Researching Job Opportunities
If you are thinking of changing jobs, the back page of Edge is a good place to start. Also, Develop magazine has some recruitment advertising. Agencies can be useful but need to be used carefully – see the section on agencies below. There is a list of UK developers on the CTW website – www.ctw.co.uk and click on ‘Developer Files’. It is a good idea to think carefully about the kinds of companies you want to work in – large, small, start-up – and the kinds of games you want to work on before you start looking. I think it is better to send a handful of carefully-written, targeted applications to companies you have researched than shotgun hundreds of badly copied CVs through an agency, especially if you can afford the time to look for the right job with the right company.
The Cover Letter.
At IG, I always had the cover letter as well as the CV when I was reviewing candidates and prior to every interview. It was a good chance to see if the candidate knew anything about IG and to gauge their enthusiasm. It was a rare treat to find someone mention one of our games or having looked at our website. More common was the perfunctory “here is my CV.” Occasionally, I would get real howlers that damned a candidate’s chances. Several named the wrong company. Mis-spelling my name was very common. One included the immortal phrase “I’m looking for a job in the insurance industry.” Many were flippant or weird, for instance “This job is right up my street. Hell, no! It’s right next door,” or my favourite: “I’m not as fit as my dog although I work well in a team and alone.”
On a practical note, a good cover letter is short – about half a page – neatly typed, grammatical, and properly spelt. It is polite to write the salutation (“Dear Mr. Manager,”) and the sign-off (“Yours sincerely”) by hand. Double-check who you are applying to – telephone if you have to – and put their name, title and address correctly at the top of the page.
Remember that agencies don’t include cover letters and generally fax CVs, so a direct application with a good cover letter can make you look like a better candidate simply through better presentation. Even if you think you are certain to get any job you apply for, it is worth using every opportunity to make a good impression, as it will help your case when negotiating a salary and people’s perceptions of you once you start.
As with the cover letter, CVs should be neat, grammatical and properly spelt. Unless you have had a very illustrious career, there is no need to use more than one page for a CV – second pages are rarely read. It is well worth getting an honest friend to review your CV so that you can avoid saying something that does not say what you meant it to say. A classic example of this was one candidate who claimed “I have a close and loving relationship with my two sisters.” People don’t always share the same tastes or humour so keep it straight – don’t include a picture of yourself in Star Trek costume, for example. Don’t lie or exaggerate. Some of the more extreme claims I have seen include “top secret research work for NASA,” “testing elasticity on incontinence knickers,” and one candidate who claimed to have written an entire hit game for a well-known developer on their own in a two month summer internship. More scarily, one candidate had claimed to be a refugee camp commandant in the occupied West Bank during the 80’s for the Israeli army. Among his duties were “keeping order.” I’ve seen a couple of candidates who claimed to have worked for MI5 or MI6. In general, try not to scare your prospective employers. I was always very, very wary of candidates who seemed to be ‘job-hopping’. More than a couple of jobs of less than 12-18 months looks pretty bad. It indicates some serious problem with their work or their attitude. The worst example I have seen was eight jobs in less than seven years. Needless to say, we didn’t hire him.
It is good to include some information about your hobbies and life outside work because it humanises a CV. However, the same rules apply – don’t scare your employer, appear weird or lie. Here are some classic examples from CVs I have seen. “I am a world class Rubics Cube champion as well as winning the world mathematics championship in Hungary 1993.” “My hobbies include statistics and actuarial work of all kinds.” “I am interested in the triumph of justice.”
Opinion on referees is divided. Generally, we didn’t take up references until after we make an offer but before someone started – mainly, we wanted to make sure that the candidate was who they said they were. This means that including references on your initial CV was not necessary in our case. If an employer wants a reference, they can always ask. The games industry is a very small one and quite often if we are uncertain about making a candidate an offer we will talk to someone at a previous employer informally. Occasionally, I have been telephoned by other people warning me off certain candidates – a bad reputation can follow you. If you do give references, it is better if they are people who can claim some sort of independent judgement – for example, previous employers, tutors, lawyers – and not “my mother” as one hapless candidate offered.
If, like me, you are blessed with a memorable but unpronounceable name, it is a good idea to say how you pronounce it somewhere in your CV or cover letter. Also, if it isn’t clear which is your first name and which is your surname, it is helpful to underline the latter.
