What I Learned (and Still Don't Know) #2: Pandemic Edition
…whoops. In the meantime though, here’s a recap post that’s meant to cover everything since, well, April 2020.
Life has changed quite a bit since my last post. I work from home now. I wake up, get dressed (yes, still!), and hop into my Google Meets daily stand-up. I work throughout the day, and sometimes take a break in the afternoon for a quick nap. I am in the process of adopting a cat that I’ve been fostering since mid-August, and I’ll walk over and pet him as he suns himself by my patio door when I’m building my code. I’ve also moved since my last update to an apartment closer to the office with some friends I interned with last summer (they all also returned to work at Riot full-time). Some days after work, I’ll go on a run if I remember my goal about trying to be more active again (although on most days, my motivation is quite lacking). And then after dinner, I’ll play video games with my friends. If I remember, I’ll call home (although if it gets too late, I skip calling that night because of time zone differences and worrying my parents might have already gone to sleep).
But before I had this routine, it was hard for me to adjust to quarantine life and all of the newfound rites and rituals that came with it. So much of my social life had been my coworkers and friends at the Riot office, refereeing on weekends, heading to the rock climbing gym after dinner and until closing, driving back home at midnight, and waking up in the morning getting ready to do it all over again. I was the furthest I had ever been from home, family, and friends – an entire country away – and I went through a breakup in January that I was taking a bit hard. I had been keeping myself busy to cope, but when the pandemic happened, I found myself completely on my own. There was also just the stress and worries that came with the pandemic and the news – the pandemic was ever-worsening, racial injustice was again in the national spotlight of attention with protests erupting in every major city, the economy was ailing, and the political climate was as bifurcated as it ever had been leading up to the presidential election. It was constant background stress, and it made dealing with emergent issues from other areas of my life burn an already short fuse dangerously close to its end.
I felt like a lot of my life plans were thwarted. Yet despite that, I also felt a bit guilty as well. A lot of my friends from college messaged me after the switch to online learning about the clairvoyance I must have possessed to have graduated a semester early and skipped out on the entire fiasco that was “Zoom University”. While those conversations were always light-hearted, there were others that took place that weighed heavily on my mind. Before I interned at Riot, I interned at Uber ATG, and I had a number of colleagues and friends who worked at Uber (and similar companies, like Lyft and Airbnb) who lost their jobs. Many of my friends – all of whom are just as capable as I am or honestly, more so – lost their job offers or were now struggling even harder than before to find one.
And then there was me. I was working at a company as a junior developer where my expectations are mostly about learning and becoming more technologically adept, and I had started in my role before all of the uncertainty in the job market began. I was receiving amazing mentorship from engineers on my team, and the video game industry was one of the few industries that were, and it feels so strange to say, basically beneficiaries of the pandemic. More people than ever were playing our games and watching esports.
I felt really bad. I felt guilty. It was almost like survivor’s guilt, and I really felt like I didn’t deserve my position.
I’m currently in the middle of putting my life back on track, and adjusting to what is now the new normal. It’s been a while since I’ve been to this little corner of mine, and there’s some dust I know that I need to clean off. I missed giving an update for Q2 (or really anything since the spring time), and instead I’m just going to give a generic “What I Learned (and Still Don’t Know) #2: Pandemic Version” post.
Pandemic Life and Mental Health
I feel a bit shy admitting this, but ultimately these posts are meant to be reflections for me – records where I can look back at my frank musings at the time, for better or for worse, and hopefully chronicle my progress over time. So: as I said before, I struggled a lot adjusting to the pandemic. It was hard on my mental health. I was essentially living on my own (I had housemates at my old place, but we all kept to ourselves), and there were periods of multiple weeks that would go by where I would only leave my room to go to the bathroom, do my laundry, or quickly grab food. I had only recently moved and started work when the pandemic began, and I didn’t quite have a community yet in LA. I didn’t realize until the pandemic began how essentially all of my social life was based in the office or otherwise related to Riot. I was also quite a few years younger than most other people on my team, and while my coworkers adjusted to their own set of difficulties that came with sheltering-in-place with a family, I was just completely alone. I was far from home and missed my family, but I didn’t want to fly home because of the risk of transmitting disease to somebody in my family who was immunocompromised, and I didn’t want to take the time off to drive all the way across the country.
