Career Advice Nov 14 2011

How to Get the Coolest Tech Job Ever

By joseph walker

When Steve Jobs returned to California in 1974 after dropping out of college, he found his first job through a newspaper ad that said, "Have fun, make money."

The employer was video game pioneer Atari. Jobs showed up in the company's lobby wearing sandals and said he wouldn't leave until he got hired. His long hair and sloppy appearance forced Atari's chief engineer to choose between letting the "hippie kid" in the office, or calling the cops, Walter Isaacson recounts in his new biography of Jobs.

Jobs was invited in and hired as a technician. He was paid $5 an hour.

Since the 1970s, the appeal of having fun and making money by working in video games has only increased. "One of the things that attracts people to the industry is the coolness factor," says Dan Fiden, a former Electronic Arts executive who recently left Gazillion Entertainment, a start-up gaming company, to join Signia Ventures, a venture capital firm where he will focus on gaming.

"Anybody born since the mid-1970s grew up playing video games," says Fiden. "This is an extremely important form of mass entertainment." Gaming companies and start-ups are hiring like never before, and while gaming has become a $16 billion dollar industry, the sector still welcomes eccentric geeks.

Whether you want to help work on Hollywood-esque productions like EA's Battlefield 3, or help create the next Angry Birds or CityVille, opportunities are everywhere -- if you're willing to work for them.

Here's how:

Go to Game School

The number of college degree programs in gaming has increased by 37% since the 2009-2010 school year to 343 this year, according to the Entertainment Software Association, an industry trade group. Popular schools include the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, and Redmond, Washington's DigiPen.

The University of Central Florida launched its Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy in 2005, offering a Master's of Science in Interactive Entertainment, The school's annual class size has grown from 12 in 2005 to 66 this year, says Ben Noel, the school's executive director and a former EA executive.

The program offers three degree tracks:

Art: This is for people who want to create the look of characters and environments in games. Students study character modeling, animation and object modeling, while also learning how to use graphic design and animation software like Maya.

Production: For future producers and executive producers. "They whip people into shape, keep everything organized" and make sure games get finished on time, says Noel. Producers also learn scripting and help write the story lines and dialogue for games. Students learn game design, project management and business skills.

Programmers: The dream builders. They take the game play ideas and storylines of producers and turn them into digital realities. Students learn to program game engines that can be used to make games for a variety of platforms, as well how to contribute to game design.

For the first time this year, the Florida program began allowing students to choose between doing an internship in their last semester or joining the "venture track" team, using their time to put together a model to found their start-ups. About half of the class chose the venture track this year, Noel says.

The average starting pay for a FIEA graduate is about $50,000. There can be a steep learning curve at gaming companies, where tight deadlines and a high-pressure working environment is the norm, Noel says.

"Everyone's skeptical of young people coming into the gaming industry," Noel says. "They have to shine quick." At the higher levels of the gaming industry, Noel says, an experienced executive producer at a company like EA can earn as much $250,000 a year, and a lead programmer can make as much as $200,000.

Diversify Your Skills

Obsessive video game players often think that their passion for playing games is enough to get a job, says Tracy Fullerton, director of the University of Southern California Game Innovation Lab and an associate professor at the college's School of Cinematic Arts. Conversely, people who don't consider themselves hard-core gamers imagine that there's no place for them at a games company. In reality, a mix of the two types is ideal to get a job in the industry.

"I always tell high school students who want a gaming career, study math and science," Fullerton says. "But also become well-rounded people with great writing and communication skills, and a real interest in popular culture so they can become the Renaissance person who is the best of what a game designer can be."

Become a Server Engineer

As gaming consumers increasingly expect to have their games connected to the Internet, companies are competing to bring in the best server engineers. These folks can command high salaries and good equity packages because they're in demand from all industries, Fiden says.

"These people are in demand in the banking world, at the Amazons of the Web world, YouTube, the people who run the iTunes stores -- everyone needs these people," he says. The appeal of the gaming industry, though, is that compensation can be competitive with other industries. It also has the sexiness of working on products that millions of people use.

For an even more granular look at the jobs gaming companies have, check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics' recent report, "Work for Play: Careers in Video Game Development."

Try Data Analytics

Because games are going online, companies are collecting real-time statistics about what players are doing: when they find the game too difficult and put down the controller or what virtual goods they love to buy and which they avoid. The gaming industry needs data scientists, statisticians and product managers to make sense of all that information and incorporate it into changes within games.

"There are roles that are critically important to the video game industry now that didn't exist 10 years ago," Fiden says.

At Seattle's PopCap Games, the company is looking for "monetization designers" who can figure out ways to create revenue streams from in -game purchases. A mixture of "analytical skills as well as pure game design skills" is ideal for people applying for these positions, says Pamela Sampel, head of global human resources.

Job seekers with experience in Web services who understand how to analyze consumer behavior can make the switch into gaming. But these jobs are not for the faint-hearted.

"The rate at which those companies evolve and the speed at which they work is just remarkable," Fiden says. "Six months working at Zynga or Playdom is like six years working at some of the more traditional video game companies."

Write to Joseph Walker at Joseph.Walker@dowjones.com



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