How I got a job in the games industry through persistence and (mostly) luck

Almost exactly a year after quitting my PhD I’ve finally managed to secure a trainee programmer job. 2014 was a tough but exciting year and I couldn’t be more chuffed with the way it worked out.

Finding my feet

The first month or so way spent figuring out what to do with my life, followed by my rather tragic first attempt at a games industry interview. After sucking at this I took stock and re-evaluated my learning process. It’s easy to skip over the fundamentals in programming but you learn quickly that it’ll bite you in the arse later on. So that’s what I did. I went back and read a C++ textbook from cover to cover until I knew my stuff. It takes time and discipline as well as being rather boring (learning most things from a dry textbook is boring) but completely necessary. To ease the boredom I also began another game project called Skein, a 2D space exploration game that I’ll write a separate blog about at some point. Learning-by-doing is absolutely the best way to go with coding in my experience. I’ve learnt more by making things that don’t work than I have by reading textbooks.

During my main learning period (Feb-May kinda time) I managed to secure an interview at a major game developer through a friend of mine from my days as a games tester at Sega. It was exciting to be taken seriously after having a games career as a pipe-dream for such a long time. Unfortunately, my trip around south-east Asia was scheduled just after the company emailed me expressing interest. Fortunately, they were understanding and delayed my interview until after I got back. This also meant I ended up coding on my tablet on cross country busses, high speed catamarans, and shiny beaches on the other side of the world which was pretty sweet!

My first real life programming interview

I’m not ashamed to admit that I was utterly terrified at the prospect of this interview. At least in my first interview I’d been able to hide my nerves a bit over the phone, but this was a real life interview with real people and a written test. My nerves got the best of me to such a degree that I even got off the bus over a mile too early and had to leg it in order to make it in time. Anxious and exhausted from my unexpected jog, I was shown to a large meeting room and sat down with a test paper. I spent an hour carefully completing the test as best as I could while shaking like a leaf and trying to avoid a full on meltdown. I say an hour, at least half an hour was spent staring blankly at the paper wishing I’d spent more time learning stuff on my travels.

Despite the anxiety, I don’t think I did too badly. When my hour was up, two senior coders came in to go through the test with me. Having an exam you’ve just done taken apart in front of you is a little daunting but it was actually very educational. Of course the whole thing was nowhere near as scary an experience as I thought it would be. It turns out that, generally speaking, most games developers are pretty nice people. I learnt a lot but didn’t get the job. At the time I genuinely thought I had a shot but in retrospect there was no way given my lack of experience. For anyone else in a similar position I’d definitely recommend getting some interviews done early on as you’ll almost certainly not get a job but it’ll steer you in the right direction.

Another more successful interview

Failing at another interview wasn’t great for my self esteem but, regardless, I remained optimistic. I spoke to a friend of mine, an artist at Total Monkery (an indie studio in Plymouth), and managed to get a meeting with his boss. We had a chat about my background and some stuff I’d been working on. I got some pointers and an open offer to drop by and hang out at their office from time to time if I liked. They’d offered to show me what they were working on and help me out with my projects, which was awesome and exactly what I needed at that point. It meant I could do something other than sit in my bedroom working my arse off without knowing if anything I did was right.

In August I received an email from a London-based developer out of the blue offering me an interview. A month or so previously, I’d gotten disheartened and decided to start applying for games testing jobs just to pay the bills while I trained myself. It turned out that one of the companies I’d applied to also had developer jobs going as well and put me in for that instead when they read my CV. Just the fact that happened was already a win for me. Somebody thought I was qualified for a job in games! Looking back it doesn’t really mean anything but was a good confidence boost at the time.

This interview was completely different to the last. To start with I was given a half an hour coding test over google hangouts. The weird twist was that they shared my screen and saw everything I was typing during the test in real time. Fortunately, the problem was very similar to one I’d been given in my previous interview (Write a program that reverses a word and outputs to the screen) so I completely nailed it. I even wrote a second solution that was more optimal than the first. What a show-off.

Pretty quickly got a call to say I’d made it through to the second stage of the interview. I much preferred this way of doing things as it meant I could show up having already shown off my technical skill and just play the talking game, something it turns out I’m better at in interviews than I am in real life. Weird. If there’s one benefit to throwing caution to the wind and quitting a job to pursue a completely unrelated career it’s that it certainly gives you a lot to talk about in job interviews.

So this interview went as well as I could’ve hoped. I got on well with the two guys asking the questions, I showed off a bit more coding knowledge and generally had a pretty great time. Salary was discussed. Housing arrangements were discussed. I was even told that the lead programmer wanted to give me the job by the owner of the company. Sounds pretty much like I should’ve got the job, right?! Somehow I didn’t. The issue may have been something to do with the fact that this company didn’t actually make games. They took games that had already been released and ported them over to Mac and Linux. As such, the nature of the work was fundamentally different to that of a typical game dev. During the interview they kept mentioning that they’d hired and lost several people over a short period due to the job not being what they’d expected. I suspect they realised that I enjoyed the process of actually making games a little too much, as opposed to pure coding work. It was probably fair enough as I doubt I would have wanted to stay there for too long doing that kind of work.

The Winter Drought

Over the next few months until Christmas I applied for tonnes of jobs all over the country. Things were getting a little desperate money-wise (and not-going-mental-wise) but fortunately my super patient girlfriend as well as family and friends were all there to keep saying encouraging things and supporting me. Rather frustratingly, job openings in the games industry tend to dry up towards the end of the year. This is largely due to a huge number of games being set to release just before Christmas, hence nobody is looking to hire trainees.

One good thing I did manage to achieve in this time was to get onto the Creative Skillset Trainee Finder scheme. This is an awesome scheme whereby you can get half your salary paid by the government (tax free), making you a much more attractive (and less risky) candidate for a junior position in the games, VFX, or media industries. All you need is either a degree approved by the scheme OR two industry testimonials. The paperwork is a minor pain but the whole thing is definitely worth it if you’re aiming for a career in any creative discipline.

Finally getting a job!

December had rolled around and things weren’t looking any better. I’d finally resigned myself to the fact that I’d be stacking shelves in the new year. It was starting to look increasingly like I’d been wasting my time with this whole game development thing and maybe I should just get a regular office job.

Throughout the previous months I’d been heading down to Total Monkery once a week, hanging around and picking up nuggets of wisdom here and there. On my last work experience day of the year I was taken aside and offered a job as a trainee programmer completely out of the blue! It turns out that it pays dividends to simply keep showing up and being keen to learn stuff.

My main reaction to this was pure relief. Finally I’d managed to get my first job in the industry that I love, and a job doing exactly what I’d set out to do a year before. Sure it took longer than I’d have expected but I couldn’t be happier with the way everything turned out. I’m very grateful and I can’t wait to start!

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