Armored vs. Daring Leadership in Game Development

At this year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC 2023), I gave a micro-talk as part of a leadership seminar. My talk was about moving from Armored Leadership to Daring Leadership, a concept that comes from the great Brené Brown in her book Dare To Lead.

In the talk, I looked at some common problems in game development and tried to contrast what an armored approach and a daring approach would look like for each problem.

Quick primer:

Armored leadership is motivated by shame and fear. Great leaders feel fear all the time, but it’s the armor we put on when we feel fear that is the problem. Armored leadership is closed off, emotionally unavailable, defensive, cynical, keeps up an illusion of control, and uses our power over others to get things done. Where armored leadership shows up, shame and fear are almost always hiding close by.

Daring leadership is where we bring vulnerability and human emotion to the forefront of our leadership strategy. It’s open, emotionally available, meets people at eye level, encouraging, realistic and compassionate. It uses our power to help others rise up and help us tackle challenges together as a team.

So why is this useful for game development? From Dare to Lead: “Vulnerability is the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. …Without vulnerability there is no creativity or innovation. Why? Because there is nothing more uncertain than the creative process.”

Game development is inherently creative, risky and uncertain:

Gamedev (Creative) → Uncertainty → Vulnerability

It’s our choice whether we lean into this vulnerability and learn how to work with it or if we armor up and avoid those feelings, pushing others away.

The problems I talked about in the talk are typical for leaders in game development but are not often talked about publicly. After reiterating those three (in more detail, for those of you who saw the talk and want more), I’ll talk about other common game development issues as well and apply this lens to them. Throughout these examples, you should also come to understand more about armored and daring leadership and hopefully you’ll be able to use this framework for your own issues in your teams. And, of course, I’ll leave you with homework. Let me know how it goes!

If ever you’re feeling short on time, feel free to read the first couple of examples and skip to the takeaways/homework section. Let’s go!

Running into a huge roadblock and direction shift in a project

We all run into issues while making games. Some of those issues are huge, unexpected, and put us at a crossroads where we need to shift direction in a major way. This is scary. A common armored response to this is to pretend that everything is okay, despite the obvious concerns about upcoming milestones, funding, etc.

Part of this pretending often includes fostering a culture of toxic positivity. Nobody on your team is going to bring up their concerns to a leader who is always smiling ear to ear even in the face of of obvious problems, and people see through the veil very quickly when you put on a face in order to keep up the appearance of control. Another armored strategy is to hole up and try to do it yourself, coming out of your hole with what you think are all of the solutions (spoiler alert: the solutions are worse than if you shared them with your team for feedback).

The fear shows up here because we’re worried about the project failing, running out of money, or failing our employees. As I said earlier, the fear is okay on its own. But the shame comes from concern about what our team will think of us as leaders, what the industry will think of us if we fail, what our families and friends will think of us, and if we will live up to our own (often unrealistic) expectations of ourselves*. We control these feelings of shame and fear by putting on armor (the appearance of control) and in the end, push others away.

*Small tangent here: perfectionism, a condition that plagues a lot of leaders and hurts their teams, is almost always a function of shame. This could be its own article but I would recommend reading Brené Brown’s work on this.

The daring flipside to this is acknowledging, naming, and normalizing collective fear and uncertainty. It requires opening up, sitting down with your team and expressing your fears and concerns about the situation from a place of grounded confidence but also a place of vulnerability. An example of how this might look: “I really want to ship this game on time because I’m worried that if we miss this deadline, Sony won’t take us seriously for our next project”. This can even include talking about the things underlying the shame you feel when concerned that you won’t live up to your own expectations: “I’ve always gotten things done on time and one of my favourite traits about myself is how dependable I can be. I feel like if I miss this deadline it will be a personal failure and that scares me.” While you don’t need to be asking your team for a full-blown therapy session, it can be humanizing and bring a sense of calm to know that even leaders have these feelings.

So instead of hiding that uncertainty, we can encourage the team to rally around the challenges. Leading from this place of shared commitment to overcome challenges—”I’m here with you, we’re going to get this done as a team”—will result in more buy-in from the team, as opposed to leading with compliance and control.

Employees not bringing up company-wide issues until it’s too late

We’ve all experienced issues within our teams, whether as a regular team member or a lead. And we’ve all experienced issues that are swept under the surface, only to bubble up to later, twice as powerful and noxious. How does this happen?

First, we can foster a fear of failure by treating mistakes as, well, failure. If we publicly shame people, including ourselves (note: owning your mistakes is not shaming yourself!), this shows that we fear failure and we teach others to fear that failure too, as well as its downstream consequences. If your team fears mistakes and failure then they won’t bring up company-wide issues, until the problem becomes unbearable and outweighs the fear your culture has helped to instill in them. Another way we run into this problem is by listening to individuals when they bring up problems (which is great) and then placating them in ways that are inconsistent or insincere (which is not so great). We’re afraid of failure too in this case, we’re afraid that if we make promises to make changes to help these people we won’t be able to live up to them. Or we dismiss the feedback or problem as being “just in someone’s head” because we’re concerned with how it will reflect on us (shame) if our company has these issues in it. Responding to concerns in a way that is placating, dismissive, or avoidant will lead to different people on the team having different stories about what’s going on, which will cause tension and build-up over time.

The daring approach to this would be to see failure as an opportunity for learning, and to applaud and reward team members for bringing up potential issues before it’s too late. A culture of psychological safety will help with this of course, and one way to try to ensure that is through vulnerability. Admitting that you didn’t know about a problem before a team member brings it up, admitting that the problem may have been caused by you as a leader, and taking the time and effort to truly sit down and listen to your people requires a great deal of both vulnerability and emotional availability. We can reward team members not only by showing that we’re trying to deal proactively with the problems that they’re bringing up, but also by thanking them either in one-on-one meetings or in team-wide meetings (if they’re okay with that).

Lastly, and most vulnerably of all, we can set up company-wide or team-wide conversations where everyone talks openly about what they’re feeling. In her book, Brené calls these “rumbles”—a directed and emotion-forward conversation about addressing problems with communication, between team members, etc. The key here is setting the stage—making it very known that this is an open, non-judgmental space where people are discussing ideas and improvements to the team dynamic, not blaming and shaming each other. This requires already having a team dynamic of psychological safety and open communication, and can take a while to really do well—I don’t think my team has ever truly had a “rumble” as vulnerable as Brené talks about having on her team in her book, but we’re working on getting there.

Keeping an employee on board or staying with partners for too long

One of the most common issues I hear from other leaders, and this was even more common during the pandemic, is about keeping an employee or partner on board for too long. Both parties feel a huge relief when they finally let the person go or split up.

The armored approach, driven by fear, is one of avoiding conflict and holding on to feedback in the hopes that things will change. We’re afraid of hurting the person, we’re afraid of the conflict if they push back, and we’re afraid that if they’re failing it must be our fault as their leader—this is the shame aspect that fuels this armored behaviour.

Another armored behaviour is creating a culture of passiveness, which allows us to avoid conflict, avoid the possibility of hurting another person, and avoid committing to hard and uncertain conversations. From Dare to Lead: “More than half [of the leaders in the data] talked about a cultural norm of “nice and polite” that’s leveraged as an excuse to avoid tough conversations.” This was one of the biggest issues in my studio and is something that I’m actively working on this time around after we underwent some major organizational changes. This time around, we’re ensuring a culture of candor and open conversation at all times. This could be another entire article (or three?) but I’ll leave it there for now.

In the situation of keeping an employee on board for too long or staying with partners for too long, we might blame ourselves for things that are out of our control. For example, while we play a role in an employee’s work performance, we might not be the primary cause of poor work performance (I’ve found this very hard to admit in my experience). This ties into the culture of passiveness because we hold on to that shame, that feeling that we must be failing, and avoid the hard conversation that we need to have. So this passiveness not only loads us up with emotional burden, but also allows behaviour to continue which might run counter to the culture we’re trying to build at our studio.

