Coincidence, luck and getting my first job in gamedev

I recently hit a milestone in my professional career – it’s been exactly 9 years since I made a move into games industry. This may not sound like something profound or significant but the circumstances of my transition from regular software development were rather interesting. I think it’s fair for me to say I was quite lucky and found myself in the right place at the right time. Today I want to share something I always bring up when talking to students or people who want to get a job in games REALLY bad but don’t know who to ask or how to start. This is the story of how I unintentionally and accidentally started making in games.

In 2006 I moved to Linköping in Sweden, with the goal of finalizing my studies. It was my last year and apart from taking several courses, all I had to do was come up with an idea for a master thesis, get it done and be on my way to a spectacular career in IT. At the time, I didn’t know too well what I’d want to do in my life. I felt like programming was “the” thing for me to do since I enjoyed it and found it pretty lucrative but I had no clear idea on what exactly I’d want to focus on. I came to Sweden with roughly 40000 SEK in my bank account which I made doing some part-time work as a PHP developer which would last me for a few months. I was also backed by a small scholarship from my home university but other than that I was on my own. If there’s one thing a person from a middle-eastern european country can say about Sweden it’s that it’s relatively very expensive. My savings were soon starting to dry up and the remote contracting I did at the time was simply not enough for me to make it through a month, so I decided to start looking for a job in Sweden which would hopefully pay higher than what I was making. Soon enough, I managed to find a small consulting company several blocks away from where I lived and they decided to hire me as a Python programmer. The pay was a mindblowing 15000SEK a month, which was a completely different ballpark from the 2000SEK I was making as a contractor for a Polish company. I took the job and was very happy with it.

Sadly, this didn’t last very long. Soon before Christmas 2007 I was let go. The economy started going bad for the company and they had to cut costs, starting with low-tier employees. Anyone who went through being fired knows how unpleasant it is. It gets worse especially if you completely don’t see it coming, which was how I felt. I did manage to save up a bit over the course of few months I got to work there but it was not enough for me to last until my thesis was done. I was mentally pretty shattered and depression kicked in pretty quickly. To take my mind off this, I turned to the best remedy I could get at the time: alcohol, drugs and online games! is a website with small flash games that don’t require too much of either focus nor time to play them. Back then it was extremely popular and for many developers it was the best chance they could get to actually make some money on a game and get it noticed by wider audience. For me, however, it was an anti-stress device and something that kept me occupied and distracted from my everyday financial problems.
Among dozens of games that I played, there was a very specific bunch I used to replay over and over. Coincidentally, they were made by the same company: Hammock ADB and Numbat Studios. Now that I think about it, I can’t really say what exactly was the “thing” that made me stick with their games. They were simple in concept, pretty and elegant with a slight nostalgia factor since some had a retro-feel to them. The rules were intuitive enough for a player to learn without a tutorial and the controls were flawless. Niether of the games had a particularily involving story but the overall theme of each product was enough for me to spend hours on end playing them. Whatever the reason, I decided to look these guys up and learn a bit more about them. This is where things started getting interesting!

Games by Hammock ADB and Numbat Studios were what kept my spirits high during unemployment depression.

First suprising fact about Hammock and Numbat was that they turned out to be companies based in Sweden. But it got better than that. Turned out their office was 2 streets away from my soon-to-be-former office which completely blew me away! I enjoyed playing their games but it was then when for the first time I thought: “hm… I have nothing to lose, maybe the actually need a programmer?”. At this point finding contact e-mails was a no brainer, so I decided to brush up on my CV, write the best “hello!” email I could come up with and just give it a shot. I didn’t have high hopes since I thought I’d be dealing with AAA professionals who might just shrug me off. Remember, it was 2007 and the indie developer scene was pretty much non-existant with a few minor exceptions. Unity was around but was not yet as relevant as it is today and using it for your small project cost insane amount of money. Unreal Engine was outside mere mortals’ reach, so if you wanted to make a game you’d either have to team up with someone and make your own tech or use mediocre tools. Also, I wasn’t 100% sure making games was what I really wanted to do. Despite my doubts, this is what I sent them:

Few days had passed and I got a resonse from Tomas, though it was not what I silently had hoped for:

So no job but there’s still hope and I should contact “someone who may know something” at a company I didn’t even know existed in the area (something that made me realize I should improve my Google-fu!). I wrote another email and soon enough got a response:

And this my friends is when I felt like everything was predestined for me. Power Challenge was looking for a person with my exact profile and experience, so naturally I followed up on it and in the end got hired. This was also my first exposure to a brilliant interview process where you don’t take a written test and there’s no “whiteboarding” involved. I got a task to do at home, 2 days to complete it and report back. For a freshman out of the university with very little professional experience it was completely unbelievable. February 2008 was my first day at work and it was also my first “real” full-time. This also led me to extend my stay in Sweden from the planned 1,5 to almost 3 years but that’s a tale for a different day… 🙂

The moral of the story and one big thing I learned is never to underestimate yourself and keep trying no matter what. Not gonna lie, in some circumstances it might also require a strike of luck or knowing the right people, which in my case was a subtle mix of the two, since Tomas from Hammock pointed me in the right direction and he happened to live and work in the same city as I did. Today it might not necessarily make that much of a difference since our online presences have no physical locations but being able to meet someone in person will definitely help. Another thing: getting a job in the industry you want to work in might not start off from the exact position you want but getting your foot in the door is always the first step. Even though PHP development wasn’t my dream gig (I wanted to work with C++, not traumatic web development!) it was still an invaluable experience I wouldn’t swap for anything else. You may not work with the things you want to right away but given enough time and persistence, you’ll get there eventually. If it worked for me, it will definitely work for you too. My first gamedev job also opened doors to meeting people in the industry. I got a chance to work with folks from DICE, Ageia, NVidia and a bunch of other companies I wouldn’t even dream to come across in my professional career. A lot of these people have switched jobs since then – some moved to Apple, AMD, Microsoft or big gaming companies across the world. With some our paths have divereged, with others I’m still in touch. Never burn bridges and always try to live as peacefully with your co-workers as possible. You may never know how your or their fate might turn in the future!

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Teaching is hard

Even though it’s been many years, I can still remember my first days in school after I started education as a little kid. I truly admired and looked up to teachers who, to me, were the living embodiment of knowledge. I think I was really lucky because I was taught by people who truly had the calling and for a brief moment I even wanted to become a professor myself. However, as the years passed on, I developed a feeling that I would not make a good person to share what I know with others. My patience was low and I found it tremendously difficult to discuss things that were obvious to me but a novelty to others. Becoming a teacher turned into a nightmare job for me and I quickly realized this is something I want to stay away from as far as possible.

And yet, 25 years later, I started giving lectures about game programming at a university and it’s WAY worse than I imagined it all those years ago.

You don’t realize how difficult some things are unless you try them. Out of sudden, you move from the position of a student taking notes to being this single person standing on the scene, talking to others and hoping nobody out there will publicly shame you for the 10 mistakes you made when talking about X 15 minutes earlier. For a newbie teacher it’s a load of stress, especially if you want to impress the audience with your knowledge and, more importantly, keep their attention span at maximum. Being a person who rather listens than talks, I found speaking challenging, or rather: being able to speak in an interesting way. I quickly realized that it’s relatively easy to dictate a math book over the span of 1,5 hour but how do I do it so that the students actually learn something and don’t fall asleep? Conveying a story about “this one time when I solved this neat problem Y using quaternions” and smuggling knowledge right along with it is something I consider craft in itself. As such, it takes me several days to prepare a lecture and roughly 20 PowerPoint slides to help me out. It’s incredibly intense and mind draining. The day before my lectures I sometimes question whether I’m really a person fit for the job and having all those mixed feelings about what I’m about to do doesn’t help me at all. The feeling of doubt persists right until the very next day. Even 5 minutes just before the lecture starts, I still have doubts.

