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Remote Working: How Dan Sturman went from researcher to Roblox CTO | Pocket Gamer.biz


The games industry plays host to a colourful cast of diverse individuals, from artists and coders to narrative designers and studio heads.

The skills to pull off these roles, however, are complex and differing, with each position requiring mastery in its field – especially in these complex times we are all living through at the minute.

To highlight some of the brilliant work that goes on behind the scenes as well as how employees around the world are adapting to the life of remote work, PocketGamer.biz is reaching out to the individuals who make up the games industry in our Jobs in Games: Remote Working series.

This week we spoke with Roblox chief technology officer Dan Sturman.

PocketGamer.biz: Can you tell us about your current role and what it entails?

Dan Sturman: I’m the chief technology officer for Roblox, which means I’m responsible for leading our efforts to build the Roblox platform. This includes the game engine users enjoy while playing a Roblox game, supporting services like the avatar builder, item catalogue and the matchmaking service, that enables users to play games with their friends.

It also includes Roblox Studio, our developer tool that allows creators to build new experiences on the platform.

We tend to look for team members who will think beyond the short-term fix and instead think about the long-term when building out new features.

Dan Sturman

How did you first get into games and how did you progress into this role?

Roblox is my first stint in the game industry. I started my career as a researcher, working on large-scale distributed systems. From there I moved onto product development and management, always working on large-scale systems.

Roblox intrigued me because of Dave’s (David Baszucki, the CEO and co-founder) vision of bringing the world together through play. Building a system that could bring so many people together through a real-time interactive experience seemed like the most exciting and impactful thing I could work on next.

The impact of platforms like this is really felt at times like this, and we take our role in connecting people very seriously.

Do you think there are any misconceptions, public or professional, surrounding your area of expertise?

Computing and game making are too often perceived as solitary activities. In reality nothing could be further from the truth: building great systems or games is inherently a team-based, social activity. Knowing professionals in a range of other fields, I actually think computing is one of the most team-oriented careers you could pick.

We see this in how we work at Roblox, where the management team spends a lot of time ensuring teams are well-connected so they can move quickly and build a great platform. We also see this in our developer community.

The vast majority of our top games are written by teams, not individuals, using features like Team Create in Developer Studio to collaborate. If any of us could get real work done by working alone, having the entire company working from home would be a lot easier to manage.

What advice do you have for someone looking for a job in this profession?

We have a pretty unique and interesting culture at Roblox and that’s a big part of what makes our platform work. We tend to look for team members who will think beyond the short-term fix and instead think about the long-term when building out new features.

We have to keep in mind that our development community will probably use any capability we think up in ways we’ve never imagined, and build things in a principled way.

The Roblox platform involves an incredibly diverse range of tech, including a sophisticated rendering and physics engine, a world-wide distributed cloud, and a trust and safety system to keep kids safe.

This combination of technologies in a single company is quite rare, so we need engineers who are passionate about taking on new challenges, bring a proactive, problem-solving attitude, who aren’t afraid of technical challenges, and who enjoy learning new skills on the job.

How has the shift from office to remote working impacted your role, if at all?

Up until this month, Roblox very much had a ‘work-from-headquarters’ culture, with a significant majority of our team being centrally located in San Mateo, California. In recent weeks this has, of course, had to change, and quickly.

Across the company, we’ve rapidly shifted our communication patterns and standardised a small set of communication tools. Clear, open communication is important in any company, but this is doubly the case in the current situation, and we’ve increased our communication from the executive team with weekly “town hall” meetings and a weekly newsletter

This change has been particularly tricky as a relative newcomer to the company. It’s become impossible for me to meet new people by walking around the office or sitting down for lunch with a different group of people.

To compensate, I’ve been running a series of ask-me-anything sessions at lunch. I’ve been doing two of these a week for the past few weeks – it’s been a great medium for employees to get to know me, and a good way for me to find out what’s on my colleagues’ minds.

What does your typical day look like when working remotely?

Interestingly enough, the day’s schedule hasn’t changed much while working remotely. In fact, I find the usual routines important in keeping myself productive. What has changed is how we work that schedule into our days. Meetings are all over video of course. Notably missing are the natural breaks you find yourself taking as you go from one meeting to another, and the less formal interactions that happen during that time.

While it’s hard to measure the impact of this, some of the most novel and impactful innovations I’ve been part of started with a chance conversation in a kitchen or over coffee.

Dan Sturman

To compensate, I’ve been trying to reach out informally during the day and encouraging the team to do the same. One challenge is that it seems it’s gotten even easier to pack the day! I’m trying to be more diligent about taking a few solid breaks and stepping away from my desk and screen.

What do you think are the biggest advantages and disadvantages of remote working?

Firstly, I think it’s pretty amazing how far technology tools for working from home have progressed in just a few years. Even just four years ago we would have all been on conference calls, emailing attachments around and trying to have conversations over email instead of through sophisticated messaging software. The world really has changed.

That said, with the pandemic, there are some really unique challenges that go beyond working from home. Collaboration technology does little to address the multiple jobs that many of us find ourselves undertaking at once – taking care of our kids and loved ones, for example, and figuring out how to keep our pantries well-stocked.

The biggest disadvantage is of course that there are no accidental or casual conversations – every interaction is to some degree planned. While it’s hard to measure the impact of this, some of the most novel and impactful innovations I’ve been part of started with a chance conversation in a kitchen or over coffee.

In contrast, the biggest advantage is how easy it is to intentionally get people together. Physical logistics – say if you wanted to organise an impromptu all-company meeting – are, for the time being, not a concern. Interviews have become much easier to schedule, as we no longer have to worry about a continuous schedule on a single day.

Is there anything you wish you had known before moving to remote working?

Yes, the names and roles of all the people I work with! The biggest challenge for me has been being new to the team and not yet knowing who is who. That goes to a broader point that the biggest challenge in working relationships is building close human relationships.

I’m addressing this by proactively reaching out, even about the small stuff. I’m lucky that the team at Roblox is incredibly welcoming and warm, and I’ve found that people are really eager to engage and chat when I reach out.

Do you have any advice for others who are struggling to adjust to remote work?

My advice would be to be very deliberate in how you work with others. Conversations won’t happen by accident, and even with video, it can be a lot easier to misunderstand one another than it might be face-to-face.

Be proactive in reaching out to others, and make yourself as available as possible to others. Don’t hesitate to resolve an email thread that has gone on for too long with a quick video call. And when you are in a discussion, be particularly mindful of being a good listener and communicator.

After the pandemic ends and if you were given the choice, would you prefer to continue working remotely or go back to working in an office?

I think our in-office culture has some important advantages I wouldn’t want to lose. That said, given our growth, we were already in the process of thinking about how we might expand our geographic reach. With that in mind, I think Roblox has a big head start on what we need to learn as we become a more distributed team.



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