I also struggled with balancing having healthy work hours and boundaries. I was used to there being a physical delineation between when I was working and when I wasn’t – I’d walk into the office and do my work, and then leave and know I was on personal time. When I first started working from home, my work and personal space were indiscernible from one another. I would be “off-work” and playing video games on my own, but feel guilty, as if I should be working. I’d check Slack and read my emails during personal time, and I’d find it hard to focus during work hours. My motivation to work and enjoy it was also being worn down by the combination of being so isolated and also tasks taking longer to complete (I never appreciated how much unblocking happens from quick conversations over the shoulder, or how much of my awareness of the team and our work comes from overhearing conversations), in addition to there being more distractions around me in a work-from-home setting.
I had a few personal matters that I was learning to cope with, and I also felt demotivated from life plans changing. I had just graduated and was working my first job after moving across the country – I was so ambitious and excited when I first arrived. There were so many things I wanted to do and learn. It felt like I was just starting to get into the groove of things when my life felt uprooted and put on pause.
I didn’t feel like myself. And doing anything suddenly felt harder and so much more mentally taxing. I found myself exhausted after a workday, even when I felt like I was being far less productive than I was when I was at the office.
What turned this around for me, to be completely honest, was making friends. I met a person online through a mutual friend who then introduced me to his entire friend group. I joined their Discord server, and everybody I met welcomed me. They were all my age, and we played games together. I found myself looking forward to getting off work and being able to play and laugh hysterically with everybody until late into the night, and I found myself being a lot more energetic throughout the day. They were all people I had never met in person – they were all Canadian – but they were people who still to this day I’d call my closest friends. And suddenly, as I grew less lonely, I found myself being more productive at work and gaining motivation again to return to the goals I had set for myself when I first moved to LA.
I always feel a little bit ashamed admitting that meeting them was the pivotal moment for my mental health, rather than some sort of self-revelation or “pulling myself up by the bootstraps”-type story. I feel like I’m weak and dependent on others. I had this happen a bit in college too, where times that I struggled in school correlated with times that I was unhappy or lonely. I see others who are always able to step up to the plate regardless of how much is weighing on their shoulders, and then look at myself and am just disappointed. I see it as a lack of discipline, resolve, or just in general a fault of having a weak spirit. I just don’t have enough grit. I was raised to believe that having friends and socializing were “frivolous” and “unproductive”, and I’m still trying to fight against those beliefs and be more forgiving of myself.
Since then, I moved in July to a new place with three friends who also work at Riot (two of them started on the same day as me, while another started a few weeks afterwards). We had all met the previous summer as interns, and we cook for one another and spend time together on weekends. On weekdays, we’ll pass each other in the kitchen and make smalltalk; we’ll ask about each other’s day or rant about an issue that’s frustrating us at work before going back to our rooms to continue with what we were doing. I’ve had so much fun with them all.
Mental health to me has always felt like something unrelated to my productivity and ability to realize goals. But I supposed in a way, at least for myself, it feels now like mental health and having a solid “personal life” foundation is a sort of necessary prerequisite to being a capable human being, much like Maslow’s hierarchy and the prerequisites to actualization. But I’d also like to say that after opening up more to my coworkers and friends as well, everybody’s pandemic situation is different, but it’s been hard for everybody. Here’s to being easier on ourselves.
It took me a bit to even remember what I did in this period. Everything from mid-March to now feels like a gray, amorphous amalgamation of days. My team is currently writing our next set of 120 Day Plans, and I went back and read through my previous goals and realized I’ve accomplished quite a bit more than I was giving myself credit for.
A few bullet points I’d like to point out that I accomplished:
- I was the on-call secondary in a training role for quite a few months in the spring and early summer, but since then joined the primary on-call rotation. My first shift was during an especially busy week in playoffs where our schedule included TSM vs. C9 and G2 vs. FNC, and I remember being extremely nervous and hovering around my phone. But, the week was uneventful and that shift passed without any issues. It will take quite a few more rotations before I’m actually fully comfortable, but I’m looking forward to it with a lot more confidence.
