Disney Interactive’s news last week that it was reducing its team by about 700 employees, many of whom were originally Playdom employees, drives home the message of how important it to is to technology professionals to stay current and active. With the pace of change in technology and gaming, people who were very-sought-after out of college five years ago may find their skill sets are considered dated and that they have few comparable career opportunities. This situation highlights why it is crucial for anyone in the tech or gaming space to focus continually on upgrading their skill sets so they can compete with the next batch of graduates.
Smart is not enough
There are many very intelligent people in our space and you are deluding yourself if you think you will always have great opportunities because you are brilliant. Employers and start-ups looking to build their core management team have many options and once they discard the mediocre, they usually still have many options. Thus, it comes down to how closely your skill set fits with their needs.
The problem many run into is that a great skill when you started your career—or even a few years ago—may not match what the best companies are looking for. In 2005, you may have earned an MBA in Marketing from Harvard Business School or Northwestern’s Kellogg School and became a marketing super star in the game industry. In 2014, however, few exciting companies are hiring marketing rock stars but they are grabbing growth experts. Although you may feel it is a matter of semantics, the differences between growth and marketing (e.g., focus on performance and analytics, integration with design) are crucial to the companies that are hiring. Thus, you will find your great marketing resume is less valuable to the next WhatsApp than a Stanford dropout who knows native advertising.
Three years ago, your statistics degree from MIT gave you a choice of opportunities in the Bay Area. Unfortunately, the start-up you joined ended up running out of cash because it was ahead of the market. Rather than facing the same menu of opportunities, you find your new dream company wants analysts who can build machine-learning algorithms. You have gone from rock star to working for Wells Fargo in middle management.
What you should do
If you want to always have your choice of professional opportunities, you must make the effort to stay ahead of the market. It requires time and effort, something you probably do not have an excess of because of the time you devote to your job. Not to sound trite, but if it were easy everyone would do it and you would not gain an advantage through effort. With many of my posts, there is also not a right or wrong answer; it is your decision whether it is more important to spend that time on leisure or family. For me, I spent a recent Saturday afternoon on Octave tutorials so I could start building machine-learning prototypes and thus better understand the underlying principles. I would have preferred going to a movie, but that is the choice I decided to make.
If your choice is to ensure rock star status throughout your career, then keeping your skills current is crucial.
- First, you need to know how your specialty is evolving. If it is growth and marketing, stay abreast of the latest developments and trends by reading sites such as Growthhackers.com. Also, look at what the top companies in your space (the Googles and Facebooks) are hiring and how that evolves over time.
- Second, have a career roadmap. Understand where you want to be not just next year but in five, ten or even twenty years. Let’s say you are running corporate development for a great mobile game company. You have made three smart acquisitions and have been rewarded for your efforts. You are likely to become head of corp dev for your company in the next year or so. What you need to do is think beyond that promotion and decide where you want to be in ten years. If it is CEO or COO, look around and determine if corporate development is the road to such a position. If CEOs of comparable companies and your own company come from the product side of the business, it suggests you need to add these skills to your repertoire. Learn project management, learn analytics; add the skills you need both to get the job and succeed along your career path.
- Just do it. The hard part is obtaining these skills, hard not intellectually but in the time you need to devote. I would start with online learning. I am a big fan of Coursera for general understanding of crucial topics (creating great content, decision making, machine learning, etc) and Udemy for specific skills (SQL, Twitter marketing, etc.) but there are multiple MOOC options and you need to explore the ones that best fit your needs. One caveat I would add is that you do not have to focus only on free courses, a small investment could have a great ROI if it helps keep your skills relevant. MOOCs are an incredible opportunity that prior generations did not have, once they completed school improving their skill set was incredibly difficult.Good old-fashioned books (maybe delivered digitally) are incredibly useful. I have yet to find a topic where there is not a quality book that will help explain it. Textbooks are another option. At universities, I found that many professors (normally the ones I am not crazy about) rely on the textbook to teach their course. You can disintermediate the professor and use the text directly. Industry or training publications also often show key trends and new thinking. Finally, there are some great websites and blogs (I personally like lloydmelnick.com but I am biased) that help you stay up to date, though I would say they only point you in the right direction. To get the depth of knowledge to stay relevant, you then need to take a MOOC or start reading.
I wanted to end with a short hypothetical example that ties everything above together. After getting your Stanford MBA, you had twenty-three offers in the Bay Area and decided to lead user acquisition for Disney. At Disney, you were a superstar for three years. You had one of the biggest budgets in the industry and you were able to achieve a performance level that was the envy of most other interactive companies. Despite your acumen on the user acquisition side, the underlying products did not perform well so Disney closed your division. When you started interviewing for other positions, you found that although even though the companies were impressed with your intellect and achievements, they found managing performance marketing campaigns and agency relationships passè and they ended up passing. Eventually, although your passion is the tech space, but because you have mortgage payments to make, you end up having to leave the tech sector and take a job in Des Moines running performance marketing for Exxon.
Now lets say that while you were at Disney, you took MOOCs on programming, predictive analytics and machine learning. During your interview, you propose to Uber that you will set up a division on their growth team to create and deliver algorithms that advertise Uber at the moment a customer is likely to need a taxi. You thus seamlessly move from your Disney position to Uber and retain your rock star status.
- If you do not keep you skills up to date, you can find yourself a dinosaur professionally when you are 30 years old or any age. Do not end up like the professional athlete who is 28 and no longer has skills anyone needs.
- Staying relevant requires a lot of effort. If you decide it is a priority, it will take time and effort, often at the expense of leisure.
- MOOCs are a fantastic vehicle to keep your skills up to date. They give you the chance to learn cutting-edge approaches to whatever space you are focused on.
5 thoughts on “Keeping current and staying valuable”
Great post and great advice! Thanks Lloyd.
I can second Lloyd’s viewpoint. The best education is one that teaches you how to learn – throughout your lifetime.
As someone on the product development side of the industry (both designer and producer), broadening your knowledge and understanding is key to being successful. I am constantly amazed by Producers who stagger from crisis to crisis, never investing the time to gain professional skills (such as Scrummaster certification, or for the truly ambitious, certification as a Project Management Professional – PMP). Experience and hard knocks is slow and costly, both for your career and for the companies/teams you serve. Just because game companies rarely provide or value training doesn’t mean it won’t help YOU do a better job.
Similarly, I’ve encountered too many game designers who get along on personal gut instinct and mastery of one or two game engine tool-sets. In a studio where the creative director shares similar instincts, and they use that engine, you have a job. But when the world changes, such as the transition from 1-player games to MMOs, or AAA games to mobile games, or from $60 boxes to online F2P, often accompanied by new technology and new engines, you’re suddenly less useful than someone half the price.
Graduate from gut feel by learning how different gameplay mechanics match to different audiences. Learn how to put yourself in the customer’s shoes – rather than assuming every customer wants to walk in your shoes. View the industry’s changing landscape as a game to play and enjoy, rather than cruel jests as your expense. Refresh (or learn if necessary) basic algebra and probability — so you can build game systems as well as game levels. Being widely read in literature, history, math and science, as well as pop culture and pop fiction, comes in handy when the opportunity arises for a position in some new application for game design, such as games that train real-life skills or adver-gaming. Accumulating these knowledge and skills gives you the perspective to shine as a Creative Director.
Well said, Lloyd. And I agree with Arnold that one if the best skills one can gain is “learning to learn”. You only get better with practice, just like anything else.
Another good resource for free learning material is MIT’s OpenCourseWare, which provides free course material and lectures for many of MIT’s courses: http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm