love it.

Being a part of Xbox was an adventure. Almost each day was different and no two weeks were ever the same. I got to talk to my customers directly and for the months of my beta cycles, I answered every question I could on the Insiders forum, to give help and gather feedback. I was able to represent my features in at least seven different conferences – including PAX Dev and GDC – sharing product information, stories and experiences of our development cycle. While invited to E3 several times, I always stayed local, to keep working towards launch, and never once regretted it. Even got to contribute to thinks like Inside Xbox and posts about some of the features I’ve worked on.

Was it a lot of work? Always. Did I enjoy every part of the job? No! How can you like every part of a job? For me, it was always hard in deciding what not to develop. You can’t bring every feature you think to life because you’ve always got a ship date coming or your team isn’t 50,000 people large. I’d always want to do everything and get it shipped right now, but things just don’t work like that. But did I enjoy spending over a decade working on features for games and gamers? Bet your ass I did. Through it all I tried to remember just how hard it is to leave fingerprints on an industry that is dynamic as gaming, but at Xbox it was something we were able to do on a regular basis. I was always very aware at how… rare it was to get a chance to work in such in a unique part of the gaming industry and its history.

And through it all, the watermarks and badges called out our achievements and contributions with each new release. Through the 56 days in a row, the years of console bring ups, the half of a decade spent working to animate virtual characters on a screen, all the feedback from the super passionate fans that like (or love or hate or berate) what we would bring to market every month… through it all, was getting a new badge the only thing that kept me going? No, but I knew that when I got one, it a chance to stand with my teammates and say, “Yes, I did that and I’m proud of it” – it’s something that I hope Team Xbox always does no matter what the future brings to the console.

To the self-centered, obnoxious entitled mammals that cannot fathom what this tiny little circle of artistically arranged pixels means to the team and can only focus on “WHAT ABOUT ME?” I’ve many passionate things I could say but choose not to but I will remind anyone that’s curious: if you really want to have shot at getting a badge on your profile, Microsoft is always hiring.

Jump in.


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