Moonlighting with Insomniac – February 2016 Edition

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Hi Everyone,

As you know from last month’s Moonlighting with Insomniac, this year we’re focusing on diversity and women in the game development industry.  That theme continues this month with our guest speaker, WIGI Engineer, Sharan Volin.

Sharan has been programming games for the past decade. After an 8-year web development career, she went back to school for a second Bachelors in Computer Science (Games) at USC. With her Actionscript background, she worked on many web and Facebook games, including Shrek the Third for Activision and National Geographic: Dogtown and Mavis Beacon games for Collision Studios.  In 2013 she started at Electronic Arts in Los Angeles (Danger Close) to do UI Programming in Scaleform for Medal of Honor: Warfighter and Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel. She’s been focused on UI programming ever since.

After a short stint on a music-based virtual world game, she moved to San Diego to work on the Landmark/Everquest Next team at Sony Online Entertainment. Her most recent project was an unannounced console title for Blind Squirrel Games.

Sharan is also currently going for her third Master’s degree. Through the USC Distance Education Network, she’ll soon have an M.S. in Computer Science.

Please join Angela and I, along with our guest Sharan, on Wednesday, February 3rd at 1:30 PM PT / 4:30 PM ET.

The comments section is open now for your questions so feel free to post away and we’ll answer you when we log in on 2/3/16.  Please remember, we want to encourage open communication and informative discussions but we also need to be respectful around the subject. What subject are we being respectful of?  Not sure that this is needed – but maybe I’m missing something.

Looking forward to talking with you soon!

-Kerri & Angela

  • Angela

    Hi Everyone –
    Thanks for joining us today to talk games, and programming with our guest- Sharan Volin. As always we’ll try to answer your questions to the best of our ability, and we look forward to hearing from you! Let’s kick this off then!

    Angela

  • Kerri Zinkievich

    Hi Sharan, thanks for joining us today as our guest! I’m just curious – what was it that drove you towards a career in the game industry after being in Web development? Also – three Masters degrees, that’s impressive!

    • Sharan Volin

      Thanks! I’ve found going back to school is a great way to change careers! 🙂 I was doing front end web development for a long time and there wasn’t any challenge left to it. It’s a really difficult field to break out of, though. 🙂 I did realize that I loved programming and I loved games and had a couple of friends who were game programmers and I realized that there was so much more of a challenge to game programming that it was really difficult to learn everything about it, and even if you did in the end you’re working on a game and games are fun. I’d gone for a Certificate in Applications Programming at UCLA Extension but it wasn’t enough so I applied to USC and gave notice at my job and went back for my 2nd Bachelors in Computer Science (Games). I started getting game programming jobs while I was still in school, especially since around that time web and Facebook games were getting big and everyone wanted Actionscript 3 programmers (and I did some Actionscript when I was a web developer).

  • Luis

    Hello!

    • Angela

      HI Luis- welcome to Moonlighting… what question can we answer today?

      • Luis

        I’m still trying to think of how to word it. But I was going to ask what your biggest hurdle coming into the game development industry as a woman was. Many don’t understand that there is still a stigma/bias that occurs in not only hiring, but also the academics of games.

        • Luis

          Question directed at Sharan, but feel free to answer as well! It’s always nice getting multiple perspectives.

          • Angela

            HI Luis –
            I’ll answer this from my standpoint, as being a woman who’s been in the industry for well more than a decade… I believe we need all kinds of perspectives in the games industry. I think we as a whole need to find out why math and computer science is not attracting a more diverse population. We should be encouraging girls (and boys) to start early, and find out how exciting games can be, as it’s a great space to be in. Insomniac Games this past year hosted “Girls Make Games” and it was fantastic! We had a blast sharing ideas, and encouraging these young women to get into games not only as players but as creators. And as Sharan noted above – it is changing, and you do see more and more women in the industry, but we also need to continue to raise the awareness of getting a diverse developer community.

            As for the hiring side – we hire the best person for the job. Period.