It also allows us to dismiss bad behaviour as a one-off event, every time it happens, as opposed to calling it out and having the necessary conversation as soon as it happens. If part of your culture includes the idea that you communicate openly with your team, so that failing is on you as much as anyone else.

The daring approach is to give regular, concise feedback, and be assertive while doing it. This is vulnerable in that it opens us up to all of the possible conflict we were avoiding, and it leads to difficult conversations with uncertain outcomes. (One of the best resources I’ve ever encountered on feedback is this 4-part Manager Tools podcast on effective feedback).

We need to get to the point and tell the employee what isn’t working, what we need from them, and ask for change that in a time-specific and measurable way. Specifically: “Here’s what isn’t working, and here’s why.” Ideally we can encourage the employee to come up with a solution on their own, and define it together. “By X date, this will be delivered in Y format.” Then, crucially, we need to ask them what they need to feel fully supported by us and work towards providing that for them.

One thing that I’ve been personally working on as a leader is being more assertive with this kind of conversation. Being more assertive and acting more quickly to give quick, small feedback has really helped me to face the small (perceived) conflict of these conversations but avoid the large-scale “we need to talk” conversations, and will hopefully help to do so in the future. I’ve historically struggled with the “being the boss” aspect and telling people what to do, thinking that it was somehow tyrannical even if it was delivered in a nice way, helps employees to achieve their goals, and works for the betterment of the project and company. If that last sentence resonates with you, then it’s important to undersand that, as Brené says, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” By avoiding conflict and armoring up in this way, it feels like we’re being nice and good and proper but we’re really leading from a place of armor, fear and shame. Time to move past that, if I haven’t convinced you yet.

Receiving feedback too late (or not at all)

We not only have to work on giving feedback, but on asking for it and receiving it too. Sometimes devs will ask me for feedback on a trailer that’s already fully edited with sound and a week away from launching. The feedback is often “had you showed me this two months ago, in storyboard, I would have had feedback”. Same with game pitches, a few days out from GDC. And folks will often work on a game for 8 months (10 months? 18 months?) without ever having it properly playtested, only to conclude that despite the problems, it’s too late to cancel it now. Three weeks in would have been a good time to start talking.

How is this armored behaviour?

We’re worried our ideas might be judged, that we might be judged based on the quality of our early work, that we might have to restart, etc. And of course the longer we wait, the worse this fear becomes because there’s more at stake—more money invested, more of our colleagues’ time invested, more attachment to the project. And how will this reflect on us as leaders, as creators? (Hear the shame voice talking yet?) What will our team think of us if our ideas aren’t perfect? What will our peers think of us if we share unpolished work? We need to have all the answers if we’re going to lead, right?

So we armor up. We become more concerned about being a knower and being right than we are with being a learner and getting it right. We need to be the person who has the answers, rather than be the person who is open to finding the answers. The daring flipside to this is to position yourself very clearly as a learner, as someone who is looking to improve, and someone who is going to get it right through feedback and learning. This can only happen if you take it seriously, you schedule regular feedback into your plans and you give it focused time and energy. It takes a great deal of vulnerability to do this, because it admits that you’re not perfect, and that you can improve with feedback (which is awesome!).

Another armored approach is to design in a black box (and this could extend to the team), without letting others into the process. “We (the individual or the team) have all the answers and know what we’re doing.”

At this point you’re like “but wait a second, I do ask for feedback!” Great. There are a few armored approaches that show up once we’ve received some feedback too.

Sometimes we’ll put role power before good ideas—”I’m the creative lead here, we’re making my game, so this is how it’s going to be.” It doesn’t always sound so malicious and evil, but this kind of thing happens all the time in games. Often, you can see the result of that in games that are poorly designed and have obvious problems that could have been fixed months or even years ago.

Alternatively, we’ve heard the feedback but we resist it because we know that it gets at something deeper, a weakness of ours or even a personality flaw that we’re afraid to confront. “Your project plan doesn’t leave any time for things to go wrong” gets at the same problem that caused you to be late for your best friend’s wedding, something which you’re deeply ashamed of to this day. (For the record this didn’t happen to me, but it probably could have).

We can try to disconnect our egos from our work, but at the end of the day this external feedback requires you to put your ego in the line of fire. So I wouldn’t say that disconnecting your ego from your work is a daring approach per se, but it is necessary if we want to be leaders, especially good ones. I think that, more importantly, we need to create a psychologically safe culture where people speak openly and focus on giving feedback on the work product and not the person creating the work product, but that’s a large topic which is covered elsewhere.

Another daring approach, other than positioning yourself as a learner, is to explicitly seek out management-specific feedback. It’s not always easy to get this feedback honestly from your team as the leader, especially if they know that you’re the one reading the feedback directly, but seeking it out explicitly means that your team at least knows that you want to improve and want to hear from them. Ideally, if the organization is large enough, you can have this feedback run through a third party, which also allows the data to become anonymized. Harder to do on my team of 4, easier to do if you have 12 people or lead a department at a larger organization.

Overwork and not respecting hours

If you’re not from the games industry, you might not know how big of a problem crunch—unpaid overtime and overworking people before major deadlines—can be in our field. If you are from the games industry, you’ve almost surely heard talk of crunch and I hope that you’ve done your best to implement a no-crunch policy in your workplace. Regardless of whether or not you experience crunch leading up to deadlines, there can still be problems of having a culture of overwork, pressure to stay later because of other team members or leaders, and a glorification of hours clocked in.

An armored leadership approach which leads to overwork and crunch is one where we work from scarcity. A mentality that there’s always too much to do and there’s never enough time will cause, even without explicitly asking for it, people to work overtime. Maybe it’s because they care about us and want to help (optimistic reading) or it’s because there’s pressure to perform and people know they will be treated worse for “leaving before the boss” (pessimistic reading). In either case it’s a problem and it’s normally the leaders’ fear or inability to manage their lives that cause this stress to be passed down to the rest of the team.

Shame inspires this armored behaviour by attaching productivity to self-worth. I bring up shame here because if one feels like they’re nothing without being hugely productive in their work then it means that they don’t believe the rest of them is very worthy on its own. If our organizations treat people who put more hours in as being more worthy, then the logical conclusion is rewarding overwork and exhaustion. This can be especially true because many leaders are “over-achievers”; if we deal with our over-achievement issues by modeling and rewarding exhaustion, that makes things worse for everyone in the organization (including ourselves, I’d argue).

The daring answer is, of course, to model and support rest and recovery as valuable parts of the working culture. This is vulnerable as it can leave us feeling like we’ll be taken advantage of, for example if we give people unlimited personal days. Rest, in Western society at least, is often perceived as “weakness” and as something to overcome, not promote. The human emotion comes in here because, especially to make change in an organization that already has a culture of overwork, we need to set the example. This will open us up to criticism and perceptions of others that go against the culture—”oh well if she’s leaving on time then she must not be a good leader”. Another daring technique is to be vulnerable and open about how the overwork has caused us harm in our own lives outside of work.

Another daring behaviour is to set boundaries. This can be especially challenging in the era of remote work and misaligned work schedules, but there are many tools and tricks you can use to make the most of your time at work and the most of your time outside of it. Just a couple of weeks before this talk was given I sat down with my team and we hashed out exactly: when we check in and check out on our communication channels, when you can ping someone directly, how you should leave them information when they’re outside of working hours, when our work schedules overlap and when meetings are to be planned, etc. This communication chat really helped me to set my own boundaries and make sure I wasn’t responding to non-urgent messages from work late at night, when I like to be off. Setting boundaries is easier to do in a work environment than, say, a family environment since at its core, work is expected to have clear boundaries. That said, it often doesn’t and it’s much easier to be proactive about this and bring it up with your team as a leader before someone on the team has to overcome the risk of starting that conversation with you and try to force your hand.

