Category Archives: recruiting

The nature of a Tech Director in games … and the evils of DevOps

Spotted this (the notion “DevOps”) courtesy of Matthew Weigel, a term I’d fortunately missed-out on.

It seems to come down to: Software Developers (programmers who write apps that a company sells) and Ops people (sysadmins who manage servers) don’t talk enough and don’t respect each other; this cause problems when they need to work together. Good start.

But I was feeling a gut feel of “you’ve spotted a problem, but this is a real ugly way to solve it”, and feeling guilty for thinking that, when I got down to this line in Wikipedia’s article:

“Developers apply configuration changes manually to their workstations and do not document each necessary step”

WTF? What kind of amateur morons are you hiring as “developers”? Your problem here is *nothing* to do with “DevOps” – it’s that you have a hiring manager (maybe your CTO / Tech Director?) who’s been promoted way above their competency and is allowing people to do the kind of practices that would get them fired from many of the good programming teams.

Fix the right problem, guys :).

Incidentally – and this will be a long tangent about the nature of a TD / Tech Director – … my “gut feel” negativity about the whole thing came from my experience that any TD working in large-scale “online” games *must be* a qualified SysAdmin. If they’re not, they’re not a TD – they’re a technical developer who hasn’t (yet) enough experience to be elevated to a TD role; they are incapable (through no fault of their own – simply lack of training / experience) of fulfilling the essential needs of a TD. They cannot provide the over-arching technical caretaking, because they don’t understand one enormous chunk of the problem.

I say this from personal experience in MMO dev, where people with no sysadmin experience stuck out like a sore thumb. Many network programmers on game-teams had no sysadmin experience (which in the long term is unforgivable – any network coder should be urgently scrambling to learn + practice sysadmin as fast as they can, since it’s essential to so much of the code they write) – and it showed, every time. In the short term, of course, a network coder may be 4 months away from having practiced enough sysadmin. In the medium term, maybe they’ve done “some” but not enough to be an expert on it – normally they’re fine, but sometimes they make a stupid mistake (e.g. being unaware of just how much memcached can do for you).

And that’s where the TD-who-knows-sysadmin is needed. Just like the TD is supposed to do in all situations – be the shallow expert of many trades, able to hilight problems no-one else has noticed, or use their usually out-dated yet still useful experience to suggest old ways of solving new problems that current methods fail to fix. And at least be able to point people in the right direction.

…but, of course, I was once (long ago) trained in this at IBM, and later spent many years in hardcore sysadmin both paid and unpaid (at the most extreme, tracking and logging bugs against the linux kernel) so I’m biased. But I’ve found it enormously helpful in MMO development that I know exactly how these servers will *actually* run – and the many tricks available to shortcut weeks or months of code that you don’t have to write.

How much money do game developers earn?

Another excellent post by Christer – a Direct of tech @ SCEA – on calculating independent, verfiable salaries for people in videogames industry:

“Unlike salary surveys, where people can claim arbitrary wages (and the submitted salaries are never posted), the H1-B data contains actual wages! In other words, it is a rare opportunity to get some objective data points on industry salaries.”

I’m a huge fan of these unbiased, fact-based analyses. c.f. my posts from a few years ago on predicting MMO subscriber numbers in similar fashion. These DO NOT invalidate other forms of estimation – but they provide an independent figure that “anyone” can re-calculate for themselves, at any time, and check the info / update it.

Christer’s mined some great data here – all the big names are represented. A tiny sampling (go to the original post for tonnes more):

Employer Job title Wage
Disney Online Director, Technology $157,500
Electronic Arts Technical Director $150,000
Blizzard Entertainment Senior Software Engineer II $150,000

I’ve been thinking of updating my old posts on salaries for startups – what can/should/would you pay to your first employees? I’m wondering now if I can shore that up with extra data from the VISA programmes; maybe not quite the same volume of data, but should be a substantial amount there. Unlike Christer’s set, it’s likely to be a lot more skewed :( – startups can rarely afford to recruit internationally, as compared to large corporates who do it as a matter of course.

Can my employer (game studio) make me work weekends?

In the UK, it’s probably illegal to make you work on a Sunday:

If [your employment contract] doesn’t [specifically say “you must work on Sundays”], then the only way of making you work on that day is by a change to your contract. This is something that must normally be agreed by both you and your employer, otherwise making you work on Sundays would amount to a breach of contract.

And even if your contract is paying you extra to work on Sundays, it’s still illegal to make you work both the Saturday and the Sunday back-to-back (modulo some very specific exceptions which are almost impossible in the games industry):

you have the right to a break of at least 11 hours between working days.

[and] you have the right to either:

* an uninterrupted 24 hours clear of work each week
* an uninterrupted 48 hours clear each fortnight

If you work for a UK games company, and you’re working more than 5 days a week (you’re “crunching”), send your manager a link to this page. You don’t need to threaten to sue them – they’re breaking the law already, and they know it, and they know perfectly well they’re screwed (by themselves).

Just gently point out that you hope your manager will fix it before someone reports it *their* manager – wouldn’t they rather look good (“I noticed this problem before we got sued”), than be the one to take the blame?

