Graduation Day

Search for a Star judges offer advice and insight into what employers look for in a graduate programmer

Now in its second year, Aardvark Swift's Search for a Star competition is open to final year programming students looking to enter the games industry. Through a series of tests judged by a professional panel of experts from Rockstar Leeds, Headstrong and Relentless, winners and runners-up secure extremely valuable work placement and portfolio advice - last year's winner is currently employed by the UK's highly-acclaimed developer and publisher, Codemasters.

This year's competition is drawing to a close, with the winners to be announced shortly. But those interested in next year's competition will be able to discover more and meet the team behind it at the Career Fair in September. In the meantime, two of the competition's judges - Lizi Attwood from Relentless and Greg Booker from Headstrong - share with tips on entering the competition and crucial advice for those preparing to make their first move into the video game programming industry.

Q: Can you being with a little bit about yourself and what you do at Relentless?

Lizi Attwood: My job title is lead programmer at Relentless Software and that basically means I look after a few other programmers, schedule work, get them to talk through what theyíre doing with them to find different ways to do things that they might not have thought of, interview and hire new people... sometimes I even get to write some code.

Q: How impressed have you been with the calibre of contestants in this year's Search for a Star competition?

Lizi Attwood: This yearís better than last year. Weíve had more entries, but a higher percentage of the entries have been really good, so itís definitely an above average calibre of students.

Q: What piece of advice would you give to next yearís contestants?

Lizi Attwood: We're looking for something thatís just an all round good entry, so there's a lot of things. In the first stage with the technical questions, do some reading up on C++, as it is essential. Look at books which describe common pitfalls and that will give you a good set-up for the first stage. For the second interview itís not a tech demo, weíre looking for something that is complete. For the last stage just be confident and relaxed and realise that you donít know everything.

The more experience youíve got the less important that qualification is

Lizi Atwood, Relentless Software

Q: In general terms what are the keys skills that you look for in graduates?

Lizi Attwood: Obviously, really strong C++ skills, on top of that really good de-bugging skills, some optimisation skills, knowing that you need to profile code before you start optimising it. Really good communication skills are important, some exposure to source control, Iím interested in that, and knowing why thatís good. And just really friendly, relaxed happy people.

Q: How importantly do you rate qualifications?

Lizi Attwood: The more experience youíve got the less important that qualification is. You just really need to show youíre capable of learning and able to stick to something for 3-4 years and see it to the end.

Q: Do you prefer people that have done games specific courses or more traditional courses?

Lizi Attwood: Itís not too important, I do work with Skillset so I notice if people have got a degree from a Skillset accredited university because I know the quality of the teaching. I know the maths is good, I know the C++ is excellent and I know they will have tried to touch on things like optimisation, de-bugging and source control.

Q: What makes a great demo?

Lizi Attwood: Something which has menus, a splash screen, instructions, really good player feedback, really good input, something that youíve tested on different people and listened to their feedback and made changes based on that, and something that you can talk enthusiastically about.

Q: How important is it for graduates to specialise in certain fields such as graphics, physics, and AI? Or do you look for more generalist programmers?

Lizi Attwood: Personally I look for generalist programmers. I donít see any reason to be really specific but if youíre going to go for graphics then specialise in it, but you better be really good at it because itís very competitive. A lot of people see it as the most exciting part of the game and really try to go for that but there is so many people doing that so you have to be exceptional.

Q: How long does it take for a fresh graduate to become a productive member of the team?

Lizi Attwood: Well I hope that they would be a productive member in about six months. That includes having a really good handle on the code base, knowing exactly where to go to fix the problem and integrating to the team.

Q: Finally, how did you get started in the industry?

Lizi Attwood: Well I did a degree where you could specialise in games in the third year. I didnít really pick that on purpose, it was a 100 per cent coursework module and I didnít like exams so it sounded like a good idea. Then because I specialised in games in my third year that where I looked for a job... and I didnít really want to wear a suit.

Q: Can you start with telling us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Greg Booker: Iíve been working for the Kuju Group for a very long time now, pretty much since I graduated from university in different jobs around the company. But since the start of last year Iíve been the technical director at Headstrong which means I oversee technical choices, help out on documentation for pitching for new projects, advise teams when theyíre addressing technical issues, liaise with programmers, get involved in the recruitment of new programmers, particularly the graduate side of things which Iím keen on, and generally just help out on coding when an extra pair of hands are needed. Pretty much anything I can turn my hand onto really, generally something to do with programming.

Q: Is there any advice youíd give to contestants looking to take part in Search for a Star next year, any specific pointers?

Greg Booker: I think important things are enthusiasm, when you get to the panel interview stage feeling comfortable with yourself. In a technical sense C++, C++, C++. Itís the most important language for games developers and gives you a good basis for if youíre working on other platforms like iPhone or tools developing C #. If youíve got solid skills in that and youíre confident in that then everything else will follow from that. At Headstrong we're happy to find a solid C++ programmer who fits well into our team and we can teach them about more specific areas.

