Career Catalyst 2015: Post-mortem

What follows is a summary of what happened at Tech Ranch Austin on the morning and afternoon of Saturday, February 7, 2015. We called it Career Catalyst 2015, using the same name as an event IGDA-Austin had in February 2011 in association with the Mary-Margaret Network. That’s a long time.

Photo credit Randall Robbins.
Checking in, with Michelle Dickens, David Hawkes and Katelyn Parker.

The boom and bust cycle of video game projects is on roughly a 4-year cycle. Austin lost 300 jobs within the first 6 months of 2013, and 2014 was mostly a rebuilding year. Austin’s well overdue for a boom year, and 2015 had better be it.

The assumption was that local employers would benefit from a cooperatively organized and funded career fair that would be cheaper than each company running their own career fair, as is usually the case after a major layoff. But, whenever there is a prospect of “video game jobs” on the line, the majority of people who would find out would either be under-qualified or otherwise not considered viable for any of the jobs listed.

Also, because video games are software, software engineers would be the most sought-after labor division. But engineers with proven experience who don’t already have a job are strange exotic creatures who are very much in the minority of anyone interested in game development work in general, don’t socialize much and have learned (rightly) that they are well in demand and will be sought after, career fair or no career fair.

The grand vision: Anyone could walk into a room full of employers and get the very clear message: “Look at all the jobs for game devs in Austin.”

Vision realized. First, some numbers. There’s a lot to cover.

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People numbers

  • 217 signed up on the Eventbrite page. The cap was set to 225, but in the day before the actual event, I deleted 8 duplicates and associated errors.
  • 138 were in attendance of that number.
  • 9 more came as a result of last-minute requests made to me specifically.
  • Between all the employers, 70 full-time and contract job descriptions were listed as available.
  • Of that number, about 75% were engineering of some kind.

In addition:

  • 30 employer representatives came from 8 different employers who bought their own tables, and 3 that shared the remainder of the space in the Freelancer’s Lounge area.
  • 19 reviewers not otherwise representing employers came to help review portfolios and resumes. This number included Gordon Walton, who addressed the group during lunch, and Katelyn Parker of Phoenix Staff, who acted as review coordinator and event deputy.
  • 10 volunteers helped move furniture, hand out badges, collect and set up lunch, and keep records necessary for this accounting.
  • 2 current chapter officers, Frank Coppersmith and Randall Robbins, and one chapter officer emeritus volunteering her time as a speaker, Jennifer Bullard.

138+9+30+19+10+2+1= 209 people who attended the event at some time between the hours of 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Plus one Head Pedant in Charge, me. Hi, I’m John Henderson, and I made the number 210. Unless I miscounted. Which is possible.

The Experiment

The purpose of the event was primarily as a career fair for the greater Austin area, to include employers looking to put those with video-game development skill sets to work. It was taken as a series of experiments, largely because I hadn’t been in charge of an event like this before, and no one in Austin had done a career fair for multiple game companies in nearly 4 years.

  1. Photo credit Randall Robbins.
    Would you know this was the entrance? That’s because it’s an office building, not a convention hall.

    Could we find a venue available and of a decent size, both indoors and with adequate parking, on a Saturday between PAX South and SXSW, that would be OK with us, as a nonprofit, reselling space to employers? Tech Ranch, done. They had moved to new office space in November, and this would be a test for how many people their new space could handle.

  2. Could we find enough employers who would have enough jobs open at that time, to buy their own tables at a rate where we could pay for the venue? Done.
  3. Were we going to find enough people that the employers would consider viable candidates?

There was not going to be an answer to “3” before the day of the event. But every time someone bought a ticket, I got an email notice about it. I had looked up a lot of names, and discovered the following:

  • We were going to have a lot of experienced job seekers.
  • Most of that number were artists, but there were some programmers, probably 3 to 1.
  • Of the students, most of them at least had a LinkedIn profile and an easily-found online portfolio.

Based on that, I declared the following hypotheses:

  • If all the employers made contact with one candidate they considered viable that they might not have made otherwise, the event would be an amazing success, well worth the time, money and effort.
  • 15 to 20 percent of all the job seekers were going to be considered viable candidates by employers.
  • This was going to be a huge event, at or over the capacity of the venue, which was estimated to be able to accommodate 150-200 at the high end.

