Our Department isn't defined by the physical space we occupy on the campus of UCSD - it is defined, rather, by the remarkable individuals who make up our community. The lifeblood of any community is its people, and this is especially true of a community that relies on ideas and innovations. In recognition of this, the Department of Cognitive Science at UCSD presents our new "Alumnus/Alumna of the Month" feature.
The goal of the Alumnus of the Month program is to celebrate some of our outstanding Alumni, while giving all students - past, present, and future - an opportunity to meet some of our graduates, and to see some of the amazing things that people from our community have accomplished - in the field of Cognitive Science and beyond.
The hope is that it will both put a more 'human' face on Cognitive Science, as well as be a testimony to the wide range of interesting things that one can do with a Cognitive Science background. In addition, of course, it's a means for CogSci alumni to see what other alumni are up to.
Tim Monk is a Lead Programmer at Sony Computer Entertainment America in San Diego, California. He has been active in the industry since 1994 and has been involved in the development of such notable product lines as SONY's baseball series, the latest release of which is MLB '09 The Show. Tim graduated UCSD in '92 with a degree in Cognitive Science, focusing on artificial intelligence programming. He enjoys traveling with his wife Lynn and getting down to the beach to surf as much as possible.
How did you decide you wanted to major in Cognitive Science?
I spent my first couple of years at UCSD "undeclared". I took a variety of courses trying to decide what I was most interested in, but by the end of my second year, I still wasn't sure. Under pressure from my parents to pick a major and to finish school, I visited an academic counselor. She helped me focus, listened carefully to what I had to say about my interests and my strengths, and then opened the UCSD Catalog to a section describing what was then a relatively new department, Cognitive Science. She set the catalog down in front of me and said, "They really don't pay me enough for what I do." It only took me a few seconds of reading to understand her joke. Cognitive Science was the perfect major for me. I was immediately fascinated with the program. I had spent two years searching, and she had figured it out in less than 15 minutes. She was good!
What was your career path after graduating?
I graduated UCSD in the middle of a recession. Sound familiar? I was scared because I saw plenty of recent college graduates still hanging on to the part-time jobs that they had while they were in school. I was determined not to let that happen to me, so I got aggressive in my pursuit of a career - attending job fairs, doing internships, following every lead, and pursuing every opportunity that arose. After months of struggle, I finally ended up getting an offer from a small defense contractor in the middle of the country. Though I was happy to have found something that would help me gain valuable experience, the job required that I change who I was as a person - ditching my t-shirt and shorts for a collared shirt and slacks, ditching my free spirit and creativity for a very structured, regimented working environment, and moving away from the beach, to an area where I didn't know anyone and didn't fit in. This was not at all what I had in mind when I pictured starting a career, but I decided that I would make the best of it. I looked at it as a chance to develop the skills that I knew I would need to find a better job (in a better location) at some point in the future.
I acquired some graphics programming skills on the job by working nights on the defense company's SGI computer. I was lucky to have had access to an SGI, as it was one of the first machines to do real-time, 3D graphics. I took full advantage of the opportunity, learning as much as I could in the time I was there, coming up with personal projects to help me develop programming skills that I thought I could apply later in my career. After about a year of working for the defense contractor, I had acquired enough new skills that I thought I might be marketable to other employers. In 1993, when I came back to the San Diego area to visit some friends, I decided to pursue some local job opportunities that I had heard about through my industry contacts. My newly acquired 3D graphics knowledge helped me get my foot in the door at a small, Carlsbad-based company that was doing real-time 3D graphics work on SGIs. They made me a job offer, saying that I was one of the few candidates with any experience working on SGIs. I enthusiastically accepted the offer, quickly ditching the collared shirt and slacks for t-shirts and shorts again, and moving back to the beach where I belonged. As that company transitioned into video game development, so did I, and I've been in the industry ever since.
The video game industry is known for grueling crunch periods before releases. How do you maintain a balance between your work and the rest of your life?
