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Tech wars and talent shortages

How game industry recruiting has changed, from what publishers need to what developers want

Mary-Margaret Walker became a game industry recruiter in 1996, stepping away from her time straddling development and HR positions at Origin Systems and 3DO. While she had success managing design teams for Ultima games and staffing an upstart hardware maker with more than 200 new hires, she was getting burned out, and the flexibility of a stay-at-home job appealed to her. So she made the jump to being a game industry recruiter, which she admits in hindsight was perhaps not the best decision.

"It was really hard at the time to transfer from game development to recruiting," Walker told GamesIndustry International. "The industry had no respect or value for recruiters, and I didn't know that, believe it or not. I didn't do enough research, so it was a big surprise to me when I became a recruiter and had people be openly rude to me that had never known me before... They felt like I was the enemy. All of a sudden I was no longer part of the 'they.' I had somehow stepped out of being part of the games industry, so it took a long time to be seen and accepted."

That same year, Marc Mencher founded the outfit now known as Game Recruiter. Like Walker, he started out as a developer and had handled part of the rapid staffing up at 3DO, but he first saw the need for game industry-specific recruiters years earlier when he worked at Spectrum Holybyte. Mencher was originally a programmer, but as he was promoted and had to hire on his own staff, he found general recruiters ill-equipped to handle his needs.

"I went out to the recruiters out there, but they didn't understand how to make software," Mencher said. "They didn't play games. They didn't understand the pipeline, so how were they of any value? After two weeks of being annoyed with garbage candidates, I fired all the recruiters, taught myself how to recruit, and I staffed my own team."

Times Have Changed

Obviously, things are a bit different these days. For example, not only have publishers seen the value in recruiters, but many of them maintain their own full-time internal recruiters to help fill positions as they open. As Sega Europe's HR & recruitment manager, Ben Harrison is one such internal recruiter. Although Harrison can't claim the same amount of experience as Walker or Mencher, he's still seen it change dramatically in the six years since he first got into gaming with Sega.

"Traditionally, the industry was largely based on individual contacts, old school head hunting with the recruiter's 'black book,'" Harrison said. "Recruitment today is a technology-based industry, with opportunities far more accessible to both candidates and companies alike. Advances in technology, recruitment advertising, social media and online tools such as LinkedIn mean that candidate exposure has intensified and recruiters are able to get in touch with pretty much anyone at the touch of a button.

"Alongside this, we have seen the emergence of internal recruitment departments within most medium-to-large-size businesses, meaning less of a focus on using external recruitment agencies," Harrison said. "Of course, agencies are still an integral part of recruitment strategies but solely relying on their resources is becoming far less common...Publishers and developers are realizing that it's better to have a close relationship with a small number of professional recruiters using their resources for tough-to-fill roles."

So game industry recruiting has moved from something that essentially didn't exist to an accepted practice to one so valued companies now hire people just because they are good at finding good people to hire.

Misunderstood Motives

Despite this growing acceptance and understanding, Walker said every now and then she still gets treated like a used car salesman, and there are still a number of myths and misconceptions surrounding the field.

"This is the hardest part," Walker said. "Whether you're an internal recruiter, an external recruiter, contract, whatever... it is not about helping people find a job. It just isn't. It's about filling job openings. Companies hire me to fill their openings. If I'm tasked with filling a director of marketing position, the person who is paying for that service is not going to be thrilled if I've spent the majority of my week helping four art directors find a job."

"This is the hardest part...It is not about helping people find a job. It just isn't. It's about filling job openings."

Mary-Margaret Walker

On the other hand, even with the publishers who pay the bill, Walker needs to draw some boundaries about what exactly her role will be.

"I'm always very frank with the client and the candidate that the minute I have them both at the table, I have to have integrity," Walker said. "I'm not going to get the candidate the highest salary; I'm not going to get the client the lowest salary. Of course, it's not just salary; it applies to everything. Because the best thing for both sides is when it's the right fit and what is being offered is what is being well-received."

Even if a publisher does get a discount on a new hire's salary, if that hire proves a bad fit for the job, they could move on or wash out in short order, erasing whatever savings a low-ball salary offer might have gained. The goal of a recruiter (especially one who wants to stay in demand) would seem to be finding a good match that leaves both the talent and the employer happy with the arrangement. Harrison suggested a bit of candor helps in finding a good match, saying recruitment is by no means a sales environment.

"I am very honest with candidates and always try to give a realistic impression of the challenges ahead," Harrison said. "The single most important aspect of the recruitment process is that this is a two-way process and we, the publisher or developer, need to impress the candidate as much as much as they need to impress us. Hiring people who understand the business and culture as well as the skills that are required leads to motivated members of staff that are engaged, happy and ultimately want to stay and grow with the organization."

What Talent Shortage?

But the game industry isn't exactly a hallmark of stability, and when it comes to attracting great talent, that puts game publishers into competition not just with each other, but with employers in tangentially related fields.

"Game companies themselves need to change the way they interview, the way they approach candidates, and the way they treat the people who work for them and the candidates they're going after," Mencher said. "They gotta wake up. It's no longer everyone wants to work in the game industry because we're the game industry. That used to be, but it's not so much anymore, because it's not a stable industry. So some people are saying, 'Let me go into medical sims. Let me go into military sims because that's way more stable.' And it is."

"Game companies themselves need to change the way they interview, the way they approach candidates, and the way they treat the people who work for them and the candidates they're going after."

Marc Mencher

Walker brought up the same issue, saying game makers are now competing with social media, software-as-a-service companies, and an array of dynamic players in high-growth industries that are increasingly targeting the same talent pool. Unfortunately, she said, companies have some mistaken impressions of how deep that pool really is.

"There are enough people on the market that they don't want to hire anybody else who doesn't have the exact skills they're looking for," Walker said. "But there's not enough people on the market to fill all the job openings. So the job openings go unfilled and people are unemployed. And it leaves a false impression that there's talent out there to pick and choose from, when in fact there isn't if you're going to be really picky and expect the person to have everything you're looking for."

Mencher has noticed much the same sort of problem.

"We've got a little conundrum going on in the US," Mencher said. "We've got a little tech war going on because there aren't enough college students registering into computer science programs, so there isn't enough talent in the US to fill the needs of the US game companies...There are too many jobs available in the industry. There's a glut of jobs. Everyone is hiring."

In the old days, Mencher said the solution was just to bring in developers from England. H-1B work visas were simple to obtain in the US, and companies could give their imported talent a significant raise while still paying less than the market rate. However, those visas became much harder to get after 9/11, so as Mencher put it, "we're stuck with the US talent and every game company wanting it."

Burst Bubble Backlash

September 11 wasn't the only event from that era with a reverberating impact on this subject. Walker said the dot com bubble of the late '90s also looms large over the field today. At the time, employers showed "a real respect for talent," Walker said, fighting to hire top talent by letting them make unreasonable demands about everything from signing bonuses to unheard-of workplace perks. When the bubble burst, a lot of companies who won those sorts of bidding wars went under, and many of those who survived took the lesson to heart.

"People who are trying to hire aren't acknowledging that there's a talent shortage. They're not acknowledging that they need to allow for certain deficits in a candidate..."

Mary-Margaret Walker

"There's been a backlash for a really long time of the companies not wanting to acknowledge that talent is worth that level of frenzy ever again," Walker said. "Because people who are trying to hire aren't acknowledging that there's a talent shortage. They're not acknowledging that they need to allow for certain deficits in a candidate and get a really good hire and fill those deficits by bringing them up to speed."

So if the industry is awash in job openings, why are some well qualified developers still struggling to find work? Walker said part of the problem is that a lot of companies are looking for "purple squirrels," people with incredibly unlikely combinations of skillsets and experience. Even if such candidates prove non-existent, Walker said some companies would rather hurt themselves and their projects by sticking to the original job requirements instead of breaking it up into two positions or filling it with one candidate who has 85 percent of the qualifications.

"Every time a new system has come out, I've always had a demand for somebody that had three years of experience on it," Walker said. "The minute it just came out, they're looking for somebody that has three AAA titles on it!"

"Every time a new system has come out, I've always had a demand for somebody that had three years of experience on it."