Employees feeling uncertain about the project and their futures

In several one-on-one conversations with employees over the years, I’ve seen cases where they feel uncertain about the project and consequentially, about their futures. This is not always easy to read and is not always offered up directly, so in my experience it’s worth bringing up to make sure to present the opportunity to your team to talk about it.

The armored approach is very similar to the approach talked about in the first section (Running into a huge roadblock and direction shift), so I won’t go over them again here except to say that it involves avoiding the conversation, avoiding conflict, pretending, and toxic positivity.

One daring approach to combat this is to check in regularly with your team and talk regularly about long-term goals with your employees. If they’re feeling uncertain about the project, these regular check-ins combined with an ability to listen, empathize and share our own insecurities, will lead them to open up and give us the information we need to improve the situation. This also ties into the section about dealing with problems before they become major issues, and helps us to avoid that happening. A scarier and even more vulnerable strategy is to be more transparent with your team about the situation you’re in, the company finances and budget, and plans for the future. There is, of course, a time and place and context in which to do this. It would be a bad idea to be one week away from a milestone and start freaking out in front of the team, saying that we might not have a budget in three weeks. Certain times ask for calm and grounded confidence, others for providing more information and planning and transparency. It’s easier to lead from a place of shared commitment when we can show the team what we’re working towards, why, and what will be required to get there.

Never actively talking about diversity, equity and inclusion // Feeling tension in the team around conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion

I hope and assume that at this point, we all understand how important diversity is to a team and how wonderful it can be for that team’s development and success. But sometimes, even in well-meaning teams, diversity, equity and inclusion are not talked about. When they are, they’re talked about at a very high-level, in company policies but never between people on the team in regular conversation.

The first armored reason for this is avoidance of conflict, as we’ve talked about already in this article. As a leader who comes from a privileged position (I’m white, a cis-gendered man, straight, and a Canadian living in Canada), the following was very eye-opening to me so I thought I’d share it. If you’re in a leadership position and come from any kind of privilege—that is, you’re not part of a group that is typically marginalized in this industry (gender, race, economic status, sexual orientation, etc.)—then you may never have had to face tough conversations or ever even been confronted with issues at all around equity or inclusion. This is the privilege. Folks who are marginalized in our industry (and society) face these issues every day and the fact that more privileged leaders could simply avoid this conversation is, at its very core, inequitable. The fear here shows up because we’re afraid of making mistakes that show our ignorance or lack of experience with these things, and we might be ashamed of our privilege.

This can lead to hiring people who look, think, and talk like us (whoever we are as leaders). This is pretty obviously rooted in fear—we’re worried we will have to face hard conversations or situations, we’ll have to learn to manage new cultures and ways of interacting, etc. And the shame comes in because we might fear for what others on the team might think, what others in the industry might think if we do something culturally insensitive or say something inappropriate to someone who is different from us on the team.

Good thing there’s a daring approach to this as well! Talk about it. We already mentioned positioning ourselves as a learner, and committing to getting it right through learning and feedback. It’s much more courageous to be open with our teams about things that we don’t know, admit that we’ll make mistakes, and be open to learning. To take a more proactive approach to this, we can get external help to do anti-racism or cultural sensitivity training. We can hire sensitivity readers for our games, and run our job postings and HR practices by diversity consultants. These kinds of things show that we value this kind of learning and gives us opportunities, especially in moderated sessions, to open up and be up front about what we don’t know.

We can also publicly (within the team, or publicly if we’re careful and run it by the person in question) applaud a diversity of thought and experience as a way to show that it’s appreciated. For example, if a team member suggests a game mechanic based on the sport cricket (most Canada-born Canadians like me have very little knowledge of cricket), we could clearly state why that idea would not have come up otherwise: “That’s a really cool idea, I never would have thought of that because I didn’t grow up with cricket here.”

Hiring people who don’t fit your culture

The last issue I want to bring up today is that of hiring people who don’t fit the culture, and all of the issues that can cause. We’ve already talked about keeping people on for too long, but often the issue is not as clear as poor work performance or communication. I’ve spoken to many leaders who talk about having employees who don’t quite fit but they’re not sure why or how, and only many months or years later realize what the problems were.

An armored mistake many of us make—myself included, up until those major organizational changes I mentioned before—is to have a very vague company mission and values. It’s very easy, safe, and useless to say “we inspire play” or “we’re kind”. Being vague enough about this means that we don’t actually have to act on it, and we can’t be held accountable for it, meaning we’re defended from it (read: armor). We might use this to dismiss negative events as being “exceptions”, despite being symptoms of a culture which allows these events to happen. If our employees and the external world can’t hold us accountable for our culture, then we make ourselves invulnerable to their criticism, and invulnerability is the strongest armor (someone’s going to argue with me on that).

That, or we make the mistake that many companies do when starting, which is to believe that the culture is simply something that appears as the result of people working together on a team. This can be especially true when teams start as friends who know each other and already have a rapport, a sort of “friend culture” which was established years ago. The resistance to define a culture can come from several fears—fear of getting it wrong, fear of becoming too corporate, fear of hurting the relationship between friends by establishing work boundaries.

The daring side of this coin would be making our values actionable and behaviour-oriented. Another daring behaviour is to talk about these values early on in our interview process. Talk about why we have this culture or this vision for our studio culture, and even what problems we’ve had in the past that led us to care about these values. This is vulnerable because it opens us up to losing candidates if they’re not aligned with our values (which is a good thing in the end anyway) and forces us to admit mistakes our organization has made in the past. It’s also vulnerable—and I can say this from experience—because we’re admitting the personal mistakes we’ve made to prospective employees. I can also say from experience that people really appreciate this kind of humanity in someone that they’re considering working for.

In order to combat the “friend culture”, we need to get uncomfortable together. These “rumbles” that Brené talks about force us into a room together to talk about what we’re really trying to build. We need to talk authentically and be open about the experiences we’ve had, our personal values, and our perspective on work and the world. It can be uncomfortable but is ultimately really important for leadership to stray from the usual conversations around solving design problems or creating marketing plans and into the forest that is human emotion and core values.

Homework & Take-aways

Before we get to takeaways, let’s do homework! Yay homework.

What is the number one top challenge in your work right now? Write out what an armored vs daring approach would look like for this challenge. For example, for the issue of ‘receiving feedback too late (or not at all)’, this is what my final slide looked like:

For your own issue, try to write it in the same way:

I’d invite you to do this with as many problems as you want to work on, and see if you can learn something from the exercise.

The second homework item would be to read the book Dare to Lead by Brené Brown (available wherever books are sold, try to avoid Amazon if possible), or at least to listen to some episodes of the podcast (a Spotify exclusive, at least at the time of writing).

So the real takeaway is this. If we want to be better leaders, have more fulfilled employees, feel more fulfilled ourselves, make better games, and make the industry a better place to work in for everyone involved, I think we need to put the armor down, open our hearts, and work on moving from armored leadership to daring leadership.

Thank you for reading!
❤ Rich

ps: here are the slides for the talk, in case you were curious.

Measurable New Year’s Resolutions vs Seasonal Focuses

Many years ago, I started writing new year’s resolutions. I would write them, forget about them until December 30th, and then judge myself based on whether or not I had done the things on my list of resolutions despite never having looked back at them throughout the year. Just like everybody else. This was… not the best.

Then I learned about the idea of using seasonal focuses as opposed to new year’s resolutions, because 1) they’re visited four times per year, which is a much better timeline with which to set goals or focus on certain things, and 2) they’re focuses, meaning there is no failure for not having completed them. These focuses would be things like “writing”, “drawing”, “learning about fitness”, etc. This was better!

But then I would look back at my previous season’s focuses, for example, “get back into writing music”, and realize that I hadn’t made any progress on them. I would reflect by writing “I didn’t do this, I should really do more of this” and that’s where it ended. Either the focus was too daunting and large and I didn’t know where to start, too vague, the actual next “to-do” step wasn’t clear, or the final goal/deliverable wasn’t clear. The other issue here was that it ignored anything else that I might have done during that season that wasn’t on the list, but might have been a very meaningful or fulfilling focus.

