We’re not hiring right now! Best to mention this up front 🙂
This article is about how someone looking to get a job as a game developer (programmer) can improve their application.
I’m Howard Tomlinson – co-founder of Astraware, and since we became a company in 2000 we’ve employed a lot of different people – customer support, artists, QA testers, programmers, and more! I’m guessing we’ve employed somewhere over 100 different people over that time (the maximum at one point was around 25), but that means I’ve seen a lot of CVs.
A lot of good CVs, hundreds, and a huge number of poor ones. Thousands.
I’ve been seeing a lot of posts recently from game developers – recent graduates and people with just a few years experience in particular – asking for advice on their CV, and occasionally a prospective CV sent to me by someone who didn’t read our about page – and if I’ve been in a nice mood I’ve taken a look and sent along constructive feedback.
I thought it might be useful for me to make public some general info about what I find good or bad about a CV, in the hope that it can help some people to improve theirs! This is particular to being a games developer – i.e. Programmer of some sort. Much is relevant to the other disciplines too.
Not every prospective employer will be the same, but in general you’d hope that someone sorting through CVs for a position has some level of knowledge in the area. I’m predominantly a programmer with a background in physics and computing, although I do a lot of design work too (game design rather than graphic design) so when I evaluate a CV I’m looking with that kind of lens.
When I’m looking to fill a position, I’ll have a range of CVs from candidates to look at. Perhaps 10-20 per position. I want to find the slightest excuse to whittle that down to about 5 which I’ll review in depth, and then maybe call 3 of those to talk, and 1-3 of those to interview.
“Go ahead, make my day.”
Nothing will make me happier than an excuse to move your CV from the ‘in review pile’ to the ‘rejected’ pile, along with a 3 word reason written on the top as to why. If you can leap out straight away with an obvious fail, you’ve saved me a huge amount of time. In my experience, half of the applications can be rejected for obvious fails in under a minute.
CV and Covering Letter
First up – for me, I take the CV itself and Covering letter (or email) together as a whole. There’s a big argument about what formally you should leave off the CV and include in the letter, or vice versa, but really that’s a style choice, and I don’t get too wrapped up in those choices.
Broadly the letter would be more about your goals, personality, interests, and your CV about your education, skills and background. Prose versus facts, perhaps. If you include your hobbies and interests in one versus the other, that’s fine.
Remember to address your letter to the person who will be looking at it, if that is at all possible to discern from their website. If you have dissected the company website for the right contact and there still is none, then falling back to a title such as “To the Manager responsible for recruitment” may be acceptable.
A note on mailshots : Don’t let your letter look like a failed mail-merge, with [fields] left exposed such as Dear [Recipient]. Ouch. It really pays off to make each application bespoke to the company. If you are using a generic letter/CV which covers your hope to get an internship/volunteering role/work-experience/contract work/permanent position doing QA/junior programming/animation/engine development/senior developer/tea maker, you have made it really obvious that your just shotgunning out to every possible employer without even looking at what they’re after. If you do that, they know that you’re (likely) not what they’re after.
Between your letter and CV, I’d be expecting to see 3-4 pages of stuff at a reasonable kind of size of print. 1-2 pages in total is not going to include enough to be of interest, more than 5 and (unless you’re very experienced with a number of very valid previous workplaces and projects) you’re probably waffling on a bit too much. If you have to err on one side, err by including a bit too much.
Layout & Style
As a developer, stick to a reasonably straightforward style and template. Artists and graphic designers are aiming to make a visual impression and show what they can do, but as a developer it’s going to be more about the content. If you show me that you can competently use an external template, you give me confidence that you can work in a team where some level of consistency is going to be required.
Anyone who reads vast quantities of text on a daily basis will see errors like inconsistent spacing (one versus two) right away. Try to keep it neat and consistent.
Remember that the person reviewing your CV could well be in their 40s or 50s, and may be at the point where reading tiny fonts is a challenge, or they have to read at arms length because long-sight is kicking in. Don’t make it hard for them – make it easy to read please!