Mary-Margaret Walker

Speaking of which, demands for developers with a certain amount of experience on AAA titles is another way companies can hurt themselves in the hiring process, Walker said.

"Being on a AAA title is an accident," Walker said. "It's not necessarily an indication of that person's level of talent. It can be, but it doesn't necessarily mean they're a highly talented person. There are a lot of high-value people who didn't manage to be on a AAA game that are getting overlooked, and a lot of people who are not high quality talent that are accidentally on a AAA game, and they're getting hired."

Attracting the Best

Misconceptions and missteps from both sides of the employer-employee divide complicate the recruiter's task, but Harrison said the biggest challenge for a recruiter, regardless of the industry, is simply attracting the best talent for a position.

"There is so much choice for prospective candidates and seeing what opportunities are out there has never been easier," Harrison said. "Attracting the top candidates starts with getting the maximum level of exposure to the market and ensuring that the candidates we want are aware of the opportunity. Following that, it is important that we have an attractive opportunity with professional challenges, exciting products to work on and a competitive benefits and remuneration package."

"We've always had the mantra that happy employees work harder, are more creative and will stay for longer and this really starts in the recruitment phase..."

Ben Harrison

That may sound simple enough, but Harrison said the enticements that matter to top candidates have been changing. Salary is still crucial, obviously, but quality of life and work-life balance are increasingly important to employers as well as potential employees.

"Candidates are looking for the whole package," Harrison said. "For example, a flexi-time policy or extra time off at Christmas are seemingly small measures but they go a long way to making candidates buy in to the vision of the company. We've always had the mantra that happy employees work harder, are more creative and will stay for longer and this really starts in the recruitment phase when we are looking to attract the right talent."

Mencher sees a similar evolution of attitudes, and it's one he attributes to the industry's maturation. Or perhaps more accurately, the maturation of the people within the industry.

"When I got into the industry, I didn't meet anyone over 40," Mencher said. "Now when you go to [the Game Developers Conference], 50 percent of the room has gray hair. As we're aging, folks are wanting different things from game companies. They don't want to be abused. They don't want to work 18-hour days."

"As we're aging, folks are wanting different things from game companies. They don't want to be abused. They don't want to work 18-hour days."

Marc Mencher

Even so, some studios still have a reputation for putting employees through the wringer. Whatever benefits they feel they get from the regular crunching, Mencher said they can be at least partially offset by problems with talent retention.

"Those are my favorite companies to pull talent out of," Mencher said. "They get good training and then I can move them into a game company where they have a normal job and they don't have to work overtime."

While quality of life issues are more important for developers than before, Mencher said the base salary also seems to be closer to the forefront of developer concerns these days.

"That's what's winning out now," Mencher said. "Forget the stock, forget the equity. Most candidates tell me to take it and shove it. Don't want it, don't care about it, give me the cash. A lot of candidates used to go for the cash and the stock, or the equity stake, and now people are saying the industry is too volatile. There are too many companies that have come and gone. People are over it."

Walker agreed that stock options had lost their luster for a while (another lesson from the dot com bubble), but said developers are starting to care more about them with some companies actually adding value and showing growth again. But again, quality of life is still a big selling point.

What Devs Really Want

International Game Developers Association executive director Kate Edwards echoed many of those sentiments. The prevailing attitude 10 or 15 years ago was that people just wanted a job making games, and didn't care about conditions or benefits so much, she said. Today, they're paying more attention to the details.

"Knowing that the company values them and they're not going to be chewed up and spit out through crunch time is so much more important than any of the frills," Edwards said. "And I think the frills and the way they're presented in a lot of the startups I'm seeing are now kind of an indication of, 'We value a balanced life.'"

Edwards still gets e-mails from would-be developers who would be happy with any job in the industry, but she added people are at least asking more questions about work-life balance, benefits, and the like.

"What most game developers want more than anything is the freedom to create, and autonomy, knowing they'll be going into a place where they'll have the freedom to do what they're hired to do."

Kate Edwards

"Having been at Microsoft for 13 years, I saw at least in that context a very stark transition from the attitude where 16-hour days and free drinks and all that kind of stuff was what the appeal was to people who had a better established work-life balance," Edwards said. "Those priorities went away and it's more about the long-term viability and overall job happiness. I think a lot of companies still use the tangibles first as an attractor, which is very natural and it's not going to stop. But my impression is more developers have become wise to the idea that's not all they need out of life. They need more."

