As Senior Technical Instructor here at VFS, the question I get asked the most by students nearing graduation is how to ace an interview for becoming a technical designer, technical artist, or programmer. I’ve hired many people in my time in the industry, so I’m happy to help! Students want to know what to expect, how to handle the tough questions, and what to say when the dreaded negotiations about money start. This first Tech Talk is a guide through the steps most students will take from leaving VFS to when they land their first dream job.
Getting that Phone Call
Before you get to the interview you need to get asked to attend one! This is where a polished professional resume is key. Don’t try to stand out too much with fancy graphics and stylised text. Since it’s now normal for everyone to try to stand out with something funky, you will actually fare better with a clean looking page. Make sure to get it reviewed by at least two professionals working in industry before submitting it. Keep it under four pages, and even if you have no professional experience, cover your accomplishments. Employers want to see that you have both skills and are a real human that can interact and have fun with other people. When it’s ready – get ready to apply – everywhere. Getting that first call can take a long time and you need to apply to a lot of employers. Once you have your foot in the door and some experience behind you, future searches will take a lot less time.
The larger the company, the less I like to apply through the “HR Machine”, and more prefer to try and get a referral to someone on the actual team – this is where all the VFS alumni are incredibly useful. Here at VFS, students are constantly exposed to industry mentors and guest speakers, not to mention instructors, who are often the key connection to many employers. Send letters, send emails, connect over LinkedIn with current employees – whatever it takes.
Once you get to the interview, the real work begins – and the focus needs to be on staying calm, keeping your nerves under control, and just being you. VFS has many hours of instruction on presentation and communications skills, as well as staged interviews with actual industry HR staff to get them ready for this step. When you arrive, you will be met by a receptionist or someone from HR and they will ask you to wait briefly while they assemble everyone needed for the interview. Sometimes this is just 1 person, other times it is 3-5 as a panel.
You’ll be invited in and the interview will almost always start with some small talk – this is by design to help the interviewee feel calm and allow the interviewer to gauge your communication skills. Following the small-talk, you’ll be asked about your background and experience and probably why you want to work for the employer – make sure you have good answers ready for this.
Logic and Reasoning Questions
Next, the interview often moves on to logic style questions. The aim here is to ask you questions that require thought, and you have to speak your reasoning as you come to an answer. Larger companies such as Microsoft use these questions more than smaller companies. For example, a famous Microsoft questions is, “Why are manhole covers round?” There are many correct answers to this question, such as, “because they are a good shape for people to fit into,” “they do not have corners that can develop stress fractures,” and “it’s highly unlikely the cover will fall down the hole.” Other examples of questions could be, “Explain how a compiler works to your grandmother” — to show how skilled you are at explaining technical concepts to non-technical people.
The next step of the interview is the technical test – sometimes verbal, but more often written. These vary a lot between companies but typically consist of code samples that you have to spot errors in, complete, or make run faster. There are often also questions about 3D math, such as vectors, dot products, and so on, which we teach you all about here at VFS. Do not panic if you cannot answer all the questions. Studios often have a single test for all technical levels – so a junior programmer would be expected to score minimum 40%, a senior 70%, and a tech director 95%. If you don’t know how to code something, but get the general idea, then just write out in English what you would do.
Q&A or Q&D?
During these logic and technical questions, what do you do if you get a series of complicated questions that you just can’t answer? The solution is simple and it is about stepping up to take control of the conversation. Remember you are there to display your skills – if they are asking the wrong questions, you can help them by steering the interviewer more towards what you do know. In other words, stop thinking of the interview as a “Question and Answer” session and start to think of it as “Question and Direct.” What this means is that when you get a question that you don’t know the answer to – answer it by swerving towards something related that you do know. For example, if you have never worked on shaders before and you get this question:
“Can you give an example of how you implement a water effect with a shader?”
Bad Answer: “I don’t know, I’ve never used shaders.”
