Moving on up: Promotion and advancing your development career

New Year New Job 2015: Leading studios discuss how devs can improve their skills and advance their careers
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As comfortable as you may be in your current role, every working person must always ask themselves: what’s next?

Promotion is the key to more responsibility, better pay, improved skills and fresh challenges. But ambition alone is not enough to prevent your career from stagnating, as many leading studios told Develop this month.

“I encourage people to become brilliant by enhancing their skills,” said Reflections’ HR manager Nicola Sharp (pictured right).

“An artist must continue to create work for their portfolio; a programmer has to make their own games and experiment with new technology. A proactive approach to expanding one’s own skills and knowledge is a great thing to see; it helps you to stand out from the pack and is frequently rewarded.”

Creative Assembly’s HR business partner Sophie Malik agrees, adding: “Follow your passion and be determined to make it happen. It requires concerted effort to rise through the ranks, regardless of your area or platform of choice. Be focused and pragmatic about what’s needed for the change – you’ll need to learn the ropes before you can break into a new field. It’s often worth the effort – the experience you can bring from one job to the next could make all the difference.”

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Playground Games’ head of talent Alex Wright-Manning (left) reminds devs that taking on a more senior role generally means more responsibility – but this is nothing to fear.

“Whether a more management-focused workload, more challenging tasks, or the training and mentoring of junior team members, a developer should always welcome opportunities to take on responsibilities outside of their typical day-to-day tasks,” he says.

“Not only will it broaden your skillset and give you an appreciation of different aspects of your craft, it will also hone your abilities in this area, and show senior management that you’re prepared to step up. Studios always prefer to fill senior roles by internal promotion.”

Fuzzy Frog’s Aaron Jenkins says teamwork is also crucial: “If you are a team player, don’t exercise an ego and take constructive criticism to improve your work. Do all these obvious things and you will become a trusted member of the team, the go-to-guy for doing important work. Then later, when opportunities arrive for moving up the ranks, you will naturally spring to mind. The opportunity will come to you.”

Erin Turnbull, HR Manager at Eutechnyx (right), agrees, adding that ‘go-to’ people “establish an area they can excel in and take ownership of”. Many studios rewards those who take initiative and have the confidence to step into new roles. Even being more direct with your superiors can benefit your career.

“Nail your boss down,” encourages Dennis Heinert, PR boss at InnoGames. “Ask them what you can concretely do to improve. Where do they see your weaknesses, how can they help you to improve here? Which conferences can you attend to learn from the best? It is their job to give you good advice on those questions. And as a positive side effect, you show ambition and passion for your job.”

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A developer should always welcome opportunities to take on responsibilities outside of their typical day-to-day tasks.

Alex Wright-Manning, Playground Games

IN-HOUSE TRAINING

Most studios already have systems and initiatives in place to help their teams explore opportunities for advancement.

Reflections, like many of Ubisoft’s developers, frequently sends staff to develop and train in the publisher’s other studios around the world, while Goodgame, Eutechnyx and Creative Assembly all run internal training programmes and performance reviews.

Browser specialist InnoGames has some interesting initiatives, too: as well as regular game jams that let developers try out new things, every Friday afternoon the company also allows all of its employees to work on their own projects, regardless of whether they’re related to their daily work.

Goodgame Studios’ lead for client development Dirk Köhler (right) says: “It is the responsibility of the superior to see the potential of ambitious team members and support them in taking their career to the next level. Such internal career development requires a lot of proactivity.”

If a smaller studio – such as an independent developer – lacks the resources to provide training internally, there are plenty of courses available from universities and other third-party providers. And many studios encourage developers to look into these.

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“If a training course becomes available that you feel would benefit you, your team and ultimately your workplace, pitch it to your studio management,” said Wright-Manning. “Have a clear idea of the course content, timeframe, costs and the benefits that it would offer. It’s rare that a well-researched request for additional and beneficial training will be turned down.”

Malik (left) adds: “Those courses can provide devs with a strong technical background in theory, though you need to demonstrate you have a passion for development to really advance as a developer.”

However, Turnbull argues that academic learning is no substitute for real experience: “We believe wholeheartedly in the value of on the job training. In an industry that moves as rapidly as games, traditional training courses are quickly outdated and often not suited to the needs of a development studio. The amount of learning and development that happens on the studio floor should not be underestimated.”

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Nail your boss down. It is their job to give you good advice on those questions. And as a positive side effect, you show ambition and passion for your job.

Dennis Heinert, InnoGames

HELP YOUR HOBBY HELP YOU

As we’ve seen in this golden age of indie games, spending time on your own projects outside of your day job can also pay off. Wright-Manning is particularly keen to encourage this.

“Expand your skillset by learning a new technology or tool,” he says. “Investigate a development methodology that you feel would benefit your studio. Get together with colleagues and make a game using unfamiliar tech and take on a role that you’re unaccustomed with. Working with a compact team on a side project can give you an appreciation of different development areas, and can be a lot of fun.