There’s no excuse for this kind of behaviour. Don’t let them do it to you.

A-level blacklists and the Computer Games industry

Interesting announcement from the UK schools minister, David Willetts: from 2012, UK universities will be legally required to publish their exam blacklists.

This is something I desperately hope comes into practice (apparently it’s just an “aim” right now, no telling if it’ll actually happen).

It’s especially interesting given the rich and powerful games-companies that keep banging the drum of “There’s not enough qualified IT professionals in the UK” (which, IMHO, is bullshit: they know there’s plenty, but the companies in question have a poor reputation and not enough people *want* to work for them). So far as their claims are genuine, a large contributory factor is students taking “the wrong” A-levels, and then failing to get into “the right” degree course.

For instance, when recruiting graduates for development jobs, we’d often see people with the “IT” (Information Technology) A-level, or some variant of it. Most professional programmers know that that A-level is worthless – it teaches next to nothing, and demands next to nothing. If someone included it on their list of A-levels, they were immediately downgraded in the CV/Resume pile – it begs the question “were you too lazy to do a real A-level? Why should we even consider you when there’s 2 other candidates who did a “full” 3 (or 4) A-levels – are you going to have the same attitude (work-shy) if we employ you?”.

This is not fair: many people chose that subject without realising what it signifies. I suspect the root problem is that teenagers aren’t encouraged to read the curriculum of their chosen subject BEFORE starting the A-level, and judge it for themselves. Analysis, suspicion, and appraisal (in the UK) is now banned until the age of 17: the GCSE syallabus for most subjects in the UK punishes any kind of critical thinking. Shocking, tragic, sad, but with enormous momentum of its own. In reality, changing that would be massively difficult – and anyway, there *should* be other checks and balances.

…One of which is the universities, who look at those A-levels in detail each year, and “judge” them carefully. Unlike critical appraisal of A-levels, sixth-formers considering university tend to look in great detail at anything the university has to say about entrance requirements – no cultural or educational shift is required to get their attention at this point. So, if more universities publish this info, I’m sure it’ll be seen by a great many more of the people who need it.

Incidentally, this is one of the few areas where a move to a USA-style “commercial” university system may be a big improvement over the traditional UK system. Because students would have to pay vast sums of their own money to go to uni, they’re “likely” to be a lot more critical and a lot more demanding up-front, before they spend their cash. Maybe.

Yet my own small experiences of USA undergrads suggest the opposite. There are a couple of “universities” (and I use the term very loosely) in the USA that specialise in “Computer Games Design” courses, or similar, where the students learn … nothing. They just spend the time playing games, making shitty models in Max/Maya (donated to the “university” by Autodesk’s aggressive marketing/sales team, keen to do a loss-leader and capture future users), and having the sunshine blown up their ass by “professors” with little or no qualification in the subjects at hand.

We know this for two reasons: firstly, we see the CVs/Resumes that come out of them, and they’re so bad it makes you want to cry. “Portfolios” that look like the scribbles of a 4-year-old child; self-important monologues on game-design that would make even Molyneux blush and declare “oh, how pompous!”; “code samples” of students *failing* to implement space-invaders, or tetris.

Secondly, there’s the increasing bitterness and anger of the students that have been through that system, come out the far end, and realised how much they’d been ripped-off. I won’t name names – no need: if you’re considering a college, just google it with the word “sucks” or “waste of money”, and see what happens. The guilty colleges have websites dedicated – probably even whole youtube channels – to bitching about how bad they are, from current and former students.

In those cases, even the prospect of going 10s of thousands of dollars into debt wasn’t enough to spur the students into critical appraisal before heading to uni. Which leaves me unconvinced that “paying for your degree” will solve such problems – although it will excuse the responsble authorities from taking responsibility in the future. For good reasons and bad, universities, lecturers, schools, and government are all keen to pass the buck here – and the pay-as-you-go education seems a neat way out.

So … yes; bring-on the blacklists! Share this info, info which the (arguably) morally bankrupt Examination companies would like kept buried forever (because it directly reduces their profitability). Info which successive governments had no interest in revealing (because it would draw too much attention to the severely ****ed teaching of some subjects – and lead to public demand for the government to fix something enormous it had neither the money nor the will to achieve).

XEOPlay is looking for an iPhone App Developer

Nicole Lazzaro’s XEO is looking for an iPhone developer (Bay Area/SF)

Contact: hr@xeodesign.com

If you don’t know who Nicole is, the design process for Tilt gives a good idea. She’s well known for her work on studying emotional reactions in people playing games (and designing appropriately):

How we created Tilt

XEODesign’s interviews of people waiting to buy their iPhones finds that much of the success of the Apple iPhone comes from unique attibutes of its emotion profile, especially social emotions. To demonstate the practical application of XEODesign’s approach we used this research to make a game called Tilt that creates a player experience (PX) that feels like a natural extension of the iPhone because the game mechanic builds on the same emotion profile. Read Nicole’s Fast Company interview on designing the emotions for Tilt.

iPhone App Developer
+ Take ownership of the development, maintenance of the project’s code.
+ Collaborate with designers, artists, researchers, and QA to create the best experience in the time and budget constraints
+ Passion for good UI design and maximizing the fun factor
+ Enthusiasm for incorporating feedback from player testing to increase engagement
+ Strong initiative to tackle big problems with global impact

We find resumes a bit dry, but love to play games you have already built or worked on. Include App Store Links, URLs, and titles.

