Smashing Spotlight: Stephen Nguyen, Senior Developer
Ever wonder what makes Smashing Ideas so smashing? Our people! We sat down with Stephen Nguyen, Senior Developer, to talk shop, why a video player with all seasons of Gilligan’s Island is what he’d want with him on a deserted island, how the art of listening is a critical component of a successful client relationship, and what hope he has for technology in the world his children will grow up in.
You are known to be a swiss army knife of development skills, which your project team benefits tremendously from. How did you start out in development and how do you continue to diversify your skillset?
I started out developing in the gaming industry when I was working on the Gameboy and Game Gear consoles. These consoles were developed using assembly language, and when a new console was released, developers would have to learn different languages and hardware. We would have to know about the hardware to write inference for display, sound, and inputs. At that time there wasn’t any school or training you could take to write games; we had to rely on each other to learn new skills. My early days in development really taught me that you can learn a lot from your peers. I take this with me no matter what I work on: no matter what your team’s skill level is, they always have something to teach you that you can use.
Any career highlights you’d like to share up until this point?
One of my favorite projects I’ve worked on was “Super Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” for the Gameboy and Game Gear. It was the simplified version of the SNES game. The team was very small and I was doing most of the development. The lead artist and I did some very creative game mechanics for that time to make the game fun. If you’ve played the game, I’ll point you to the Endor speeder bike chase and flying the Millennium Falcon through the Death Star as examples of our innovative teamwork. These levels were built for a 3D feel on the SNES, and we were porting it over to consoles that mostly were created for a 2D game. We achieved a 3D feel on those consoles and gave it unique gameplay rather than having it as a side stroller. One gaming magazine named it the best Game Gear game of the year, so that was a bonus.
One of your superpowers is to identify the one thing that is going to shake or break solution options, and you’ve become the one that your team expects to blow their minds by challenging an approach. Are there common things that project teams often underestimate when assessing risks and developing solutions?
It’s always a challenge during the development process to predict which part of a feature can pose a risk. What has helped me become good at this is to go through what-if scenarios with the design team, where together we can think everything through. When you’re openly sharing your concerns or thoughts in a meeting it sparks someone else’s thinking in how we approach a solution. What I’ve learned from developing small games within a short execution and delivery time, was to be able to wear the hats of a developer/designer/UX designer/QA. This taught me to filter all decisions through multiple perspectives, but also to be comfortable making decisions quickly, as we had to hit our deadline so the manufacturer could create the ROM cartridges.
Adding on to that: from a development perspective, what have you come to always look for as an indication of success?
To me, working with a team that can take pride in what they accomplish and know that they will do everything in their power to create a high-quality product is an indication of success. It’s successful when the client can say that the work you create exceeds their expectations, but most importantly when the end user is enjoying the experience and it leaves them wanting more.
How does your life look like when you’re not busy asking hard questions and solving complicated problems here in our office? Or do you do that privately as well?
Outside of work I mostly focus on my family and being a father figure to my daughters. I enjoy growing in my faith and, you know, I am always working on being the best version of myself. I really enjoy reading books and learning from John Maxwell, Og Mandino, and Napoleon Hill.
We’ve heard that you like to jam on your guitar. So Stephen, tell us; what’s your jam?
Well I don’t consider myself a musician, but I do enjoy playing some instruments for fun. I love listening to all types of music genres and I really love how different music can put you in a certain mood. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music, and Dave Matthews Band is my jam.
If someone gets to our very office early in the morning, they can pretty much count on meeting you here. Were you always an early bird, and what would your elevator pitch for convincing someone to get out of bed before the break of dawn sound like?
The (shocking) truth is actually that I’m not much of a morning person, but I find that I get most of my work done in the morning. My main reason for getting up early is so I can go home early to spend time with my family. To me it makes sense to get your work done first thing, so you can make sure to make time for the things you enjoy doing in your life. I also want to set an example to my kids that when you get up early, you don’t have a ripple effect for being late. When you get up late, you may miss breakfast, then rush in traffic, then miss your appointment, and now you’re hungry before lunch and can’t think throughout the day. John Maxwell says that you prepare in the morning so you don’t have to repair in the evening. When you’re doing the opposite of that, you find yourself fixing problems at the end of the day and pushing them to the next day.
You have for the last 4+ years worked on one of our biggest and most complex projects for a confidential, large-scale manufacturer. What started out as a small project has, with time, developed into a multi-year strategic partnership that has not only translated into successful business outcomes for our client but has helped transform their working culture. What are some of the key components of this success?
I believe that one of the main reasons for this project’s success is that we at Smashing have done a great job of building a relationship with our client. Being very transparent with the client and letting them know what is happening behind the scenes has been critically important. Inviting the client to experience our Smashing culture has also been critical, as they’ve been able to see for themselves how that culture translates to the work we have done. Another important aspect of our success comes from the fact that our team has always wanted to “wow” the client whenever possible. The other key to a good relationship is being a good listener. Our team has listened and truly understood what the client wants and needs. Our design meetings with our client are characterized by openness in that there is never any judgment, nor any bad ideas. The team will look at all the ideas and formulate the best approach to the design.
What are you excited about when it comes to the future of technology? How do you hope your kids will benefit from the work we do today?
Being that our daughters have homework to do, I’m personally looking forward to technology that would help with their education. I also would love for technology to make the simpler things in life easier, so we can focus most of our energy on the things that matter most.
And last, but certainly not least…you’re stuck on a remote island, but can have one piece of technology with you. What would it be and why?
Well, the WaterMill would be cool, since it turns air into water. The problem is that it would need electricity and a remote island won’t have that. I’m going with the video player that has all the seasons of Gilligan’s Island so I can learn how the Professor makes all those cool stuff with just some coconuts!