Career | People | Tech

Hiring for Smarts over Experience

A Letter to Young Developers

November 30, 2018

Hiring for Smarts over Experience

Dear young friend…

Let me introduce myself: I’m a Lead Developer on our Idle Factory Tycoon team. I’ve been a game developer for a while — worked at companies like Bigpoint, Smeet and Wooga — and joined Kolibri Games in June 2018. Here, I lead a team of developers, coach them and help them improve their general skill set.

So, you want to break into the games industry? You’ve come to the right place: At Kolibri Games, we hire people for their smarts — not for the beauty of their CVs. In a world where employers tend to demand years of experience, even for junior positions, we only look for two things: cleverness and social fit (excellent university degrees don’t hurt, obviously). We regularly give young developers and fresh graduates the opportunity to prove themselves without having to earn several years of experience in other places — if we see skill, potential, and the right mindset, we’d love to give you a chance to shine.

Of course, nobody was born a master developer. In game development, practice makes perfect, which means that the start can sometimes be a little bit bumpy. Reacting fast and being able to adapt to change aids nascent developers through the initial stages of being a novice. We expect you not to be afraid of the proverbial “cold water” that we’re going to throw you in, but we’re willing to give you all the help you need to learn to swim.

To be a developer means using third-party tools all day long. Surprisingly though, I’ve worked with developers who had only the most basic knowledge of the Unity game engine when they started at Kolibri. Despite their lack of experience with the tool itself, they brought with them a sound understanding of the logic of programming and a high commitment to learning, allowing them to quickly familiarize themselves with the framework.

Similarly, newly minted university graduates tend to think in traditional, old-school approaches. That mindset has limited applicability in an agile development process designed to ship new product features every week. Over time, new-hires evolve their thinking to apply “lean-development” methodologies, so that they can quickly build and expand on code. All that set aside, it’s okay if things don’t work out right away — we pretty much expect that you won’t get it right the first time.

Making mistakes and learning from them is all part of the job.

No matter how bumpy the start might be, we give young developers the chance to work on their own tasks and actual in-game features right away. We don’t waste your time by having you build fake features that never make it into the game. Responsibility and ownership make for the best teachers: In my experience, actors learn much faster than spectators. That is why we make our young guns fail, learn from failures, and improve based on these learnings — all as full members of our development team.

Despite all the direct responsibility and ownership, feedback and help from your teammates are key components in this process. Our day starts with a scrum meeting, where every team member shares what they worked on yesterday and what task they are going to tackle today. If anyone is running into problems, they can ask for help. I usually don’t take on the biggest tasks myself, which gives me the freedom to set aside whatever I am doing to help out where I’m needed the most. At the same time, junior developers feel more empowered if they can work on bigger things than just small features or bug fixes.

Ownership empowers young developers.

My responsibilities are to ensure that everyone is following joint goals, that all developers work in harmony, and that the team stays healthy overall. It’s important that we as developers improve our skill set, but it is equally important that we can apply it in an environment and around people we feel comfortable with.

Again, continuous feedback plays a really important role here. What other companies do bi-annually or annually, we do every week: Leads are required to sit down with every team member individually and make sure that everyone gets to speak their mind if they have a problem. Many people, especially developers (and I am no exception) tend to overthink things, begin to think that they themselves are the problem, or won’t address issues at all if they don’t get the chance to articulate it soon after the issue occurs. These weekly feedback sessions are meant to avoid conflicts and solve problems early on.

Our feedback loop works both ways: I might have the most work experience as a developer, but I certainly don’t know everything: In a leading position, it is important to accept one’s own limitations. The same goes for managerial tasks. As Lead Developer, I try to build a bridge between product management and the developers — I need to understand why we need to adhere to certain deadlines and need to communicate in case it might be impossible to do so from a technical perspective. Being that bridge in the company and managing the team accordingly, without making developers feel like they are being micromanaged, is a difficult task. I am always thankful for every piece of advice and feedback I get — I, too, want to keep learning.

Sure, hiring only experienced developers would make some things much easier (and we hire those as well to maintain a healthy mix), but eventually, investing in talented juniors pays off. As a startup that keeps growing, we are willing to give those folks with high potential all the space they need to develop further and grow with us. Eventually, I want my developers to be able to replace me — someone who is irreplaceable is also non-promotable and I want to see neither my team nor myself stuck in the same position forever.

At Kolibri Games, we empower junior developers by giving them responsibility from their first day on. We boost their confidence by letting them work on actual features that will make their way into the game and allowing them to have a direct impact on the product.

“We believe in learning” is one of our core values: We believe that learning brings more than just technical skill — learning together creates functioning and resilient teams that can achieve great things.

At Kolibri Games, we believe that limited work experience or a CV that is missing famous company names should not get in the way of your dream job. Show what you are made of and you will get your chance!

Interested in working for our team?