By this time, however, lots of wheels were turning. The day’s worth of speeches that happened at the 2011 Career Catalyst were cut down to two short addresses during lunch at the noon hour, plus short briefings by whichever employer reps wanted to address the crowd. There was also going to be portfolio and resume reviewing for everyone who wanted it, regardless of experience.

There was a separate signup page for those who wanted a portfolio or resume review. 72 people signed up, and of that number, 70 showed up to the event. That’s a lot more than I had expected, which is the largest reason why I didn’t have people sign up for particular time slots in advance of the event. (There had been advance signups for the 2011 event and lots of miscommunications, but that event also had a lot more events going on throughout the day, in a much larger space on multiple floors.) More on this later.

What actually happened

We barely fit into the space. All of Tech Ranch’s available open space was in use, surrounded by offices rented to startups that we weren’t able to use. We kept a few paths blocked off.

Photo credit: Randall Robbins
By far the most consistently crowded area of the venue, all day long.

The two main open spaces, known as the Green Room and Blue Room, had some traffic issues between them. The Green Room was larger, was the first that could be entered after checking in and going past the Training Room, where all the reviews were happening, and had most of the employer tables. The Blue Room had two employer tables and shared space used by two more employers, but it was so crowded, it wasn’t immediately clear that there was anything back there.

The Green Room had a lot of furniture, and the Blue Room had more tables that we needed to use for the employers. So some of the tables got moved around. There had been a notion that the furniture would be moved as well, but common sense prevailed.

While the employers were making contacts, the first hour of porfolio and resume reviews took place in the Training Room. Anyone who wanted a review had to see Katelyn, who would keep the schedule to 15-minute intervals on a whiteboard. There were at least 8 tables running at all times, and 58 different entries were on the final board, but I know that some received multiple reviews, and some didn’t even use the tables!

Photo credit: John Henderson
Job seekers line up in front of the employer tables in the Blue Room.

After the lunch break, the crowds thinned almost by half, and there was a better flow of foot traffic throughout. Employers in the Blue Room ended up getting long lines of job seekers ready to meet the recruiters behind each table.

The most common reactions from employer reps that I heard, many times over, in order:

  1. “I can’t believe the size of this turnout!” (See above, this was not a concern of mine.)
  2. “Not all of these people are juniors!” (This was. Translated: Some of the job seekers had relevant experience and didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.)

The overall energy was very high and very positive, sustained throughout the day. Lots of smiling faces, lots of praise amid sustained chaos.

Survey says!

After the dust cleared, everyone who attended was sent a link to a Google Forms survey, separated by each of the four groups: Job Seekers, Employers, Reviewers and Volunteers.

However, only 48 people actually filled out the survey, but that’s only slightly less than one-quarter of all who attended. The survey summary results are here. All the entries are anonymous, and separated by the four categories. It’s all anonymous, but there’s lots of informed feedback. (Edit: More people added their replies after this report was published.)

A few observations about the results:

  • High praise for how the event was run, across the board. While there were some neutral reactions to the venue, no one had anything bad to say about the space itself.
  • Not many job seekers would pay to attend a job fair. Not unexpected, and I wouldn’t want to run one that did.
  • 21% of the responding Job Seekers described themselves as “Experienced, in between jobs.” I take this to indicate that assuming 15-20% of job seekers would be considered viable, was valid. Look at the entries for the number of years’ experience out of school!
  • Available venues are so critical to everything that IGDA-Austin does, and I have frankly burned more shoe leather finding out how few viable options there are that don’t cost $10,000 to rent. If you know somewhere and have it available, tell us about it right now. Don’t ask us if we’ve checked it out, check it out yourself and then tell us what you’ve found.
  • Some attendees talking about “studio representation” and “indie perspective” seem not to have got the message about what this particular event was supposed to be about. However, this had been the first big-deal event organized by IGDA-Austin with an attendance of more than 50, in several months. Clearly there are some unmet needs, and more effort can be made throughout the year to meet them. But no event can do everything anyone can consider, or at least not very well, and not without charging admission.
  • Many more local employers were approached than actually presented. Some declined, either because of company policy against participating in such events, or because they didn’t have any job openings. If they didn’t have any job openings in the general Austin area, there wasn’t a good lot of reason for them to be there.
  • Some of the negative feedback contradicts other negative feedback, which is good! “It was too crowded.” “Not many people seem to have found out about this.” “We needed a bigger venue.” “Not enough employers.”
  • Suggestions about the need for internships or apprenticeships, no argument. Studios that do this are solid gold. It’s not up to me to change the minds of those that don’t, though.
  • Coffee for the employers: Yeah, I really should have taken that one into account. We eventually got some brewing!

