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Friday, August 1, 2014

Read The Damn Ad!

This is an article I originally wrote for the late lamented Game Developer Magazine on the black art of  job hunting.  Hiring has been on my mind a lot lately and so I've had to revisit a lot of things I touched on here.  Although a lot has changed in the intervening decade, the brutal realities of the job market haven 't changed much -- except, perhaps, to get a tad more brutal as the pool of qualified candidates has grown faster than the games biz as a whole.

So, without further ado, here's a disgruntled reader's guide to resumes and cover letters.

Dear Job Applicant,

Thank you for applying for the opening we advertised. While we specifically requested only applications from candidates having four or more years of industry experience, we understand that you might not have realized which industry we intended. However we are impressed by your entrepreneurial drive and are sure that the skills you learned behind the cash register at McDonalds can contribute greatly to our team environment.

We are somewhat concerned, however, that you may have mistaken our ad for one from another company. Since none of the four identical resumes and cover letters we received from you mentioned our company or which position you were applying for, we just wanted to contact you to be sure that you were, in fact, responding to one of our ads.  My assistant and I spent quite some time puzzling over this and were unable to reach a conclusion, so we thought it best to contact you and see if we could figure out what, exactly you intended. After all, we receive dozens of applications a week – what excuse could we have for giving each one less than our undivided attention? 

In any case, we also have a more personal motive for contacting you. We really wanted to thank you for introducing us to the fascinating world of post-industrial Thrashtronica – a musical style we had never even heard of around the office until we went out and bought a VHS player to view your samples. The nightmarish soundscape certainly taught us a few things about the meaningless void at the heart of modern capitalism! It's a good thing the turntable animations on your tape were 15 minutes long, so we were able to hear the entire piece. 

Ahhh! It's spring, and the air is full of new life.  Everything old is new again -- particularly the soundtracks (and the appetizers) at those GDC parties. Everywhere you look, studios flush with greenlight funding are strutting their gorgeous plumage before a new crop of art-school grads, hoping to entice them into an intricate mating dance. Birds do, bees do it – even Hollywood TD's do – so let's do it: let's talk about job hunting. But rather than the looking at if from the perspective of the potential hire, let's stop and look at the hiring process from the other side of things – the way it looks from the other side.

There's really only two things you need to remember when approaching preparing  job applications:

Rule #1: Hiring hurts

Hiring is a slow, expensive, and risky proposition.

Think about the employment process from the perspective of a company that has a slot to fill: In order to get one person, you need to spend a couple of weeks contacting various websites and magazines, writing up a set of ads that adequately describe the exact job you're trying to fill – assuming you can get management and production to agree on what that is! You'll also have to spend at least a few hundred bucks on each ad.

Once you've laid out all this money and time, you'll get hundreds of applications – and 95 percent of them will be from people who haven't got any of the qualifications you're seeking. Nevertheless, you'll need to have a dedicated person to spend weeks sifting through all the resumes and looking at all the portfolios of old school work, 3-d package tutorial images, and scanned-in charcoals from figure classes.

When you finally get to the really good candidates, half of them will already be taken. To top it all off, the remainders won't come to work for you unless you actually give them money. Just to show up! And there's probably a recruiter, a moving company, or an immigration laywer lurking in the background with a bill as well. You know, it's really not hard to see why companies hate hiring.

Rule #2 Companies are desperate and pathetic

Of course, as horrible as hiring can be for companies, it's also an unavoidable necessity.  The power of the the old-boys-and-girls network is a product of how much companies dislike the ordinary “over the counter” hiring process -- bringing aboard that old friend or former colleague means skipping the most laborious and risky parts of the hiring process, so naturally it's popular with firms in a hurry. We all know how this can stack the deck against folks without pre-existing industry connections.

Luckily for outsiders – and unfortunately for the potential employers --  no company can fill every vacancy from the ranks of old friends and former co-workers. Companies with vacancies are constantly aware that every day an opening stays vacant is a day lost – possibly many days, if the empty seat is an important one. So any would-be employer will eventually turn to the public forums – the websites and recruiting firms (and, *ahem,* magazines – ed.) where job-seekers congregate.

It's tough for the companies, because it involves them in all the unpleasant stuff we sketched out just a moment ago. But it's good news for the hopeful job seeker --  by the time a job posting hits the boards, the company is absolutely committed to filling that empty chair.

Living by the rules

Now, we all know that it's not just the companies that suffer. Job-hunting (particularly when you're out of work) is a morass of frustration and uncertainty. It can be easy to be overwhelmed by the injustice of it all – you know how good you are, how passionate you are about games, and what great work you can do. The nonsense generated by the process – the resumes and cover letters, the formula interview questions, and of course the dreaded issue of prior experience – eventually starts to seem like a vast shadowy conspiracy directed right at you. “I know I can do the job!” you want to scream, “Let's just cut to the chase!”