A lot has been written about how to give the perfect interview. Among the best advice I have seen is in “What Colour is your Parachute.” There is also some very succinct but helpful advice in Debrett’s “Modern Etiquette” – “It is essential that you are feeling and looking your best. You should also be punctual and have genned up on the organisation. Your demeanour should be enthusiastic but never pushy, friendly but not sycophantic, focused but not aggressive, and keen but never desperate. Always shake hands.”
I will try not cover the same ground but give some advice based on what is like to actually do the interview. Candidates have created very bad impressions on me and my colleagues by not attending to basic hygiene, like bathing, brushing teeth or wearing clean clothes. Such people do not make very good people to share a room with. Slagging off previous employers is also a no-no. This is entertaining gossip but it is very easy to imagine that they would do the same about you. We don’t expect people to dress up for an interview but it doesn’t hurt to look reasonably smart – clean jeans and a pressed shirt is going to look better than a creased, mouldy old suit that doesn’t fit any more. If you are applying as an artist you don’t have to look the part. I have interviewed two artist candidates who wore a cape and a beret in order to look the part. I have no idea why they thought it was necessary. One tip I strongly recommend is that you subtly wipe the palm of your hand on your leg before shaking hands to avoid the wet fish experience for the interviewer.
After an interview a short, polite letter to the main person who interviewed you can be a good idea. You should say ‘thank you’ and highlight anything you felt you might have missed in the interview (e.g. ‘I think that I may have forgotten to mention that although I dropped out of Harvard without graduating, I do run the world’s largest software corporation’) or anything you want to emphasise (e.g. ‘I feel my experience with 3D graphics in my last job would be very relevant to your project’). Very, very few people do this and it is a good way to make a strong, positive impression.
If you can’t get to an interview or change your mind about going, please let the company know in good time. There is nothing more irritating that waiting around for someone to show up and not know whether they are coming or not.
At IG we would tend to do two or three rounds of interviews. The first would be a short interview to make sure that you would fit in and to see if you are the person you say you are on the CV (in part through a programming test and discussion or portfolio review). A second interview would be more specific and lengthy. It would focus on your suitability for a particular project or position and you would get to meet prospective team members. While I worked at IG I always liked to meet anyone we were considering making a job offer to, so a final interview with senior management would indicate that you were on the home straight. The whole process might take two or three weeks, and occasionally longer if there were changes in the project schedule. We always aimed to write and confirm the outcome – good or bad – as soon as we could, but it did always seem to take longer than we wanted. I guess this is typical.
You should come prepared with questions. Here are some of the good questions I have been asked over the years:
- How do you organise training?
- How will my work be assessed? (this is better than saying how often do I get a pay rise)
- How do you ensure projects come in on time?
- How are games designed? Who does the design?
- Describe a typical team?
- If a job offer is made – can I meet some prospective team members and my manager?
As with the cover letter, this is also a good opportunity for you to show some interest in the company. Look at their website before the interview and think of a couple of company-specific questions. In the first interview you may not get a lot of time for questions, but you should make sure that all your questions are answered before you accept a job offer. You are interviewing them at this stage. Also, be prepared to talk intelligently about the game development process and your favourite games as well as the usual kinds of interview questions. My favourite interview reply was to the question ‘what do you do in your spare time’ to which the answer was “I smoke a lot.”
The right time to negotiate salary is after a job offer has been made. This puts you in the strongest position – you know they want you – and it also avoids prejudicing the interview process with money talk. However, you should expect to give some indication of your expectations, if asked – perhaps as a range based on the responsibility required by the job or by reference to your previous salary – during the interview process so that the company can make sure that you are likely to fit into their budget. You should think about this carefully beforehand and don’t do what one naïve programmer did and ask for an outrageous amount and then immediately climb down to an absurdly low figure in minutes. That just looks silly. Any negotiation you make should be based on some kind of reasonable basis – for example you can use the seniority of the position, the level of responsibility or the level of skill required as grounds on which to base a request for more money. This sounds like you know your business better than simply asking for more money without a justification. If you are offered what you want, don’t feel that you have to negotiate for more. If you negotiate an above average salary you may find yourself low-balled at the next pay review – it’s swings and roundabouts. Companies will generally try to offer you an attractive package, with a ‘bid out premium’ to get you to change jobs, but a package which balances their desire to get you with the budget they can afford. Remember that they will have a pretty good idea of what is a reasonable salary for a given level of experience and skill – they do hundreds of interviews and pay reviews a year! I guess what I am trying to say is that you shouldn’t feel shy of asking for a good, but realistic, salary – negotiating if you have to – but equally, you shouldn’t automatically haggle on principle.
Accepting an Offer
You should get a formal offer in writing from an employer before you hand in your notice. This should set out the basic terms and conditions of your job – salary, holiday, perks, job title and so on. Generally, I wouldn’t send out a formal offer until the job had been accepted in principle on the phone or in person. You should confirm your acceptance in writing too. Besides the contractual side of things, this is creates an obligation on both sides. If you change your mind, you should let the company know as soon as possible. I’ve had two or three cases of ‘no shows’ where people don’t turn up for their job on the first day without a word of explanation. This causes real inconvenience and also means that someone else who would have really wanted the job gets passed over. Also, I can remember the names of all the people who do it and would never offer them a job again – and you’d be surprised how many people re-apply over the years.
Handling your Existing Employer
Most people’s tendency when looking for a new job is to be secretive about it and only discuss it with the current employer once a new job has been secured. This is sensible in most cases. However, I have had some bad experiences of people taking large numbers of sick days, or simply not showing up at random, while going for interviews. This is unprofessional and is likely to lead to a very poor reference at the very least. Better to take the time off as holiday. Similarly, once some people are in ‘exit mode’ they behave badly. For example, they come in late, work poorly, or bad-mouth their colleagues or the company. Again, this reflects very poorly on them.
If you want to leave your present job because of a problem, such as feeling under-paid, under-trained or whatever, I think it is courteous to give your current employer a reasonable chance to make amends before you start looking. Talk to your supervisor and explain your concerns and judge the company on its actions. Do not; however attempt the dangerous game of wage bargaining by resignation. This feels a lot like blackmail and, in my experience at least, doesn’t work. My experience is that once people start looking for a job pride makes it very hard for them to pull back so the time to raise your voice is before you start looking. At IG we did exit interviews with people in their last couple of days and it was frustrating to find that a few people had left for reasons that were easily remedied had we known about them.
The proper way to resign is to seek a personal meeting with your boss as soon as you have formally accepted another position and tell him or her that you are leaving. You should have a written resignation note to give them at the meeting. It is pretty craven to leave a note in a pigeon-hole – you wouldn’t like to be fired that way! It is likely that they have seen a lot of people quit over the years and will not react unpleasantly. Mild shock was the worst experience I had in the last few years. Again, this is an opportunity to show some professionalism and dignity that will be remembered after you leave.
Developers don’t like agencies because they charge between 10% and 20% of your first year’s salary if they hire someone through an agency so applying direct will save a company money. Agencies typically fax CVs to many companies at once. This can be useful to get your CV out there quickly, but it also means that your CV can look less well presented because it has been faxed. Most develoeprs use a mix of direct advertising and agencies, but some do not ever use agencies and others only use agencies. At IG we tended to use a single agency on an exclusive basis – for most of the time it was Aardvark Swift. From my perspective as a manager, agencies are a necessary evil. From a candidate’s perspective they can, perhaps, give advice about career planning, salary levels and the state of the industry. They also make it easy to apply to a lot of companies and they can help organise interviews and so on. I would advise picking your agency or agencies very carefully – talk to them and see if you get on with them, if they understand your requirements and if they are placing people with companies you respect. After all, they are working for you, even if you aren’t paying them yourself. If you use an agency, consider combining it with a plan of direct applications to a handful of chosen companies. Apply direct before going to the agency so that if they hire you, they won’t also have to pay an agency CV (because they will have your CV direct from you BEFORE they get it from the agency). One thing to avoid is going to more than a couple of agencies – if a company gets the same CV from several agencies and that person is offered a job, all the agencies involved may try to get their fee. At IG at least a couple of candidates were not hired because we would have had to pay two or three agency fees on them. This is one reason why we ended up with a single, exclusive agency relationship.
I was constantly surprised by how little effort some people put into their job-hunting. The demand for good people in the games industry is such that it is relatively easy to change jobs and achieve a short-term pay rise by doing so. This is what a lot of candidates do – and fair enough; but the opportunity to really optimise your career exists with each job change. Spending a day or so to research and prepare and properly presenting yourself can make the difference between a good career move and a great one.