Quality of life concerns have come to the forefront, Edwards said, and they encompass more than just avoiding crunch. It's also important for developers to have hospitable work environments for all kinds of employees, and that the corporate culture encourages diversity, creates a fun place to work and fosters creativity.

As for how recruiters should focus their pitches, Edwards said developers want the ability to do their jobs without interference, and to know their work is going to be appreciated by their employer.

"What most game developers want more than anything is the freedom to create, and autonomy, knowing they'll be going into a place where they'll have the freedom to do what they're hired to do," Edwards said. "Yes, they're part of a team and they know their designs and ideas will go through review, but they [want to] feel their creative contribution is valued, where it's not like they have to jump through 50 hoops just to create something."

While Edwards heads up the IGDA, she acknowledged that these are just her impressions of the situation. To back those impressions up with more solid data (or to challenge them, as the case may be), the IGDA is launching an annual survey at the Game Developers Conference to gauge developers' own attitudes toward the industry, their jobs, quality of life issues and the like. Results from the survey are expected to be announced by E3 in June.

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Latest comments (19)

Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 7 years ago
Wow... just wow... for an aspiring game creator like me, this is the type of article that I can really enjoy. Because very few websites offer insight to just how the game industry works. I mean if i wanted to just talk about games I have plenty of other websites, but this is precicsely the type of article I enjoy. And its nice to see articles that people seeking a career in game design can relate to.
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James Brightman Editor, North America, GamesIndustry.biz7 years ago
Glad to hear it Rick. We're going to have several more career focused pieces this month as part of our "Feature Focus." We're going to have a new "Feature Focus" each month. Stay tuned.
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Very informative. I'm particularly impressed by newcomers such as Marc and Mary-Margaret and how much they've learned in such a short time in my profession. Good job kids!
Robert Grant Stanton, Sr. ( Using Grant's login )
TSC ( Est. 1968 )

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Grant Stanton on 12th February 2014 7:06pm

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Show all comments (19)
the purple squirrel, I m glad they hit upon that topic. The problem with this industry as in many now is the "plug and play" mentality. In days gone past, companies would hire bright eager people with a lot of potential. They would then invest time and effort in them and mold them and teach them the exact needed skills that would benefit the company.

Now days? there seems to be no time for any of that. Someone tosses out some ridiculous job description that almost no one can fill , and then they act surprise when no one can fill the job. I mean with the combination of,
1) we dont have time or the will to train you.
2) we dont want to invest in you because none of us know if anyone will be here in a few years
3) heres a ridiculous job description to try fill, as it was either created by a clueless HR rep, or its a lot of fiction created by the last person to hold the job who had to create a job description for himself so they of course toss everything into it, hoping to create job security and possible ammo for raises later on.

its a perfect storm. We always joke around here, if we all had to come in and interview for our jobs based on the job description, none of us would be hired because we arent qualified LOL.. But its the truth.

Sad part about most of this, is that smart eager people in this field can in fact do most of these jobs, it just might take " gasp" them a few months to polish up some old skills or learn a few new ones to get on track.. and hell we cant have that now can we.

Everything in this economy has to fit the Just In Time model, and of course everything and everyone is disposable. Its sad.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 12th February 2014 7:42pm

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Dan Lowe 3D Animator, Ubisoft Montreal7 years ago
This helped me gain a bit more empathy and appreciation for what recruiters do, but they have to understand why they have the negative perception.

There's already a ton of visibility in the games industry about companies and vacancies, and so for most developers there's little need for a middle man to facilitate an introduction. If someone wants to apply to a place, they go to their website and all the vacancies are there, along with a direct link to apply. Because of that, a lot of developers see recruiters as guys that are just trying to take a cut, off a hire that could have happened without them. It also doesn't help that for many developers their only contact with recruiters are the "cold-call" emails or LinkedIn requests that many recruiters use to build their networks.

