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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 GamesIndustry.biz Career Fair in September. In the meantime, two of the competition's judges - Lizi Attwood from Relentless and Greg Booker from Headstrong - share with GamesIndustry.biz tips on entering the competition and crucial advice for those preparing to make their first move into the video game programming industry.

GamesIndustry.biz 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 they’re 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.

GamesIndustry.biz How impressed have you been with the calibre of contestants in this year's Search for a Star competition?
Lizi Attwood

This year’s better than last year. We’ve had more entries, but a higher percentage of the entries have been really good, so it’s definitely an above average calibre of students.

GamesIndustry.biz What piece of advice would you give to next year’s contestants?
Lizi Attwood

We're looking for something that’s 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 it’s not a tech demo, we’re looking for something that is complete. For the last stage just be confident and relaxed and realise that you don’t know everything.

The more experience you’ve got the less important that qualification is

Lizi Atwood, Relentless Software
GamesIndustry.biz 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, I’m interested in that, and knowing why that’s good. And just really friendly, relaxed happy people.

GamesIndustry.biz How importantly do you rate qualifications?
Lizi Attwood

The more experience you’ve got the less important that qualification is. You just really need to show you’re capable of learning and able to stick to something for 3-4 years and see it to the end.

GamesIndustry.biz Do you prefer people that have done games specific courses or more traditional courses?
Lizi Attwood

It’s 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.

GamesIndustry.biz What makes a great demo?
Lizi Attwood

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

GamesIndustry.biz 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 don’t see any reason to be really specific but if you’re going to go for graphics then specialise in it, but you better be really good at it because it’s 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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 didn’t really pick that on purpose, it was a 100 per cent coursework module and I didn’t 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 didn’t really want to wear a suit.

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Matt Martin


Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.