And then something magical happens. I walk through the door, get smiles from the entire room of students and some of them even ask questions about previous lectures. I feel someone caught up with what I wanted to share with them. Somebody cares and listens, somebody wants *ME* to tell them what *I* know. The motivation boost begins and along with it, my lecture. I talk. I show slides. I share stories that I have with relation to what I want to teach them, hoping this will help the people remember and correlate things with each other. Suddenly, they start asking questions – now I’m confident that someone is really listening to me. And let me tell ya – the questions they sometimes ask can get mind boggling! One aspect of talking about things that are common knowledge to us is that we soon forget what it’s like *NOT* knowing about it. When learning a new skill or an algorithm, we still have the “fresh look” and it’s more intuitive to question things or dig deeper to get the underlying meaning. Once we start applying the knowledge, it’s easy to forget the questioning part and a lot of things start being taken for granted – until you have to re-explain it to someone who wants to understand everything. This is what you’ll be getting with students – lots of uncomfortable questions, sometimes even about the aspects of a particular problem you may have never even thought about! Bottom line: if you want to know how much you don’t know about X – give a lecture about it to people who have no idea what X is!

As I’m still trying to figure out what the best balance is for a fun lecture is, there’s also the matter of maintaining a proper student/teacher relationship. Having lived and studied in 2 different countries, I find this to be a thing heavily dependant on a particular culture. Where’s the fine line between being a strict teacher and a friend? Should I be more formal or can I let the students call me by my first name? How do I make sure I’m not “too friendly”, so that the students don’t get too cocky with me and start caring less about education? I live in a country, where relationships like these are usually very formal, so my students were a bit surprised and intimidated with casual talks during breaks. On one side I found this to be a good sign – it tells me that they do have respect for me as a teacher. On the other hand, having no “bond” between a student and a teacher makes the former more shy and reluctant to ask questions. A sad state of affair in our formal education is that 99% of the time, the students don’t truly realize the teachers are there *PRECISELY* so that they can talk to them and deepen their knowledge. Being less formal and a bit more casual seems to do the trick in my case and I can see positive attitude changes with every passing week. Students want to talk to me, ask me about things and learn from me. It’s heartwarming but at the same time makes me a bit sad about the fact that I seem to be an exception in a generally unfriendly world of Polish education.

Yes, teaching is hard and can get stressful. Having only a few months of experience doing it, I still don’t think I’d ever want to be a full-time lecturer. However, despite the downsides and occasionaly losing my voice after talking non-stop, I would still decide to go for it had I the chance to turn back time. Even though it drains me physically and sometimes gets more difficult that my everyday programming job, it gives me a unique chance to help others with their future careers and possibly change their lives for better. This is my biggest reward.

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Dealing with LinkedIn tech recruiters – 3 simple steps

It’s that time of year again – recruiters on LinkedIn are starting to send out messages and job ads faster than anyone can read them. This is something I think every tech person experiences after spending substantial amount of time registered there. What suprises me is that a vast majority of people I know despise getting this kind of mail which, at the first glance, seems contradicting to the purpose of being on a professional social network. While different people may have different reasons to being registered on LinkedIn, I seem to have a rather unpopular approach of treating it as an opportunity to possibly land my next job – something that happened to me before, twice. With that being said, I accept all contact invitations unless the account is clearly recognized as spam or completely unrelated to my line of work (and that doesn’t happen very often).

If you’re anything like me, you most likely have problems with replying to all non-urgent email right away, LinkedIn recruiter messages falling under that category. This is especially true when I’m comfortable with my work situation, when my interest in new job opportunities is low. Despite that, however, I try to follow these 3 simple steps:

1. Always write back, even if you’re not interested in the offer.

Unless you’re a rockstar who may never need to look for work again, it’s always polite to respond and say that you’re not interested. Further, invite the recruiter to keep you updated on the job market he/she is working with (unless, of course, it’s something you’re completely not into). Even if your job situation is stable at the moment, you may never know what happens in a few years time and help may come from least expected places.

2. Schedule one day a week/month to go over your professional social network messages.

Spend some time and go over all unread messages on specifically scheduled days. This will help you maintain your inbox clean and ease up on accumulating unread email frustration (yes, it’s a real thing!).

3. Be professional. Be polite.

If someone keeps spamming you with unsolicited mail and something that just won’t contribute to your career advancement – remove the connection. Never send outraged messages, don’t Tweet about it, just do it quietly. Better yet – polietly let the other side know that you don’t wish to receive specific types of messages – this tactic works more often than you may think. Badmouthing other people, even if you consider them to be “annoying recruiters”, may leave a mark on your professional appearance. Remember: the Internet is smaller than you think.

Most importantly, remember that on the other end there’s a living human being who is only trying to do their job. You may be one of many people he/she wrote to but even so, being civilized about it is something everyone should remember.

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