        • Sharan Volin

          Yes, that is an issue, although at the same time I’ve had some companies tell me they’d love to get more women in the industry so it can work both ways! 🙂 Fortunately I haven’t had too much trouble with that. For programming jobs I’ve found that the biggest hurdle is getting past the programming tests and job interview questions, where sometimes the problem is you’re not doing things the exact way they’re looking for, and you rarely know why. But I’ve seen other programmers (guys) I worked with with years of experience have the same issues, so I know it’s not just me.

          I did have to get used to being the only woman in most of my game classes at USC. By the time I graduated I started to see a couple of other women show up so at least it seemed to be getting better.

          In one way I have an advantage in that I tend to fit in with the guys who tend to work in the industry. I’m a long time science fiction fan (I used to go to science fiction conventions all the time), I love games, I love programming, I listen to Progressive Metal, all areas that tend to be more male-dominated. So I tend to fit in pretty well! 🙂

          The one time I had an issue was at a former job where one programmer would look at me skeptically anytime I mentioned that I wanted to be doing C++ (I was was mainly doing Actionscript/Scaleform at the time). I couldn’t see a good reason for it, especially when I didn’t see that kind of skepticism with the other (male) UI scripters.

          • Sharan Volin

            BTW, there were other women in the game design classes at USC, just not in the game programming classes (at least at first). But it’s getting better (I’m definitely starting to see more female programmers at GDC than when I first started going).

    • Sharan Volin

      Hi, Luis!

  • Brittany Michelle

    Hi.

    First off, I wanted to say thank you to Insomniac (and Kerri and Angela!) for focusing their Moonlighting on Women in the game industry. As a women myself who wants to work in the industry and make games, it makes me happy to see this inclusion.

    My question for Sharon actually deals with programming. Right now, I’m working on my Masters degree in Game Design. In my bachelor’s degree, I started to learn how to program (traditional and visual scripting). I have more skills when it comes to visual scripting, but in general, I’m not the best at programming but it’s definitely a skill I am continuously working hard to get better at. Do you have any of your own advice toward learning?

    Also, thank you Sharon for taking the time out to answer questions!

    • Sharan Volin

      Hi Brittany! You’re welcome! 🙂

      I guess a lot depends on what you want to do with it. If you wanted to actually be a programmer I’d recommend a good Computer Science degree with theoretical courses like data structures, algorithms, and compilers and reading the Scott Meyers books on C++. If you just want to understand the basics (which is always good) I would learn a scripting language, like Javascript, Actionscript, Lua, or Unrealscript (although Actionscript may not be as useful with Adobe killing Flash). They’re simpler but have most of the same concepts and very similar syntax to languages like C++. You might also want to look at Unity, since I’ve recently started looking into it (the online tutorials are very good) and you can do a lot without a lot of scripting.

      To really learn how to program the best thing is to not just learn a language but to understand the logic behind it, and how to think like a programmer. Once you understand that it’s really easy to switch to any other language. 🙂 When I taught programming classes for a short time I had my entry level students do logic problems (like from puzzle magazines). That’s a good (and fun) way to start thinking logically.

    • Angela

      Hi Brittany –
      You are very welcome. We hope that by talking about all kinds of questions in the games industry, it helps spread awareness and a bit of knowledge… and HUGE thanks to people like Sharan who are willing to take the time to share as well!
      Angela

  • Stephanie Diez de Sollano

    Hi Sharan,

    I’ve been working in the game industry for a bit and I know a lot of people don’t like talking about gender discrimination and don’t feel it is very important,

    but I’m really glad you guys have taken the initiative to talk about these diversity issues. 🙂

    I’ve seen companies treat women applicants very differently then men.

    Whenever a female would apply, a lot of the employees would immediately ask if she was hot and look her up on social media instead of just caring about the persons skills and ability.

    People seem to have a much shallower interest in the persons skills if they are women.

    When meeting other developers in person most people will assume the girl in the the group is either someones girlfriend, or not very knowledgeable- or experienced.

    You might have to prove yourself before they treat you with respect.

    Sometimes companies tend to even encourage this kind of behavior by creating a very “bro” centered culture.

    Sometimes I’ve wondered if there are any companies who handle these issues better then the ones I’ve seen in the past.

    How would you describe the culture at Insomniac? Is there anyway Insomniac Games handles this kind of discrimination better then other developers?