Thinking of making a really clever idea for a CV design – something reminiscent of The Matrix, something formatted so it looks like pseudocode… ah, all fantastic and innovative ideas, but no. Don’t do that. You’ve got opportunities to show off your skills in other ways – don’t make your CV harder to read, even if you think it will make you stick out. (It will, but not in a good way!) Edit : QR Codes are ugly and messy, don’t include them. A short URL is fine, honestly. If we like your CV we can type in a tidy URL faster than we can get a smartphone out.
Make it easy for me and you’ve made a friend!
Covering letter in either email (marked up) format or a PDF is great. CV as a PDF is great.
Anything that has me needing to open up some other fruity editor to read your item means that there’s a chance your formatting will all cock up and your CV will look terrible. If you send it in a Word format then depending on whether I open it in MS Word on PC, on Mac, in Pages on Mac, in Open Office, within Google Docs… any of these will give indeterminate results. Saving out as a PDF is going to keep it simple.
In the UK go for A4 page format, in the US go for US Letter size. If I print out your CV and it all goes wrong, I’m going to feel like the idiot (again) so that won’t reflect well on you.
I’ll be printing in black and white, often on a printer that’s a bit crappy. Don’t do anything clever with shading or gradients or colours.
Spelling and Grammar
I’ll be brutal here. Don’t make any mistakes. None whatsoever. Any spelling or basic grammar mistake in your CV or letter will leap out to me like a neon-lit spring-loaded boxing glove. OK, I’m not going to quibble about subtle things like an occasional sentence that’s a spot too long or might be phrased in passive voice.
Special attention to:
- Capitalisation in general, capitalised ‘I’ in particular. If you can’t get basic English capitalisation right, what makes me think you can correctly get the rightVariableName consistently.
- Use of Proper nouns – Names of either people or companies, product names ( Unity ) – make sure you get these exactly right. If you misspell my name, or just as bad, my company name, that’s a big D’Oh! right away.
- Typos – a spell checker will pick up 75% of these, but it takes a careful eye to pick up the rest. If you make (and don’t spot) typos, you would be the member of the dev team who everyone curses as they have to trawl through your untidy code looking for the error. Again. On a Friday Night when you’ve gone home and they would rather be out with their significant other.
- Incorrect usage of apostrophe’s. You know the difference between plural and possessive, yes?
- All Caps for anything goes straight into the bin.
If in doubt, get it checked by someone who is better at this stuff than you are. Teacher/Senior Lecturer, English Student, competently literate spouse/relative, etc. Do not get your mate Dave who is on the same course as you to check it over when he sobers up one afternoon. Get the smartest person you know to check it and ask them to be utterly brutal, like they’re the meanest member of a parole board just looking for the slightest pettiest reason to throw you back inside.
I’m going to want to genuinely get an impression for your level of skill at the various elements that make up being a games developer. I’ll broadly rank you somewhere from Expert, Competent, Familiar, or lower (i.e. vague knowledge of) at the various elements/languages that would come up.
Broadly ‘Expert’ means you have used regularly in commercial products for 5+ years. Competent for 3+ years, Familiar for 1+ years or a main degree course component, and anything else means that you’ve been exposed to it at some formal level, either in passing at a company, or during a university course.
For languages, it depends what you’re applying for, but I’d be looking for a heirarchy of:
Main usable languages : C / C++ / C# / Objective C / Java (maybe) / HLSL (maybe)
Processing languages : PHP / Ruby / Perl etc.
Markup languages : HTML / XML / CSS
Before employing you, I will most likely have you do some kind of proficiency test (either externally, like BrainBench tests, or internally with a work-through of some problems.). If you lie about your capability, it will be completely obvious, it will waste my money/time, and you will not get the job. You will not be able to bluff your way out of it.