It’s the year of the rabbit! And all blog posts need an animal pic in them.

The obvious solution, in this case, is to not be so hard on myself and to be okay with doing something, anything relating to my passions and interests as long as it brings me joy. Easier said than done!

So I also wanted something to facilitate actually doing those focuses that would also allow me to be less hard on myself. It should remind me to spend my free time in a way that actually feels valuable and fulfilling, as opposed to messing around with distractions that ultimately don’t leave me feeling fulfilled. For the record, messing around with distractions is absolutely a valuable thing to do when you feel you need it, but I would argue it’s not a valuable thing to do if it’s the default when you have free time simply because you don’t know what else you want to do.

What I’m trying this year is to have two sets of resolutions, qualitative and quantitative. So my qualitative resolution look like bullet points that say things like “have more mindful moments throughout the day” while my quantitative ones look more like a checkbox that says “create a song and post it to SoundCloud”. Then, my seasonal focuses are still just focuses, but they tie into my resolutions in that they can help me get to the quantitative resolutions if I focus on them. So there is some larger driving goal behind the focus, but it’s not considered a “failure” if I reflect back on the previous season and I haven’t spent as much time as I would have liked on it.

The other thing I’ve changed is that I’ve planned out the reflection questions for the seasonal check-ins. Every season, I’ll look back and ask:

  • How did I progress, if at all, with my seasonal focuses?
  • What didn’t I enjoy, what were some of the negative things of this season?
  • What went well, what were some of the positive things of this season?
  • What did I learn this season?
  • Take a quick look at resolutions, have I made any progress on these? If not, why not? What’s getting in the way?

The idea is that this will help me tie the focuses back to the overall goals, and also allow me to be aware of other things that happened during the season through questions about what I enjoyed and about learning.

This might sound like a lot of stuff to think about and do, but for the last years I’ve done this kind of reflection I’ve always found it quite rewarding (when I’m not being too hard on myself). It usually takes under an hour every three months, it gives me things to improve and focus on moving forward, and it leaves me feeling grateful for the things that I’ve enjoyed in the past season.

Feel free to share what you do for new year’s reflections or resolutions, I always like to hear this kind of stuff!


Reducing a $12 decision to 30 seconds

Apologies in advance that it will take you more than 30 seconds to read this blog post, but hopefully there’s something interesting in here.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a new credit card for one of our employees at the office. They had barely used their card in the last year, and I knew that we were paying $12 per year for it. Here was my train of thought, more or less:

I should probably cancel their card. We had ordered them for our team so that when we went to conferences, they could pay for food and drinks and things on the company card and then hand me the receipts instead of having to manage it on their own cards, do currency conversions, and then have the company reimburse them. But will this employee be going to GDC (the Game Developer’s Conference) in San Francisco in the spring this year? Is anyone on the team going, considering the COVID situation? Well, maybe not this year but for the next year, would this employee be going? If I cancel it now, but they go in the following year, it’ll be a pain to have to get a new card for them. But if they do go, does it make more sense with our new accounting software to just let them pay for things with their own card? Who should actually be going to GDC? I guess I need to make that decision sooner rather than later, otherwise what the heck do I do with this card…?

I started writing that employee a message, asking them if they thought it would be likely that they might go to events in the next year, given that they just moved and have a young child at home, and given how their role was changing and how the company structure was changing—

And then I stopped. I’m a little ashamed to say that it took me that long to realize how much time and energy I was wasting on what truly amounts to a rounding error in our finances, and that I was about to bring an employee into the conversation to have them waste their time on this silly, less than unimportant question. At least there’s something that can be learned from this experience though, right? You’re probably wondering the same thing about this blog post as you’ve gotten this far and still haven’t learned anything.

I decided that a $12 decision shouldn’t take me more than 30 seconds. These numbers are kind of arbitrary, but it felt right so I went with it.

Grabbed this still from this link, and just found it to be the most hilarious “30 second timer” image I could Google.

So I opened a 30 second timer—ignore for a moment the fact that it took me 5 seconds to open the browser, type in “30 second timer”, and press start—and I decided that I would have a decision made and documented before the timer ended. My time (and anyone else’s time, for that matter) is way too valuable to be worrying about a $12 per year decision for my company. After about fifteen seconds, I had decided that it makes sense to keep the card active in case we have events in the future, and in another five seconds I confirmed with myself that it would take so much longer than 30 seconds to actually deal with the cancellation of the card, and even longer than that to reactivate it, and even to communicate this to our employee would have taken me at least a minute. With 8 seconds left, I closed the timer, put the new card in the pile of stuff to give that employee when I see them next, and got on with my day.

Maybe most people don’t have a brain as caught up in details and future-planning as I do, but if you’re like me, then you might benefit from trying this exercise for unimportant decisions in your work and in your life. How big is the decision really, and are you giving it the amount of time it deserves? Or are you spending six minutes out of your hour-long lunch with a friend deciding what you want to eat, and forfeiting conversation with someone you haven’t caught up with in a while?

COVID, Remote Work & De-Urbanization

Hi friends! Today I wanted to share a little thought I was having about people moving out of the city, and the potential that the COVID pandemic has created for de-urbanization.

In my industry (the games industry), almost every company I know is switching to a hybrid model where desks are made available in an office for employees, but they’re not required to come into the office to work. Other studios are switching to fully remote work, forfeiting their office space or desk rental in shared workspaces. Most people I know who are starting new companies in this almost-post-COVID world are setting up for remote work because of the freedom it offers for relocation, the global hiring pool as opposed to a local one, and the ability for employees to be closer to family.

Rent is either becoming or has already become insane in most city centres, and with more work going remote, it’s much easier to live outside the city and earn city wages. If you can earn a San Francisco salary while avoiding paying $43,000 per month in rent, why would you bother living in San Francisco? In my company, I’ve already had two employees move to houses outside the city (about an hour outside of Montreal), where the houses are actually moderately affordable. This keeps them close enough to the city to come in for things they can only find in Montreal, and even to commute into work once a week, which is our current plan for employees moving forward.

It makes sense then that people will increasingly leave the city if they’re prioritizing owning property, starting a family, or just generally wanting more space or to be closer to nature. This seems pretty obvious for office jobs that don’t require people to be in the same place at the same time, but this line of thinking usually gets blocked by the idea that this only works for people in these office jobs. Beyond that, it’s only the ones who can afford to buy a house (and a car, because you can’t really live out there without one). So what about the other folks? Well, factories are already outside of city centres, but those workers generally live near the city because of their other needs. What about all of the service jobs? Most people (including most service workers) in the city don’t own property, or can’t afford houses, and don’t have the ability to simply leave to live out in the country. The same goes for artists, who need to be near a bustling city with lots of gigs available. So what of them?

Image from CTV news article

My thinking—and this is not based on research or any real knowledge in the subject, just my own thinking (it’s just my blog after all!)—is that we might see a de-urbanization and spread out into not only the suburbs, but actually to smaller towns in general. I’ve heard people mention that St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, a small town near Montreal, has been seeing a ton of people move there since property is still mostly affordable. Imagine earning a San Francisco salary but your rent is $800 for a beautiful place, living alone? So if we’ve got high-earning “office-job” types in these small towns, and an increase in general population, the service job demand is going to increase. And it’s more affordable to live out there already, so if the demand is there then the service workers might happily move out there. With this increase in population will come an increase in demand for entertainment. People will build factories just outside these smaller towns, since living in these towns will be affordable to factory workers as well with a better quality of life than they might otherwise have had in the city.

I imagine a near-future where lots of small to medium-sized towns (think St-Jean, but also bigger ones like Guelph, Trois-Rivières, Waterloo, Hamilton) grow and become big enough to serve all of the various needs that someone might have—even if they like the hustle and bustle of the city life. This spread into small towns could have various effects on all people in terms of quality of life, education, sustainability, and more. I kind of see it as the opposite of those dystopian novels or movies where everyone is living on top of each other in a state of extreme pollution and stratification between classes. But maybe I’m just being optimistic, as usual. We’ll see!

