The other day I bumped into a guy at a conference. He looked a bit desperate, but certainly seemed intelligent. As I spoke to him, it quickly became obvious that I’m talking to someone very intelligent. As a brief summary, he has earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in mathematics at one of the best universities in that field in the world. He was taught by people who were awarded a Fields Medal. Afterwards, he spent around five years in industry, working on optimizing monetization strategies in online games. To give you a brief idea: he’s the kind of guy that develops and modifies algorithms that maximize consumer spending. I’d have ethical concerns about doing that kind of work, but I also believe that the people it exploits, so-called whales, would just waste their money on something else otherwise.
His elevator pitch was interesting. He’s not in a city where there is a lot of that kind of work available, which I pointed out to him. He then launched into a longer monologue, telling me that he’s moved to my city because of his girlfriend who got a post-doc position in an academic field you do not want to be in. Those are also temporary positions, and they aren’t paid very well. He also remarked that in the roughly six months since moving he’s been contacted by several video game companies, most in the US, but also elsewhere. They were very interested in bringing him in, but only one considered his suggestion of working remotely.
Listening to him made me sad as he would have amazing opportunities. Some of the companies and games he mentioned I had not heard about, but two of the titles he mentioned are among the most profitable games in the marketplace. This is not the kind of game you would want to play, but that’s not the point if you run a business that wants to get as much money out of people with poor impulse control. Anyway, the typical compensation of those companies would be a multiple of his girlfriend’s salary. Thus, he could take a job like that and let his girlfriend stay at home, and they would be a lot better off financially in total. I didn’t do that kind of math for him, but I wished him good look looking for a job.
Stories like his are quite unpleasant to hear. If he played his cards right, he could probably get a bonus based on performance as that kind of contribution can be directly measured. Of course, the market is fickle, but if you tweak a few parameters or develop a new monetization strategy, and revenues increase by 25%, making your company an obscene amount of extra money, then just getting a small fraction of that would be a big chunk. He mentioned he’s met guys in his field who have become millionaires. In principle, that kind of work seems to be structured a bit like quantitative trading in investment banking, where you lose your job if you underperform, and otherwise make a bonus that is a fraction of the money you made your employer. The skill set is partly overlapping, too.
He could chase that kind of money, as a highly-trained specialist, and retire in ten years, or he could spend half a year or more being unemployed and considering jobs that would pay a lot less, just so that his girlfriend can chase her pipe dream of an academic career. Should she succeed, she won’t nearly make as much money as he could. Also, he may be stuck in a place in which the market doesn’t remunerate him well for his skills. Thus, he’ll pay the cost of his girlfriend’s decisions. Of course, I wasn’t in a position to point out this harsh truth to him.
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