Yes, it's true that our industry is characterized by intense crunch cycles, but from my perspective, it hasn't been the "evil corporation" that has led to this phenomenon as much as it's been the fact that people with an intense passion for what they do tend to gravitate to the industry. That's the way it was for me anyway. I launched my career in the industry by working crazy hours, passionately taking on new things, learning, creating, inventing, etc. Ironically, as I sat and wrote my initial answer to this question, I realized that it was 4am. I wrote it on a notepad that I keep by the side of the bed. That notepad has replaced the computer that used to be there so that I could wake up anytime I had an idea or inspiration and write code. These days I just write down my thoughts on a piece of paper and go back to sleep.
Though I still have that passion for what I do, meeting my wife was the beginning of my effort to maintain more of a balance between my work and home lives. Up until the point that I met her, I did a very poor job of maintaining that balance. I'd sometimes spend all day and all night working on a problem, heading home well past midnight or not at all, just working through the night and right into the next day. I don't do that as much anymore (only for brief periods right before going code final on a product). I have someone to come home to now, so I try to pace myself, consciously reminding myself that I can usually just finish up my work the next day. I take my vacation hours now rather than letting them expire. My wife and I have enjoyed some great vacations, exploring the surf all over Central America, heading up to the local ski resort with our dogs for some snowboarding, heading out to the river with groups of friends for some wakeboarding, etc.
Video games are a unique application area for Cognitive Science, blending interface design, artificial intelligence, social interactions, etc. How did your education at UCSD train you for what you are doing today?
As cliché as it sounds, the most important thing I learned at UCSD was actually "how to learn". Though the video game industry has plenty of very qualified, self-starters, who don't actually have college degrees, most hiring managers see a college degree as a plus because it proves that you're capable of learning, which lowers the risk involved in bringing you onboard. Without a degree, you have to find other ways to prove yourself.
On a more concrete level, the most valuable career skill that I learned in the Cognitive Science program was how to develop meaningful computer applications. Cognitive Science students have the benefit of taking a detailed look at fascinating fields such as Linguistics, Artificial Intelligence, Neuroscience, and Human Interface design prior to actually building applications. Designing and developing Cognitive Science related programs that require detailed domain knowledge is very similar to what we do in the world of video game development. Rather than simply solving some pre-fabricated problem out of a textbook, you're actually drawing on your expertise in a particular area, and exercising your problem solving and creative thinking abilities as you use that expertise to develop your application.
Is there any other advice you would like to share for current UCSD students?
If you're interested in starting a career in the video game industry, take as many computer graphics and programming classes as you can, and definitely do an internship within the industry. Also, when a hiring manager looks at your resume, seeing that you've done some graphics or gaming-related projects in your free time is a big plus. These things show that you're self-motivated and that you have a genuine interest in our field. We get quite a few inexperienced applicants who apply for jobs in the industry simply because they think it would be 'cool to work on games', but it's the applicants who have taken the time to learn more about the industry before applying who end up getting their foot in the door and ultimately becoming the industry's star players.
A more generic piece of advice I'll offer is that no matter what happens as you transition out of the academic world and into the corporate world, never forget who you are as a person or what your ambitions are. When times are tough, it's easy to sacrifice your principles for a little bit of security and some work experience. There's nothing wrong with doing that in the short-term to build your resume, but in the long run you need to follow your passion or you're simply not going to be happy with your career. If you're going to spend most of your waking hours dedicated to something, you should make sure that it's something you're really going to enjoy.
What is your favorite thing to do when you are not working?
Surfing has always been my favorite sport. When I was on the UCSD surf team, we won Nationals. I placed 5th in that contest, and made it the last contest I ever surfed in. I wanted to end my competitive surfing years on a high note and get back to surfing just for fun, which I have.
Where to from here?
I think I'd like to teach college-level classes in video game development or computer graphics at some point. I'd like to make a difference for the next generation of programmers. Maybe in a few years I'll pursue that…who knows?
To nominate someone as an alumna/alumnus of the month, or if you would be interested in being featured yourself, please contact us at email@example.com.