Good answer: “That’s a good question, on the last game I worked on we didn’t use shaders, but we had a realistic water effect. We used Unity’s built-in directional light, which reflected off of a surface normal map texture. For each frame we updated the UV coordinates of the normal map, which is similar to how I would think of doing it in a shader.”
Unless you really don’t know, and have nothing remotely related you can think of, don’t say, “I don’t know.”
Surveying the Office – Dropped in the Deep End or Mentored Support
Usually, nearing the end of the interview (sometimes before) you will be given a tour of the office where you might be working. This is where you need to turn on your night vision goggles and start looking for clues. Do the employees look happy? Are they smiling and dedicated workers? Does the office environment look fun to work in and well lit? These are all good signs.
Warning signs? Look out for people so tired they haven’t bothered to shower or shave that morning, toothbrushes and other hygiene products on desks indicating overwork to the point that people don’t get to go home. People slouching and looking depressed or extremely stressed out. Also be wary of badly lit offices or ones where all the fixtures and fittings are worn or damaged. Do not work in one of these places – I can tell you from experience, you do not want to be there.
This is because, in my experience, there are typically two types of employers, which generally reflect the skills of the management team. The first is the Dropped in the Deep End environment. These companies like to hire employees, and start giving them work and see how they get on. If they are good they get to stay, if they are no good they do not pass probation. The people that could have been good with a little support are passed by. This was common in the 90s but thankfully less so now.
More likely, you will be working in a mentored environment. In other words, if you are hired to a junior position, you will be assigned a senior mentor. This is someone you can ask questions to, who will introduce you to key members of the team, and will likely conduct code reviews with you before your code is submitted to the central source control servers. This is where you want to work.
Which company is interviewing you? The only way to find out is to ask. Ask what kind of support new employees get, what is expected of you, and try to speak to current employees to get their perspective.
After your interview, you will be shown outside, or sometimes taken to lunch. They will tell you they will get back to you usually within 2 weeks. This gives them time to interview other people and collate the results. After these interviews, you will possibly get recalled for a second interview. In my experience this means you have the job and they are just taking more time to get you to meet more of the team.
Finally, you will get an offer letter with employment terms. Congratulations! But wait, the interview is not over yet. The first salary offer they send you is always a low-ball offer. They have a range for each position and they want to be as efficient as possible, so they will offer you the lowest they think you will accept. So even if you are happy with the offer, you should try to get higher. We all have bills to pay.
So now you need to be skilled at how to negotiate higher. Try to always do this in writing as opposed to over the phone, as it gives each side time to contemplate the next move. Just saying, “I want more”, is not likely to go down well. A better response would be, “I am so grateful for your offer of employment, especially since it was the top of my list for places I wanted to work. However, the cost of living in this area is so high – would you consider X? Remember, I have Y skills, which would be of great benefit to your project.” Usually, the best amount for X is the offer plus 10-15%. They will likely come back with a new offer somewhere between what they originally offered you and your suggestion. Or they may decline, in which case you should say, “Would you consider taking me on at the original salary, and then after a 3 month probationary period, if I blow your socks off, increase it to X?” If they still decline, then it’s likely that you are at the upper end of what they can spend, and you need to decide if it’s right for you – but… at least you tried!
On your first day, you will be given another tour, and shown to where you will be seated, and probably invited out to lunch with the team. Keep a notepad to remember everyone’s name and other information, as the next week is going to be a whirlwind of details thrown your way. If you are not given a seating chart, try to draw one out so you remember where key people are. Read the coding standards documents, speak to other programmers, and start looking at the coding style used there and aim to start copying that style. Keep your email open and always reply to emails sent to you. And do not open up Facebook, YouTube, or anything similar until you find out what is acceptable there – some companies don’t care, while others are very strict.
Congratulations – today is the first day of the rest of your life making games for a living – one of the most exciting industries to work in – and all your hard work at VFS has paid off!
If you have specific questions about the technical skills you’ll learn at VFS and how they can prepare you for your dream job, email me at pwalsh[at]vfs.com.
Peter Walsh teaches Programming and Tech Design