There is No Them

Lessons on leadership from the world of game development

Why you didn’t get accepted into the DSGA (or get that job offer you wanted)

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Note: this is a DSGA focused post, though the lessons learned apply more broadly.

At the beginning of July we made our final decisions about which of the many applicants to the DSGA we would make offers to. In the end we did phone interviews with about 50 of the applicants, before winnowing it down the 20 positions the program has available for the 2014-2015 academic year.

The entire staff and faculty of the DSGA (all four of us) are very excited at the group we have gathered, but this post will focus on the other direction, those that didn’t get accepted. After so many application and portfolio reviews, and numerous telephone interviews, what can we share about why someone didn’t get accepted into the program, and how might this apply to the real world context of not getting that job you just interviewed for?

In organizing the various reasons why someone was not accepted into the DSGA I found they mostly fell into one of the following groups. I’ll dive into each category a bit more, as well as advise what next steps make sense for someone in the given category. Finally, I’ll conclude by drawing parallels of this to interviewing for a real job, to see what all of us can learn from this.

The categories our rejected candidates fell into were as follows:

  • Excellent candidate, but skill set is no longer needed
  • Strong candidate, but not as diverse as others
  • Solid candidate, but with no outstanding factor to push them over the top
  • Over confident candidate, with an unrealistic understanding of their skill set
  • Unqualified candidate, not self aware enough to even realize it

Excellent Candidate, but Skill set is No Longer Needed
We had a number of candidates, especially late in the process, that clearly demonstrated to us that they would be excellent participants in the program. Not only did they have multiple disciplines they could demonstrate significant skills in (art, game design, programming, etc.) but they could clearly articulate their passion of and experience with taking on leadership roles in various aspects of their lives. Like our accepted candidates, many of these folks could clearly articulate what they wanted from the DSGA, why they were drawn to leadership, and how they could contribute to the program.

But we don’t need 20 3d artists, or 20 C++ programs, or 20 of any single thing. Our goal from the start was for the participants to work on a large project, using the project as the ‘real world’ lab to put the lessons we are teaching into practice. Like a real video game development team, we needed to ensure we had a balance of skillsets. That meant that the 10th great artist we spoke to was in a very tough position, of not just demonstrating why they should join the program, but why we should not make an offer to a candidate we were already impressed with. Ultimately this is a difficult (and unreasonable) task, resulting in us having to tell several candidates that while we were impressed with them the program had no room for them.

Folks in this group might have gotten a different response had they applied to the program earlier. Those that took advantage of our early admission deadline avoided getting put into this group, for example. ‘The early bird gets the worm’ held true. The lesson here is to be always on the look out for that next great opportunity, because the less you stay aware the less likely you will be able to act at just the right time.

Strong Candidate, but Not as Diverse as Others
We had the chance to speak with a number of very strong candidates with clear expertise in an important video game development discipline. These folks articulated themselves as well as many of the accepted candidates. But having only one area of expertise put the candidate at a significant disadvantage. Several weeks ago I mentioned that many of our candidates were multi-discipline, and it turned out that single discipline candidates were overall less successful in getting one of the final spots in the program.

Having a specialty is not a bad thing. But especially on a smaller team, having a diverse skill set means its more likely the candidate will be productive more of the time. No project has everyone doing any one thing 100% of the time.

An important lesson for folks in this group is that even while its okay to specialize, video game development is highly integrated, and the better you understand other disciplines the more valuable you are going to be. Your job isn’t to be a programmer, or an artist, or a game designer; your job is to help ship the best game possible, and overly narrowing your involvement will count against you.

Solid Candidate, but with No Outstanding Factor to Push them Over the Top
If we got off the telephone interview and didn’t immediately decide we had to make you an offer its likely because there was something ‘missing’. There was no single compelling reason to say yes, even while there were no reasons to say no. Many of these folks were articulate, with reasonable answers; no obvious negatives to point to. Except the biggest negative was the lack of a clear compelling reason this person needed to be a part of the DSGA.

Many of these candidates presented themselves as interested in the opportunity to join the DSGA, but the details of their answers demonstrated hesitancy. Often we asked softball questions giving the candidate a chance to shine, sensing that we had yet to get to the gooey center of their passion. Sometimes we weren’t sure the candidate even really wanted to the join the DSGA, or didn’t understand why they wanted it enough to make a compelling case for themselves.

When we didn’t get a clear sense that someone was truly passionate about joining the DSGA we didn’t feel the need to use one of our few spots on them. The lesson from this category is to be authentic enough to admit when an opportunity isn’t really good for you, for whatever reason, no mater how crazy your peers may think you are for passing it up. Just as we sensed hesitancy in a candidate, hiring teams often ferret out those that are really interested from those who say they are interested because they think they are supposed to be interested.

Over confident Candidate, with an Unrealistic Understanding of their Skill Set
Most of these candidates didn’t get to the point of having a call in person at all. The disconnect between the view of themselves presented in their written materials and the portfolio they submitted was too significant to overlook. Being confident and ambitious can be good things. But, when an applicant didn’t have the wherewithal to realize that their portfolio was weak in one or more obvious way, their attempt at confidence and ambition is shown to be just bravado.

Having a weakness in your portfolio is not the problem; some of our accepted applicants had clear areas needing improvement in their portfolio. But those accepted addressed their weaknesses head on, demonstrating a self-awareness and professional maturity we admired. The candidates that showed no willingness to discuss what we perceived as obvious weaknesses, or to even acknowledge them, did not fare well in our application review process.

Though not a new lesson, the folks in this group show the cost of overconfidence. Its fair to do your best to represent your strengths, but it seems many people don’t recognize that owning up to your weaknesses is itself a worthy strength.

Unqualified Candidate, not Self Aware enough to even Realize it
A small number of our applicants seemed to have applied to our program almost accidentally. Their application materials often demonstrated a complete lack of appreciation for what we expected as far as minimum requirements for our candidates. Its one thing to want to explain your way past not meeting a particular requirement, but to present yourself as virtually unaware of the requirements in the first place was a sure sign you would not be accepted into the program.

On numerous occasions we decided to proceed with a candidate despite them not having a clear-cut case for having met all of our requirements. But every time we made this exception it was for a candidate who effectively addressed their shortcomings. Unfortunately there were a number of candidates who not only were not qualified, they presented no evidence that they realized they were not qualified.

Its one thing to shoot for the moon, and go for opportunities that you might not on paper look ideal for. But do so with your eyes wide open. The paradox with this group is that those who think they might be part of it are probably self aware enough as to not be a part of it.

Broader Lessons Learned
Some key takeaways for those that don’t get the job offer they so badly wanted.

  • Be on the watch for opportunities even before you think you are ready to leave your current gig. Timing is important. (I wrote about this before here.)
  • Sometimes it really isn’t anything you did, its just that you don’t fit into the team doing the hiring, for reasons you have no control over.
  • Having just one area of expertise may no longer be enough. Its okay to specialize, but everyone who wants to be in the industry needs to understand all of the roles and responsibilities of those involved, and not just their little corner of the project.
  • Be authentic enough with yourself and your interviewer about your passion for the job – we know when you are trying to fake it. And even if you do fool us, and we make you the offer, why take a job you aren’t really excited for?
  • Owning up to your own weaknesses can itself be a strength. A nuanced approach that admits you are not perfect is better than the bravado of unwarranted overconfidence.

Written by joshuahoward

July 30, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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