Career dead-ends

How long do you want to be an Assistant Product Manager?

Assistant Product Manager 4 Life

Job Summary
Reference IS0012
Location Horseferry Road
Hours 37 per week
Closing Date 03 December 2010 at Midnight

DEPARTMENT DESCRIPTION

* Channel 4 Online is responsible for creating and managing Channel 4 multiplatform experiences on the Web, Mobile and next-generation connected-devices such as YouView.
* The department comprises three main functional teams: Production, Product Management, and Multiplatform Commissioning.

(there’s also a new Commissioning Editor role up for grabs at Channel 4, which is perhaps more appealing to readers here ;))

Writing a good LinkedIn Recommendation

http://www.danceswithferrets.org/meeblog/?p=662

“In addition to introducing new practices and processes to our office that transformed our day-to-day operations, Dean introduced me to Dogging!”

FWIW … I’d be a *lot* more likely to hire someone with that on their resume/profile than I would someone with “Dean is professional and valuable member of the team and I hope he does well in future”. For multiple reasons, but first and foremost: both are equally untrue, but one of them shows a sense of humour, and the other assumes the reader is stupid enough to be suckered by blind lies.

Hiring people smarter than you

Startup CEOs are often advised to do this, but few people explain how the heck to do that, and its far easier said than done.

Ben’s got a great approach: actually do each of the jobs yourself, for real, before hiring people into them.

This resonates with my own experience, where “deliberate self obsolescence” has proved the most effective strategy for hiring senior management. Do everything yourself, and keep trying to make yourself redundant, by finding the most time-consuming thing you’re currently doing, and hiring someone else to do it.

This approach also neatly solves the eternal problem of “which role do we hire next?” – in a *prioritasable* fashion (which is important if you believe in scrum/agile/lean measurement, and can’t accept the answer “all of them!”).

PS a lovely quote in the linked post:

“The more experience you have, the more you realize that there is something seriously wrong with every employee in your company (including you).”

QFT.

Personally, I finally escaped from this trap only when I started hiring on “enthusiasm” rather than on “skill”. So far, it’s not lead me astray…

No, no, no: Contractors are NOT your salvation

Anyone saying “redundancies are inevitable for games industry companies” should never be allowed to run a studio. Ditto for the raving loons who think everyone should be hired as contractors instead.

I was pointed at this by Nicholas Lovell’s wholehearted supporting tweet, reminding me that Nicholas is a finance guy, not a game developer:

“If you’re a work-for-hire/self-funded studio working for little profit who employs 100% of your staff on a permanent basis then expect redundancies at the end of every project and or the business completely failing.”

No. If you’re in that situation *you don’t deserve to be in business*. Contractors are no solution here at all: your “solution” is to *raise income*. Making games is not a box-shifting industry, it’s a creative industry. The ONLY way this works is to charge high prices, because you can never directly control creative-cost.

This has absolutely NOTHING to do with “Cyclical business” and “Core teams” and “Contractor flexibility” – those are the terms of idiots who think it’s reasonable to run a business as if it were a hobby, always on the brink of bankruptcy. You’ll go the way of Woolworths et al – and you damn well deserve it.

A healthy, profitable, creative business not only ALWAYS runs at less than 100% staff efficiency, it positively THRIVES on it. The open secret of successful creative industries is that you pay someone’s salary just to get them in the door and to keep them content … so you can reap the rewards by being the one to exploit the new IP that – randomly, spontaneously – flows out of them.

Tech Director in Games industry: what do they do?

Came up recently on TCE. I finally figured out a concise definition of the job role being filled by the “good/great” Tech Directors – someone who’s worth every penny of the $150k salaries they command:

“Figure out the worst things that go wrong which nobody is specifically to blame for, and make sure they don’t happen”

The point with TD is that 9 times in 10 you have a hierachical company structure:

Owners

Company Directors

Senior Management

Exec Producer

Project Management

Leads

Teams

…with the setup that responsibility flows DOWNWARDS (companies where responsibility flows UP are very rare in games industry, IME. Nice idea but very few companies have the culture to obey that ideal!).

So … e.g. … anything that the PM’s don’t think of, and don’t delegate to one or more leads … gets completely ignored/forgotten.

This is a gross generalization – in practice, people lower down tend to notice if something’s missing, and apply pressure up the chain until someone takes it on, or take it on themselves.

That works for small stuff. But the big stuff – especially something that needs two disciplines to fix, or that is too much workload for one person to “absorb”, you need someone with management power (i.e. the authority to take people away from pre-existing tasks).

That’s where the [X] Director comes in. (X = Technical, Art, Design, etc)

TD, AD, etc have the sweeping power to get different departments to collaborate, or to persuade a Producer to relinquish some of their team for a week to get a “more important but so subtle you didn’t see it yet” problem fixed.

UK games companies are hiring (2010)…

UPDATE: I’ll add other roles in as/when I get the OK from the relevant people; not all of these are public yet.

Despite the heavy rash of studio closures (well documented by Nicholas Lovell), it seems there’s a lot of exciting online/social games hiring going on right now – I’m getting lots of requests from friends, ex-colleagues etc.

  • Head of Mini Games at Mind Candy (London-based social games startup; runs a successful kids MMO – Moshi Monsters)
  • Financial Manager / Social Gaming Economy Modeller and Virtual Goods Data Analysis at Lockwood (Nottingham-based online / virtual world startup; built most of the cool stuff in PlayStation Home, now building their own MMOs) – *entry level

There’s also some interesting roles in publishing, and some in startup online games companies.

If you’re UK-based, you’ve worked in MMO / social games / etc, and you’re looking for a job, feel free to email me. No CV’s, just tell me who you are and what you’re looking for in 4 sentences or less.

Or, if you see an entry-level job here you want to apply for, ditto and I’ll put you in touch (or just follow the links to the company directly).

Google, your attitude sucks

Dear Eric … here’s my problem:

Somehow that didn’t feel right for Google. We wanted something much more transparent and open” (Eric Schmidt, Chairman/CEO Google, writing in the Harvard Business Review this month)

How, exactly, would you reconcile that with the fact that I had to serve Google with a legal document (here’s how to use the Data Protection Act of 1998) to get the feedback that your employees admitted they already had?

How do you explain the difference between the 10 seconds of feedback I received from your in-house recruiter, and the 12 pages (yes, *pages*) of feedback I received after I served the legal notice. Is this transparent? Is it open?

I’ve met many Googlers, and a lot of them are excellent salespeople for the company. If I truly believed that Google lived up to it’s claimed principles, I would go to great lengths to work there. Why devote my time, the precious days of finite life, to any other kind of organization? Before the interview process, I *did* believe, thanks to the testimonies of friends and ex-colleagues.

But the reality is clearly – “transparently”, to use your terminology – different. And it’s only thanks to the insightful and diligent work of UK lawmakers that I got anything out of Google at all. Amusingly, you didn’t even pay my travel expenses! Ironically, at the same office, when I went to the London Open House party, many years ago, I provided less … and received more … than when *you* asked *me* to come to an interview for a job. Surely that’s the wrong way around?

(I’ve still got my Google Open House t-shirt, and I got free food and drinks at the event. Thanks! That’s more than I got from the interviews…)

Personally, I have huge respect for people. I believe it’s the most important thing *for me* in any business. There are industries where individuals don’t really matter – I actively choose not to work in those industries. As experienced first-hand, my values wouldn’t allow me to work at a corporation like Google.

Why is it acceptable to those of you who work there now?

Footnote…

So, Google doesn’t live up to the hype? Shrug. My reaction: I’m building my own company that does. I’m not going to sit around waiting for someone else to make it for me.

Also … about that 12 pages of feedback… I checked with Google whether they’re OK with me publishing it (me, I really do strive for transparency ;)) – they said something very close to “it’s your data – do you what you want”. I’ve already sent it to a wide array of friends and ex-colleagues – people who know me well enough, both good and bad, to read between the lines and second-guess the context.

But it’s hugely context-dependent (i.e. you had to have been there to understand what’s going on), and there’s some extreme statements in there. It would be very easy to misinterpret, sometimes making Google look much worse than it should, sometimes making me look much worse than it should. I’m conflicted on how to publish it; transparency is great, but … you have to consider your personal responsibility too.

Exposing the Weak Recruitment Agencies: 2 more

Two more firms have proven their mettle this week (i.e.: think twice before engaging them).

As always, it’s nothing personal. If a recruitment agent is doing a job that I and others think weak, but managed to persuade an employer to pay them to do it – and to accept that standard – then all power to them; they’re just making a living. No employer is ever “required” to use an agent, and they have many to choose from; they have no excuse for not insisting on high standards. Shame on the employers for screwing-up their own employee-base like this.

See here for more examples:

  1. Lorien
  2. Aardvark Swift

Ravello/Enigma

First up, we have Ravello/Enigma, with two big faux pas.

1. You didn’t even bother to read my profile before you approached me. Hmm.

I double-checked. Yep, it’s still there, in black and white (and caps lock):

“NOTE CAREFULLY! * I only add people I actually know.”

2. You cold-contacted me with a job, and then refused to tell me what the job is. Or who it’s for. Or, in fact, *ANY REASON* I might be interested.

Recruitment Agent:
“I have the following role for you:
Job type/s: 2 roles. 6 months fixed term contract or 1 year perm.
Salary: Wide open but depends on experience really.”

Me:
“What’s the actual role? I’m guessing this is iPhone related? My standard rate for iPhone development and consulting is X”

Recruitment Agent:
“The project details are top secret as my client advised me but it is an Iphone/Ipad related role. As stated before, salary depends on experience.”

WTF? What is this – MI6? The CIA?

I tried to think of an intelligent response. I failed. Maybe I’m supposed to be “intrigued” and start begging the Agent to give me some information? “Artificial scarcity” and all that?

Frankly, I have no idea. Just too weird.

Unique Selection

Second, we have Unique Selection, asking me to do their job for them gratis (the job that they get paid to do…).

1. How many times do you have to ask me to sell-out my network to you (which – as noted above – if you bothered to read my profile you’d see I’m not going to do) .. before you get the hint?
  1. “Also, could we connect on LinkedIn?”
  2. “In the meantime if we could connect on LInkedIn that would be great”

On the third attempt I relented and pointed the agent at my profile. The one they should have read to start with.

2. Why would I do your job for you? And, even if you were paying me to find you candidates, why on earth would I not hire those people myself?

Agent:
“I wasn’t sure if you could help me but my client is looking for an perm iPhone/iPad App developer to join their team”

Me:
“I run an iPhone development team”

(basically: I couldn’t believe they were really that cheeky / dumb as to ask me to do their recruiting for them.)

Agent:
“If you were to go perm, what would roughly be the base you would look for?”

Me:
“I’m probably not interested.”

Agent:
“please feel free to pass my details to anyone you think could be interested.

Ah, yes, because those of us who actually “make things” have nothing better to do than offer ourselves up to be exploited so that recruitment agents can get a pay-cheque. Social security, eat your heart out…

Rejected by, and Rejecting, Google

I’m doing some pretty cool stuff at the moment – I’m not looking for a job – but a few months ago I got emailed by three different Google recruiters, inviting me to apply for three (different) specific jobs, in different parts of the company, almost all at the same time. 2 were in London, 1 was in Zurich.

(I guess that all departments were given the go-ahead to increase head-count at the same time – hence hearing from 3 people at once. They didn’t co-ordinate, either – at least one of the recruiters failed to notice that I was already being interviewed, and asked in her opening email: “would you consider working at Google?”, the day before my scheduled interview with a different department :))

I took advice from current and ex Googlers – I wasn’t looking for a job at the time – and they gave estimates of up to 3-6 months to complete the process, so I might as well go ahead and see what happened.

I had an excellent first-round interview. I have the written feedback here (which Google point-blank refused to let me have, until I served a legal notice on them, and forced them to pony-up … more on that later):

Adam is probably the most interesting, experienced, and “Googley” candidate I have ever interviewed. I am excited about the mere possibility of him joining Google: he would bring entrepreneurship, product design acumen, incredible passion for technology, experience at a big influence, and other critical skills.

Yeah, it’s way over the top, and hard to believe. I quote it here for reference against what happened next…

I had four second-round interviews, back to back, starting at mid-morning, and carrying on through the afternoon with no break for lunch. By the end, I’d not eaten in 8 hours (why no lunch? Ask the Google recruiters; they never gave me an apology or explanation). I’d caught an infection the day before, and felt like crap throughout. The interviews went from poor to terrible, and overall it was a disaster; a rejection soon followed. (NB: with hindsight, even had I been compos mentis, there’s a good chance I’d have been rejected – I’m not blaming the rejection on this)

It was immediately followed by another request from one of the other recruiters re-inviting me to their job instead – including attached paperwork to progress the application.

There were a handful of small but mildly offensive – mostly passive-aggressive – actions by Google staff along the way. Overall I was shocked, I felt that the way I was treated was poor. I was also concerned about the process itself. They admitted they had detailed feedback on my rejection, but refused to divulge any of it (legally, they had to; I forced them to pony-up). I decided to wait for the legal process to complete, and for me to get the feedback, before making any further decisions.

Once I’d read through the 12 pages of feedback, I wrote back with this:

Thanks, [name removed].

After my experience in the 2nd-round interviews, and reading the detailed feedback from the Google interviewers, I’ve realised I’m not suitable to work at Google right now.

The role-specific things were fine, but I did terribly in the 2nd-round. Reading the feedback, it seems you want a certain type of person, and that doesn’t seem like me.

Also, it’s not the company I thought it was. I want to work at companies which live and breathe an open culture, and that was part of my attraction to Google, but the reality is very different from the public image.

Thanks,
Adam

(UPDATE: it’s been more than a month now. Just so you know – I never got a response. Maybe there’s now a great big “DO NOT HIRE” mark on my file ;))

I forwarded the detailed Google feedback to a handful friends and ex-colleagues, and it’s been food for some interesting discussions so far. One ex-Googler confirmed that I was rejected by not just one, but all four, of the second-round interviewers. A dubious honour, perhaps? :)

A couple of people have remarked that Google USA differs substantially on at least some of the key issues that came up.

One thing’s for sure, though: I would certainly not want to work for Google Europe right now. They and I seem to disagree on some fairly basic issues of work and people. Neither is right, nor wrong. But I – personally – just don’t want to work at a company that works like that. So … mutual rejection! :) I’m certainly not following-up with any other Google jobs.

Unfortunately, the whole experience left me quite shaken: I’d been using Google as a shining example of various recruitment and employment practices, at least some of which I now know to be untrue. Maybe Google used to act better, but they certainly don’t today – I know this first-hand. I’m hugely disappointed.