Again, I'm sure recruiters work very hard, and of course people shouldn't be rude to them. I always politely reply when they do message me. But still, I hope they appreciate why the games industry in particular might be a tough arena for them to operate in, and why game developers might feel put out by continual "great opportunities", spam in their inbox.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dan Lowe on 12th February 2014 8:06pm

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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 7 years ago
Recruitment, as it is now in the game industry, just reinforces the linear seniority-based factory model of the game industry.

The result?: a body of talent that are insular in their outlook, out of touch with the larger world and unable to bring games into the open as an artform.

More of my thoughts on this:

"The Irrelevance of Game Design"

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 12th February 2014 10:03pm

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Lewis Brown Snr Sourcer/Recruiter, Electronic Arts7 years ago
Great article! As a recruiter within EA and having been an agency recruiter prior to that. I echo a lot of the comments and contributions on the article.

I came into the Games industry from the broader tech industry around 5 years ago and was amazed how incredibly dynamic the games industry is, driving a lot of change on an almost monthly basis in what the business asks from you as a recruiter. You only have to look at the rise and fall of social media gaming followed by the growth in Android/Apple in recent years to see this. Coupled to that the new generation is looking strong again and you can see how talent demands seesaw back and forth.

The other points about growing age and maturity amongst developers, competition from other tech companies all ring true with my day to day engagements with the business, candidates and in the research I do.
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Alex Clark Tools Programmer, Ready At Dawn7 years ago
Excellent Article.

As someone who entered the industry recently after graduating I can say the points about the purple squirrel, work life balance, and focusing on salary amount ring true.

Before graduating I felt significant pressure to find work outside the games industry due to the cost of student loans and the volatility of the industry. In particular I have noticed that many companies, if they are hiring new talent at all, use 1 year contracts and don't seem to realize that their offered compensation is often not very competitive since many game companies choose to be located in areas with high costs of living.

Even with a passion for making games, it is very tempting to look for work in the simulation field since it is more stable, requires less work hours, pays more, and companies are often located in areas with significantly cheaper costs of living.

I should also say that if a recruiter is looking for new talent, head hunting people who are about to graduate is more effective than waiting til afterwards. The time after graduation is a big unknown for most students and it's hard to say no to a reasonable job offer when you are just weeks away from graduating.
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Kingman Cheng Illustrator and Animator 7 years ago
+1 on Rick there, very insightful for us guys like us. :)

I wonder as well because after the way the economy has changed over recent years, how that has affected prospective students opinions and attitudes of joining the games industry.

And especially with what Todd said as well with regards to job descriptions expecting candidates to get out of education and practically know everything.
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Simon Miles Senior Talent Acquisition Manager, Jagex Games Studio7 years ago
Great stuff.
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Ben Mathis Art Director & Co-Founder, Snjohus Software7 years ago
I admit I skimmed the article, but I have had very negative experiences with recruiters. I normally do my scouting myself, and the last time I was looking for work, my husband, a programmer, used a recruiter, so it made sense for them to shop me around at the same time. In a 4 month period they were unable to get me a single phone call. When I started on my own, within a week I had 3 phone calls, 2 of which resulted in job offers, so the problem was not me.

Recruiters might work well for programmers, maybe designers or management too, but for artists, I still find them incapable of paring the right applicants to the right studios, because they are still just matching resume points instead of art styles and game types. (which I admit is a lot to keep on top of if you are not an artist yourself)
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Russell Watson Senior Designer, Born Ready Games7 years ago
A lot of this rings true to me, I've seen many talented people leave the industry because they couldn't secure a job because many of the requirements are far fetched. I have also seen many leave after around 5 years due to burnout from crunch or being offered a higher salary in a different industry. Both contributing to the competition for talent, if the industry stops driving people away it will be less of a problem.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Russell Watson on 13th February 2014 11:33am

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Lewis Brown Snr Sourcer/Recruiter, Electronic Arts7 years ago
@Ben You may have struggled because some companies, EA as an example have large internal recruitment teams so don't use external agencies that often.