The Sphere of Consciousness

I’ve been redoing an introductory meditation course with a friend via the app Waking Up, where Sam Harris teaches mindfulness meditation. Despite starting meditation two and a half years ago, I find that it’s always nice to go back to the start with this kind of practice and I’ve found the Waking Up intro course to be the best one so far (compared to Calm, Headspace, Insight Timer, Sattva, and others). In one of the introductory course episodes, Sam talks about “expanding the sphere of consciousness”. He didn’t expand much on that exact combination of words, but it gave me a nice visual and a train of thought that I wanted to write about.

One of the goals of meditation, from what I’ve learned so far, is to dissolve the barrier between self and world, and to recognize that that there is no meaning to creating a distinction between your body, your head, your thoughts, the sounds you hear, the sounds that arise, the smells that permeate the air you breathe, the feeling of grass on your feet, and the grass itself. This is sometimes referred to as losing the duality of subject/object, and different meditation teachers have different approaches to this teaching. Sam Harris often approaches this by asking the the meditator to “look for the one who is looking”, which I’ve always found very difficult. To me, that statement brings me out of the meditation and into defense mode—”He’s here! He’s right here behind my eyes and inside my head!” This, of course, misses the point.

Image from @wakingup on Twitter

So when he mentioned “expanding the sphere of consciousness”, some imagery helped me to help think about vision and understand what he was getting at. Most people have the sense that they’re seeing from a spot just behind their eyes, in the center of their heads. Sam uses the idea of “looking for the one who is looking” to ask you where you’re seeing from, and to help you notice that you can’t see the seer in your visual field, you can’t observe the observer with your eyes. So it must not only be the visual field that is causing this sensation, this sensation that we feel that we can see… so what else is there?

If you were to look at a water bottle on a table, you would say you’re seeing the water bottle (which is “over there”) from inside your head (which is “here”). Imagine zooming out to look at the spot inside your head where the “seeing” originates from—for me, that means “looking” at it from a spot farther back in my head, inside my skull but toward the back and top of my head. To use the water bottle analogy, the water bottle is the place from which you originally feel you’re seeing (over “there”) and the spot you’re focusing from is somewhere farther back (the new “here”).

Think of the initial spot from which you feel that you’re seeing as a tiny sphere. This sphere is where, intuitively, you might feel that consciousness is held. You couldn’t see the sphere if you were contained entirely within it, so pulling back your gaze to a spot farther back in your head allows you to see the sphere from the outside. But… if the sphere is consciousness, and you’re aware of it, then you must be aware from somewhere, and that is clearly in consciousness too. So it seems to me that the sphere of consciousness is simply expanding to include both of those points—the point between your eyes which you originally thought was the center of consciousness, and this new spot, pulled back. Now the sphere might encompass all of the inside of your head.

If you’ve done a mindfulness meditation practice, you’ve likely been asked to focus on the breath and where you feel it in your body. So the sphere of consciousness must at least include the chest or abdomen where you feel the breath. A body scan will show you that the sphere can expand to include the whole body.

Sounds that you hear are also appearing in consciousness. They’re not produced at your ear, your ear simply receives them from somewhere else. So the sphere of consciousness must include the source of the sound—maybe it’s someone talking in the other room, or the sound of a truck backing up outside.

You can probably see where I’m going with this.

No post about expanding consciousness would be complete without at least one psychedelic looking image. Image from Unsplash

I found this an interesting visual—the sphere grows as soon as you notice other things being captured by it in consciousness. In another meditation practice called metta (or loving-kindness), the meditator is often asked to focus on another person to send them kind words or thoughts. You may wish them success on an upcoming challenge, or wish them healing from trauma in the past. If this person is in your consciousness, and their future success or past trauma are in your consciousness, it seems to me that consciousness must encompass those things—it does not have clear spatial bounds, nor does it have temporal bounds.

There are several other ways to think about losing this subject/object duality and reaching the point where you feel like consciousness is not limited to living inside your head. One way, according to Richard Lang, is to remove the head from the equation entirely! His philosophy, called the Headless Way (described on his very old looking site, sorry Richard), proposes a series of experiments and meditations to help with this imagery. Surely others have other ways of doing this, and I’ll keep exploring them as I continue to learn and meditate.

Another larger goal of this practice that is extremely closely tied to subject/object duality is the loss of the feeling of “self” entirely. It’s the recognition that there is no “self” that is controlling consciousness. All that exists are the contents of consciousness—the feelings, sensations, and even the thoughts that arise—do so without a conscious controller to initiate them. This line of inquiry could be another blog post on its own (or, you know, thousands of years of philosophy and mediation along with several PhDs), so I’ll leave it be for now. It’s clear however that these two concepts—subject/object duality and the loss of self—are inextricably linked.

The subject/object duality usually precedes the loss-of-self experiences that experienced meditators often achieve. I believe that in both cases, an understanding of these concepts can help us to feel more conscious of others, more connected to one another, more connected to our environment, and more connected to the world in which we live.

Progress Comes Faster Than Expected

When you meet someone who is very knowledgeable about a topic or skilled at an activity, it’s often overwhelming to think about the distance between where you’re at now and where they seem to be. For example, if you struggle to exercise regularly (or at all), you might look at someone who runs 5k every morning as if they were an alien with six heads. It seems like they’re worlds away from you, like closing that gap is impossibly large. This is especially true if they’re doing something that you aspire to do, but you feel like you’ve tried in the past and failed.

You’d be amazed at how quickly that gap closes when you start doing the thing. Starting is the hardest part, as you likely already know. Making a commitment—written, with a friend, with a purchase, or with a sign-up—can help overcome the difficulty in starting.

I’ve been keeping this vague so far because the examples I’ve seen in my own life are extremely different from one another. In all cases though, the first feeling was “I’ll never get to that point” and the result was that I got closer than I ever would have imagined, with less effort than I expected.

Some examples: A (mostly) vegetarian diet was something I could barely comprehend before my vegetarian girlfriend moved in, and it has taken very little adjustment for me to become accustomed to it—and to make interesting vegetarian meals! When I started running last summer, with the goal of finishing a 5k run, in my mind a triathlon was something that only professional athletes did. Now, I’m planning to learn to swim—properly, as opposed to my current “put me in a pool and I won’t drown”—and I’m aiming to do a triathlon in the coming years. Switching gears completely—when I started listening to heavy metal after starting to play drums, the songs that screaming vocals in them bothered me. Why would anyone want to hear screaming? And yet, a few years later, during a chorus of a metal song with a non-screaming singer, I found myself thinking that the song was lacking a certain kind of low, fierce scream to get the energy level where it needed to be. There are countless other examples in my life of times when something that seemed far away was actually much closer than I thought.

Starting is the hardest part, and starting something new or different requires commitment. Once the commitment is made, you may be surprised at how every small step closes the gap between you and the person you thought you could never be—and it doesn’t take that many steps until you realize the gap is small enough to step over.

Learnings From Our Most Recent Hiring Experience

Ah, the hiring process. Exciting, tiring, and fun. I thought I would share my experience of this round of hiring at our company, Clever Endeavour Games, in the hopes that readers might get inspired or learn something. The process is very far from perfect, and I’d be curious to hear any thoughts or improvements in the comments section that might help readers as well. I’ll talk about what we did differently in hiring this time around, the selection process, biases, interviews, tests, responding to candidates, and tips for employees applying for jobs (if that’s the only thing that interests you, skip to the bottom!).

Let’s go.

We just went through the hiring process again, this time to hire a new community manager at Clever Endeavour Games, as Geneviève (our current one) is moving into a production and marketing manager role. She helped tremendously in this hiring process, and while she had a big part in the process, this post is meant to reflect my learnings throughout the process, not her learnings or the learnings of Clever Endeavour Games as a whole.