“Most games studios will welcome their team developing and bettering their skills by participating in external projects and in many cases may even support you if you hit on something commercially viable. 

“It is however extremely important that studio management are aware of the nature of your project, as they must take into account potential conflicts of interest and contractual obligations affecting both parties.”

Heinert (right) adds that it’s also important to train up your soft skills as well: social graces, communication, friendliness and other traits that can’t be taught by studios.

“Communication is getting more and more important as team sizes are increasing enormously,” he adds. “You will not make progress if you can only offer hard skills.”

One option for developers looking for a new challenge is to switch disciplines. Perhaps the most common is going from QA to programming or other aspects of development, but there are plenty of other transitions that can provide new challenges.

“Our whole industry is so dynamic that flexibility is very much appreciated and valued,” says Heinert.

“My advice would be to talk to other devs in the discipline of your future choice. Ask them for their perspective. But also discuss it with the people you are working with on a daily level. What does your chief say about your career perspective in the new discipline?”

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But Jenkins (left) warns: “Think very carefully about your decision – are you sure that this is what you want? Why are you making this decision? Be careful of broaching this subject with your manager as an assumption could be made that your heart isn’t in your current position.

“Don’t assume that you can just step into a new discipline. You will need to prove that you will be effective. Build up a portfolio or examples of your work in your spare time and prove that you can offer the required quality of work in the new discipline.

“Also remember that you may be starting with a much lower level of experience in your new discipline, which most likely means that you’ll effectively be a junior grade – expect a much lower pay bracket and level of responsibility.”

Köhler assures devs that taking such a pay cut should only be temporary: “You will be able to climb back up the ladder more quickly than you usually would, because you will have the big advantage of having worked in another discipline and that expertise will always help you progress at a fast pace.”

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Don’t assume that you can just step into a new discipline. You will need to prove that you will be effective. 

Aaron Jenkins, Fuzzy Frog

HONING YOUR SKILLS

However, changing disciplines doesn’t always have to require drastic changes to your skillset and day-to-day tasks. There may well be opportunities within the area you already specialise in.

“There are some disciplines that are intrinsically linked like QA, design and production, and progression between these disciplines occurs often at Eutechnyx,” says Turnbull. 

“Changing to a new specialism within a discipline is also encouraged – for instance from game to server programming – and we do all we can to support and provide training for this.”

Shifting between disciplines essentially comes down to two options, says Köhler: specialism or management. And that choice should be based on both your passion and your strengths.

“If you love programming and want to keep doing that, become a specialist; if you are a good communicator, adviser and instructor, become a manager,” he says. “Both are great choices for a high-profile career.”

Sharp stresses that devs shouldn’t abandon the skills that have defined their career thus far: “Don’t discount what you’re good at. If you are brilliant at parts of your existing role, don’t throw those skills away; they are of value to the business. Maybe you can incorporate these skills within the new role you want to move into. 

“If you still want to move, research the new discipline. Find out what it is like to do that job by arranging to work shadow or go on secondment, as you may hate it. It’s best to try before you buy.”

If a change in discipline is the only way to progress from your current role, Wright-Manning advises that you should investigate why you have not been given the opportunities you seek. 

“Be open with your employer about your ambitions – it may be that they have plans for you upon completion of a particular project or milestone,” he says. “Studios have to balance their commercial responsibilities with the happiness and motivation of their staff, so it may just be a case of them being unaware of your ambitions, or needing to fulfil business or contractual obligations prior to any team restructuring.” 

Don’t forget why you first wanted to join the games industry and see that spirit in others. Nurture it and keep talking about it with your peers. This creates ideas and enthusiasm to make cool new things.

Nicola Sharp, Reflections

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PASTURES NEW

Perhaps the most drastic way to find new opportunities is to seek them at a different studio. Developers moving between companies is a regular occurrence, but what should you bear in mind before taking such a leap?

“The games industry is fast moving and constantly shifting so looking out for opportunities and leaping between big studios to fill roles can result in a speedy move up the career ladder,” says Jenkins.

“But be careful of taking this approach as it could get messy if you get into a job without enough of the right experience. Lead positions demand experience.

“Something else to consider is that if you jump jobs too quickly and too frequently a canny interviewer will spot this on your CV and probe you with questions to make sure you are not going to jump ship at a critical moment.”

Malik adds: “We would rather develop people internally and have them build their career with us as a trusted expert in a leading studio. That said, we’re always interested in hiring devs from other studios who have proved their expertise.”

It’s safe to say there are plenty of options out there for developers that want to try something new, whether that’s within their own studio, in their spare time or at a different company. But Reflections’ Sharp says there is one crucial thing to remember when considering a job move.

“Don’t forget why you first wanted to join the games industry and see that spirit in others,” she says. “Nurture it and keep talking about it with your peers. This creates ideas and enthusiasm to make cool new things.”

You can find the rest of our New Year, New Job content at www.develop-online.net/jobs2015

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