It’s all well and good to say that you could be earning more, but how do you go about getting that job? We asked Black Rock Studios’ director of technology Tom Williams about how to improve your chances when seeking a new coding role.
The best hiring advice that I've heard came from Ed Catmull, the CEO of Pixar. After the release of Toy Story, the studio grew rapidly to meet its target of releasing an animated feature every year – and so, given the tight deadlines, they prioritised experienced candidates with skills to match the holes in their current projects.
Looking back, Catmull acknowledged their mistake: “You are better off picking people based on where they are going rather than on where they are now,” he once said. “We've learned to hire based on potential rather than on position.”
I’m sure most game studios have found themselves in the same situation and, like me, have made similar mistakes. In high-tech industries skills quickly become redundant, so it’s far more important to hire creative people with the ability and motivation to adapt with the industry. Hiring is about the long-term growth of your studio, and choosing the right candidates becomes a lot easier if you can put project deadlines out of your mind during the interview. I’m far more interested in a brilliant physics graduate, with little programming experience but bags of potential than someone who feels that they’ve nothing left to learn.
With that in mind, here’s some assorted advice for those seeking programming jobs:
• For graduates and people new to games it is important to spend some time putting together a demo. It shows us that you’re willing to work for the opportunity and gives us an idea of what you’re capable of. Do some research and try something different – I see a lot of water simulations. Most importantly, make sure it expresses the kind of thing that you want to do and not just what you think we want to see. Think about the end user when putting it together and show pride in it. Make a site with screenshots, movies, executable and source code. The demo should have a single install with an intuitive and easy to use interface.
• Keep CVs simple and to the point. Make sure that you don’t leave out important information because we may assume the worst. I use CVs to look for clues of how things would work out if you came to work for us. Have you kept down a job for more than 18 months? Have you been given extra responsibility? Have you worked on a variety of different tasks?
• If you’re going to write a covering letter then make sure that it tells us something that’s not already in the CV. I can take them or leave them personally, but most companies appreciate the effort.
• Expect the interview process to be quite involved. We like to get a broad range of feedback so we interview in pairs and often break things up by swapping the team half-way through. The atmosphere is casual as we want an open conversation and to get an idea of how well everyone will work together.
• When I talk to candidates I look for someone who will write great code and work hard as a team member. It’s really important to find people that will put their team’s performance above their personal priorities. I like to hear difficult ideas explained in simple language because it tells me that you can communicate with people who aren’t from a technical background.
• We don’t spend much time with technical quizzes, but we want to make sure that you are a strong C++ programmer who writes the kind of code that we enjoy working with. Most of the interview is spent talking through your experience and trying to get an idea of what you’ll bring to our studio. Quite often we’ll ask how you would approach a feature that we are currently implementing. That allows us to gauge your ability to think on the fly and how you go about problem solving.
• New team members come with a fresh pair of eyes, giving us a chance to beta test our creative process. So I’m happy when someone turns the tables on us and asks difficult questions. Choosing a new job is a big change and I want people to come out of the interview with a clear idea of whether or not Black Rock is the right place for them.
• Part of that decision should be based on your passion for the games that we make. Without that it is easy to lose track of the industry and the people who buy our games. I expect candidates to have done their homework and at least rented out Pure before the interview. We’ll also ask about our competitor’s games and talk about the future of racing games – I’m looking for people who are engaged in their subject with the ability to spot new opportunities in the market.
• Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get in first time. There are many different routes into the industry and if you want it bad enough then you should keep trying. If you do get turned down, make it a positive experience by asking for feedback and using it to prove us wrong.