I apologise to anyone I’ve accidentally deceived over the years. I’m also wondering what other examples of humane and open companies I can use instead – I’m no longer confident in citing Google. I’ve seen a few come up on VentureHacks twitter feed/blog-posts (awesome resource that VH is).

Getting a job in the games industry: its all about skill

Tim Schafer recently posted scans of his rejection letters over the years from various tech and games companies he applied to. There’s one from Atari, one from Hewlett Packard – and, eventually, his acceptance letter from Lucasfilm / Lucasarts.

But far, far more important to this post is the cover-letter that Tim sent to Lucasfilm (it’s a truly special cover letter (go have a look now, before you read on)).

There’s also a rich array of comments at the end of Tim’s post. The HR manager (now head of HR at Pixar) who handled his job application all those years ago even chimes in to say hi. But, again, that’s not what I found interesting; what I liked was the large number of comments from wannabe game developers trying to get into the industry right now.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Reading those comments, here’s a couple of things I noticed:

  • They feel “inspired” and full of “renewed hope” / “confidence” that they have a chance of getting into the industry at all
  • Lots of wishful comments fishing for a confirmation that this technique would “still work today”, while declaring that they’re sure it doesn’t (supposedly demonstrating their realism)
  • The realization that lack of experience is no barrier to becoming an industry legend; coincidentally, most of the people saying this have no experience of their own

…and here’s the conclusions that leapt to my mind:

  • New entrants to the industry are convinced it’s very hard to “break in”; they sound by turns cynical and hopeless. This is merely to get a *job*, not to actually achieve anything. Ouch
  • No-one seems to have told them how easy it can be (how straight-forward it often is)
  • They’re guessing at the reasons this was successful, and are picking the wrong ones (hint: what worked for Tim still works today, if anything *even more* than it did 20 years ago)
  • Their understanding of what it takes to become a major industry figure is back-to-front

Why was Tim successful? How can you re-create that today?

OK, so Tim was: funny, dedicated, and inventive.

But we’ve all heard (I hope) of many occasions when any or all three of those have not only failed to win people jobs but have got them ridiculed (sometimes even had their desperate exploits broadcast at the company or industry level). I’m not thinking simply of the games industry here – although I noticed one the other week where a hopeful Quest Designer tried it on with Blizzard (they spent a thousand dollars on fancy-printed design docs for their proposed Raid Dungeon, drove to Blizzard’s offices, and spent a couple of days sitting on the sidewalk handing copies to staff as they arrived / left the office each day).

Rather, I was thinking of all the stories of people doing everything from sending in their Resume/CV wrapped in shiny metallic paper, to sending gifts (including alcohol) to the hiring managers, to stuff that comes dangerously close to stalking.

Reading the comments on Tim’s post, in at least a couple of cases, I’m not convinced that the posters see the difference between those disasters and what Tim did. I don’t know any of the people involved, but I do know there are positions we’ve recruited for in the past 5 years where a cover letter akin to Tim’s would have gone a very long way (possibly even “all the way”) towards single-handedly getting us to hire someone.

IMHO, it’s all about skill and enthusiasm (although few companies hire on enthusiasm, so we’ll just stick to the “skill” part)

What Tim shows is skill for the *underlying* things that his (potential) employers would love to see him employ in his day job. That requires showing ALL of the following:

  • Personal interest (he plays games. He plays them enough for the next part to be possible)
  • Understanding of a genre (he understands a genre well enough to pastiche it effectively; you can’t do that if all you’ve done is dabble in it (unless you’re particularly skilled at literary/experience analysis – which is great, we want that too! ))
  • Ability to polish (look at the images; notice how he sends up each of LA and Silicon Valley in panels 2a and 2b, and makes out San Rafael to be the land of Nature and Sunshine and happiness)
  • Knowing when to stop (again, look at the images. The “volume” of detail is actually very small; apart from the final image, they are very simple, and quick to execute)

One thing we don’t know, that I’d love to know, is the timing: how long after the phone call did he send this in? I’ve known candidates to take *more than a month* to complete something that was offered (by them!) in a job interview. WTF? If you say you have something, we assume you either have it, or will complete it imminently. i.e. days – a week at the most.

TO GET A JOB IN THE GAMES INDUSTRY, ALL YOU NEED TO DO IS …

Let’s see how simple I can make this…

Make a game.

3 words. Not bad. I think that’s pretty clear.

Sadly, most people misunderstand it *completely*.

Look back at the rest of this blog post; it all lead up to this. When college students ask senior people, and hiring managers, what to do to get their first job, and we say “make a game; make several games”, our reasons for saying that are all encapsulated in what I’ve already said.

Even if you’re in a discipline that has read-made degrees (Programming: Computer Science; Art: Fine Art, etc), what you’re usually showing with your degree is a small amount of education and a large amount of skill / aptitude. University/College rarely teaches the things you’ll need every day to do your job, but it prepares you in a more general way to be/become skilled more quickly.

Imagining a game is easy; if you like games, you should be able to imagine games you’d like to play, or make.

