When Darrell Plank started working as a programmer for Microsoft in 1983, he was less concerned with stock options than he was with having a job he loved.
He recalls thinking, “They told me about these things called ‘stock options’ and I said, ‘Oh yeah, like those are going to be worth anything.’”
Plank took a pay cut to work for Microsoft, but working in a field he loved meant more to him than money. The phrase “do what you love” can sound cliché and trite, but Plank insists that it’s a fact of life.
Plank, born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1956, grew up with a single brother and a love of mathematics that he says puzzled his parents at the time. “My parents were always concerned,” he said. “Darrell, what kind of job are you going to get if you like math?” they asked. But Plank wasn’t as concerned with finding a good job; he was more worried about doing what he liked.
He said that one of the reasons he got into mathematics was because it allowed him control over a whole world as a child. “I think kids don’t have a lot of control over anything in their environment, so if they have something they can get control over, it’s very appealing,” he said. “I could make my own little universe, where everything was exact, everything was perfect!”
His love of math led him to attend college at the University of Missouri-Rolla, where he began with a major in mathematics. After enrolling in basic Fortran programming classes, he added computer science as a major. “That was one of the appeals of computers! A computer is like a big toolbox.” He analogizes computers to models; the builder is given a large set of components, and when he finishes, he has an object that is not only pleasing aesthetically but gives satisfaction from the creative process.
At the school, he worked on the early punch card computers, using punch cards he plugged into a machine which would send information to a separate office and be sent back to him after it was done computing.
“So I’d sit down at the card punch and I’d punch out my big stack of cards and I’d run ‘em through the card reader,” he said, “and then I’d go over to the library to read for a half an hour and hope that they were out, and asked for the output and find out I’d screwed something up and try again!” he said.
Today, Plank works on a tablet PC and an iPhone, and has a real appreciation for the progress computing has made over the past 40 years.
His enthusiasm for computers netted him a job at Bell Labs, where he worked until 1982, when he noticed on a USENET message that Microsoft was looking for programmers.
“I loved PCs and I thought if anybody’s going to make it in the PC area, it’s Microsoft,” he said.
He traveled from Chicago to Redding to interview with the fledgling business and was hired on as a programmer. Throughout the company’s success, he didn’t give much thought to the money he was making.
Working with math and computers, on the cutting edge, was enough. “It’s not like suddenly we were different people who weren’t doing our job or anything,” he reflected.
Considering that a third of life is spent at work, Plank says that people should enjoy what they do. He thinks that working just to make enough money to enjoy life outside of work isn’t a “good tradeoff.”
As long as he had enough to live on, money was an ancillary goal.
“I was (working) there because I thought Microsoft would be the center of personal computers and I thought personal computers were going to be really interesting. I was sitting around thinking, OK, I’m going to retire, I’ve had enough for a while.”
He wanted a new project, but he wanted something he could jump into without the paperwork hassle. “I (didn’t) want to deal with business or taxes,” he said.
And that was when Chris Zimmerman called him to ask if he’d like to work as a programmer on a new enterprise, Sucker Punch Productions. He joined Zimmerman, Brian Flemming, Bruce Oberg, Nate Fox and Tom Saxton, who he says were “as smart as anybody working at Microsoft.”
“If anybody’s going to do it, it’s these guys,” he said.
Plank helped produce two games for Sucker Punch between 1997-2001 that helped put the new studio on the map. The first, Rocket: Robot on Wheels, was well reviewed but was overshadowed by publisher UbiSoft’s desire to push a different game, Rayman, instead. Their second attempt, a platforming game called Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, was a resounding success and helped put Sony’s Playstation 2 console on the map.
Having had enough development and programming, Plank retired in 2001. He retained co-ownership of Sucker Punch and moved to Sequim to settle down and focus on his other hobbies, such as piano.
Ironically, Plank is now better known for his piano work in Clallam County than his programming. He has played with a number of bands and organizations, including the Key City Public Theatre in Port Townsend, the Olympic Express Big Band, and most recently the Olympic Theatre Art’s “Little Shop of Horrors.”
“Everybody back in Seattle knew I was a programmer and didn’t know I played music; out here everyone knows I play music and doesn’t know I’m a programmer!” he said.
“I’ve lived a really lucky life, I’ve met a lot of interesting people,” he said. He’s very grateful for the opportunities that he has been given over his life, but attributes his success more to luck than good grades or hard work. While some chalk up his success to working hard in college, he doesn’t agree. “I didn’t work in college, I did exactly what I enjoyed doing,” he said.
“I just happened to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right interests.”
Sometimes having a job you love doesn’t pay much but provides great experiences and sometimes you work for Microsoft, but in the end, enjoy work, because life is too short to hate 30 percent of it.