- I made quite a bit of progress on [redacted product] before my team reprioritized (which I’ll talk about a bit more later), and also paired with H.S. closely pretty much every day. I’m extremely grateful to H.S. and his mentorship has done wonders not just for my technical skills (I’ve learned a lot and have become pretty comfortable working with back-end web systems), but growing confidence and understanding more of the thought process behind being a better engineer. His favorite thing to tell me: “Question the frame.”
- The Designing Data-Intensive Applications reading group has been going really well. We’ve had to delay some meetings here and there, but it’s something I’m happy I started and am participating in.
- I feel like I’m finally started to step up to the plate for being one of the leaders in RAD Genders. I’ve delivered on pretty much all of my Q2/Q3 goals, and am starting to be a lot better at navigating leadership in a corporate setting. I also feel a lot more comfortable with the other leads in RAD Genders, and respect them immensely. I’ve become a lot better at relying on them for help and reaching out for feedback, which contributes to me better achieving my deliverables.
- I feel fully integrated in many more team rituals that I was nervous to participate in before. I’m reviewing more PRs, asking more questions, giving sizings for every task that’s applicable to me, and overall just being a lot more engaged.
Some things that I didn’t make as much progress on:
- Giving feedback to RFCs. Part of it is that after our team reprioritization, there simply weren’t a lot of opportunities for this, but when I was still working on [redacted product] I could have contributed more (or at least asked more questions) about the [redacted product] RFCs.
- I still am pretty in the dark about CI/CD concepts.
- While I did learn about Rewards, I’m still relatively in the dark about Drops, but my current work of adding a new video provider (the full-loop, from back-end to front-end and also interacting with the third-party API) and integrating with LiveStats, Rewards, and Drops is helping me make progress in this weak area.
I would also say that I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with 1:1s with other people, especially my manager, tech lead, and team captain. I’ve been able to use them to be a lot more productive. Some examples are I’ve started pairing or going through a run-down of the architecture of certain products with my tech lead, or asking questions about Esports Digital priorities with my team captain (and also giving input on which tasks I’m most invested in). I’ve also been having better 1:1s with my manager, and we recently went through the revised job architecture with looking at opportunities for me to start aiming towards tasks that a mid-level software engineer would pick up.
A random new goal that I want to accomplish this upcoming quarter: give a tech talk! I’m a bit nervous at picking a topic, but I’m going to probably lean towards something related to programming language semantics. More details TBD – I’ll probably write about my process preparing for it and perhaps record a version to post here for my own amusement.
(Shameless plug: check out my introductory notes on Functional Programming here! I know, I haven’t made another one in a while. I’ll do it soon, I promise.)
When I first joined Riot, for some time I worked on mostly emergent issues, code clean-up, and post-MVP tasks on various products. But, starting in early summer, I joined M.H. and H.S. on working on a new product’s back-end. It was really exciting me for a few reasons:
- This was the first time I’ve been around for a product that was just starting. I got to see and give feedback on the designs, and I was really excited and passionate about the product. I was really happy to be working on something that I felt like esports fans were going to love.
- It was also my first chance to see a product “from start to end” – end here being MVP and launch. I really felt a sense of… pride? in finally feeling like I owned a piece of a product.
- I’ve always only ever worked on products that were a bit more “mature” – there were already guard rails in place for me to follow when I picked up new tickets, even for tasks that involved adding new features. With this new product, since I was building it from scratch, there were a lot of things that were just up in the air. I had to ask a lot of questions, think hard about how something would be used, and sometimes go back and change things. There were also a lot of things that I thought I understood that I realized I actually didn’t understand that deeply. I really appreciated this because I want to specialize in back-end web technology, and I was able to write migrations, build the domain model and database representations of different objects, and make the API layer and connect it with the database layer I had just worked on. I was able to pick up larger-size tasks and completely own it, and I got a lot of feedback along the way that helped me greatly.
- I got a chance to work on exploring options and making design decisions. There were lots of things with this new product that were still up in the air, and opportunities to complete a spike on various topics. We wanted some way of notifying users and considered potentially using email, which is what I completed a spike for. I wrote up a document with my findings after lots of reading and meetings with various people around Riot, and opened it for feedback, questions, and general input from my team.