    • Kerri Zinkievich

      Hi Stephanie, we’re working on your answer 🙂 Hang in there!!

      • Stephanie Diez de Sollano

        Haha, it’s ok sorry for the deep questions 😉 ..

        • Kerri Zinkievich

          sorry it took a bit – we wanted Carrie to give you some feedback. also, just from an HR perspective, here at Insomniac (and I imagine any reputable company) gender plays zero role in weather you progress through our application/selection process. We solely focus on skills and abilities when hiring. I think like Angela mentions below, we do need to build a stronger female candidate pool but that begins in the class room at a young age with getting young girls interested in STEM classes. I’ve been here at the NC studio for a little over 2 years now and I’ve visited the CA studio multiples times and i’ve yet to feel like our culture is anything other than welcoming and excited to have new team members to help! I’ve been lucky enough to join a company that doesn’t breed or tolerate “bro” culture. In fact for some time we were a corporate sponsor for Women In Games Mentorship program and that directive came from our leaders. I hope all our differing view points helped to answer your question!

          • Stephanie Diez de Sollano

            It’s very inspiring to hear that Insomniac can make phenomenal games and maintain a healthy work environment.
            Thank you all for answering, I really appreciate it.

    • Sharan Volin

      I really can’t speak for Insomniac because I haven’t worked there (at least not yet) so I’ll leave that to them. I am really glad I haven’t seen anything like that, though! I have been fortunate to work for some of the bigger companies like EA and Sony, and bigger companies tend to have sexual harassment training and wouldn’t tolerate things like that.

      I do always feel like I have to constantly prove myself, especially when I’ve had so much Actionscript experience and not nearly as much C++ experience as I would like, so I’ve been reading C++ books and going for my 3rd Masters in Computer Science to make myself a better programmer (and right now while I’m looking for work I’m also trying to think of a good side project to do that would also help). But the good thing is it’s making me a better programmer. I’m answering interview questions and passing programming tests I had trouble with just a couple of years ago. 🙂

      • Stephanie Diez de Sollano

        Oh I see! Sorry this is my first time checking out Moonlighting. Thank you so much for answering though. I’m glad to hear you haven’t experienced these things personally and that bigger companies might be different! Gives me some hope 🙂

        • Sharan Volin

          You’re welcome! 🙂 Yeah, I’m glad I haven’t seen anything that blatant. Things definitely aren’t that bad everywhere. There are also a lot more women artists, designers, and producers, so I’m sure that helps.

    • Carrie Dieterle

      Hi Stephanie –

      My name is Carrie Dieterle and I’m the Chief People Officer at Insomniac Games. I know you directed this question to Sharon but you also asked about Insomniac’s culture and since Sharon is our guest for Moonlighting today and not presently employed by Insomniac, I thought I’d take your culture question.

      I can tell you that since I walked through the doors here back in 2003 I have experienced nothing but a collaborative and respectful culture. In fact, I’d say we demand that level of professionalism from our employees and believe that continuous training about respect in the workplace curtails “bro” behavior.

      We’re very proud of the fact that our studio employs women in nearly every department and many of them have been long term (5+ year) employees. Personally, I think that speaks volumes to the way women are treated at Insomniac – I mean really – why would you stay and subject yourself to something so degrading and infantile? So while I do understand that the “bro” mentality can be prevalent in this male dominated industry, it doesn’t mean that a company or a culture should condone it. And as for hiring practices, I’m sure Angela and Kerri can tell you that we pride ourselves on seeking out the best talent in the industry and we treat every applicant with respect from the very first moment of contact.

      • Stephanie Diez de Sollano

        Hi Carrie,
        I’m really glad to hear that and thank you for taking the time to answer! 🙂
        It’s nice to know the company has policy’s and training in place to avoid creating a toxic environment.
        Thank you very much!

  • Angela

    HI Everyone –
    Well- it has been a really informative hour, and it just flew by! A HUGE thanks to Sharan for joining us today, and for her thoughtful and insightful responses. Also thanks to all of you for posting today, and being a part of the conversation. We will be here again next month, on March 2 with another edition of Moonlighting.

    Thanks again and until next time
    Angela and Kerri

    • Sharan Volin

      You’re welcome! Thanks for having me!