The job description was written to be as fair as possible and attract as many qualified people as possible, especially ones who are members of communities that are marginalized in the game development sphere. This is in line with our recent commitment to fighting for change in the industry, and it led to some changes compared to our last hiring round:

  • Writing a job description that was open to people who had volunteer experience and not only professional experience
  • Explicitly stating our intention: “We welcome applicants from a variety of backgrounds and levels of experience, and are ready to dedicate the necessary amount of time to onboarding as needed. We recognize that members of marginalized communities often face challenges when it comes to gaining experience in the gaming industry, and we want to make our hiring process as equitable as possible.”
  • Moving several things from “requirements” to “assets”—many of the things we thought were hard requirements initially could be learned fairly easily upon further inspection
  • Reiterating at the end of the “assets” section that candidates should “Please remember that a job description is a starting point and not the end of the line—even if you don’t tick off all the boxes above, we highly encourage you to apply”
  • Running the posting by a diversity consultant who helped us to refine our wording and make some of the above changes

The result? We had more applicants that were women and/or members of BIPOC communities than ever before. We were also really, really impressed with the applications that we received. But was that because of the nature of the job itself or because of the job description? Hard to say, but we’ll craft our job descriptions carefully going forward in hopes that the wording had some causal effect on the diversity of the applicant profiles we received.

Selection Process

Of the 65+ applications, only a small handful had no related experience or cover letter, and at least 25 passed a ‘first look’ round. My method for looking through these applications was to actually start ranking them as I read them. I put my notes about candidate A on a page, then the notes about the next application went either above or below that first person. I continued that process until I had my ordered list of 65+ applications, and after a second look there were very few changes to be made to that order. It would have been impossible to do them all and then try to sort through them afterwards!

Our hiring committee was made up of me, the current community manager, and another co-founder who handles some HR with me. It was important to have this committee to try to mitigate some of the biases which I’ll talk about in the next section. We discussed our top picks and narrowed it down to a top 14 list, and ended up choosing 7 people to interview and test. It’s worth noting that each of our top 10 lists were vastly different from one another, which is more proof that a hiring committee is a good idea.

Biases and potential questions to ask yourself as employer

In trying my best to not be biased, I became acutely aware of all of the biases that inevitably come up when reading through applications. I’ll talk through a couple of things that went through my mind, but I certainly won’t claim to have “solutions” to these. Hopefully sharing them here will help make people aware of biases they weren’t aware of, or give them inspiration to think about how to do better in their evaluations.

Years ago, I learned about research that suggests that “white” names receive more interview callbacks than other names (compared to African American and Asian names according to this study). A blind hiring process involves removing any information from candidates’ applications which are not essential to the job (including names). While we didn’t use this process (and admit that there could be bias that crept in because of it), a blind hiring process can help with this. There are some suggestions of tools or ways to do it in this article from GlassDoor, and we may consider a tool suggested there in the future. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t realize these tools were as accessible as they seem to be when we went through this hiring process.

Another bias I recognized was when I caught myself thinking about the tiny, seemingly insignificant icon next to people’s email account in Gmail. Did a picture help the candidate favourability, or harm them? Does an image of something non-human—say, a colourful abstract picture, help or hinder? I found myself liking to see the person’s face, even though the image is something like 20 pixels wide and can’t be seen any larger. I found that in cases where there was no picture at all, the person seemed mysterious to me, like they were hiding something. If they had an abstract picture or a picture of a character from a movie or show, I found it more personable. When someone had a cartoon picture of themselves, that gave an even closer feeling but still not as human as an actual picture.

But then that got me thinking, how much does physical attractiveness come into play? We’ve all heard studies about physical attractiveness leading to bias in hiring, but does this come into the equation in a place as inconspicuous as the tiny email icon? I like to think not, and I think learning that this bias exists and recognizing it is the first step toward fighting it. So then the question for job-seekers would be: is it better to put your face or not put your face in that picture?

On a similar note, pictures on resumes generally seem to be discouraged in 2021—many sources say that having one is a bad idea (JobScan blog, Workopolis blog, and others) and that some employers won’t even consider applicants with a picture on their CV. However, a study from the Society for Human Resource Management suggests that a lot of recruitment is done with the help of social media, and some job sites suggest that not having a photo or presence online can be a turnoff to employers. In our case, since the role we were looking for is social media, most applicants shared their social media profiles up front and encouraged us to look at them. This makes the idea of blind interviewing nearly impossible, even if it is the fairest method. In the future, for roles that are different from this one, we might try to employ a more blind process at least for the early stages.

We had applicants from a very wide range of educational backgrounds, possibly due to the nature of the job, possibly because of the wording of the job posting, and possibly due to chance. I started to wonder how much I value—or how much any employer values—different degrees, and where that value comes from. I believe that people have some sort of degree hierarchy in their minds, perhaps based on prestige, competitiveness of the programs, salary of jobs in that field of work, what their parents did for work, etc. And what about no university degree at all? There’s also individual bias related to particular interests—as someone who is more interested in music composition than history, maybe I’m more likely to think favourably about a music grad than a history grad. In this case, the university degrees were examined more closely if there was little or no job experience, or no samples of work. Generally, I used this as a guide to applicants’ secondary skills. In general, this degree bias is something that we all need to try to check at the door before walking into the room of applicants—again, a blind process can help with this, but so can consciously not ranking one candidate higher than the other based on their degree or where they got it.

There is a positive side to seeing this great variety in degrees though, as it got me thinking about secondary skills that we might be lacking in the studio. We’re a very small studio (7 people, with this new hire), and if someone has a music background or a writing background or a graphic design background, this could be extremely valuable as it fills some skill holes in our team. That said, if the hire would actually rather develop their secondary skill, you may find them unhappy to be working in the job you actually hired them for. This discussion was brought up within the team and actually acted as a window into a larger question of whether the company should be aiming for more specialized employees or more jack-of-all-trades employees. I’ll spare you the details of that conversation, but there is no right answer to this, only preference!


We finally whittled the list down to seven candidates who we wanted to interview and administer a test (that we referred to as a writing exercise to take some of the edge off).

To reduce bias and give everyone an equal chance at success, the questions were the same and were asked in the same order for every candidate. There’s plenty of data on why informal interviews aren’t ideal, so I won’t touch that here. We ran our interview questions by the diversity consultant to see if there were any improvements to be made. I’ll list some of the questions here which I had thoughts about, and share those thoughts in italics. If anyone is curious about the whole interview question list, let me know and I can share that too.

  • Introduce ourselves and what we do on the team, explain formality of interview and why
    • ↑ This came about because our most recent hire had told us that the process seemed very formal while our every day interactions were very informal, and it was a bit jarring. We wanted to clarify that and explain why it’s important to give every candidate the same questions in the same order.
  • Describe the way we work—who does what, how often we talk, our meetings, etc.
    • ↑ This was a bit odd to throw in right in the middle of the interview. The idea was that we wanted to explain how we’re quite democratic but we still have a structure where specific people make specific decisions, and see if there were culture questions that came up. In reality, this explanation was mostly met with silence or some comment of “oh that sounds great” (whether the candidates actually believed that or just said it to be polite and fill the space I’m not sure…).
  • Do you have a favorite content creator in games?
    • ↑ This was a great question for a community manager who will be doing marketing and outreach work. It was clear to us who had a good handle on the streamer ecosystem and some candidates even gave examples of streamers / content creators that they liked because of their values and community, which tied in perfectly with the values we tried to put forward on the job posting itself.
  • Can you tell us more about yourself, any fun facts or interests that you want to share?
    • ↑ This was one of my favourite questions because we finally got to see (for most candidates) how they speak and act when they’re no longer nervous about doing an interview. That said, this leads dangerously into the realm of informal interviews, which is both why it’s natural for me to like it but also why it’s an easy trap to fall into that we restricted to only the last few questions.