Money numbers

This event was free to job seekers, so the logical way to pay for it was to seek out and get employers to pay for their own spaces within the venue. We also were running over the lunch hour at a location far from restaurants or other places to get quick food. So the decision was made to bring in food and bottled water for 200 people.

Operating revenue

  • $1,519: Sales of all the available space, minus Paypal fees for everyone who didn’t write a check directly. (It would have been $1,600 if everyone had written a check. The price of convenience!)

Expenses (rounded off)

  • $525: Venue rental for 7 hours (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
  • $150: Print costs for posters
  • $480: Food, water, cups, plates, utensils.
  • $35: Label tape for badges.
Photo credit: Gordon Walton
After lunch, the Green Room thinned out quite a bit. Still busy, though.

So we came out about $330 ahead. No one took payment for their time or effort, unless you count the employer reps who got paid to work on a Saturday. (I envy you guys, but I don’t fault you, you earned it!)

We probably could have saved money on lunch. We also probably could have cut costs had we done the event at a venue closer to a convention center, instead of a largely nondescript office building in an unfamiliar area of North Austin south of the Arboretum. But I would rather have had too much food than hungry people, and we ended up giving several trays of deli wraps away to a worthy cause (SCARE for a Cure, you’re welcome. Always glad to keep your friendship.)

Conclusions and final thoughts

While it might have seemed like everything was planned well in advance, much came down to the wire. There was just no good way to know how many people would show up, and at what part of the day they’d arrive. Only 64% of those who signed up on Eventbrite arrived for the actual event, but if many more had arrived, especially in the morning, we would have been above capacity, and there would have been no way to move, much less talk.

This is partly why I only went out of my way to let two different schools know this was happening: the 3D Animation/Game Design program at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, and the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy at UT-Austin. Because there hadn’t been anything like this in a while (well, at least not since the Captivate Conference last fall, which had a career event that wasn’t attended well at all, had only two employers and almost exclusively students in attendance,) I did not want this event to be overwhelmed by students.

The numbers bore this out. If very many more inexperienced job seekers had arrived, this event would not have been able to accommodate them. The space was just too tight.

Instead, a lot more effort was made to advertise through jobs boards on Meetup and Facebook, such as Austin Digital Jobs, Capital Factory Jobs, IEEE, Tech Ranch’s own calendar, and so on, with some mixed results. (And if you’re looking for work in Austin’s digital spaces or training for them, why wouldn’t you already be reading those boards?)

The most important data that I won’t be able to get until several weeks or months from now will be, how many contacts made at Career Catalyst will result in hires? Employers are of course not obligated to share particular hiring data with me, but more than half of them have already confirmed that contacts made at Career Catalyst are leading to interviews. That’s about the best news I can relay in this report.

A brief aside for opinion.

All business about helping employers fill jobs aside, does that mean there should be nothing for students looking to eventually enter the work force? There’s just so many of them, with no easy way to tell the truly motivated and able from the rest who won’t quite make it, so why bother?

Absolute nonsense. Of course students need more opportunities to reach professional insight that they don’t always get in a classroom environment. Of course every professional should have avenues to provide that insight to maximum effect. Of course IGDA-Austin should participate and help organize, but this all has to start with the schools themselves. Any pretense that the education being paid for by tuition and student loans must be buffeted by preparation for the real world.

