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What I Teach Game Dev Managers (3/3)

Most leaders I encounter in game dev (myself included) were thrust into their first leadership role with no preparation. I help reverse that trend by training managers. Here's the most comprehensive curriculum I've ever created. Part 3 of 3

Keith Fuller, Blogger

September 16, 2016

16 Min Read

The following is part three of a summation of what I’ve taught in the most comprehensive of my manager training classes for game devs, a version of which was recently held at a client’s office over the course of two days. (part one can be found here) (and here's part two)

This is not all of the things you need to know as a people leader. It’s not even all of the subjects I offer for training. But it’s the most information I’ve ever accumulated in one place and it’s been used in a real world setting to teach game dev managers, so I thought somebody might find it useful.

I typically present this material in a classroom setting using Google Slides, thus much of the value comes from my witty repartee and scintillating monologue as opposed to the written word. That’s my way of apologizing in advance for sentence fragments, colloquialisms, and Twitter-inspired verbiage. This wasn’t written for a book. It was, however, written to further my goal of putting myself out of a job by removing dysfunctionality from our industry’s people operations. When that happens I can finally move on to my much more lucrative second career in residential landscaping.

And now (minus any client-specific, proprietary information), here’s part three of the training material.


What If Performance Isn't Improving?

With every client I stress the following priorities. This is true of every organization, including yours.

The top priorities of a healthy company, in this order:

  1. The needs of the business.

  2. The needs of the people.

As much of a fight-the-power, storm-the-Bastille, vox populi guy as I am, I will still stress to you that the needs of the business take precedence. If you have no company, you have no employees. Given these priorities, what do you do if a team member’s performance isn’t where it should be?

The Dark Protocol

As a manager, imagine a timeline drawn for you indicating the potential future of any given team member. Beginning on the left is the phrase “you notice something” and ending on the right is “employee termination”. The steps that occur in between are organization specific. They may involve a PIP (performance improvement plan) or other formalities such as HR visits. They may entail a certain amount of coaching to try to reverse the employee’s course, moving to the left on the timeline, away from termination. But what I hope is that there is a very clear set of steps in a documented process that your company has in place for dealing with this worst case scenario. I created one for a client and it makes me feel much better to be able to tell their first-time managers, “Don’t be afraid of this. There’s a process for you to follow if it comes to it. You don’t ever have to wonder if you’re doing the right thing.”

I’m being fairly tongue-in-cheek introducing this as The Dark Protocol but there’s an incredible amount of seriousness to this topic. We’re talking about the emotional well-being of people you’re responsible for. We’re talking about how you impact THE one environment in which they spend the most waking hours. And we’re talking about their livelihood. We’re talking about people who are raising children. People who have moved across the country -- or from other countries -- to work at your company. By all means, have fun in your job. Be lighthearted. Enjoy what you do and cultivate the positive culture I hope you’re all striving to support. But please do not lose sight of the importance of your role as a leader. Do not take it lightly. By virtue of the fact that you receive this training, there is a very real burden of responsibility on you.

Best practices here may well vary depending on factors such as the state or country in which your company resides. Based on my understanding of human resource practices throughout the US, here are a few tips in case you ever find yourself responsible for a team member somewhere on this timeline:

  • Start from a position of safety -- We talked about trust earlier. If you haven’t built a rapport, if you haven’t established trust, then you’re just going to be imposing your will on someone unilaterally instead of convincing them they need to change. That’s bad.

  • Make sure to be clear about “the gap” -- This is the distance between where they are now in terms of behavior or output, and where they need to be. They need evaluative feedback, and they need coaching.

  • Give them steps -- Don’t just tell them “Shape up.” Tell them how to do it. This can all begin very informally at first.

  • Keep your manager informed -- It’s not a good thing for your boss to be unaware if you’re coaching someone who’s at risk of losing their job.

  • If you fail to notice negative elements, or if you let things slide or “give them another chance”, this has a cumulative negative impact on your team and others around them. Everyone else notices how you respond -- or fail to. And one of the worst things you can do to “A” players is suffer the un-coached tenure of “B” players.

  • Be unmistakably clear -- It might not be up to you -- this might be a matter for HR or your boss -- but when an employee is getting close to the end of the timeline and you’re telling them they need to change, someone has to end a sentence with these words: “...OR YOU WILL BE FIRED”. I took that lesson from Matt Blumberg in his book Startup CEO. If things are truly getting this serious, don’t mince words.

How Do We Help Team Members Develop?

This is the positive counterpart to The Dark Protocol. Here we’re talking about helping people grow and improve. But why is it important for people to be challenged and learn new things?

