It’s not uncommon for creative people to secretly wish for time off work to pursue a side project.
It’s another thing to get it – and rarer still for an employer to offer it.
When Jon Richardson released This Is Not a Test, a doomsday-themed iOS game he developed on the side while working at Waterloo Region software firm D2L, he didn’t expect the impressive reviews and quick traction that followed.
But Richardson was even more surprised when D2L, creators of the Brightspace learning platform, offered to keep his job waiting for him while he took six months off to push the game forward.
For a fast-growing tech company competing for top talent in a global market, it only makes sense for D2L to help employees like Richardson pursue their creative passions, even if it means time away from the office.
“What it really comes down to is that my employment there is unbroken if I go back,” the 30-year-old Richardson, who began his leave in late June and has two months remaining, said in an interview at the Communitech Hub. “It was a move that seemed to me to reiterate that they want happy, healthy, creative employees.”
Nancy Buck, D2L's Vice-President of Human Resources, characterized it this way: “D2L is a learning organization, and we believe that learning happens everywhere. We see inspiration and innovation happen every day in our offices and anything we can do to support that spark of passion is an investment in the future of our organization.”
The company, formerly known by its full name, Desire2Learn, is headquartered in the Tannery upstairs from the Hub and has offices on five continents. It has more than 800 employees – more than twice the number less than three years ago – and has raised $165 million in venture capital since 2012.
For tech companies, competition for skilled developers is always fierce, especially those with specialized experience like Richardson’s: He’s a former high school English teacher who also knows how to code.
When he joined D2L’s learning and creative services team as a courseware developer in early 2011, it didn’t take him long to prove his value.
“Just because of my technical savvy, I got to really understand the platform and the nooks and crannies,” Richardson said. “Once I started to code and do this thing full-time, I really, really absorbed it. After about a year and a half, I was completing some pretty complex projects.”
Richardson’s role grew quickly as he worked with graphic designers to develop rich interactive materials to embed into courses served up on D2L’s platform. Soon, he was a senior member of a larger multimedia services team, taking on progressively larger projects, mentoring new team members and presenting at FUSION, D2L’s annual users’ conference.
As awareness grew around the benefits of game-based learning, Richardson and a few colleagues formed a “community of practice in the company, which was sort of a volunteer thing,” he said. “We met at lunches; we had a lot of fun hacking at these ideas for learning games, and then that turned into a game-based creation competition that we set up. It was basically a protracted hackathon that took place over a couple of months.”
These efforts produced several “really cool prototypes” of games that explored chemistry, math and other subjects.
The work meshed well with Richardson’s longstanding personal penchant for interactive fiction, which had captured his imagination as a young student and ultimately set him on a career path.
“My decision to go into English was from playing these old-school, text-based role-playing games online, before World of Warcraft, and I really found it actually got me engaged in my English class,” he said.
In 2012, as his work progressed at D2L, Richardson realized he had gained the skills necessary to create his own interactive comic book. The result was This Is Not a Test, which he described as “a doomsday situation where it’s the end of the world and you’ve got to race to try and survive. It’s been compared to The Walking Dead, but without zombies.”
It took him about a year in his spare time to complete the project, but he wasn’t fully prepared for what followed its release.
“It got more attention than I had anticipated, frankly. It was reviewed by some pretty large game sites and it got a lot of traction from the outset.”
Meanwhile, at D2L, “We had some really crazy ambitious projects on the go,” Richardson said. “So I set aside the game for about six months and just sort of watched it tick along. And then, after completing these ambitious projects, I just decided I needed to take time away from work to really push what I had been doing forward.”
With no mortgage, no family to support and some savings in the bank, Richardson was fully prepared to quit his job in order to get the six months he’d figured he needed to devote to his game.
But, when he explained his situation to D2L, he didn’t anticipate the response he would get.
“I didn’t really have high expectations, but my director and our VP of Human Resources, Nancy Buck, basically sat me down and made the proposal that, rather than me resigning to do this, they would offer me this six-month leave of absence to do what I needed to do,” he recalled. “They gave me the exact time frame that I told them I needed, and they said that my job would be waiting for me should I want to return.”
Having grown up in a family rooted in traditional labour, where you “would probably just be fired” for wanting time off for a side project, Richardson was impressed at how his employer “talked to me as a person, understood my needs and made this exceptional offer.”
The time off has been invaluable in enabling him to build Robot Monster Productions, as his fledgling company is called, into a business. To that end, he has been coached by Brian Zubert, a Communitech Executive-In-Residence, who has helped him make better use of analytics in making decisions and growing his player base.
Richardson doesn’t expect to get rich as a game developer, the likelihood of which he compares to winning a lottery. “It’s more to monetize a hobby and create a lifestyle business, or create something that I can juggle on the side,” he said.
Doing so has been that much easier with the guarantee of a job to go back to.
“It’s been an enormous safety net,” Richardson said. “What I was facing before was a lifestyle where I was forsaking a wage. I was basically planning to go live on a shoestring budget; I was going to give up my car, and I was planning very carefully to maximize my runway.”
D2L’s willingness to hold his job has “made me feel that they really care about the well-being of their developers,” he said. “The idea that they encourage side passion projects is really reassuring as well, because it tells me that they’re not stifling creativity; that they want a creative workforce.”
Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo looks at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.