- It was also the closest I had ever worked with other people. We were basically putting down the rails as the train was moving, and we were all constantly pumping out code more rapidly than I ever had experienced in the past. We were discussing better ways to approach things, what others were doing, any merge issues that were going to happen, or any dependencies or blockages that were happening between each others’ work. It was especially challenging figuring out how to work closely with others when we couldn’t be there in-person, but we kept up over Slack and 1:1s.
At some point in mid-July, my team made the decision to deprioritize the new product. We wrapped up work at the closest stopping point, merged in our changes, and haven’t touched the product since. In the moment, I was really disappointed by the decision. I was excited to be working on a product from the early stages, as all of my previous experience so far had been with mature products with already established frameworks and design patterns. We were moving quickly, and we frequently would revise our choices as new things cropped up. I was also working on the skills that I wanted to gain more experience with (backend web services) and with the people I wanted to learn from (especially H.S.).
However, because a number of esports events were cancelled as a result of COVID-19 and we were tackling what felt like was too many projects for the number of engineers on our team (especially with one engineer going on paternity leave), the project I was working on was iced in favor other others that would bring in more revenue to make up for our department’s losses. It’s disappointing, but I understand and also believe that the decision was the best one for the team’s health overall – the concern was first initiated by another engineer on the team mentioning feeling like they were being pulled apart in a sprint retro, which our leadership team took seriously.
Anyways, that’s a part of work life, isn’t it? My first dropped project!
After the pandemic first broke out, another plan that was thrown into uncertainty was whether or not the summer internship program would still take place at all, and if it still was, in what form it would be. Eventually, Riot made the decision to host all of the interns remotely in a shortened 8-week internship (effectively, it was a 7-week internship because we had a company-wide week off at the beginning of August). My team ended up having an intern, and it was an incredibly nostalgic but also nerve-wracking event for me.
I joined Riot as an intern when I was 20. I remember struggling with feeling like I belonged on the team, and I nervously looked to my mentor who encouraged me, worked together with me on various projects, and who was completely dedicated to ensuring that I had everything that I needed during my internship. He answered all of my questions, pointed me to others to have 1:1s and connect with, and to this day I have the upmost complete respect for him. Even now, although we’re both full-time employees and haven’t worked on the same products in a while, I still see him as my mentor. By the end of my internship, I had loved my time and was very seriously thinking about coming back. I felt like I belonged, and I truly “felt like a Rioter” – and I wanted to return to that when I finished school.
I also thought about S.S., the intern-to-full-time-convert who was on Esports Digital (but a different team) at the time that I joined and whose desk was right next to mine. We grew really close that summer, and although he wasn’t somebody who I received a lot of technical mentorship from, I’d voice some of my anxieties about being an intern and whether I was “doing enough” to him, and he’d tell me about his experiences and what the internship had been like for him. He and I also became good friends, and although he left Riot halfway through my internship last summer, we still kept in contact and I even saw him a few times before the pandemic started.
I thought about these experiences when our intern, A.S., joined. M.H. was his mentor, and he joined the product I was working on (although after the deprioritization of the product, he and M.H. switched to Drops). We set up our own 1:1s every Monday morning.
I liked A.S. a lot, as did (I’m sure) everybody else on our team. He was friendly, enthusiastic, and eager to learn. He asked questions, and jumped straight into leaving feedback on pull requests and asking questions. He took initiative and wasn’t afraid of being wrong – he was there to soak up everything he can and do as much as he could. To be honest, his energy really caught me by surprise. I realized I had grown a little bit… complacent. I don’t really know when it happened – when I first joined, I was the bright-eyed and energetic new hire who was asking questions and looking to learn as much as I could. And then the pandemic happened. And then work-from-home happened. I was really isolated, and I found myself growing burnt out over work. I also always saw myself in this role of being the most junior member of the team, and as everybody else around me always encouraged me and told me that my focus should simply be on learning as much as I could, I felt like I had to put away some of my ambition and just focus on learning as much as I could and from others. After all, everybody knew more than me.