For one, studies show that one of the biggest contributors to employee retention -- particularly in younger employees -- is constant challenge. If you want them to stay, provide them with opportunities to learn and grow.
For another (I’m quoting my friend @mike_acton’s Lead Quick Start Guide) “How good your gamedevs will be tomorrow is much more important than how good they are today. There are simply a lot more tomorrows.”
A final quote, this one from Marc Merrill, president of Riot Games (circa 2010, before they were making boatloads of cash): “We never assume we’re as good at anything as we can be.” Since Marc’s company is now making upwards of $80million a month I think it’s probably a wise move to emulate his attitude.

The following points amount to more than simply “best practices”. These recommendations come from my own experience as a studio developer, my observations of having spoken with more than 100 game companies, and from contemporary literature and research. I contend these things because I’m an expert in the field of leading game developers. I feel the need to point that out because much of what I’m about to explain is, empirically, conflicting with how many game companies feel they should operate. It’s either ignored for expediency, held in disdain, or actively contravened by the leadership of many organizations. That’s OK. You can do that. It’s certainly your prerogative as a president or CFO. But you do so at the peril of your company’s health.

Continuous Improvement: No Longer Just a Buzzword

Your team members should hear that you and every other manager want them to learn new things, get better at what they already do, or both. This is part of speaking a shared language as leaders at your company.

If I approach one of your team members and ask them if they feel challenged -- if they’re learning new things -- and if they tell me no...who’s that on? That’s on you, their manager.

Provide and Protect Growth Opportunities

Allow team members to set aside a minimum amount of time on a regular basis for professional development. By all means, track it like any other goal and require that it be attached to a meaningful aspect of the business (see earlier point about this not being Make-a-Wish). This may change seasonally depending on your state of production and other factors, but just like with 1:1’s you should determine what amount of time the team member gets and how frequently, then stick to your agreement. Further:

  • Make this time guilt free. You’re the leader. By your words and actions others will see that if Biff is reading a book at his desk instead of feverishly addressing JIRA tickets, our first assumption should be that he’s working on his own development goals and that’s a Good Thing. Biff shouldn’t be made to feel bad by anyone.

  • Encourage this! You may occasionally find someone who seems OK with just coasting through the day, working on whatever task is handed them. They may not immediately display an interest in growth opportunities. In this order, you should 1) encourage them and show them the value in their own development, and 2) if this attitude persists you should wonder if your team is a good fit for them. Because on your team, you want everyone to learn something new, get better at what they already do, or both.

  • Protect it. This is game development. Everyone’s hair is always on fire. But waiting for all the lights to turn green before you pull out of the driveway is a great way to never get anywhere. To be sure, there will be times when people on your team will have to defuse a bomb. I’ve been there. Don’t pull them off to go watch a GDC Vault video or run through a lesson on iepro. Figure out that balance, though. If you don’t guard Biff’s interests, who will?

Development Shouldn’t Be Zero-Sum

In the Jack Welch era of General Electric, the top 10% of the company’s employees were sent to Crotonville, the corporate training center where extra management skills were pumped into the most promising individuals. But what if you came in at 11%? No Crotonville for you. If you did get to go to Crotonville, that meant someone else didn’t.

Don’t plan your employee development like this. If someone shows affinity and ability and they want to learn, they should have the opportunity. There shouldn’t just be one golden ticket. This sounds great on paper, but proves difficult to implement with non-infinite development budgets. Which raises the question: what is your budget?  If someone wants a book, video series, or wants to attend a conference, who pays for that? How much can we spend? Is it per person, per department, per project, company-wide?

Whatever the numbers turn out to be, make sure you reward ganas. If someone wants to learn and grow, find a way for that to happen. Maybe everyone can’t go to SIGGRAPH. Can you schedule free lunch and learn sessions? Purchase access to videos everyone can watch? I’ve got one client who’s working on a part of their onboarding program that will provide every new employee with a Kindle, pre-loaded with a library of recommended reading.

At the start of every school year, all across America, teachers who get paid a lot less than you do will buy classroom supplies out of their own money because they care about their students. What will you and your company do for your team members?

Yes, we expect employees to bring the motivation, to be “self-starters”. But as a leader it’s up to you to provide the opportunities.

Additional tips for managers:

  • Schedule time to think about growing your team members -- If you don’t explicitly carve time out of your schedule, other things will fill your week. Friday night will come in no time and you’ll have to fall back on coming up with something on the fly during your next 1:1. Instead, set time aside to look at those blogs and shared links you saw over the past few days. Biff’s been asking about material for improving his writing skills. Can you find something that would help? Is anything in that latest HBR.org article applicable to your company? That umpteenth open letter to a CEO on Slate...are there any lessons in it for you?