Packages / Engines / Platforms
If you have Unity 3D Experience, list it, and what level you’ve used it at. Same for Unreal, and any other packages you’ve used properly. If you list it on your CV I’d expect you to be able to sit down and create something showable in it without needing to go Googling, so don’t list it if you haven’t used it to at least finish a tech demo (or preferably a released product!)
Competent with Photoshop / Illustrator / Blender / Maya / 3DS Max etc? Great – list those too. Give me an honest rating of your skills. A programmer who can use the tools to work with things created by others is still useful.
List the platforms you have experience in – again give an honest rating of your level of comfort with each.
I’m going to want to see experience of GIT / CVS / SVN or something along those lines for source control.
Familiarity with various project methodologies is a plus, but if you say you’re a ‘SCRUM Guru’ I’m going to think you’ll be overly evangelical and unwilling to fit in with another system, so be careful.
Obviously include your academic qualifications and where you attained them. I’ll care that you have some GCSEs (or equivalent) including decent Maths and English, that you have a range of appropriate college qualifications (A-Levels), and usually that you have an appropriate degree.
If you’re a recentish graduate, then for the degree breaking out your areas of specialism, your main thesis / projects, and any work experience or internships, will be important. Include a list of the major relevant modules you’ve done.
There’s a huge debate about whether or not you need a degree to be good. I’ve come across counter-examples a few times, but in my experience, a degree means that you can complete a large multi-year piece of work, successfully navigating an amount of bureaucracy, learning plenty along the way, some portion of which (but definitely not all) you can apply to future work. As a games developer, the kind of skills you will have through completing a degree – usually in a fairly technical subject – will be useful, even if the exact modules you studied are not. In some ways the exact degree you have will be less important than that you have one. If your degree is in any non-development but technical subject, expect to be asked about it, but you’ll be fine. If your degree is in a non-related subject, expect to have to provide a bit more proof that you can handle the technical side (particularly programming) too. Your portfolio will be important for this! A developer with wider skills is great – but you’re still going to have to convince that you can do the development!
OK – here you need to list where you’ve worked that is relevant to the job you’re applying for.
For games/programming companies, list the company, your position, your main responsibilities, the time you were there.
For non games companies, unless they are directly relevant, just include a simpler list for a time period. ( “Bar + Fast Food work.” or “Retail work” ); The details aren’t going to matter enough to be on your CV here, though if you make it to interview you might be asked. If the best you have to offer is that you worked for a summer at your Dad’s company making tea… you probably need to get some more real-world experience.
If you have further relevant work experience / internships, include those.
OK- so you’ve made loads of awesome and exciting things…
- Attach them to an email
- Send me source code listings
- Link a random youtube page to me
- Send me a CD or USB stick of stuff
What I want to see is a link to a simple website which you have developed, showing a broad range of your portfolio; Either screenshots, embedded graphics and videos, game descriptions, maybe links to the game on app stores, all that kind of thing.
Unless you did them all by yourself, rate each one with how much your contribution to the project was. If you were a tiny cog in a large project, be honest.
This needs to be attractive if you’re going to want me to look and get an impression of your skills. If you’ve done some awesome abstract work, you’d better find a way to visualise that too, but I’m an academic professional, I can cope with big words – you don’t need to dumb it down.
If you have a good ‘gameography’ then a list of that in your CV ( game, platform, company, date, your contribution) would be fine.
Hobbies and Interests
Personal bugbear : Please please do yourself a favour and don’t put “Playing video games” in your hobbies or interests, or even more cliche “I have a passion for video games.”
The last thing I want to do is to ruin your passion and hobby by giving you a job that will make you hate it. This is like saying that you have a passion for eating cake when you’re applying for a job at Mr Kipling’s.
If you do have to include this in your interests, I want to see something much more in depth.
