A question I have been hearing a lot lately is, “What is the key to being a successful programmer?” The answer is three-fold: speed, knowledge, and personality.
To increase your speed, console layout is extremely important. The less you have to search for things, the quicker you will be. Use the same layouts of soft keys from show to show, and memorize where the hard keys are. Repetition will speed you up, and most consoles can even make the repetitive tasks easier with the use of macros. Use palettes for everything. Your use of “views” will also help speed you up. They should be laid out in a way that makes sense to you and will give you quick access to tasks you will need during the programming process. Of course, the more time you have on a particular desk, the faster your muscle memory will be, so practice, practice, and practice some more.
The more you know about the console, in general, the better off you will be. If you want to be a carpenter, you need to know how to use a hammer and a saw. If you want to be a programmer, you must know all the ins and outs of the console, and you must know more than one console. With the tracking consoles available today, you not only need to think about the current cue, but also the next three cues and the last three cues. Your transitions from one cue to the next are just as important as the cue itself. Besides knowing the console, you must have a good understanding of the fixtures you are controlling. You need to know how a particular fixture will respond and what the best route from cue x to cue y will be for that fixture.
If you do not have the opportunity to use a console on an everyday basis, do not fret. Offline editors coupled with a manual will do you worlds of good. There are some demo visualizers out there that will also help you in the learning process. The Internet is a great source for any information you may need on consoles or fixtures. Use all the resources you have at your disposal, whether talking to coworkers, reading manuals, surfing the Internet, your own experience, or things you have read in these pages or books from a multitude of authors.
Since this is a relatively a small industry, your personality will play a crucial role in the amount of work you get. More importantly, it can determine if you keep that gig or not. No one likes to work with a complainer or a whiner. If you take a job for low money, don't complain about it for the whole job. You accepted the job for that rate. You could have said no, but you chose to take it. No one except you cares about how much you earn or do not earn, so keep it to yourself. Be as pleasant as you can while working, and keep focused on the job and not the pay, the hours, or the amount of work.
Always remember that, as the programmer, your job is to make the lighting rig do what the designer wants. It is not your job or your place to second-guess the designer, so check your ego at the door. Once you have built a relationship with a designer, you can make suggestions or comments, but that depends greatly on the designer. Some designers want you there strictly for data entry, while others will want your input. Just remember that the designer has the final say over your ideas. If one of your ideas is used, that's great. If not, do not try to force your ideas on a designer.
I can't stress enough how important it is to save your show on a regular basis. Make a saving schedule for yourself, whether it is every X amount of cues or after every song, and stick to it. Some programmers save to two disks every time they save, so you always have a backup, while other programmers use the leapfrog technique. This is where you have three disks. Your first save will go on disk one, second save to disk two, third save to disk three, and fourth save to disk one again. This is done so that in the case of a corrupt save, you will only have to go back to the previous save.
Always be prepared. If you know you have a long night of programming ahead of you, make sure you are well rested and have plenty of Mountain Dew, Red Bull, or other favorite beverages; candy, mixed nuts, or other snack food; plenty of blank disks; and a CD player or your iPod. If you are programming a media server, make sure you have a laptop in case you have to alter any of the content. And, of course, there may be something else you will need for that particular job, so stay on your toes and try to anticipate what will be required.
If you combine all of these things, you should have no problem getting work and keeping it. Keep an open mind, learn something new from every job, and have fun.
Craig Caserta is a lighting designer and programmer based in Los Angeles. His clients have included Jessica Simpson, Whitney Houston, Blondie, and Motorola. For additional information, visit www.CraigCaserta.com.