Of course, as in all things hiring, there are a plethora of biases that pop up in interviews. I’ll list a few here.

A candidate might share common interests with you—growing up in the same city, sports you both play, having the same favourite video games as a child, etc. and this might affect how much you connect with them. A hiring committee should help with this.

The order and scheduling of interviews may affect your judgment as well—are you more likely to pick the last candidate because their interview is freshest in your mind, or least likely because you’re tired of interviews already? Are you more likely to pick the first one because you’re constantly going back to them as the marker of what a candidate needs to beat to get through, and recalling the interview with them enough times that it becomes familiar? Or is the first one the least likely because it’s the farthest back in your memory? I don’t see any way around this, except to maybe make sure not to schedule all of your interviews back-to-back, which will surely tire you out by the time you reach the last few candidates.

How does the time of the interview affect your feeling about the candidate? While the study suggesting that judges give harsher sentences when hungry may have some correlation-implies-causation issues, there may still be something to the fact that we act and differently in the morning, in the afternoon, when hungry, when tired, etc.

How much does the composition or quality in video calls affect your judgment of the candidate (probably unconsciously)?

There was one mistake that we made in the first interview that I wanted to bring attention to in case it helps someone in the future: at the end of the first interview, we told people that there would be a writing exercise and then a second interview, but there was only a second interview for the candidate we actually selected! The “second interview” was more of an informal job offer and chat to get to know the person, so it was misleading for us to close the first interview by saying there would be a second one.


There was some back and forth within the studio about whether or not to have candidates do a test, and whether or not to pay for the tests. After speaking to other indie studio owners and some very successful (i.e. in high demand) freelancers, we decided to do a paid test for all candidates that were offered an interview.

As I mentioned previously, we had hired a diversity consultant to look at the job posting and interview questions. Initially, she was quite adamantly against the testing process due to concern that the candidates with professional experience would almost surely score better on the test than ones with only informal or volunteer experience, and that we would need to develop a clear marking scheme before we receive the complete tests. We took her consideration into account and tried to design questions that allowed candidates with less professional experience to compensate with creativity, and we tried to avoid questions that would obviously be easier for those with professional experience. For example, we had drafted a question that asked: “if you had $10k to spend on a marketing campaign for Ultimate Chicken Horse, what would you do with it?” This was changed and, in hindsight, was quite obviously a question that would test someone’s ability and experience in working within a marketing budget, which is against what we were going for in the original job post.

On the other hand, one of the questions we kept was the following: “When you think of good online community management, is there any game, game studio, or non-game brand that comes to mind? Which one, and why?” This is the kind of question that, in my opinion, would allow anyone who has been in and around game communities to answer well, without giving advantage to people with professional experience.

Having applicants do a written test was definitely the right call—we found that the results from the writing exercise were very eye-opening, especially combined with the interview notes that we had. Some people who did extremely well in the interview were a bit underwhelming in their written test, and some who didn’t amaze us in the interview came out with an extremely impressive written test.

An additional argument for having help in the hiring process: there were details that came up in the writing exercise which I didn’t anticipate, but that Gen—my colleague who wrote this part of the test—did. For example, we asked candidates to make sample images for social media—this tested people’s ability to size images correctly for different social media platforms, using fonts or colour schemes similar to what we have on our website, using the right hashtags for the right social media platform, etc. These details helped to differentiate candidates in important ways.

Different analyses for different job posts

The analysis of the candidates for our previous hire—a Unity tech artist—was very different from the analysis of the candidates for this community management job.

For a (mostly) art position, content is the most important thing—what is their portfolio like? Is there a diversity of project types and styles? Can they show that they have a good understanding of the basics, like anatomy and perspective? A test might be less important but still necessary to see if they can match our style and work quickly. For a programmer position, I imagine that playable projects might be the most important thing, followed by a test (but I admit it’s been a few years since we hired a programmer).

For this job, it was much harder to define exactly what we were looking for. We were open to a candidate surprising us with a skill we didn’t know that we needed, and we were open to changing the way we do things to accommodate their skills. As the person who is ultimately responsible for culture at the studio, I was also focused on what kind of energy that person brings to the team and how that would change the team dynamic. On a team of 7 people, this is more significant than you might expect, and I would argue that it’s a valid part of the analysis. That said, this made the analysis very difficult, especially given the fact that people can be nervous in interviews and the fact that video calls are always less personable than in-person meetings. In the end, we had several candidates who would have been a wonderful fit for the position.

Telling candidates they didn’t get the job

Most candidates were emailed individually to let them know that they weren’t selected for the job. For the top candidates who weren’t picked—the 6 other interviewees—I wrote as much feedback as I possibly could about their application, interview, CV, and why they were not chosen. For the top 25 people who made it past the “first look” round, I also sent them individual emails. These emails had a copy pasted portion, and a sentence or two of specific feedback about why they weren’t selected for an interview. The remaining 25 or so applicants were sent a copy pasted email, though they were still individual emails (that is, I didn’t just put a bunch of them in BCC).

I realize that giving this amount of individual attention to each applicant isn’t always possible for a large company that receives a thousand applications for a job, but in my case this proved to be worth the effort. Here is why: “Thank you so much for getting back to me and providing genuine feedback regarding my application. I can’t express how much I appreciate not receiving a cookie cutter response.” And “I can honestly say I’ve never experienced this level of effort from an employer before. And based on this exchange alone I know that Clever Endeavour is a studio I’ll always keep my eye on for more opportunities going forward.” You can be sure those people will be good for our company image—it’s a small industry and respect goes a long way. I also reached out to some of our top applicants to send them a job posting that went up around the time we were hiring for another position they might fit. It was as simple as 3 minutes of sending emails, and based on their responses they found it both surprising and refreshing.

If anyone is curious about what these emails looked like, feel free to reach out to me or comment on the blog and I will share (without names or identifying details of course).

Miscellaneous stuff for employers

I’d like to take some time to share some more miscellaneous learnings for employers, especially those who are relatively new to hiring.

  • It always takes longer than expected (this is true about everything in game development, but let’s stick to hiring for today heh). Going through applications takes longer than you think—even with only ~65 applications, that’s still 65 CVs and about 60 full pages of cover letters to read.
  • Setting up interviews can be drastically sped up by using a service like Calendly, as opposed to going back and forth a million times with all of the candidates. Still, getting all of your interviews done as close together as possible can be challenging, and extra time should be factored in for trying to juggle interviewees schedules.
  • It might be a good idea to quickly tell the lowest rated candidates that they were not chosen. I found that I was leaving a lot of people hanging as we reached out to our top candidates for an interview, sent a test, waited for tests to come in, and then reviewed those tests. We could have told the top 15 applicants that we need some more time, and told the bottom 50 that they weren’t chosen for interviews to save them some time and nerves about the job search.
  • Leave more time than you expect between the final interview and the expected start date. Even when you choose a candidate, there’s a contract to sign and there may be some back and forth about it.
  • A candidate may be already employed elsewhere, and will have to tell their current employer that they’re leaving. It might be more respectful for them to give a month’s notice to transition smoothly out of their position and allow the employer to find a good candidate to replace them, compared to an abrupt notice of departure in two weeks. Again, it’s a small industry. If your future employee tells their employer that their new job will allow them the time to transition out nicely, they will have more respect for you and your company and this could go a long way.
  • I can’t remember who said this, but I read somewhere that when thinking about the likelihood of success for a new hire, 80% of the process happens after they’re hired. What I gather from this is that with even a few good candidates, it’s hard to make a “wrong” pick, but it’s important that you onboard them well, set clear expectations, and help them grow into the position you’re hiring them for.

Tips and tricks for employees

Lastly, I’d like to share some tips and tricks for people applying for jobs. I wrote these down as I was going through applications, so they’re in a bit of a random order.

