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IGDA Interview Series: Keith Fuller

Posted By Jillian Mood, Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Updated: Sunday, November 1, 2015

An integral part of the IGDA Leadership Summit this year was the support from Keith Fuller, who is one of the most inspiring and knowledgeable employee engagement consultants in the industry. He gave an incredible 3-hour workshop at the LS and will also be presenting at the Montreal International Game Summit (MIGS), which is quickly approaching. He was also a natural choice for our second interview.



Jillian Mood, IGDA: First, I wanted to say how amazing it was to meeting you at the Leadership Summit! Could you explain what your role was at the event and how you found the whole experience?

Keith Fuller, Fuller Game Production: It was a pleasure meeting you, too!

I was approached many months ago by a few different leaders within the IGDA. They told me a new event was being planned as a successor to my all-time favorite industry conference, the IGDA Leadership Forum. Would I be willing to help organize it?

With nary a concern about the time requirements involved, I gave an unequivocal yes. For the next several months I had the pleasure of working with folks like Kate Edwards, Tom Buscaglia, and Tristin Hightower in finding the best and most diverse cast of proven industry luminaries to participate as speakers and panelists. Start to finish, it was immensely satisfying for me for two main reasons, the first being it was a hugely successful event! The sessions were exactly what I was hoping for in terms of breadth, depth, and concrete takeaways, and many people told me afterward they look forward to attending again next year.

The second reason I found the event fulfilling is that I got to meet many Facebook/Twitter/email friends in person for the first time. I got hugs from fabulous speakers and industry legends the likes of Jen Maclean and John Vechey! I mean, come ON.

JM: What inspired you to start your own consulting business?

KF: I worked as a AAA studio developer for 11 years at Raven Software, shipping a dozen titles across multiple platforms. As a producer on titles like Call of Duty, I treasure the time I spent with enormously talented teams. However, I also experienced more than my share of dysfunctional leadership. After being laid off, I wanted to see what I could do to fix the sort of leadership problems that had plagued me and my teammates for so many years. Encouraged by others who had gone before — friends and mentors like Sheri Rubin, Clinton Keith, and Adrian Crook — I struck out as a consultant. This venture has been personally fulfilling to an extent that few ever get to experience, and incredibly challenging. Supporting a family of five with an entirely unpredictable income in an industry populated with leaders who predominately think they have no need to improve — well, it wasn't the most financially sound move, shall we say. I hope to never go back to living on food stamps, but I'm also very appreciate of the freedom and fulfillment I've experienced over the past five years.

JM: Out of all the industries, why the video game industry?

KF: It sounds — corny? cliche? — but these are my people. My first paid gig out of university was as a programmer at a game company. I've spent almost 20 years in the industry. Game developers are fun. We make products that entertain men, women, and children all over the world. Why would I focus anywhere else?

OK, I'll answer that one myself: I'd focus elsewhere because trying to get people to recognize a need for leadership improvement in games is the *opposite* of lucrative. But for me that doesn't outweigh all of the pros listed above.

JM: When a studio has reached out for your expertise, what are your first steps to help improve the culture?

KF: Every gig is different. Actually, out of all the clients I've had over the past five years, less than half approached me. Usually, I have to reach out to them, offering initial free examinations or really lightweight services as an effort to start a relationship and establish trust.

To actually improve a culture you need leaders on-board. I define culture as "the set of decisions that employees make automatically because they see leaders doing it every day". Ergo, if you want to modify the culture you need to modify the actions of the leaders. A telling first step is to ask the CEO, et al, "What are the values of your company?" If they can't tell you straightaway in clear terms, or if they don't have them explicitly written down somewhere, it's evident there isn't a well understood set of priorities driving decision making. So that's pretty much step zero.

JM: In the game studios you've worked with, what do you believe to be the top three areas that needed the most attention?

KF: Possibly the most common problem we have in the industry is our believe that being a really good contributor means you're automatically qualified to be a leader of contributors. Great programmer? Let's promote you to lead programmer. No training or mentoring needed, because clearly you have amazing leadership ability. Actually, the skill sets of contributor and leader have only the tiniest overlap, so if you don't train a new leader then the only education they get is from watching other leaders in the company — all of whom are also untrained. It's a downward spiral of inbreeding leadership incompetence.

Second, I would provide this analogy. Would you buy a car and spend every last dollar of your monthly income on the car payments, without setting aside any money for fuel, oil changes, and maintenance? Well that's exactly what we do with our leaders. Every hour of every day they spend keeping plates spinning, with no time left for developing the team members for whom they're responsible.

Lastly, I'll share the single most common response I get when I tell people that I help improve leadership. "Man, that's GREAT, Keith! Our industry really needs that! It's a rampant issue! Our studio's fine, mind you, but the rest of the industry? Totally dysfunctional! Best of luck!" I'd simply advise studio leaders to consider, for just a moment, that there is a chance — infinitesimal, astronomically improbable though it may be — that their own fecal matter might emit a slight aroma.