The sad truth, though, is that the miseries inflicted on job seekers aren't just random cruelties. They are logical byproducts of the dilemmas faced by potential employers. Companies hate hiring, and at the same time companies are desperate for people.  The rituals of the job hunt have evolved out of these conflicting demands. Figuring out why employers set you to jumping a particular set of hoops is a very powerful tool to help you upgrade your own job application. It's also a good way to keep yourself focused when the emotional drain of job hunting gets you down.

Mysteries of the cover letter

Let's look at an example of how seeing the process from the perspective of employers can make take some of the mystery – and misery – out of job hunting. Take the tradition of the cover letter as an example. It's easy for a job hunter to see the cover letter as a meaningless formality. After all, a dab hand at writing cover letters is hardly a guarantee of artistic or technical skill.  The ability to search for the name of the last company you applied to and replace it with the name of the next hardly betokens artistic brilliance or technical savvy. Moreover artists aren't famous for their verbal skills to begin with.  Don't forget either that many talented folks don't speak English as a first language.

So why do we bother with cover letters? Or, more to the point, why do the companies bother? After all if you think cover letters are a meaningless formality, just imagine what the HR person on the other end goes through, sorting through them by the dozen.

In fact, the cover letter makes sense when seen against the backdrop of the two basic rules of hiring. The screener or HR person or producer who reads your application is trapped between two conflicting desires: the desire to find a great candidate, and the desire to dispose of all the no-hope candidates as efficiently as possible.  The cover letter helps the screener in both directions.

On the positive side, a good cover letter lets the screener know that you've actually paid some attention to the requirements of the job at hand.

It may sound strange, but proving that you have read the ad is suprisingly important matter. Until you've been tasked with screening resumes yourself, you'll literally cannot believe how few applicants pay attention to the carefully thought out, diplomatically worded prose that describe a job on offer. Place an ad for a concept artist, and 30-40% of the respondents will be modelers or level designer or animators. Post a job requiring two shipped titles, and half the respondents will be in their senior year at art school.

Against this backdrop, a decent cover letter which clearly indicates that you've read and understood the job requirements automatically tells the screener that you're in the top half of the incoming wave of resumes. Even if your cover letter simply explains why you'd be good for the job even though you don't meet the formal criteria you'll probably get a free pass on the first cut. The key thing is to tell the screener simply and clearly that you know what job is on offer and that you have the professional chops and personal drive to do that job.

Which brings us, of course, to second reason cover letters exist.

Remember our rule #1 – companies hate hiring. No matter how badly a company wants to fill that slot, most of the applicants for the slot will be completely unqualified. The employer wants to get to to the handful of good candidates quickly  -- and that means dispensing with the bad ones as fast as possible. In this context, a cover letter offers a chance to fail – in other words, a fast way for the screener to find weak candidates.  If you can't put together two reasonable paragraphs that tell the screener (a) you've read the ad and (b) you'd make a good match for the job on offer,  your application is headed for the circular file. It's not strictly true that a bad cover letter will sink you right away, because most screeners are conscientious enough (and desperate enough to find that mythical good candidate) that they'll still check out the resume and reel. But make no mistake, if you blow the cover letter stage of the process you're set up for elimination in the next round – anything else is a comeback.

The Awful Truth

“Wait a minute,” you're thinking, “did he really mean to say that a stupid cover letter means more than my demos?”

Well, no.

No artist gets a job with a terrible reel and a great cover letter. But don't let that fact make you forget that rule #1 is lurking in the background at every stage of your job application. The person sorting and screening job applications – no matter how nice and open minded they are –  spends most of their time looking for reasons not to spend time with a given resume or reel. To put it more succinctly, most of the screener's job is figuring out who not to hire.

Against this context the cover letter, and then the resume, and finally and most ultimately the demo, are all up against a pretty stark test – it's always sudden death overtime in the hiring business. It's not because any rational person thinks a cover letter, or even a well formatted resume in .doc format, is an indication of artistic talent. It's because there are a lot of resumes and not much time, so every niggling detail can become an excuse to move on to the next item in the in-box.

If this sounds brutal, that's because it is. But it's purely impersonal – it's a fact of life that can be managed if you understand it and work with it. Above all, nobody is exempt, not even the greatest talents among us. Next month we'll finish off our discussion of job hunting by looking at how resumes and demo reels function in the hiring process. In the meantime, polish up those cover letters. And please, read the damn ads!

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