Example from a recent CV that was sent to me:
“Going to the cinema and playing video games”; Obviously I know what you mean by this, but it’s an opportunity missed. ( You don’t actually go to the cinema to play video games, do you? That would be weird, unless you enjoy the twin-gun style of arcade machine…)
Could you instead write:
“I have an interest in cinema, enjoying the technical aspects of cinematography – lighting, framing, scene transitions, writing, as all of these have a bearing on how I work on games too. I particular enjoy the modern horror genre and 1960s Film Noir.”
“I love to play and deconstruct video games, looking out for excellent art and user interface style, often thinking about how I might do things differently.”
“I love the psychology of video games and what people get from playing them. I spend as much time observing others playing as I do myself, thinking about how the game has managed to effectively convey an emotion or experience.”
Imagine how they would read to me, a games programmer with a love of cinema looking to hire a games programmer… You’d leap right to the top of the pile to call for interview. However, I’d pretty much rather read about your stamp collection or favourite football team (meh) than read “I enjoy playing video games” or “I have a passion for video games” yet again.
In your hobbies and interests I’m looking to see something that tells me that you’re an interesting and intelligent person. That you have a varied life outside of your career. That when you’re in work, you have experience and interest to bring to the team. That you can take care of yourself in fitness and mental well-being terms.
If you have a hobby that neatly implies that you have the ability to commit effort and time to something non-trivial, for instance a high grade at a musical instrument, club level performance at a sport, that’s going to look really good for you.
Don’t make things up for your interests though – that’s a dangerous game. You might discover that your interviewer has an interest that coincides and asks you about it. It’s quite common for an interviewer to try to put you at ease by asking you to talk about some of your hobbies, which hopefully is something you can talk with confidence on. If you suddenly dry up then it’s going to look pretty poor!
Agencies and Applying Directly
Oh, agencies… Sometimes a necessary evil, but really, they do make things much more of a pain.
Here’s the thing, they can aggregate a number of candidates quickly, which is good. However, the quality of who they send is much more variable than people who looked us up directly, read our job specs, and still decided to apply.
Unfortunately for us, agencies want a cut of your salary (paid to them by me) when I hire you. That cut might be 10%, perhaps more, perhaps less.
You know what, I’d rather pay you that 10% more. (Or perhaps, avoid paying you 10% less if my budget is fixed.)
So the upshot is : If I have two candidates that are otherwise the same, the one that applied directly will get the job and get a higher initial salary.
It’s not that hard to look up games companies in areas you’re interested in, collect a list of the websites, and look through them for vacancies. An hour per vacancy to tailor your CV and covering letter to suit (and perhaps even research the company, team, history + games a bit) will increase your chances massively above having an agency forward your generic unspecialised CV (that they’ve butchered and littered with errors) to the same company you could have approached.
Oh, and if the company tells you the format / size / specifics to include in your application, make sure you get this right!
One last thing… your web presence
If you’ve made it to the shortlist to be considered, that final 5, I’ll be looking you up online. I’ll be looking at your Linked In profile (you do have one, right? Better make it good!), and doing a couple of pages of Google checking to see how you’re mentioned. If you’ve been an idiot somewhere online, then I’ll see it, and you won’t make the cut. Badmouthed someone in a forum? Posted questionable material? Tweeted anything hateful? You just made my job easier again.
Is that all?
Yup! That’s about it… for the CV stage anyway 🙂 That’s how to make the cut and be one of the 3 out of 20+ CVs that gets through. There’s a lot of competition out there.
Am I just a miserable old git? Well yes, but you’ll find that there’s an equivalent miserable old git in many companies who’ll be making decisions on who to hire, and every one of them will have their own pet hates, so you may end up being binned for an unpredictable reason anyway, but it’s pretty safe to say that the basic CV errors are going to fail you with anyone. Well, maybe not anyone… but surely you want to work in a team where the bar to enter is pretty high? Thought so 🙂
I hope this helps! Again to reiterate, I’m not hiring, so don’t ask 🙂 ( Feel free to get in touch and argue if you disagree with anything though, happy to take comments from anyone either in or out of the industry!)