Career advice from Shuna Fish Lydon

I realized yesterday that I am currently spending more time on cooking than on making games. Reading blogs, researching recipes and techniques, lusting over equipment, finding out what is in season, scouting for good ingredients, planning dinner parties, digging through magazines and cookbooks. It’s weird. Perhaps it would be different if I could make multiple games a day, all on my own?

During my reading I came across
this post on careers and mentoring over at Shuna Fish Lydon’s Eggbeater blog. She worked in the kitchens of Thomas Keller so I bet she knows what she’s doing. A lot of it is not at all specific to kitchen careers, but can easily be applied to the games industry:

I know I’m not the only person out there mentoring, giving advice, leading, managing, forming relationships, pushing, prodding, teaching, guiding, and more. There are thousands of others out there like me. But it’s not enough. Too many people are stepping into positions they have no business being in. Too many people are lying to those employees. And too many of those employees are happily swallowing that lie.

Too few game companies do any kind of long term thinking, especially regarding employee retention, employee development, or quality of life.

This industry is selfish. It wants what it wants and it will continue to gnaw until it breaks you down. It will take every last drop of blood. It will use you up and not give back, if you don’t watch your back.

Chris Crawford made an observation in the late 90s that because there is a near-infinite influx of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed youngsters willing to make games, the industry can afford to treat developers badly because they can be easily replaced.

In the short term, at least.

This has changed a bit, and it is different in different countries. One sees a lot more older developers in the US, for instance – ‘older’ meaning ‘over 35’. But overall I’d say the problem is still there.

In the interview look around. Do some homework. Is this The Chef you want to work for? Is this the kitchen that’s going to kick your lazy ass? Is this restaurant going to be a place you’ll be proud to have on your resume? Is this house well known in the industry? What can you learn here? Who do you want to learn from?

These are certainly factors I take into account when looking at a new potential employer.

The pay sucks, we all know that, that’s a given.

Although you can make a living in the games industry, don’t come here to get rich. Not as a developer at least. The odds are too low.

Every name you put on your resume is like lining up the cue ball in pool. It’s always about the next shot.

Now you don’t necessarily know what that will be, until you get there, but every name on your resume should mean something, not just to you. Work is not sentimental. Yes, it’s about the relationships you form, but this industry is competitive. Few people care about the warm fuzzies you felt in your last kitchen. Did you get the job done? How long did you stay? Why did you leave? Can I call for a recommendation?

… Why aren’t you in the credits?

Last year when I was looking for work, I didn’t follow this advice. I had several offers that would look good on my resume, but I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy the work. So I decided that after 15 years, I wasn’t going to take jobs just because they would look good my resume. At some point, it’s time to start spending that investment.

Why are you working in that kitchen? Do you prefer being a big fish in a small pond or do you take pleasure in being eaten by piranha? Do you only want to work in the big shiny kitchens with million dollar re-models? Or do you prefer mom-and-pop joints? Do you learn best in militant kitchens or laid-back ones? Do you work in kitchens because everyone is nice or do you pick your future homes based on skill level? Are you applying for that job because you think you have something to give and you want your ego stroked? Do you always work in 3 star kitchens or have you worked the gamut?

This can be directly translated to the games industry.

You can’t be a good boss if you’ve never had a boss.

Who has been your most inspiring chef? Who do you want to manage like? Which restaurants ran in the black the soonest? (And do you know what that means? What information have you been privy to?) Who moved you up the line when they thought you were ready not merely when you were bored or cocky?

I’ve had the privilege of working for (and with) some good people, people from whom I learned a lot. But it’s been rare. In fact, this is why I wanted to become a producer: because I thought I could do a better job. Or at least I wanted to suffer because of my own mistakes, rather than someone else’s.

If a person goes to culinary school for 9 months and then gets out and becomes a chef they are generally working alone or with an assistant or two.

I don’t think this translates well on average, although I can see it happen. If you’re fresh out of some game development course and you’re made lead, chances are you didn’t pick a good employer… Why can’t they hire someone with more experience?

You are a much better employee the more you know how to do. This includes knowing how to work a commercial dishwasher, how to clean floors, how to jump on another station to get a cohort out of the weeds, how to do more than what’s only in your meek little tunnel-vision.

Well, I agree. But I can say that one of the hardest career problems I’ve personally had to struggle with in the last 5 years, if not longer, is defining what my role is. At Rockstar Vienna, I worked on 3 different hierarchical levels and in 3 different departments. I’ve done game design, production, programming and QA. In the worst interview I ever did, I presented myself as interdisciplinary while my interviewers were trying to figure out which discipline I was applying for (talk about a communication problem). I usually spend more time discussing my role and title than the basic question of whether I can be useful. It must be nice to just be really good at programming or modeling or something…

While talking to this cook, I saw so much. I saw beyond her back to her past jobs. I saw other kitchens I’ve never stepped foot it, in my mind’s eye. Did she work in anarcho kitchens with little to no leadership or was she lazy and expected all teaching to come to her in secret specific way, which she kept to herself but quietly seethed over its injustices? Were there chefs there who loved mentoring but were tired by the time she worked in their kitchens? Was she too shy to notice that all chefs teach differently and she was expecting everyone to be like her instructors at culinary school?

This is more or less like the games industry, except the culinary school bit. It is amazing how company cultures shape people. I constantly have to judge: Is my instinct right in this situation? Or is it something that was right at a previous employer?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have about a 1000 unread items in the games folder of my RSS feed reader. And I need to start making chicken stock so I can cook a bolognese sauce and vegetable soup later today.

Update: Seems I am not the only game developer who likes to cook. Damn, I need to work harder.

Comments 3

  1. Stitched wrote:

    Good analogy fit between a world-class kitchen and the games industry. I think that your problem of “too many hats” is unique usually to the place you work and not a general norm in the industry. I’ve been told in many shops that I will have to “wear many hats”, which usually meant duties beyond the job title and/or we are understaffed so need to compensate. This is fine, more or less, for the short term, however, there are a lot of companies that demand specialization and focus.

    “Hey, kid. It’s great that you know some key-framing, can rig skeletons, build complex interfaces, script, light, and render…but what I REALLY want is a kick-ass animator and ONLY an animator.”

    In this instance, you are like too little butter on too much bread. Double whammy if they equate all this broad expertise into leadership – just because you are the best at what you do, doesn’t mean you are the best to lead others that do what you do. But you can’t become the best if you having your attention and focus diverted on other tasks besides the one you are or want to become exceptional at.

    Posted 11 Nov 2007 at 12:45
  2. Noah Falstein wrote:

    Good insight – I’ve often made comparisons between game design and cooking, but it didn’t hit me until this posting how similar they are in still being taught primarily on the job, despite the existence of massive schooling programs – at least at the highest levels for both. And it’s not just design, but the whole kitchen staff with their varied roles resembles a game team too.

    Posted 12 Nov 2007 at 9:22
  3. Jurie wrote:

    Yeah, plus the highly mysterious combination of disparate elements that makes a great experience. Sum is more than the parts, alchemy, etc.

    Posted 12 Nov 2007 at 12:23