July 07, 2010, 10:11 PM — How I Got Here: Steven Savage, Project Manager, Powered By Gamespy
By Dan Blacharski
This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I Got Here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
Steven Savage, armed with a fresh degree in psychology, got out of college and saw a struggling economy and went to work right away at Wendy's -- not the traditional career choice of a college grad, but one that is increasingly common in times of high unemployment. But that psychology degree proved useful in a short period of time. Computing had always been a hobby, and re-training himself to be a programmer was easy, due to the research and analytical skills he had already acquired in college. He never became a psychologist, but his studies in that field proved to be enormously useful in his new information technology career.
No, he doesn't ask the computer to lie on the couch and ask it about its childhood, but those key skills taught him how to deal with people and how to communicate -- two very important skills for anybody in the IT industry. And in the end, his passion for computer games turned out to become more than just a hobby when it all came together at Powered By GameSpy.
You have a background that's a bit off the beaten path, I like that. That's what this series is all about -- talking to people with unusual career paths, instead of just going to college, getting their degree in computer science, and going to work for IBM.
I don't think I've ever met anyone actually like that. In the first IT company I worked for, the VP majored in Music.
So where did the college experience start?
I went to Ohio State University in Columbus and majored in Psychology.
Did you take any computer classes at all with that Psych degree?
No, my computer experience was mostly self-trained. I used computers a lot in my research, but I didn't take any computer science classes. I did take two statistics classes that I found helpful later in my career.
So how did a psychology degree help you in your eventual career in information technology?
Well, that's actually an amusing story. I did some graduate work, and I got very tired of the work. It was very intense. I had already done four years and I wasn't sure the science direction was actually right for me. Eventually, I decided to just leave school and strike out on my own. What was interesting was with the psychology degree, it prepares you to do research, to deal with people, and also improves your communication skills because the classes I took involved a lot of writing. That really gave me an edge on my career, because I knew how to communicate with people, deal with people, and use a lot of technologies.
What was your first job right out of college?
Working at Wendy's. The economy wasn't too hot. Quickly, I moved into doing a little sales in computer technology, then the obvious career choice hit me. I had these computer skills, word processing, and communication, and I started working as an admin. Then it hit me, I had loved computers when I was younger, and that was one of my original career choices. I would retrain myself to become a programmer.
And how did you go about doing that?
I sat down with some books and I simply learned. I read about Visual Basic. I had programmed as a hobby in high school. I built on my past knowledge of BASIC programming with Visual Basic, and I taught myself about building web pages. I took a class in Access database while I was working as a secretary so I could better manage data, and that taught me how to do SQL queries and database design. When I was ready, I struck out and looked for an IT career. I kept sending resumes to the right companies, until one hired me as a kind of mix between tech writer, web master, and database person. I was with them for a few months. When they folded, I struck out to work at a consulting company where I ended up getting a lot of good experience.
Did you find any challenges when you were interviewing for IT jobs, because you didn't have the computer science degree?
It was 1995, and the Internet was just starting to drive business and development models, so people were looking for anyone with really good computer skills. What seemed to pay off was my ambition. I decided to retrain myself because in thinking of a pure science career, I found that I wasn't ready for that. I went back to my first love and re-educated myself. That seemed to play really well with employers. They realized I wanted to go places, and that I had direction.
Now of course, the industry has changed a lot. Do you think that would still work today?
Honestly, I'm not quite sure what works today. I meet people with computer science degrees with great jobs, or with no prospects. I meet people in computer careers that have IT backgrounds, and some people that are simply self-trained. I'm not sure what works because now, information technology is a place for many specialists. So a person that learns Flash, with more of an artistic background, may actually have a programming job. People are using different databases, and they may have to deal with very intense database issues. They may specialize earlier. I'm really not sure what works any more, because there are so many different kinds of careers. Fifteen years ago, a journalist was a very common position, I don't think that's the case now. I think the silos, as it were, of different IT careers make it harder to know what works because there is no general principle any more.
Your job now seems to be a combination of a lot of different things. What is your current position?
I'm a project manager at Gamespy.
That sounds exciting, how did that come about?
It was about a year and a half ago. I had been a project manager at a webcasting company before, but I had been laid off. The opportunity was there to interview for this job, and it was quite fascinating. I had been a project manager for six or seven years, and the opportunity to do project management in a video game services company very much intrigued me. I'm very much a gamer. Gaming puts you in touch with so many different technologies and people, and it was an opportunity I just had to try.
So you have a history in gaming?
As a player, not as a person who develops them. In my younger days, I did write a few adventure games on Apple as a hobby, but I've been playing computer games since Space Invaders was in the arcades.
Space Invaders was so cool! There was a machine at a pizza place we used to go to, and we'd sit there and play Space Invaders for hours.
With my interest in gaming and challenges and project management, it was something I had to try. Project management is a fascinating area to work in. But I like to find broadening experiences that increasingly challenge me, and let me design new processes and let me improve things.
How did that job present itself to you?
I responded to an ad. As much as I recommend to my friends that they network for a career, I just got this one through an ad. I went through many interviews, and they hired me.
At the time you were looking for a job, what was the market like then? This was about a year and a half ago?