But A.S. was completely different from me. I was afraid of being wrong, and sometimes when I didn’t know an answer to something or wasn’t sure, I’d always tackle it on my own than ever ask for help from my teammates. If there was something on a PR I wasn’t sure about, I’d hesitate to comment, because I’d reason to myself that there was probably something I was missing and that was why I might disagree with something. But he immediately jumped in, left lengthy reviews, and was confident in himself (but still really humble and asked lots of questions). And to be honest, I felt a bit of pressure. Prior to the new product we were working on together, I had never touched back-end web technology. I focused mostly on front-end in my summer internship, and although my team and my manager knew that I wanted to make the switch, because of our team’s needs for the first few months after I came back I was still doing front-end development. When A.S. joined, we had just barely been working for a matter of weeks, and I was more green to working in web back-end systems than he was. A.S. was actually older than me by a few months (he’s from Canada, and not only do a number of them have five-year programs instead of four-year programs, but I also graduated a semester early) and had done more internships/co-ops combined than I’ve had total work experience. So while I could understand and rationalize how I was also just learning how to work on back-end systems and I had months of experience on other products in our ecosystem that he hadn’t had, I still felt bad about myself. I felt like I shouldn’t be a “beginner”, and I felt bad that I wasn’t an SME on the product.
There’s definitely a lot I can learn from A.S., and I want to be more confident and have an approach to work and learning that’s closer to his. It was a joy to have him on our team and work with him, if not also incredibly nostalgic to experience the internship from the other side for the first time.
For a period of time, we weren’t certain whether Worlds was still going to happen, but until we got the official red light, we continued work as normal. There were a number of deals signed for company sponsorships, advertisements, and agreements that spelled out features and additions for us to implement before September. I ended up picking up my biggest responsibility yet – adding support for Trovo to our site.
It was a significant task for me for a number of reasons. Not only was it the largest in points value I’ve ever tackled (and the work lasted two sprints), but it also touched every single product in our full esports stack from back-end to front-end. I needed to add support for it in our back-end service, in our product for tournament operators to start and manage the live stream, on lolesports.com (an interactive JS player with chat as well), and to also support LiveStats and Drops. Additionally, Trovo was made by a third-party outside of Riot, and I had to communicate back and forth with Trovo employees about using their API, meeting their demands, asking questions, reporting bugs, and managing expectations and deadlines (there were a number of times that they would ask for things that weren’t in scope or it wasn’t clear yet what was signed in the contract, and I’d have to rope in my product manager to communicate with them). Additionally, the Trovo team worked in a time zone that was 15 hours ahead of Los Angeles.
And, this was all with a tight deadline to be done by Worlds start.
It was the most crunch I had experienced yet since working full-time, but to be honest, I enjoyed it in a strange way. I knew that what I was working on had stakes, and I was eager to make sure it would happen. There were a lot of emergent issues that cropped up – errors in the API given, bugs that weren’t on our end but instead on the Trovo player side, changes in specification, my manager leaving Riot (who had been the primary communicator between Trovo and us beforehand), issues with Drops, and ongoing changes to settings service and how we split traffic. But, working on Trovo ended up being a chance for me to showcase my familiarity that I’ve gained since returning over all of our esports products, and I was really proud to see everything come together.
And yes, I’m one of the people who have Trovo set as my default video provider on lolesports.com. Come on, I have to! I’m the one who implemented it. I’m also one of the people who still have the “Jump to game start” button toggled on instead of automatically pressed, since seeing it every time brings me right back to my internship days – it was my onboarding project when I first joined that summer over a year ago now. I’m proud of how much I’ve been able to contribute.
RAD Genders and Leadership
I joined the RAD Genders team in spring, and am the belonging strike team lead for the RIG (I am 10% allocated to Riot’s Diversity and Inclusion team). I feel like I’ve grown a lot more confident in my role in the leadership team – I used to really feel out of place because of how junior I was. I was new to Riot, and new to working. Who am I to try to step up to the plate as a leader? But what I realized I could bring was enthusiasm, and I had a lot of experience in leadership, organizing events, and building spaces throughout college that I shouldn’t count out just because it wasn’t in a professional setting.
