Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Placement of Students in Industry

Wow, it's been awhile since I wrote anything here. The busiest schedule ever will do that to some people, so for those of you patiently waiting here, I apologize.

I just finished having an epic Twitter discussion with @bbrathwaite and others today, and it made me want to write out in long form something that's been bugging me a bit lately.

Among entry-level jobs in the game industry, it is definitely not one-size-fits-all. The best entry-level jobs offer outstanding work environments, working under amazingly talented senior staff; students who land these kinds of jobs are likely to learn a lot, and go on to positions of prominence in their own right years later. The worst entry-level jobs are little more than meat grinders, throwing inexperienced students in a bullpen and working them to a soul-crushing death on largely uninteresting and unrewarding projects, without providing much in the way of learning opportunities (let alone decent pay or benefits). The majority of jobs are somewhere in between the extremes.

Likewise, students themselves fall along a bell curve. Some are superstars, some are abysmal, and the majority are somewhere in between. Now, the really terrible students probably won't even graduate, let alone make it into the hyper-competitive game industry, so that problem solves itself. The mediocre students, they can get mediocre jobs, and hopefully the reality of the industry will give them enough of a new perspective to bring out the best in them (or conversely, they'll decide that the industry isn't all it's cracked up to be, and they'll gracefully exit) -- again, problem solved. But what to do with the really amazing students?

My personal feeling is that for the really amazing students, they deserve better than the worst the industry has to offer. I'm talking about the students who have already distinguished themselves before they graduate -- the ones I would hire myself, in a second, if I owned a game company. I do not want the best and brightest our schools have to offer, getting thrown into a meat grinder. There are better jobs out there, and I would like to see the most deserving students get the best opportunities. Ideally, their school (or at least one of their instructors with industry connections) helps place them in a good studio. At minimum, they should be taught how to sniff out and avoid the really bad studios, how to detect the warning signs of a toxic work environment.

Mine is not the only school of thought on this matter. Maybe you'll recognize some of these attitudes:
  • Industry experience matters a lot. Even the best student can't hold a candle to an average person with even 1 to 2 years of experience on a real development team. Don't hold students in such high esteem. (To which I would respond: as a teacher, I'm supposed to disrespect my students?)
  • The first job always sucks. That's typical for the industry. Newly-minted graduates need to "pay their dues" just like the rest of us. (I would say: just because something is commonplace doesn't make it right.)
  • Don't forget how competitive the game industry is, especially these days with so many layoffs, and industry-experienced people applying for entry-level positions. Any job is better than no job, and even the best students should be thankful for even the worst opportunity. At worst, they can still add "industry experience" to their resume. (I think this sets up a false choice, as if a student's only options are "bad job" or "no job." As I mentioned, there are hugely positive entry-level experiences out there, even if they are rare. Maybe I'm too much of an idealist, but I think that a few rare people are good enough that they deserve better.)
I wonder, though, if this comes down to a difference between the viewpoint of an educator and that of a hiring manager. I'm thinking primarily about what is best for my students; they are thinking about what is best for their company; and the two are not always the same.