How one childhood moment formed my career

Tue, Feb 20, 2018       3-minute read

There are some moments that define your life, and are often alarmingly simple given the impact they will have upon you. This is how my entire career stemmed from catching the briefest glimpse of one person’s name when I was seven years old.

Let’s start with that name: Yuji Naka.

If you’re not familiar with the name, then you are almost certainly familiar with the work attached to it. Yuji Naka was the lead programmer of Sonic Team during Sega’s glory years in the early 1990s. I first saw his name in the end credits of Sonic the Hedgehog 2:

Yuji Naka’s name only appeared for a split second in the end credits of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, but it was enough to make me want his job.

I have played (and completed!) that game dozens of times over the last two and a half decades. The first time must have been when I was seven years old — the game had been released just before Christmas that year, and I remember unboxing it with a brand new Sega Mega Drive on Christmas Day.

When I completed it for the first time and watched the credits, I saw the title ‘Chief Programmer’ briefly flash up. It sounded so important.

Inspiring a brand new coder

My family was a fairly early adopter of computing technology. We had an IBM PC and an Atari ST back when most computers could only be found in schools and the workplace.

As both systems came bundled with a form of BASIC, I knew generally what programming was, so I immediately realised that this one individual was largely responsible for creating the game that had given me so much enjoyment. In that moment I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.

(Although being honest with hindsight I just wanted the glory. Let’s face it: I was seven years old — children aren’t exactly known for their altruism.)

The desire to become chief programmer of a game like Sonic the Hedgehog motivated me to design title screens, game sprites and see what kind of interactivity I could code on my Atari.

And when I discovered Borland Delphi a few years later and realised that I could make rudimentary PC games using bitmap images cobbled together in Microsoft Paint, they were always ‘Sonic’ in nature.

Growing up

My poorly executed attempts at creating PC games eventually led to dabbling with graphical programming (image editing software and the like), then media players and networking tools.

For a short while I abandoned programming, but when the monotony of my first proper job made me realise that I could boost productivity by writing some small applications, it all suddenly seemed so practical again.

But I would not have known how to write those applications were it not for my previous experience with BASIC and Delphi. Experience that I would not have were it not for my desire to make a Sonic game.

In the years since, I have been fortunate enough to hold lead programmer positions — I am living the dream! Maybe not making epic side-scrolling games, but I was always going to be a decade or two late to that party.

And all because at the age of seven I was awestruck by Yuji Naka’s job title and thought, ‘Yes, that’s what I want to do.’

The moral of the story

The smallest of things can affect our lives in ways that we cannot possibly imagine. Who we are in ten year’s time could be decided by something seemingly insignificant that happens tomorrow. It might be good or it might be bad, but the story of how should at least be interesting.