WFH has also made me become more confident in my role, because it made me see an opportunity space for RAD Genders having a real need for the belonging initiative. I realized that in this time of being more disconnected than ever, members of our RIG were looking for community and connection. It was also something which would benefit our other initiatives as well – if I could help improve the sense of belonging in our RIG and giving chances for members to get to know one another, they would feel more comfortable opening up and participating in the various opportunities that we offer. It also opened up channels for us to better deliver things that our members want and need. I started having more conversations with people in our RIGs, and it let me get a more accurate finger on the pulse of what members of our RIG were going through and what they wanted. I’m also additionally excited about the role that I believe RIGs have in just making Riot better – in not just making it better for Rioters, but also ensuring that our products are awesome and appeal to members of our RIG.
I held a virtual luncheon for a few dozen people to great success, and also have been approved to hold it again with double the budget. I’ve also helped drive engagement in our Slack channel up, and I’ve worked to include returning Rioters from my intern cohort into joining the RIG. I’ve also started opening up about my work for RAD Genders to my team, and two other members of my team have joined the RIG as allies (I’m incredibly grateful for the support my team has given me). I got a shout-out in our recent “retro” over our past year about helping to improve engagement in our RIG!
Joining the RIG has also helped open the door for other ideas that I’m passionate about, provided opportunities for me to advance my career, and connected me with valuable mentors. I’ve also started an internal group called Fair Play (inspired by the Fair Play Alliance and feedback about gender-based discrimination in VALORANT through voice communications), and I’m really about some ways I’d love to take it and also started getting involved with some volunteer work for the player dynamics team. Getting involved with that work also helped me reconnect with Joseph Seering, the PhD student I did research under when I was an undergraduate, and my interests in moderation and creating and designing online spaces – and also start thinking about perhaps even working someday on a player dynamics team. I also got a sponsored ticket to the Women in Technology conference (which is beginning tomorrow at the time of writing) that I’ll be tuning into for technical talks, networking events, and career advice. But above all, I’ve had a chance to meet some incredible women at Riot. S.L. has been an amazing mentor to me since I came to Riot – she’s given me advice when I was struggling with building a relationship with my manager and getting what I needed out of the relationship, affirming me, and connecting me to others at Riot (I have an 1:1 with a principal software engineer on Riot tomorrow that I’m incredibly excited about, who S.L. introduced me to!). But above all, she’s the one who introduced me to RAD Genders, inspired and invited me to join, and gave me the opportunity to join the leadership team. She and others on the leadership team are also examples to me of where I want to be as I grow in my career. Especially during the NEOM deal and the internal fallout that happened, I remember being completely awestruck and inspired by the response from our RIG leadership, how eloquently yet firmly they conducted themselves and expressed concerns in an extremely tense situation, and also the empathy and concern they showed for members of our RIG. I’d love to be like that one day.
Also, a random thing that S.L. had told me to do that I’ve found to be incredibly useful, now that at the moment I’m embroiled with the end-of-year performance cycle and writing self-summaries: keeping a brag doc. It’s a place where you can record all that you’ve done, and it’s important that you regularly update it. It helps to build confidence, and is really useful to reference when advocating for yourself. If you don’t have one, I’d recommend starting one.
Post-Worlds and What’s Up Next
There’s just over a month left of this year (also factoring in the Winter break Riot will take for the holidays), and that’ll be a wrap on my first year working. It wasn’t even remotely close to what I had imagined, and a lot of things didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped. But, I’m feeling pretty optimistic about the future and I’m learning to give myself more credit for what I have accomplished throughout this year. Career-wise, I’m looking to be a better leader in RAD Genders and start aiming for a P2 software engineer promotion. And for this little corner of the internet, I hope I’ll be posting reflections on an actual quarterly cadence, finishing up more of my many drafts on other miscellaneous topics, working more on my functional programming series, posting notes for Designing Data-Intensive Applications, and starting some notes on introductory CS content or coding interviews.
I started fostering a cat starting in mid-August, and I’m currently in the process of adopting him. When I first got him, he was injured and emaciated, but he’s since become an incredibly fluffy and affectionate (if not on the anxious side) cat. He has an Instagram!