That includes:

  • How to verbally communicate with strangers.
  • How to acknowledge professionals, especially in video game development, as real people.
  • How to prepare for and participate in job interviews.
  • How to build a work portfolio.
  • How to finish a relevant project before graduation.

So to all the students in Austin looking for that bit of insight that might make the difference between putting what you learned in school to work in a career and being yet another over-educated retail floor salesman or food-service worker (as Austin is a college town, this is an endemic scenario,) but didn’t make it to Career Catalyst, fear not. Your time will come. This just wasn’t it.

To all the schools understandably anxious about getting your would-be graduates jobs and want IGDA-Austin’s help: Help is available, but we can only do so much. UT-Austin’s EGADS group is doing most of the heavy lifting at a networking seminar later this month where professionals procured by the chapter will speak. This is how it should be, but the chapter will gradually get better about being ready and able to help when the time comes.

Photo credit: Randall Robbins
Adam Creighton of Panic Button. Collared shirt, no tie, blazer and blue jeans. This is as dressed up as anyone needed to be.

Half-step off the soapbox. The next career-fair event I expect to help organize will be during Captivate Conference 2015, scheduled for September 18, 19 and 20 at the South Austin campus of St. Edward’s University. Get it on your calendar, and plan to go. That includes people not currently looking for work.

Final bits I couldn’t fit in anywhere else:

  • Biggest dumb-dumb planning moment on my part: Having an event at the tail end of flu season, serving finger food and having no hand sanitizer available. Oops.
  • Lots of job seekers coming in wearing three-piece suits. You guys looked nice, but way over-dressed for game-dev jobs, or tech in general for that matter.
  • I got one report of one job seeker taking time at an employer table to pitch a game to the rep. There were no hard feelings, and the employer rep handled it graciously, but see everything I’ve written so far about people being inexperienced and not fully aware of what this event was for. You do not pitch video game ideas to prospective employers at a career fair.

Well-deserved thanks

Photo credit: Randall Robbins
Our venue partner. Couldn’t have done without you.

Tech Ranch Austin staff and facilities, in particular Dan Heron and Jaime Sutton.

Jennifer Bullard, for making the Costco run for lunch (with a volunteer detail) and for speaking.

Gordon Walton, for helping bang the drum for employers to attend, speaking and reviewing portfolios, and making use of his company’s laser printer.

Mary Rose Monkowski, for designing all the posters and way-finding signs used throughout the building, including some made during the event to get people to move into the Blue Room.

Katelyn Parker for real-time wrangling all the portfolio reviewing. So glad I never had to worry about this going off the rails while everything else was going on.

All the participating employers and their staff: Certain Affinity, BattleCry, Arkane Studios, Panic Button, Gumi America, Virtuix, MaxPlay, Armature Studio, EA Mobile, Twisted Pixel and Meta 3D. Don’t be surprised if I hit you up for Captivate Conference later this year!

All my reviewers: Alicia Andrew, Matt Oztalay, Stefan Sinclair, Jennipher Judge, Lincoln Li, Kyle Uberman, Frank Force, John Arras, Dan Dunham, Brian Behm, Scott Miller, Beth Beinke-Schwartz, Holly Harris, Jeff Wand, Patrick Sullivan, Mary Rose Monkowski, Lee Amarakoon, Andrea Caprotti, Jessie Boyer Amate, Tom Long, Kyle Drexel, Gordon Walton, Jason Schklar, Nedra Boukhris, Shane Davis, and anyone else I missed!

All my volunteers: Frank Coppersmith, Michelle Dickens, Finn Staber (first three to arrive and immediately started working, thereby saving my bacon), Randall Robbins, Tyler Coleman, Hunter Kent, Michelle Wiginton, David Hawkes, Laura Angell, Lisa Hastay, Hannah Walker, Robert Fleming, Stewart Imel, Dan McFerren and all the job seekers looking to pitch in at the end, including Elora Krzanich, Richelle Rueda and Athena Estrada!

Everyone who attended, and read this report from start to finish. Thank you.

Photo credit: Randall Robbins.
Lunchtime speeches from employers in the Training Room, and the Head Pedant in profile.

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