JM: What advice would you give to job seekers to help verify the company they are interviewing with has a great culture that they would fit in with?

KF: Man, is that a good question. I have students ask me that frequently, too. "If all of this 'values' stuff is so important, Keith, how do you expect us to know which company is worth our time?" And I think that response is the best place to start: realizing that it's not just a matter of getting your foot in the door or landing your first gig. You need to approach it with the knowledge that you are inherently valuable. As a person. And that means it's not OK to blindly put up with an environment that makes you uncomfortable or devalues you in any way. The best insight you'll get before working somewhere will come from people who've been employed there, so networking and joining communities ahead of time is a great move. That's how you can learn about the company. But it's also important to learn about yourself. What are the three things you most want to achieve? What are the three values most important to you? What are three things you will never, ever do for a company? If you approach a job hunt with even those questions answered you're already better equipped than most to make a cultural assessment.

JM: Final piece of advice, what is the one thing you would advise the leaders of game studios to do differently?

KF: Require everyone to have regular, frequent one-on-one's with the people for whom they're responsible. The single most important factor in employee retention and in the worker's own fulfillment in the workplace is their relationship with their boss. Make sure they have one.

JM: You had a very inspirational workshop at the Leadership Summit!

KF: In a stunning turn of events, I'll be talking about the importance of values [at MIGS]! Also, a primer on emotional intelligence, motivation of teams, and three tiers of feedback. I plan to tackle this all in a slightly unconference-like way, though, in that I'm giving the attendees an opportunity to upvote the topics they'd most like to explore. We'll do what they say is most important first, which I hope will increase the value they derive from the class and make the most of our time. Also, free hugs.

JM: Thank you Keith for sharing!



Upcoming interview: Allison Stroll, a senior PM at Microsoft Core graphics. Allison has experienced the industry boom and bust, shift from arcade to console, become a "real" entertainment source as Hollywood took notice, shift from PC gaming to console gaming and back to PC again. Get ready for an deeply insightful account of her experience in the industry!


Join the interview series!

If you would like to send a proposal on a subject you would like to hear about, be interviewed yourself, or nominate someone, we’d love to hear from you! Send thoughts to Jillian -AT- IGDA -DOT- org.

Tags:  2015  Adrian Cook  Call of Duty  Clinton Keith  fuller game production  igda leadership forum  IGDA Leadership Summit  interview  Jen Maclean  jillian mood  John Vechey  kate edwards  keith fuller  migs  montreal international game summit  Raven Software  Sheri Rubin  tom buscaglia  Tristin Hightower 

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The 2015 IGDA Leadership Summit

Posted By IGDA, Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The International Game Developers Association Leadership Summit commenced late last Tuesday at the Bell Harbor International Conference Center in Seattle, Washington (US). Since many of the Summit's attendees had been involved in either PAX Dev or PAX Prime in the days prior, this event presented a nice second chance for additional professional development, and to do some off the clock socializing with industry peers.

IGDA Seattle Recruiting & Networking EventIGDA Seattle Recruiting & Networking Event

The 2015 Leadership Summit is a new iteration of the IGDA's previous Leadership Forum events that proved very popular when conducted 2007 through 2011. The event is intended to help attendees improve their leadership skills in all areas, not only as company leaders or in management roles but also from the perspective of exhibiting creative leadership.

The conference kicked off on Tuesday night, featuring the IGDA Seattle chapter's latest recruiting event, in additional to light networking for both the recruiting event and Summit attendees. A wide variety of developers attended, ranging from owners of serious games one-man studios to directors of AAA powerhouses. One attendee, Swatee Surve, was excitedly promoting her predictive healthcare application. "The next big trend in gaming is prescribed mental healthcare," Surve noted, painting a picture of the future were psychiatrists use games to discern the needs of patients, like in Ender's Game. Another group of attendees were Universe Builders Studios, who were in process of developing a space startup simulator so entrepreneurs could plan the harvesting of planetary resources. "Neil Degrass Tyson made science cool. We want to be cool, too," they said.

Edwards Kicks Off #LS2015Edwards Kicks Off #LS2015

Wednesday morning arrived accompanied by bagels, coffee, and a welcome message from IGDA Executive Director, Kate Edwards. In it, she thanked Keith Fuller and Tristin Hightower (IGDA Director of Operations) for producing the event, and introduced Jillian Mood, the IGDA's new Partner and Member Relations Manager. Edwards also thanked the event's many sponsors, including the IGDA Foundation, Amazon, Intel, Xbox, and DeVry University. She then noted that the event's schedule would be displayed by means of the Whova application, and that the established Summit Twitter hashtag would be #LS2015. Edwards next reminded attendees of the purpose of IGDA membership, asking them simply, "How will you be remembered for your work in this industry? How did you spend your time? How did you show leadership?"