Good graduates can become productive and useful pretty quickly and that's something that we encourage

Greg Booker, Headstrong

Q: What would you say to anybody who is unsure about whether to take part in the competition or not?

Greg Booker: I would say grasp this opportunity, itís a great opportunity to make yourself stand out since thereís more and more graduates every year and when thereís someone with no previous experience it can be quite difficult to judge what theyíve done and how good they are, and because there are so many candidates you canít interview them all. It gives a good pointer where you can look and see theyíve taken the opportunity, and just taking the opportunity itself shows initiative and enthusiasm for the industry.

Q: What are the key skills you look for in graduate level programmers? You mentioned C++.

Greg Booker: Itís worth reiterating that point: it gives you a basis. Learning about game play, AI physics, and the different things that are involved is always a useful background to have, but things become so specific with certain developers, certain platforms, certain projectsÖ C++ is the common denominator. Beyond that its good enthusiasm. Maths isnít the be all and end all. If youíre good at maths we can use you, but providing you have a familiarity with it and you can go ĎOkay so I need to look this up on Google, I need to find this conceptí and be sufficiently aware of the issues involved in the mathematical calculations youíre trying to achieve, then thereís always someone around who can help with the hardcore details.

Q: Would you advise graduates that itís important to specialise in certain areas such as graphics or physics or networking. Or would you suggest they would benefit from being a generalist programmer at this stage of their career?

Greg Booker: At this stage I donít think having a specialism is critical. If thereís something that you go for then itís worth exploring your skills in that area and if itís something that you find you have a natural flair for then dive in and make that your 'thing'. We had a graduate recently who is graphics focused and that worked out well for him he's in a graphics-orientated role on the project he's working on. But it depends on the studio you go to. At Headstrong we have relatively small code teams so everyone is a little bit of a generalist and they develop a specialist area to support that and they can develop that over the years, so a good solid grounding in the fundamentals is the key thing.

Q: How long does it usually take a fresh graduate to become a really productive member of the team?

Greg Booker: I think again that will vary. At Headstrong I will throw you in the deep end but we will assign a mentor to guide you - give a lifebelt - who will guide you towards doing something productive as soon as possible. We might say 'Okay hereís your task', something that might take an experienced programmer half a day to do but it might take a fresh grad a week. At the end of that week youíll have produced real functionality that contributes to the project and youíll have learnt so much about the code base. I think that good graduates can become productive and useful pretty quickly and that's something that we encourage.

Q: How important would you rate academic qualifications?

Greg Booker: When looking at CVs and trying to judge them at graduate level, how good someone is, the academic qualifications factor into that and help give us a picture. However, if there are good demos that illustrate youíre enthusiasm then that can stand out more those academic qualifications because obviously the standards are rising every year, and if youíve got several candidates with a good level of academic basis then the one with the cool demo is going to stand out. One thing I would say about the demo is make it relatively simple and make sure it's complete, so give it a menu and high score table, etc. Quite a few demos I see are someone attempting a much more ambitious project and they only get parts of it working, there are bugs and it lacks polish. However, if youíre trying to illustrate a particular technique then fine, you can drill down and approach that and not worry about having the rest of a game around it, it can just be a technical demonstration of your abilities.

Q: Do you have a preference for games specific courses or do you tend to look at a computer science background more favourably?

Greg Booker: I would quite happily look at people from both courses. Computer science degrees can give people a more theoretical grounding which doesnít directly relate into development but you do find it improves the way they think about the processes and the way they do things and develop code and design ideas and issues. Whereas games courses can give you a more broad grounding in specific techniques that what are obviously important, but arenít critical in our opinion, the foundations (object-oriented design, an understanding of the fundamental algorithms, etc.) and strong C++ are key, other studios may take a different view on that. The important thing is to do some research and find the good courses, see if you can talk to some of the students on it. Perhaps contact studios and ask them what courses theyíre graduates have been on because there is a lot of variety. Some of them teach quite different things from the others and itís worth doing a lot of research to make that right choice because obviously it could have a big impact on the start of your career. You can always overcome it, but itís a good start.

Q: Finally, how did you yourself get into video games?

Greg Booker: Well Iíve been in the industry a few years now. Back when I graduated from university there were no games programming courses and I hadnít really thought about it as a career. I just walked into the careers office in the final year and recognised a company there that advertised as one that had produced games that I had played before. I applied, got the job and the rest is history. Obviously now people are much more aware of it and there are games programming courses and the industry has grown and has a much higher profile. In my experience itíll probably be much different for someone else. Itís always something you can move into relatively late on if youíve started on a general computer science path and develop the desire to move into games.

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