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Being an effective people manager in the games industry

Managing and leading people is an essential part of every healthy studio. It’s what leads people to stick around and enjoy their work, get the support they need, and it can make or break a development team.

It is also a very challenging and complex role. You are no longer just aiming to deliver the best possible work on the game, but also helping others and the overall team maintain a healthy environment where everyone can do their job effectively.

Do you really want to be a manager?

This is the first question that anyone that is considering the role should be asking themselves. The answer might very well surprise you, so make sure to consider all of this before taking your next step.

Management is a completely different branch of your career, with a totally new set of skills and challenges. It will require time, experience, extensive training and study to get good at it.

You will have less time to do hands-on work, or in some cases none at all, so you need to be fine with this. Some developers have a hard time coming to terms with this, and try to reconcile both responsibilities by putting more hours in. This routinely leads to subpar results on both ends.

Instead you should ensure that your expectations and your responsibilities are clear both to you and your peers, and handover what you can no longer take in.

People should become managers because they love supporting and lifting other people up, not because they feel it’s the only way to have a promotion or a salary raise. The games industry has a tendency of pushing people into managing roles later in the career, as if it’s a natural next step after reaching a certain level of seniority.

Some will get into management roles because it’s the only way to progress their career, as they feel they reached a ceiling after being a senior developer for so long. This is both wrong and counterproductive.

A great developer does not necessarily translate to an effective manager, and vice versa. On one hand the industry is pushing people away from the work they love, into something they potentially have little interest in. They are also doing a disservice to the people that will then be managed by an inexperienced, or unwilling, manager.

To alleviate this, the industry should instead offer career paths and progression that reflect their experience, while not necessarily taking people management responsibilities. Some companies already do, offering technical lead or principal roles (sometimes also called Staff), but more work needs to be done.

What it means to be a manager

The first step to succeed as a manager is to actually understand what the role entails.

This is not as clear as it seems and can be misleading to newcomers, especially since studios frequently have a different interpretation of what a manager is and what their responsibilities are.

As a manager, your goal is to provide reports with the best environment for them to thrive, achieve their goals, and grow. You agree to take care of your reports’ work well-being, career progression, their performance, and their concerns. You can’t cherry-pick and provide only some of those, you need to cover the full spectrum to be effective in the role.

The impact this can have on an organisation cannot be overstated. Good managers can lead to an environment where team members are happy, collaborate effectively, are not afraid to share feedback and voice concerns, and deliver on their work. Conversely, absent or careless managers will have a strong negative impact on the team morale and motivation, leading to a dysfunctional workplace, missed deadlines, and high turnover.

Because it is such an impactful role, as a manager you should ensure not to have too many reports, so you can dedicate the right amount of attention to each of them. This is especially true if your job doesn’t just involve managing but also hands-on work, as it is often the case in the games industry.

The right number of reports varies depending on your exact role and responsibilities. I personally found five to be a manageable amount that lets me keep track of our relationships and devote the necessary time to each person, while still covering my other responsibilities.

Leading your reports

Since every person is different, your role and approach as a manager will also need to adapt. With time, you will find a managing style that works for you and your reports.

One important point is that there needs to be an overarching theme with every person you’re managing. An engineer who recently graduated university and joined the company will have very different needs from a senior member of your team. Adjust any coaching and mentoring efforts accordingly.

In a similar way, keep a line of continuity throughout your managing relationship. Is the person you’re managing a potential candidate for a promotion? Are they interested in branching off to a different discipline? Are they being considered for leading a new exciting project and needs to be mentored for that? Understand what their needs and aims are, and how you can support them to achieve their goals.

Make sure to keep track of what you discuss, and always follow up in a timely manner whenever needed. It can be demoralising to have a manager that barely remembers what you discussed during the last meeting.

However, keep in mind that your job is not to provide a solution to every issue they may encounter. Especially in larger organisations, your reach may be limited and a resolution may depend on other people or departments. Because of this, ensure you manage expectations accordingly with your reports, in a transparent and direct way.

In a similar way, it’s fine to not know everything. There will be many questions that you cannot answer straight away, and trying to come up with something on the fly will often feel unreliable or dishonest. Instead, it is fine to say “I don’t know, but I can find out and get back to you.”

Having effective one-to-ones

One-to-one meetings are an essential part of the relationship with your reports. It’s a time where you fully commit to discussing what’s going on in their mind, share feedback and updates, and listen to their concerns.

The first step to having effective one-to-ones is to find the right cadence. It needs to be often enough so things are not forgotten, but not too often so that there is not much to say. There is no hard rule here as it depends on each individual’s preferences and needs. In my experience, every two or three weeks feels right.

When the time comes, devote your full attention to the meeting. There is nothing worse than feeling like your manager is not really there, or not paying attention to what you’re saying nor providing any insights from their side. People will notice if you check Slack, reply to messages, or have a look at some code during the meeting.

Practise active listening, aim to better understand and delve deeper into the topic at hand, and provide support as required. Give them time to think, ask questions or share feedback, and in a way let them lead the one-on-one. Remember that you’re there to support them, not to control them.

Ensure you bring an agenda to each meeting, and invite your reports to contribute to that agenda. This helps ensure things don’t slip or get forgotten, and at the same time helps manage expectations. This does not mean that other unscheduled things cannot be discussed, it is only meant as a starting point to cover what’s important. Having a rigid and dry meeting that feels more like a task list is not effective.

Remember that feedback needs to be timely. If something is worth mentioning, do not wait two weeks until the next one-to-one to address it. The schedule is there to ensure the communication channel remains open and frequent, but it’s not a constraint to actually limit that communication and feedback flow.

Finally, keep in mind that your job doesn’t end with one-on-ones. You can’t manage people for 30 to 60 minutes every few weeks and expect them to get anything valuable out of the relationship. Ensure you’re available and take time for your reports whenever it’s needed.

Exchange feedback frequently

Feedback is the primary mechanism that lets all of us understand what we’re doing well, and what needs to change. As a manager, it’s essential that you exchange feedback often, and you encourage others to do the same.

Feedback needs to be clear, actionable and specific. It’s not helpful to share generic feedback that cannot be linked to a specific event, behaviour or piece of work. Instead, bring specific examples, describe the action or event that took place, and the impact or consequences of those actions that you observed.

Finally, leave an opening for the other person to explain their sides of things, rather than jumping to conclusions prematurely, and keep it impersonal, as the goal is to share an observation on their work or actions, not on their character or personality.

A good example of feedback following these guidelines can be:

Constructive feedback should rarely come as a surprise. One of the worst scenarios that I have seen happening is a report believing they’re doing good work, only to get to their performance review and finding out their manager is not happy with their results.

When that happens, I would argue that a large share of the blame lies on the manager who did not provide the necessary support to prevent this. In a functioning managing relationship, there will be enough opportunities to share feedback early and try to course correct.

Finally, positive feedback is just as important as constructive feedback. This type of feedback is frequently ignored because the manager assumes the others know what they are doing well, but often this is not the case. Your reports need to be valued and praised for their great work.

Share your experience with other managers

Being a manager can be daunting, especially in the first months on the job. You’ll often find yourself second-guessing your work, wondering if you’re having a positive impact on your reports, if they find your one-to-ones useful, and whether they value the relationship and support you aim to provide.

One important way to understand your role and impact better is to talk to other managers within your organisation. Unless you work in a relatively small company, chances are that others are going through the same things you’re experiencing.

Talking about your experience can be very helpful in clearing your doubts, having a different perspective and improving your approach as a manager.

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