It's hard enough to recruit good young programmers out of school, but getting them in the doors is only half the battle. When studios do land top talent, they need to do their best to hold onto it.
To that end, Iron Galaxy Studios founder Dave Lang and Iron Galaxy Orlando studio GM Tom Carbone today offered some advice for holding onto those recruits in a Game Developers Conference session, and Lang said it starts with company culture.
"One thing at Iron Galaxy I feel very strongly about is we don't have job titles," Lang said. "And the main reason for that is that with job titles comes entitlement in really unhealthy ways for game development."
For example, someone who holds the title of graphics engineer might push back when asked to fix bugs in the user interface simply because it's not in the title's job description.
"There's none of that at our studio," Lang said. "Our studio has a culture of get a shovel and start digging. Whatever we need you to do to ship this game and make it great, that's what you're working on. Having titles just gets in the way of that."
"People don't leave companies. People don't leave projects. People leave their leads."
Iron Galaxy instituted that policy simply to head off some potentially detrimental mindsets in development, but Lang said it had an unintended beneficial impact on talent retention. Specifically, it let them experiment with young employees in a consequence-free way. You could try out a young developer in a lead engineer-type role on one project without committing to that role in the longer term. If it doesn't work out, or if a more senior engineer is available to lead up the next project, it's easier for that young talent to adjust to a different role on the team.
"Because they don't have 'lead engineer' in their title, taking a step back like that doesn't feel like a demotion," Lang said. "It just feels like this is the work I need to do today."
Carbone noted that one problem of such a system is that career progression becomes a bit murkier. To help with that, Iron Galaxy pairs developers with senior mentors at the studio that aren't tied to their project. The regular meetings could be used as venting sessions or career trajectory discussions, but the important thing is that they give the employees some risk-free Q&A time with someone who isn't just their lead on a project. This also had an unintended benefit, as the mentors would get a better understanding of what the young developers were most interested in doing, and could advocate for them and set them up for success when future project staffing decisions were made.
One other key piece of advice Lang had was to treat young employees like adults.
"Every other studio I worked at was horrible at this," Lang said. "They would treat you like you were a kid who couldn't hear bad news. 'Oh no, they can't actually know the game they worked on didn't sell any copies.' 'I don't want to tell them the project they're on just got cancelled because I don't think they're gonna handle it.' If you've done a good job hiring and building a studio, you've got a bunch of weirdly smart people around you and they don't stick around for bullshit. They know you're lying to them. I can go to SteamSpy and see it didn't sell."
Because of that, Iron Galaxy places an emphasis on open and honest communication, even if Lang admitted that can be something his instincts advise against from time to time. As hard as it can be to hear bad news, he's found that people really do appreciate honesty.
"Some people are motivated by money. Some people are motivated by the project. But everyone believes in trust," Lang said. "Trust and good will is a piggy bank. Every time you're honest with something, money goes in the trust piggy bank. Every time you do something nice for someone, it goes in the piggy bank. Treat them with decency and respect in the workplace, it goes in the piggy bank. So when you do have to give them bad news, that's a withdrawal for sure... But as long as it stays above zero, people aren't going to leave. People don't leave companies. People don't leave projects. People leave their leads."