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November 27, 2012

The #1ReasonWhy

This morning I discovered the #1ReasonWhy hashtag on Twitter -- a collection of thoughts about why women feel unwelcome in the games industry; I discovered it by way of Katie Williams's Alive Tiny World blog. I'm not smart enough to boil down my own anecdote into 140 characters, so I'll go ahead and post it here.

It was 2002 or so, perhaps 2003, and I was working at LucasArts. I can't recall now whether I was leading a programming team at the time or not, but by the time this happened I had led a team and shipped one or two projects, and had worked both with a female programmer and other female content people, artists and animators and designers.

LucasArts had a fairly good balance of women in those days; I think we were probably a bit ahead of the industry at the time, though it wasn't something I ever discussed with anyone there and I don't really know for sure. Over the course of my seven years there I worked with three different female programmers (one of whom was briefly lead programmer of a project I was on) and I recall at least a fourth who I never had the chance to work with -- about 8-10% of the programming staff were women. The distribution in art and animation was quite a bit higher, I had worked with a female lead artist and indeed the head of the art department was a woman. I can't specifically recall the numbers, and you'd have to go and look through old books of credits or LucasArts yearbooks to find out in any semi-scientific sort of way.

We were hiring and I had been selected to sit in on an interview; lead programmers often screened candidates by phone for the projects they were leading, and other leads were brought in to interview if a candidate was brought in for an in-person interview. I was part of a three-person interview team including the director of programming and a female programmer who had led a very successful PS2 and PC title; I don't know the financial numbers but it reached critical acclaim.

The candidate was a lead programmer on a FPS project in Texas; I can't remember more than that¹, not sure if it was Dallas or Austin. I think, based on the one question I can remember from the interview, that he was interviewing for a lead position, but he was certainly a fairly senior guy. We asked the usual introductory comfortable questions along the lines of "give us an overview of your career thus far and what you're looking for next," which were typical for us, before digging into technical or other questions.

After he had given us that, which ended with a description of his most recent experience as a lead, I asked him, "So, what was the biggest thing you learned in your first experience as a lead?"²

He didn't miss a beat before he replied, "Well, we had one rule on my team, and that was 'No hot chicks.'"³

I think I must have been visibly taken aback, because he struggled on with that but without the immediate confidence that he had started with. It's also possible that he remembered at that point that he was also being interviewed by a woman, because he went on to make some bumbling points about distractions and engineers' needs for focus, and I felt a rising sense of horror. I might have taken it for a poor joke, had he not doubled down with his explanation of how he came by this "rule".

I like to think he knew that the interview was over right then and there. Certainly all the interviewers did, and I'm pretty sure I never asked him another question. The director of programming took over the interview at that point -- the direction for interviewing was to make people feel like they had had a fair shake in their interview, to be good hosts, that sort of thing, as it was a small industry and you wanted your candidates to be able to say to other people who might interview at LucasArts the impression that we were fair but tough interviewers.

But a part of me, ever since, has wished that I had just stood up at that point, said, "Thanks, I think I have all I need," and left the room. I'm in a point in my career now where I feel more confident in my own choices than I did then, and willing to trust my instincts when faced with situations that are outside normal operating parameters laid down by policy. Being clear with how I feel about a response like that is how I would handle it if the same situation were to arise today.

We got through the rest of the interview; I think the technical interviewers came in next, I might have been part of the wave of "personality fit" interviewers and clearly we had established what we needed to. The director of programming gave an embarrassed chuckle to my female colleague and I and said, "I guess we know all we need to, and we'll get him out of here after that interview. Sorry about that."

I'd love to believe we don't have that sort of blatant sexism today; but I bet at that time there were teams or interviewers who would have chuckled along with the guy and said, "Man, I know it, you are so right." I'd love to, but I don't. I think he probably found a home somewhere else, and there are probably others like him. I'd love to think we're over that, and it's not a problem where I work... but I know it's out there. Knowing that it's out there is my #1ReasonWhy.

¹Or at least, I'm somewhat suspicious of my memories. We interviewed a lot of people those days -- LucasArts was attempting to grow rapidly while losing people to the dot com boom. We also still had a really great reputation.
²This is still a softball question, to some degree. What I usually look for here is specifics -- "I had this situation three weeks ago where this interpersonal thing happened and I resolved it in this way" -- but it's still fairly gentle, and usually just the sort of question that might give an interviewer more to draw out of the interviewee.
³This is a direct quote. I might forget any other number of things in that interview, detail-wise, but that one is completely pristine. It burned right into my brain, and not in a comfortable way.

Posted by Brett Douville at November 27, 2012 08:11 AM