  • Focus on strengths -- Earlier in the section on Goals I talked about the value of moving someone from Above Average to Super Amazing rather than finding something at which they’re below average and helping them become less awful. Not sure where to begin? Ask them what they enjoy, which aspects of their job they look forward to.

  • Look for Active Learning Projects you can assign -- It’s fine if someone can watch a Gnomon video and get better at a random skill. But wouldn’t it be great if they could learn something new and solve problems for the company while doing it? I had a manager at a client’s office who really wanted to become known more widely throughout the company for their skills in collaboration. I told them, “With the upcoming move into additional office space, we really need a way to identify everyone’s work area...something better than ‘Biff’s old office’. Go talk to person A to get images of office layouts, find someone on team X who can do some Photoshop work for you, and create new floor plans with unique identifiers for each desk.” The manager came back after a week having provided the company with a much-needed resource, and having demonstrated their ability to work across multiple teams (and learned more about interpersonal communication in the process). That’s an example of an Active Learning Project. What problems does your company have, and how can you help your team members grow by solving them?

  • Meet with other managers -- All of the material we’ve talked about thus far is applicable to the other managers with whom you work. They need insight and impetus to execute it for their teams, just like you. How often have you sat down in a room with even three other managers and talked about any of this? “How do you find time for your 1:1’s with all of your team members?” “How did team member X get so good at Z?” “Do you have any suggestions that could help my team with managing outsourcers?” These are all questions you could raise with other managers, and the ensuing discussion would probably be immensely valuable for all of you.

  • A final point I stress in training is that in a healthy company, developing the people for whom you’re responsible isn’t something you tack onto your real job. This IS your job. You don’t put in your 40 hours and then try to figure out a way to cram in a few minutes over the weekend to contemplate development opportunities. I know one AAA tech director who plans 50% of his week around helping his team grow. The CTO at one of my clients said he was OK with frontline managers spending up to 30% of their week on 1:1’s and related responsibilities. This should be an expectation of people leaders in your organization, and setting aside office hours where you focus on these issues should be guilt free, normal behavior for any manager. If this isn’t the case where you work, what avenues are available to you to address that?


Here’s why I’m sick of seeing this meme: it is ubiquitously Liked and Shared by everyone who can’t do anything about it, and it’s regularly proven to still be a problem by the inaction of those who can. I don’t need reminders of such negativity.

Your people don’t need more negativity, either. Studies show it takes roughly five positive comments to have the same impact on a person’s brain activity as a single negative comment. Our brains come with an amygdala, a fight/flight/freeze center. What our brains don’t have is a Super Happy Fun Time center. So as you’re applying everything mentioned here, remember your attitude is important. And now we’re back at Emotional Intelligence, so I think I should wrap this up shortly.

There are a few other subjects I’ve taught on in the past, like Motivation, and Culture & Values. All important. But like all of this material, it’s great that it gets instilled in managers but it won’t have meaningful impact on a company until the top decision makers are involved in a discussion. Once you have CEOs and studio presidents and VPs in a room talking about people problems, then you can start introducing positive change that can last. Change that can affect the whole company and not just the one team with the well-trained manager.

I know plenty of frontline leaders that believe in what I’ve presented in this training material. I can meet with a dozen of them at the next GDC without too much effort and we’ll have a great time in our echo chamber. But for the sake of our industry what I really want -- what we all really need -- is to have the organizational leaders in a room talking about where the greatest sources of friction are for their people and why it hasn’t been a business focus to address them. Don't think your company has people problems? Invite me into that room, too. Your devs have already told me about your company's issues. I'm happy to share them with you.

I’m not beholden to the interests of a single company. And I travel all over North America and Europe talking to developers. I’m qualified -- perhaps uniquely -- to tell you that it’s not a matter of educating managers or letting your people read books while they’re on the clock or sending them to GDC to learn stuff. While those are great things, there are more important, endemic issues that just don’t get broached at your company. I’m always talking with game developers whose work environment has major problems but they fear to speak up. Or even if they do raise their voice, their comments disappear into the ethereal leadership layer that is The Powers That Be, with no evidence of any attempts being made to change things. Heck, I know HR managers who feel powerless to enact change because “it’s not up to me”. Let me talk to their CEO and share what I’ve heard from their own developers. Let’s open up those channels of communication. I mean, I can’t help but notice you’re reading this but your studio head isn’t. How do we change that?

Whoa, hey...where’d this soapbox come from. Settle down, Keith.

Anyway, thanks for reading. I hope the training material adds value to your workplace. We may not be able to solve our industry’s problems overnight, but having people leaders who are educated and prepared sure would help.

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