That doesn't mean that you shouldn't use a good agency though, they can provide coverage through their contacts and connections. My advice would be to give a recruiter a fixed amount of time to try and find you opportunities and if he/she doesn't come up with the goods go elsewhere. But be open about this with the recruiter and tell them they have your attention for maybe 2 weeks that way they know they will get a reward if they work hard for you but will lose you if they don't provide results. I would also connect with the in house recruiters at studios that have them, you can always find them easily on LinkedIn by searching for (recruiter AND "studio name") and setting the location as the area you are interested in, in house recruiters such as myself are always open to connecting with people looking and will give you an honest answer about whether we have anything interesting or not. Hope that helps :-)
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises7 years ago
Yes recruiters and HR, I DO have over 8 years experience using Visual Studio 2012, and I have been developing PS4 games for the last 7 years. My last project was integrating a AAAA game into the cloud, which was complicated by the purple squirrels.
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Gary LaRochelle Digital Artist / UI/UX Designer / Game Designer, Flea Ranch Games7 years ago
"When I got into the industry, I didn't meet anyone over 40," Mencher said.
I entered into the industry in the mid 90's. At that time I noticed that there was a wider age range in the development teams. I worked on one game where the average age of the team was 45. Nowadays it seems that if a studio in less than 5~6 years old most of the development team consists of people under 30. And this has become a factor in hiring new help. "You must fit in" to be hired. If you are over 40 you will not even be considered. Just look at some of the development team photos from some of the newer studios. You're not seeing many seasoned veterans in those photos.
There are "purple squirrels" (or sometime called "Unicorns") out there. You just have to take down the filters that keep them from being considered.
On the other hand, veteran developers (the purple squirrels/unicorns) have established their own filters as well. If a studio is known for laying off staff after a project ships or has a parent company that likes to "downsize" every year, veterans may balk at wanting to work for them. I was approached by a studio whose parent company was known for downsizing every year. So I turned down the offer. Sure enough, two months later the studio was shut down.
Which leads to the problem of stability within the game industry. If your game does not do well, bye bye. If it does great, your studio may be bought by a large publisher (sometimes just to get the IP rights to the game) and you become an expendable asset. No wonder experienced talent is getting harder to find. They are just tired of the BS.

BTW, great article.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Gary LaRochelle on 14th February 2014 2:47pm

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Julian Cram Quality Analyst (Test), Wicked Witch Software7 years ago
Something which pisses me off no end about this industry is that due to free trade agreements, American companies can come into places like Australia, buy out a studio, close them down mere months later, and yet those developers can't get a job in the USA because of the restrictions the government places on us in those some kind of free trade agreements.
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Lindsay Cox Games Programmer, Mediatonic7 years ago
@Todd I completely agree with your comment about some companies just wanting staff that "plug and play" into a role. In my previous job which was also my first job out of University I felt like investing in their employees from a skill development perspective was pretty low on the list for the studio. Granted at the time the company was relatively small but grew pretty rapidly, however even then there was no proper mentoring and no one really taking an active role in mentoring people and they essentially assumed that you could do every part of the development process straight of the bat as a graduate. Which is just wrong. As a graduate, even if you can almost pretty much plug and play into a role, going into a role where no one is going to take the time to mentor you and where you potentially won't get taught anything new is bad for your development as a professional.

In my current job however, it is very different and I am very lucky to have people who are willing to actively teach me new skills whilst we work on projects and make career development a big part of working here.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Lindsay Cox on 17th February 2014 3:29pm

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Tom Keresztes Programmer 7 years ago
Yes recruiters and HR, I DO have over 8 years experience using Visual Studio 2012, and I have been developing PS4 games for the last 7 years. My last project was integrating a AAAA game into the cloud, which was complicated by the purple squirrels.
And when you get hired, its all desperate crunch because the code written by the former Purple Squirrels is an unmaintainable, buggy mess. Squirrels are quick and agile creatures, when they threatened they just run somewhere else, leaving only cracked nutshells behind them.
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Alan Dixon Recruitment Consultant, Amiqus7 years ago
Really great article and some insightful responses here as well. As a recruiter who loves the industry and games it produces, its easy for me to get enthusiastic about every role and every candidate! However we always look at how we can 'add value' to everything we do, and I think sometimes thats just recognising who and what we can help and who we can't. One piece of advice I would give everyone is just to pick up the phone. So much is done over email recently, it makes a real impact to actually phone someone up and have a chat.

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