  • I’m reading over 60 applications, time is of the essence!
  • Make sure to link to relevant material. Every click is precious, and I’ve had to dig pretty deep to find some people’s work. If you’re including anything that exists on another site, like a Twitter account for example, hyperlink it. Some applicants said that they have a YouTube channel and associated community that they manage—but it took me a while to actually find it (Google to find their Twitter, try to guess which one is them, find the right Twitter, get their YouTube channel link, etc.) since their channel doesn’t have a massive following. Now imagine if there were 1000 applicants instead of 65. Every second counts!
  • Tell me why we should want you, not only why you want us. There’s an implied and undesirable power dynamic created the instant you say “your company is so great and amazing and I’d be honoured to be able to work there” without saying “this is why your company will be better off than it was before with my presence on the team”. I know it’s difficult to express this—many people worry about coming across as over-confident—but it needs to clear in an employer’s mind that it’s a win-win when we hire someone, not an act of charity to “let someone work for us”. And let’s be honest, no company is perfect enough to deserve that kind of worship anyway.
  • Formatting is important. It’s an unpleasant feeling to be on your 16th application of the day and open a 2000 word email and a cover letter that’s 2 full pages of size 9 font. Also, please don’t riddle your CV with a million different fonts. There are many great resources about combining fonts and creating appealing visual layouts, please use them! If you’re not good at this kind of thing, ask a friend who is.
  • My favourite email and CV format was as follows:

    Hey Rich (or Gen, but not “dear hiring manager”),
    One or two sentences that introduce themselves and explain why we should be interested in them—”I have experience in (insert topic)”, and explain why they’re interested in us—”I saw your job posting and find it interesting because…”
    • Bullet points listing the most relevant experience and skills
    • Bullet points listing the most relevant experience and skills
    • Bullet points listing the most relevant experience and skills
    Sentence with links to portfolio and work samples
    Attached CV and cover letter

    This format allowed me to pretty much copy paste their bullet notes into my own notes about all of the applicants, which means that this applicant basically determined what I was going to say about them to the hiring committee, and didn’t need to depend on my biased and potentially hurried judgment. Another top format pick that I liked was the same, but the whole cover letter was in the email itself after the links to portfolio and work samples.
  • Keep your interests on your CV! I know that in high school or university they tell you not to include interests because it looks unprofessional, and maybe this is a personal thing, but I would rather hire someone with diverse interests relative to the interests of people on the team than someone who has exactly the same interests. And, seeing as people tend to have pretty unique interests, it’s always better to see your interests to encourage the idea that there’s more to you than just your work experience. That said, the video games industry is a creative one, and I could imagine some people arguing that this isn’t “professional” enough if you were applying for a job as a lawyer or accountant. But even then…
  • I now understand why people tell you to write your address on your CV. When I was looking through and considering remote work for the duration of the covid pandemic, it was important to know who lived where.
  • Mention the languages that you speak—secondary or tertiary languages can be an asset even if you don’t think your knowledge of that language is useful, or even if you’re just a beginner.
  • Don’t send zip folders where possible—if files are large, send a Google Drive link so that we can view things online. While the zip is downloading, I might click to something else and either forget about it (again, imagine 1000 applicants and only a couple of days to look through them) or just be slowed down generally. If samples can be attached directly to the email, great, otherwise links to websites are great.
  • Make sure to keep the 30 minutes after your interview free, they often run longer than expected. Employers should respect your time, but if the interview is going great and runs long, you want to be able to get as much of yourself into that interview as possible.

Thank you for reading! I learned a lot through this process, and I hope I was able to share some of that learning with you in this article. As always, feel free to comment or to reach out to me directly if you have questions, thoughts, feedback or anything else.

Watering the Right Seeds

With all of the changes taking place in light of the covid-19 pandemic, it’s been pretty incredible to see the enormous capacity for good that humans can display. Free food distribution from restaurants, people volunteering to pick up food and essentials for others, free online workout classes, doctors and nurses putting themselves at risk and working days on end to help, etc. This has been incredible to watch, and I’m pretty proud of humanity—this is one of the rare times you’ll hear me say that. And of course, I don’t need to provide examples to show that we humans also have the capacity for terrible evil and wrongdoing.

I was listening to a conversation between Tim Ferriss and the Buddhist monk / clinical psychologist Jack Kornfield and wanted to share something from the podcast. One of Jack’s Buddhist teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh, talked about the wide range of human capacities using a metaphor of seeds. (The following is paraphrased from Jack in the podcast). Within every human is the capacity for doubt, anger, and anxiety. But within us is also courage, compassion, and peace. It’s very easy to give in to the pressure and to water the seeds of doubt and anxiety.

If, instead, you water the seeds of compassion and peace in light of this situation, those seeds will grow into towering trees that sway in the winds of change but never become uprooted.

The displays of compassion and generosity we’ve seen in this pandemic show us not only that we have the capacity to do good, but also that how you deal with this situation is up to you. This is a wonderful time to practice responding to adversity, choosing your priorities, and choosing what kind of energy you want to put out into the world and to those around you (virtually, I hope).

Which seeds will you choose to water during these trying times?

Sometimes It’s Just The Wind

Biking to work last week, I noticed that I was in a higher gear than usual and flying—it was super easy today. I wondered to myself if it was the fact that I had a better breakfast that morning, or that my workout the day before was in the morning and not too leg intensive, or maybe I had just slept well. The thought floated away pretty shortly after it arose.

On the way home, I found myself pushing harder than usual, and not feeling like I was moving much. I knew immediately that it was the wind, it’s not that I wasn’t strong enough, but rather that the wind was more intense than usual. In hindsight—and as you read this—the realization I had was a pretty obvious one. I wasn’t particularly strong that morning, it wasn’t my breakfast, it wasn’t my sleep… it was just the wind. And that afternoon my additional effort wasn’t because my lunch wasn’t nutritious enough, or because the day at work was stressful.

After having this thought, it made me question how many other things in my life—both good and bad—I attribute to things under my control: my mood, my physical state, my energy levels, etc., when sometimes it’s just the wind.

Rock Stars vs Superstars at Work

I started reading the book Radical Candor by Kim Scott after several team leads in the games industry mentioned it being the best management book they’ve ever read. There’s a section in the book about understanding what motivates every member of your team, and working toward managing with that in mind.

She talks about knowing who your “rock stars” and your “superstars” are—this idea apparently came from another team lead at Apple with whom she worked. Rock stars are the people who enjoy their craft and are reliable and consistent in their work. They don’t necessarily want to “move up”. As she says in the book, “not all artists want to own a gallery; in fact, most don’t.” Superstars are ambitious and need to be constantly challenged and given opportunities to grow. A large part of the rest of this section in the book explains how one is not inherently better than the other, and how your bias—as a boss or simply as a person with a personality—can lead to thinking that one type of worker is superior.

Most importantly, how you reward these different personality types should be very different. The rock star type doesn’t necessarily want the promotion, and the superstar doesn’t necessarily want the stable, fixed-duration contract.
Rockstars and superstars but not rock stars? I dunno.

It’s interesting to think of these people in the context of the games industry for a few reasons. First off, can you think of people on your team who are (paraphrased from the book): a force for stability, ambitious outside of work or simply content in life, and happy in their current role? Can you, on the other (and equally positive) hand, think of people who are: a change agent, ambitious at work, and wanting new opportunities?

Second, when you’ve hired in the past or if you’re planning to hire in the future, what level of ambition (if we want to call it that) are you looking for? How much is your personal bias a factor in this decision? Do you know what the other folks are thinking who are equally responsible for hiring? Maybe in the case of a work-for-hire studio, you know which projects you’re hiring for and you want more of a rock star to get the job done within budget, on time and without stress. Alternatively, maybe you’re just branching off to start a second project in your studio and you’re looking for a person who can start off as a programmer, move to team lead, and then run an entire project on their own within two years.

I thought this was an interesting reminder to check my biases. Hopefully this—and surely the rest of this book—will help make me a better manager. Either way, food for thought!