Making a game is easy, if you only ever make a game that fits within your abilities and resources. I’ve made games in under a day. Some of them were even fun! ;). I have a friend who *frequently* writes entire games in a single evening. He’s a programmer, with no art or game-design skills – but some of what he makes looks gorgeous and is great fun; he cheats; so should you. So … never tell me that making a game is “beyond” you; just shrink your ambition to fit.

(incidentally, “I can’t program” is not a valid excuse; pre-teen children regularly learn to program – (IIRC it’s still in the national curriculum in most western countries, although it’s not labelled “computer programming”) – and if they can handle it, what’s wrong with you that you’re too stupid/lazy to do it too? No-one’s asking you to learn highly optimized C++, that would be insane. But … all you need is Basic, PHP, Javascript, or something similar)

Finishing making a game – removing all the “doesn’t actually work” parts – is hard. But everyone who’s been there should understand: it’s *hard* to include all the bits that weren’t fun for you to make. It’s hard to force yourself to check all the buttons still work every time you change something. It’s hard to force yourself to write in-game instructions *and keep them up-to-date* each time you change the game-design, or add/remove a feature.

And that’s a big part of why we judge you on it. Because if you can do that – more than anything else – all the other problems are smaller, more tractable.

Games Industry Recruitment: Intel

Things are getting interesting in Recruitment land again…

Received today:

Adam, greetings from the Visual Computing Group at Intel Corporation. We received your contact information from the Siggraph Job Fair.

Please let me know how much discrete or integrated graphics driver development, media software, or debug experience you have and what you are interested in doing. Also let me know about your video codec and debug experience.

Please complete this pre-screen document and return it to me along with your current resume. You can also create a career profile at http://www.intel.com/jobs .

Intel is changing the way the world sees 3D graphics, visualization and games. Our Larrabee architecture will deliver teraflops of performance for high-throughput applications, including scientific computing, gaming and visualization. In addition, our Software and Solutions Group is working to enhance all levels of software that executes on Intel based platforms.

We invite you to consider opportunities with Intel by completing and returning the attached Graphics pre-screen as soon as possible which will let us know if you are available, your area of expertise, where you want to work and salary expectations. As soon as we receive this information, we will be reviewing with the hiring managers. If there is interest, the next contact will be from the hiring manager to conduct a phone screen Additionally, I have attached a copy of a flyer on the work this group is doing and information about Intel.

We look forward to hearing from you soon.

Best regards,
Larry Gonzales
Sr. Recruiting Consultant
Intel Corporation/VCG

My reply:

Hi, Larry!

2009/8/18 Gonzales, Larry Z :
>
> Adam, greetings from the Visual Computing Group at Intel Corporation. We
> received your contact information from the Siggraph Job Fair.

No. You didn’t. You really didn’t. I wasn’t at Siggraph this year.

I’m a serial CTO of online games and MMO companies. My last job involved leading internal PS3 and PC MMO development, and founding a new internal studio, for one of the world’s largest online games publishers.

> Please complete this pre-screen document and return it to me along with your
> current resume. You can also create a career profile at
> http://www.intel.com/jobs .

If you want me to apply to a position, feel free to send me the details.

> We invite you to consider opportunities with Intel by completing and
> returning the attached Graphics pre-screen as soon as possible which will
> let us know if you are available, your area of expertise, where you want to
> work and salary expectations. As soon as we receive this information, we

I’m not interested in anything less than [ommitted] USD per annum (which is slightly below the last round of job offers I turned down).

Apart from that requirement, I’m happy to consider anything you send me.

Regards,
Adam Martin

(working at Intel could be interesting. But I certainly don’t feel in the mood to do all the work of a “pre-screen document”, and to make apologies for the lack of “your video codec and debug experience” for a job I know nothing about, never asked for, and which – a moment’s glance at my public LinkedIn profile would show – I am hopelessly inappropriately qualified for :))

Culture, Reputation, and Running a Game Studio

What’s the biggest single challenge to a Studio Director? Or to the VP of Development / Studios who oversees a handful of publisher-owned studios?

Recruitment

In the games industry there are no raw materials of variable quality, there is no variety of base services to build upon; everything that distinguishes one company (and set of products) from another comes solely from the people they hire.

In the games industry there are no raw materials to pay for, there are no service charges. There are only salaries and employee-support costs.

Recruitment is where the studio heads find their hardest problems, and see their biggest successes/failures as the studio grows in size. Eventually, all their own experience and ability at design, marketing, sales, programming, art, etc become subsumed by their ability to attract, recruit, retain, lead, and motivate their people.

Recession

…is the best thing for new game studios to happen in the past 5 years. It’s achieved four things:

  1. Removed lots and lots of people from their comfortable jobs, by force
  2. …simultaneously…
  3. …indiscriminately w.r.t. quality of personnel…
  4. …and made even the supposedly “secure” games companies (EA, Microsoft, Sony) suddenly look as fragile and short-term as the riskiest of startups

The VCs have been blogging about the benefits to startups wrought by this recession, and I’ve put it to a couple of them now that, for the game industry, this one – recruitment – is the biggest by far, and each time met with straight agreement. Our industry is very like Management Consultancy: it’s driven by the people. Nothing else matters.

