Tuesday, August 08, 2006

SIGGRAPH Postscript 2 -- "Evil Corporations"

Random cool SIGGRAPH Art Gallery installation.
My main reason for going to SIGGRAPH this year was that I was invited to be a panelist, on the topic of how to have a sustained career. The official title was "Is a Career in Computer Graphics Possible? Part 2: Dedication and Expectation." The first part of the panel ("Part 1: Skills and Training") had an emphasis on getting into the industry, and took place the day before. Part 2 was about having a long-term career, with a particular emphasis on avoiding the kinds of pitfalls and stresses that tend to knock people out of the industry. . . My co-panelists were Jenny Fulle, Exec. VP of Production at Sony Pictures Imageworks, and Henry LaBounta, Chief Visual Officer at Electronic Arts. I was invited onto the panel to speak to the union side of things, but my main emphasis was on what I thought each of us needed to do to survive and hopefully flourish in this industry. I talked a little about the union, and the ways I thought it was a great model for helping minimize some of the negatives that plague our industry, but most of what I had to say wasn't union-specific. The liveliest part of the panel came after I emphasized the need to look after one's own interests and career. My point was that, no matter who wonderful and paternalistic your current studio might be, in the long run no one will look out for your career the way you will. I emphasized the need to keep your reel current, to keep your ear to the ground (about what was happening at one's own company, and in the industry in general), to continue networking, to put away a chunk of every single paycheck into savings, to keep buffing your skills. As I said, the company you work for may be taking good care of you now, but sh*t happens, and the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. Ultimately, I said, a studio isn't a family, it's a business -- and when things go sour for a business, employees become expendable. And if you aren't prepared for that, and especially if you take the downturns personally, you'll have a heck of a hard time maintaining a career. I didn't think this was controversial, but Henry in particular had a strong reaction. He immediately countered that he hated it when people talked about "evil corporations," and emphasized that it was in any studio's best interest to nurture their employees, to have flat production cycles (i.e., no crunchtime or big fluctuations in hiring and layoffs), to have people develop and grow so they could create the best possible games or films. He also threw in a cheap shot at the union, and went on to say that he thought it was a good thing for people to be allowed to do extra work for their studio, since it could advance their career. He had done it, and it had worked for him, and why should anyone take away an individual employee's right to advance their own career by working as much as they wanted, whether they were being paid or not. Jenny's reaction wasn't as strong, but she emphasized that a studio's only real resource was its employees, and that it didn't make sense for a studio to do things that weren't in their employee's best interests. She thought I overstated the case that it could be a hostile world out there for an employee -- good companys wanted happy, long-term employees. And she noted that Sony was also emphasizing flat production schedules, minimizing the need for crunches, and last-minute, short-term hiring. I was frankly surprised, especially by Henry's reaction. I pointed out that the phrase "evil corporations" didn't come from me -- I hadn't said it, and I hadn't implied it, and I didn't think that way. Corporations aren't evil, and they aren't good -- they're businesses, and without those businesses, we wouldn't have an industry or any jobs. I went on to say that there was no conflict between looking after one's own self interest in the ways I'd mentioned, and being a loyal, hard-working employee. In fact, I posited that the two goals were completely synergistic. Likewise, there's no conflict between being pro-union and pro whatever company you're working for. I went on to say that the concept of "evil" wasn't even a useful part of the equation. It's not about morality -- it's about market forces, and cash flow, and decisions at higher levels that even the most well-meaning production manager can't override. I pointed out the overly obvious truth that every studio wanted to be endlessly successful, and never lay anyone off, but that that never happened for very long. I tossed out a few obvious examples of events in the animation industry that had led to huge layoffs and shifts in the job market -- not because of evil corporate decisions, but because movie's tanked, or network deals collapsed, or game consoles were delayed, or scripts needed further development. I also came back to the idea that free overtime should be a worker's right. I pointed out that it happens to be against the law, at least in California. And that free overtime undermines one's coworkers. And that by doing free work, one is telling their employer that their work is without value. And finally, if one needs to do large amounts of free overtime to get their job done, then they're not going to be able to stay in the business when they want to have families or pursue anything else besides work. It's safe to say that by the end of the panel the three of us agreed about much more than we disagreed. I think the mere fact that my panelist identity was as the "union president" caused them to read into my comments an anti-company bias (in the same way that sometimes Steve and my posts here are read as being attacks towards one studio or another) that wasn't there. But in case anyone is still unclear, we don't believe studios and corporations are evil -- they're just businesses, with all that entails. And we do believe that individual workers should not stop looking after their own careers, even as they give 100% for the studio paying their salary.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like ol' Henry is nursing a sore spot after all the bad press EA (rightfully) received for their hellish workplace practices.

Having Sony and EA wax eloquent on this topic is like inviting a couple of foxes into a chicken coop for a discussion on animal rights.

Anonymous said...

henry must have had a bad time at DW on Prince of Egypt...
keep heading north henry...I hear they are opening up a studio in alaska.

Kevin Koch said...

During the panel I did bring up the EA class action lawsuit (but only after Henry's digs at the union), and the panel moderator later specifically brought it up again. I didn't talk about it in this post because it wasn't really the most interesting part of the panel for me, and I didn't want the post to be twice as long. And, yes, I think Henry was primed to be defensive, knowing the subject would come up. I think his attacking me for something I didn't say was a preemptive strike.

On the subject of the OT lawsuit, Henry emphasized three points: 1) it wasn't just EA (there's a similar suit against Activision and, according to him, several other games companies), 2) EA is now a wonderful place to work, and when he leaves at 7 PM the parking lot is almost always pretty much empty, and 3) the folks working insane hours for no OT pay were getting stock options back then, and "people should be allowed to choose how they want to be rewarded" (not that anyone working at EA have a choice about it).

I didn't bother to point out that EA in the past had been generally regarded as a step above a sweatshop. And I didn't refer to the infamous "EA widow" letter that circulated widely on the internet and helped spur the lawsuit. I wanted it to be a productive panel, and to focus on solutions, and not whatever flaws an individual company had had in the past. As for the present, I hope it's true that EA is now a great company, with flat production cycles and paid OT. I have no information to the contrary.

Anonymous said...

Dam - now I wish I would have went to that panel!

Anonymous said...

Good for you Kevin!!!

Can'te believe some people want employees to do work for free! That's unvelievable to me. Slavery is over!!!

We, (the employees) have to look out for ourselves and our families FIRST! Companies look out for themselves first, then their investors, and then their employees. Profit comes first!! At any cost. Some of them banter about their employees being the most important and bla bla bla... that's all BS! "Welcome to our family",they say...

Their telling us what they think we want to hear.

I suggest a viewing of a somewhat known little documentary called "The Corporation". Corporations ARE evil!!!

This is my opinion. Glad to live where we have freedom of thought.

Anonymous said...

I sat in on this panel at SIGGRAPH, and found Kevin an extremely engaging and articulate speaker. I really enjoyed listening to you, Kevin--thanks!

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