Yes. I would say the job market had to be defined as lousy. I had several leads because as soon as I lost my previous job, I called on my network, my previous co-workers, and my friends and family. It was very tough. In the end, there were maybe two positions that it looked like I might get. This one, and another one for a software company. Frankly, I love working here, so I'm glad I got it. It was very challenging. I would spend eight to 12 hours a day looking for work. Sometimes even working on the weekends to find a new position.
What would you say is the most surprising thing about your current job?
From the outside, gaming seems to be a software development business, but really, when you're on the inside, gaming is a mix of publishing and software development. You're producing a media product just like you would a book, a movie, or a TV show. But its implementation is software. You have to keep both sides in mind. That is both challenging, yet also fascinating, because you learn a lot about production of media, the design of characters, and the advertising campaigns that companies go through. It's very interesting, and having to think on so many levels about a product really challenges you as a project manager -- but it also teaches you a lot.
There's a big stereotype people have about companies in the gaming business. We imagine that everybody comes to work on skateboards, and there's a huge arcade in the break room, and it's a big party all day long. How realistic is that impression?
Mostly unrealistic. Working in gaming, what we do is provide technology services and support for game companies. Gaming is a very intense industry. The people have to be very good at what they do, be very organized, have a real vision, and be able to work hard. This needs to be a very diverse group of people. One of the things I've enjoyed about working in gaming is the many people I meet. I meet people in gaming who come to work in business suits, and I meet people who come to work in tee-shirts. The core is that they all have to be very good at what they do. That diversity is very enjoyable, because I meet a lot of great people and learn a lot, and expand my horizons. In fact, I don't think I'd want to work anywhere else but gaming after just a year and a half here.
A lot of people would like to work in the video gaming industry. What's the big secret to breaking into this industry?
Show your skills, have something to your name that is relevant to the job. Be very good at what you do, and network, network, network. Learn to connect with people, that way you can find your way in.
What's your favorite part of the job?
I have two favorites. The people I work with, and the sense of achievement. The reason I wanted a science career is I wanted to work with people and help them out. One of the things I love about gaming is I help people make products that entertain people, and they have fun with their friends, and they make new friends online. I like the fact that I really have results. When I see billboards advertising games that my company has helped on, when I buy them and play them, when I hear people talk about them, that's very fulfilling. It's really hard to find a profession where you can have that sense of achievement.
What is your least favorite part of the job?
I would have to say the erratic timing. Because of needs of clients, because of changes in release schedules, changes in technology. Sometimes your schedules can shift and change, often at short notice. It's not a profession for people that just want to work nine to five and have weekends free. You might find yourself working evenings, or working weekends or having to do things very early or late because of the need to talk to somebody in another country. That can occasionally be disruptive, but that's also part of the job.
I see you're also a Certified Project Management Professional. Tell me about the PMP designation and why it's important.
The PMP designation is the gold standard of project management certifications. To get it, you have to log a certain amount of hours as a project manager, as well as class work and take a test, and you have to keep it up. You have to maintain a certain level of professional development units to maintain your certification. When you get a PMP it really validates that you have the background, the experience, and that you've been tested on the knowledge.
This designation is something you get after you've already been in the field then, it's not something you get just if you want to get started.
No, it's not. If you go to www.pmi.org, you can find a lot about it. Different PMP certifications all require some level of background in being a project manager and actual practice. To maintain the PMP designation, your time in the field counts. You have to go to conferences, take classes, and write or read books. You have to give speeches to get enough PDUs to maintain it.
What's next in line for you? Is this your ultimate goal, or do you have other plans beyond this?
Right now, my goal is to grow as a project manager in gaming for a few more years and see where I can go from there. I like the company I'm at. I would hope we keep growing, so someday I can be managing other project managers under me.
What's your advice to somebody that wants to get into project management?
I'd say to do what I did. Decide you're going to do it, research, and start getting experience as soon as possible. Find managers. The best way to be a project manager is to talk to people that are already doing it. That's how I got into the profession, I had a great mentor. He helped me figure out what I had to do to become a project manager, and then looked for the opportunity to do project management work.
I also see that you describe yourself as "Geek 2.0", which is a nice designation. What is Geek 2.0, and how does that differ from plain old Geek?
It's what I call being a professional geek. I have the pleasure of turning everything I've loved, including computers and video games, into a profession. I make money doing what comes naturally to me, which is to organize things, work with people, and work with technology. Geek 2.0 is when you take all things you obsess over, all your hobbies, and find a way to make it part of your life. That's very important to me, because I believe there are many people out there who can also follow their calling. They often don't try, or feel that they can't, and that's very sad to me.
You also do some speaking, coaching, and writing on the side.
Yes, my hobby is trying to help people in their careers. I've had a 15 year plus career in information technology, and I'm happy at my job. I want to share it with people. I want to share what I've done right, what I've done wrong, and help people out. So, I speak and write and coach, help people with resumes. It's my way of giving something back.
You also speak on the subject of otaku, what is that?
Otaku is a Japanese word that has been adapted by Americans to mean fans of anime and video games. In Japan, the term is much more negative, but here it has that kind of positive association in much the same way the term "geek" has become positive in the last decade. A lot of the speaking I do is at conventions for anime fans, and fans of manga or video games. It's a very creative group of people.