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A veteran IT programmer finds new meaning if life as a game programmer.

Robert Madsen, Blogger

June 2, 2008

4 Min Read

So I had just received my first phone interview from a game company. I was both excited and anxious. I had applied to this company precisely because their advertisement encouraged those who were trying to cross-over from general IT into game programming. I knew that I had no game-related experience, but that I had a wealth of experience both in programming and the areas that surrounded it: project management, training, system design. I also had excellent writing and communication skills. Would this be enough.

The phone interview began with a general discussion of my background. One of the biggest questions I knew I had to answer was the "Why". Why did I want to get into game development? Why was making this career change? Why was I moving from self-employment to employment?

I don't want to bore you (too much), but I had really thought out the answers to these questions. I realized that I already had a couple of factors working against me. First was my age. At 46 its hard to change careers. People either think that you are overqualified or entrenched in your ways. They may also feel that your skills are out of date. I couldn't change my age, so I worried about the issues I could control.

I had tried to deal with the latter by keeping up with the latest programming techniques and by self-studying the issues surrounding game development, game design, and the gaming industry in general. For example, I realized about 5 years ago that my C++ skills had atrophied since I was working mostly in Visual Basic for my clients. So I forced myself to start doing work in C++, even if I got paid little or nothing for the projects. I also read every book I could get my hands on related to game development, got on every mailing list and website, and attended a few game industry conferences. By the time I got my first interview, I felt confident that I had a good grasp for what was going to me demanded of me.

You might think that being overqualified was not an issue since I had no experience in game development. However, my interviewer was concerned about one major issue: with over 25 years experience, how did I see myself fitting into the company? In other words, would I be satisfied as an entry level programmer? Would my pride be damaged? Would I be able to accept the salary that they could offer? I already realized that I would have to be willing to enter the industry at an entry level, even if that meant taking a cut in salary. I had no expectations of special treatment because of my years of experience. I just wanted to program games. If you find yourself in a similar situation, you will have to work all of this out in your head before you go seeking a job. Fortunately, the salary I was offered was very competitive and I was glad to consider the entry level programming position.

Another concern was whether someone who had worked for himself for the prior 15 years could integrate back into a corporate environment involving teamwork and collaboration. For me, there wasn't that much difference between having to please a client or please an employer. Both situations required teamwork and collaboration. Furthermore, many of my projects for clients had involved working with a team of other people to accomplish the project. The key was to communicate that I did not feel like I had to be the boss. Anyone who has worked as a consultant realizes that they are not really the boss anyway--the client always rules.

Next were questions about my technical skills. The interviewer told me that he was more interested in my ability to get along with people and solve problems than my particular skill level in C++. Nevertheless, we did cover basic C++ issues including class inheritance, polymorphism, and pointers. Although I felt good about my answers, there were definitely some concepts that I had no formal knowledge of. For example, I didn't know what a singleton was, although I understood the concept.

Although this was my first interview, I knew that many companies put technical prowess above everything else. This company continued to communicate that teamwork and personality were more important as long as you had the capacity to learn the technical skills.

More than anything, I just focused on being straight with my interviewer. I didn't try to come off as someone that I wasn't. I wasn't an expert game programmer, but I was an expert application programmer. C++ wasn't my strongest language, but given daily use it could be. I also emphasized my other strengths in problem solving, planning, and communicating. But I think the most important issue was a willingness to be flexible, teachable, and easy to get along with.

I had felt very good about the interview. I was informed that a programming test was on its way. And that will be our next story: The Test.


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