Culture

I’ve worked with a lot of experienced managers who’ve been adamant that “no-one leaves their job because of (too little) salary”. Also with slightly fewer who were convinced that “no-one accepts a job based on salary” (more often, that was rephrased with a rider to be: “no-one good accepts a job based on salary alone“).

In that case, why do people accept / leave a job?

“Culture” is the catch-all term that describes not just the direct environment which people experience each day in the office, but also the emotional and psychological experiences that they go through while there.

It describes how their colleagues think and act – and how those actions effect the individual. But it also describes how the “teams” within the organization think and act, which can often be very different from the people within them. You often see teams of smart people “acting dumb”, or teams of nice people act like assholes when taken collectively. Group think is powerful, very powerful.

But it’s hard, very hard, to really see the culture of a company until you’ve worked there for a couple of years, and in a couple of different divisions, and perhaps a dozen different departments. Which is not an option for most of us. You can work somewhere for just a few months and pick up the culture if you know what you’re doing and really work at it – but even that requires skill and dedication, and can only be done AFTER accepting a job offer.

(this is one of the reasons I posted my Manifesto for a Game Studio online – you can get a strong taste of the culture of my next startup, and decide if you want to work with us, without having to sacrifice a year of working there first)

Reputation

Game industry staff often worry about reputation. The companies (as represented by the senior management) themselves often don’t.

The former care how their organization is perceived, and assume everyone else does too. They assume that a “better reputation” will lead to “more sales”.

The latter have access to the actual sales figures, and have convinced themselves that this is a nice idea but simply not borne out by fact (in some cases this is true, in some it isn’t – but it’s much easier to look at the figures on paper and believe it’s true than to see the flaws in that logic).

But the truth is that it IS important, very important. It’s the external reflection of the internal culture. As such, it’s what most people use to make a decision about whether they want to work there.

Obviously, it varies. The older and more experienced you are, the more you come to use a company’s reputation as a barometer of its culture – and the more heavily you weight this in your decision about accepting a job. The younger, more ignorant staff generally haven’t been burnt by terrible culture, or haven’t yet learned what to look for / avoid in their next employer.

Back to the issue of Recruitment: the biggest successes/failures are going to be from the more experienced people you hire (and, remember – hiring a “bad” person into a senior position is not just a loss, it can easily cause negative productivity, by screwing up lots of other staff who were doing their jobs better before that person arrived and started interfering / roadblocking them / etc).

So … you probably should care about your reputation, somewhat in proportion to the size of your company.

Blizzard

Pre-WoW, Blizzard had an exceptional reputation, for a handful of common reasons (amongst others):

  1. Never shipped a game that wasn’t really good fun
  2. Frequently invented + defined large sub-genres with their games (Warcraft was one of the first RTS’s, Starcraft created the “truly strategic” RTS genre, Diablo re-invented the hack-and-slash RPG, etc)
  3. Publicly talked about “finishing” their games, and then deliberately deciding to spend another whole year (or similar) working on them before shipping, to make sure they were really polished
  4. All of their games were best-sellers – i.e. they didn’t just make cool stuff, they made cool stuff that the market appreciated and paid for, too

Now, I’m not so sure. If a recruiter called me tomorrow with an “amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to work at Blizzard, my first reaction would be hesitation: would I really want to work at the place that Blizzard has become?

While people have queued up to defend them, the history of their actions against Glider, and now this absurd crackdown on World of Warcraft add-on authors, have left me with a sour taste in the mouth.

In my opinion, using the law to beat over the head people who discover flaws in your basic business model / acumen is the last refuge of those who recognize their own incompetence but would rather not go to the effort of raising their own quality bar. Blizzard seems to be making a habit of it. That’s not encouraging. Ten million paying players for one MMO is great, but … the sales figures of their games were only ONE of those bullets I cited above about Blizzard’s reputation traditionally. Money buys a lot of forgiveness, but not infinitely so.

iPhone Creators: Brighton pub meet March 9th

http://upcoming.yahoo.com/event/1917163/?ps=5

If you have any interest in iPhone development (you have ideas for apps, or you want to start coding for your iphone, or just want to meet other like-minded folks over beers), then come along.

Bring friends. Bring iPhones (I’ll bring my laptop so you can download and try my current work in progress)

If you’ve got anything you’ve made yourself, definitely bring it along!

We had a quiet first meetup last night, I’ll be adding screenshots / app descriptions for the two apps shown on the night to this post later.

EDIT:

Snooker Scorer

snookerscorer1 This is a simple app that keeps score of a snooker match. You can use it in a club, watching a match live or even following on tv.

Just tap the ball that has been potted. Hit the ‘swap’ icon to swap players. If a foul happens, hold the ‘foul’ icon and tap the ball fouled. Free balls can be added as well through the popup actions icon.

Future additions will make the information line adapt to show the most relevant info such as current or maximum break, difference and points remaing, balls potted in current break, match history, undo mistakes, and whatever else I can think of.