Developer’s Advice: Keith Fuller

Keith Fuller worked in game development with titles to his name such as Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, Singularity, Wolfenstein, and Call of Duty: Black Ops. Now he is a leadership consultant providing studios with guidance on improving their management and production practices. Here’s Keith’s advice in response to my 7 questions for students.

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1. Briefly describe your current position (for context).

I’m a leadership consultant. I train game developers to be better leaders and I work with studios to institutionalize superior leadership practices. I was a studio developer for 13 years and saw more than enough examples of bad leaders. Now I help people become good ones.

2. Name one person (feel free to name more if you prefer) who had a strong positive influence on your career, and explain their most important action/advice/reason you consider them so influential.

I consider Adrian Crook to be a major influence on my career because he was the first and most vocal proponent of pursuing a role as an independent consultant. He was enormously transparent about his own similar pursuits and was very friendly and encouraging.
I consider Mike Acton to be a positive influence in that he has consistently impressed upon me the importance of *doing* something. If you see a need, address it. If you don’t know everything necessary to undertake a large venture, take the first step you *are* capable of taking. Just do something. Mike is a great friend who has been the antidote to my frequently paralyzing impostor syndrome.

3. Is there a particular piece of career advice you got (or imagine you could have heard) early in your career you wish you’d have acted on?

I bet if I had tried, I would have found someone who’d tell me not to wait for an outside force to guide my own professional development. Instead, I just waited for years for events to unfold. I was a studio developer for more than a decade but I probably experienced about 3 years of career growth during that time because I didn’t seek it out. I eventually became something other than a programmer, and then something more than a producer, but it pains me to think how much further and faster I could have traveled if I had sought more opportunities instead of waiting for them to come to me. To be sure, having a mentor would’ve been a huge boon, but the blame falls to me alone for not advancing my own career.

4. What are the qualities you would suggest are important for a student to have, who wishes to enter your profession, specifically?

I teach people about leadership. For that, you should study tons of existing literature as well as look for real-world examples of good leadership (and be aware enough to recognize bad ones). It helps to have experience at various levels (frontline contributor, first-line manager, manager of managers, etc) to draw from, and for that you need a certain level of patience coupled with a desire to improve. You need a penchant for continuous improvement along with a willingness to change. Marc Merrill, co-founder of Riot Games, once said, “We never assume we’re as good at anything as we can be.” Riot’s been making about $80million a month for more than a year, so I think that’s objectively valuable advice.

5. What is a common mistake you notice students / recent graduates tend to make when looking for a job?

There are a few popular misconceptions about “breaking into” the industry. Many students think they will work at companies whose games are advertised on TV. I can tell you there’s only the most miniscule chance that a recent graduate will land a job at that type of company. Broaden your search and set your initial sights lower.
Second, many students and graduates don’t value themselves appropriately. Note that this is way different from overestimating your skills or acting as though you’re entitled to a job. I’m talking about valuing yourself as a human being, not as an employee. Certainly there’s a need to “pay your dues” with your first job or two, but always be aware of your own values and those of any company at which you might apply. There are plenty of places that will cash in on your passion and youthful exuberance, then kick you to the curb after you’ve been worked into a nervous breakdown. Those places aren’t worth your time, and you are inherently more valuable than to allow yourself to be treated thusly.

6. What inspires you in your position? Are there any influences that you bring to your work?

When I find an individual or a studio that genuinely wants to improve – that wants to see people led better – that motivates me like nothing else. Our industry is notorious for not caring in the slightest about anything other than hitting milestones. As a result, being a consultant who focuses on leadership is a hard, hard way to make very little money. Any time I encounter someone who wants to learn, that’s a rare and exciting breath of fresh air.

7. Are there any other advice you would offer to students entering the games industry?

Think about what it means to be “in” the games industry. If you made your own games at night or on weekends while holding down a day job as a clerk, real estate broker, or pizza delivery person, would you still be in the games industry? If you worked in publishing instead of as a developer, or if you became a human resources specialist at a game studio, would you still be in the games industry? I think it’s common for students to get this narrow vision of being a particular type of employee at a particular type of company without realizing just how many opportunities exist in our industry, many of which are imminently more attainable than becoming a concept artist for Blizzard or a level designer at Valve.

I know many people who have become self-taught developers while working a non-games day job. They pursued the specific knowledge about which they were passionate, got to make games on their own terms, and didn’t have six figures of debt to show for it.

 

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