Then, Summit keynote speaker Kristina Reed kicked off the conference with her lecture titled "No Spectators: How Inclusivity Catalyzes Everything." In it she discussed her long career at the Rhythm & Hughes visual effects and animation studio, and her transition into her Oscar-winning producer role at Disney. "The very act of making everybody feel welcome… increases your chance of creating something great," she noted. She also explained how company models emphasizing communicating with employees and respecting them led to increased quality of life for those individuals, and consequently to greater profit margins. "Only when a person feels absolutely comfortable will they give you their best over and over. And I would submit to you that you should never settle for less." She also revealed some unexpected sources of inspiration, like Burning Man's codified list of values, and never before seen clips from the short films Feast and Paperman, both of which earned her the Oscar award.

Reed was followed by a lecture from Rami Ismail, of the indie development studio Vlambeer. In it, Ismail talked about the "invisible obstacles" that game developers often forget to think about, like disparate access to knowledge around the world. He put it to listeners to attempt to be cognizant of these factors, but also reminded them that some failure would be inevitable. "You can't get all of it right... being visible on a global scale to all sorts of people is an impossible responsibility," noted Ismail. One example he highlighted was the concept of sarcasm, which didn't translate well into many languages. As a result of inevitable barriers like this, often communication between developers will be handicapped. Ismail encouraged his audience to keep trying to explain themselves, however, stating that "People always say 'Show, don't tell,' but actions without words create a terrible context for what you are doing."

Ismail then ceded the stage to Microsoft Studios Global Publishing General Manager Shannon Loftis, who spoke on "Creating Inclusive Content: Inspiring Teams To Do the Right Thing." In it, she described the way that Xbox's new CEO and management chain had allowed it to solve some old issues by approaching them in different ways. She also noted the way that the company had adapted to some new trends in the video game market. Namely, that women now make up more than half of the gaming demographic, and that Black and Hispanic children in North America now play more games on average than their Caucasian counterparts.

Following Loftis' talk, conference attendees were provided with a luxurious lunch buffet, and then returned upstairs to attend panels until 5 p.m. that day. After hours, conference-goers were treated with a fireside chat between Ed Fries, former Vice President of Game Publishing at Microsoft (and former IGDA board member), and Halo-icon Kiki Wolfkill, Executive Producer at 343 Studios.

The next morning, Summit attendees started the day with a lecture by Scott Crabtree, Chief Happiness Officer at Happy Brain Science. Crabtree described the value of specific gratitude, noting how productive it can be to convey to employees appreciation for their behavior, and the impact that it has had on your business. Later, James Gertzman, CEO and Co-Founder of PlayFab, presented a lecture on "Managing Through Uncertainty." In it, he cautioned leaders not to be too heavy handed. "Don't become a tyrannical micromanager," said Gertzman, "It paralyzes people with fear of failure."

Afterwards, the IGDA again provided a delicious lunch buffet, featuring local delicacies like fresh-caught salmon. While attendees munched on the food, Kate Edwards presented the results of the IGDA's annual Developers Satisfaction Survey, which showed progress in many areas of the field. Edwards also noted that the results of the DSS would be made publicly available at the IGDA's website, located here. Finally, after another round of panels and lectures, the day drew to a close with a series of Pecha Kucha inspired speed-panels, featuring Sheri Graner Ray of Zombie Cat Studios and Marty O'Donnell of Highwire Games, who quipped that "Two heads are supposedly better than one, but really it depends on the heads."

Finally, once the last lecture had ended, Kate Edwards and Keith Fuller gathered Summit attendees together to ask them for candid, immediate feedback. Commenting on the difficulty of soliciting such critique after conference-goers had returned home, they were eager to learn what members really thought of the Leadership Summit. Once attendees had an opportunity to express their opinions, Edwards and Fuller thanked them again for attending, and invited them to return again next year.

The IGDA greatly thanks its sponsors and partners who supported the 2015 IGDA Leadership Summit, including the IGDA Foundation, Amazon Web Services, DeVry University, Intel, Xbox, Rocket Recruiting, Events for Gamers, GamesBeat, Game Recruiter, Washington Interactive Network (WIN), and Women in Games International (WIGI).

About the Author
Author: Ma'idah LashaniPrior to attending law school at UNC Chapel Hill, Ma'idah Lashani spent nearly three years working as Community Manager at The Escapist. Since then, she has worked as a legal intern at both Epic Games and The Law Offices of Ryan P. Morrison. When she's not gallivanting around with her Irish Wolfhound, Onix, Ma'idah also moonlights as the IGDA's Community Liaison.

Tags:  2015  Amazon  Amazon Web Services  DeVry University  Ed Fries  Feast  Happy Brain Science  Highwire Games  IGDA Foundation  IGDA Leadership Summit  IGDA Seattle  Intel  James Gertzman  Jillian Mood  Kate Edwards  Keith Fuller  Kiki Wolfkill  Kristina Reed  ls2015  Marty O'Donnell  Microsoft Studios  Paperman  PlayFab  Rami Ismail  Scott Crabtree  Seattle  Shannon Loftis  Sheri Graner Ray  Swatee Surve  Tristin Hightower  Universe Builders Studios  Vlambeer  Whova  Xbox  Zombie Cat Studios 

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