Yesterday, I checked an item off my personal “to-do” list that I initially put on that list nine years, three jobs and one state ago: I passed the certification exam and earned the title of Project Management Professional (PMP). Despite the fact that this probably set a personal record for most procrastinated task, I am both proud and relieved to have completed it, as few things feel as good as checking something off a list.

There were many reasons I had delayed this task for so long: its absence wasn’t really blocking my career success at the time; it was time-consuming to prepare for; I was too busy; I didn’t feel ready. I knew it was something I needed to do if I ever considered moving out of game development, but I didn’t make it a priority because I remained gainfully employed in game development and (let’s face it) the PMP is a much more formal approach to project management than most game companies would ever use, so there was a limited base of practical application.

Fast forward a decade, and a lot has changed in the game industry. Gaming has expanded in terms of total market size. Project sizes and budgets have increased in some segments of the market (primarily big-budget AAA console), while the others have continued to focus on small, agile approaches that are more about repeatability and portfolio management (mobile, F2P social, etc). In both cases, the bar seems to have risen in terms of what is expected out of a producer or team lead. More and more “outside” PM experience has been brought in, to the benefit of the industry as a whole. This bodes well for formal project management training and professional approaches to getting projects done.

In future blog updates, I will delve into this topic in greater detail, but today I wanted to mention some key concepts in the PMP that mapped neatly to career planning for game developers in today’s “challenging job market” (read: utter chaos! panic! uncertainty!).

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

planFirst and foremost we have the concept of a Management Plan. Most game developers know what this means, even if your projects typically don’t utilize them, or ignore them at the earliest opportunity. But how many of us actually have a solid CAREER management plan? (Note: “be awesome, get promoted, retire in 5 years” is not a plan. It’s an arbitrary (and delusional) statement)

You need a defined career plan, otherwise you’re just doing a job.  10 or 20 years ago, that might have been enough, because there were so few game developers and so much demand that you could just “do your job” and if the company you worked for blew up, you’d have plenty of opportunity elsewhere.  Now?  The market is flooded, competition is fierce, and your experience and judgment is outweighed by cheap, abundant, enthusiastic labor.  It’s not just the game industry that is a tough market: it’s tough EVERYWHERE.

So: you must have a plan.  It must define your goals, outline what it is that you wish to do as a career (and perhaps more importantly, what you don’t), and you must keep it updated.   Where do you want to live?  What do you want to do as a career?  What are you good at?   It’s not enough to follow your dreams, you need to align your passions and skills with the market and what is in demand.

Let’s Talk About Risk

No, not that Risk.  The other one.  A key concept of the PMP is Risk Management.  We all know what risk is, and you’ve probably been on a project where you’ve talked about the risks of X, Y, or Z happening.  But how many of us have ever created a “risk register” where risks are formally listed along with probability, severity, and response plans identified?   My guess is not too many.

And yet, what is life but a series of opportunities to take a chance on something?  Your risk tolerance, and how you respond to risks that materialize (read: blow up in your face), can have a profound impact on your career path and overall happiness.  So in addition to your primary career plan (let’s call that “Plan A”), you need risk response plans.  I’ve always called them “fallback plans” or “lifeboats”.  Note that these are plural.   LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman refers to this as “Plan A, B and Z” — where “A” is your ideal goal, “B” is your fallback if that doesn’t work, and “Z” is “what I can easily do to survive while I figure out what went wrong with plans A and B”.

You must actively be on the lookout for risks to your career goals.  Are you getting complacent and comfortable in your current environment?  Is a new technology or business model changing the nature of your position (outsourcing anyone?).   Remember, sitting on your laurels is a luxury that you don’t have.  Imagine someone else out there who wants the money that is currently going into your paycheck.   And he isn’t going to give up just because you’ve worked really hard this year.

The Rainy Day Fund

Another key concept that I think is critical is the concept of Reserves.  In PMP parlance, reserves are simply budgetary funds set aside to deal with things you couldn’t account for in your plan.   There are two kinds of reserves: management reserve and contingency reserves.  For our purposes, the more relevant of the two is contingency reserves, which basically means “resources I am setting aside for when this horrible risk occurs”.   You personal finance enthusiasts will recognize this concept as a rainy day fund.

Put simply: as a game developer in today’s market, if you do not have 6-month reserve fund set aside, you need to make that your top financial priority.  Note that having a 401k you can liquidate is not a 6-month reserve fund.  Nor is a credit card, or a savings account you use to pay your bills with that from time to time has a little extra in it because you ate out less that month.

The purpose of this fund is quite literally to pay you when nobody else is.  I can attest to its importance because I have one and am putting its money where my mouth is right now.   This industry is far too volatile to rely on a quick transition after a layoff, and having a reserve fund buys you choices.  Choices to stay where you want to live instead of being forced to move before your checks start bouncing.  Choices to pass on jobs you know you’d hate and wait for something you think you could love.  Choices to go back and finish that certification you’ve been putting off for nine years 🙂

You get the picture.  Start by calculating your bare bones living expenses, then figure out how much you’d need to get by for six months with no other income at all.  If you are fortunate enough to receive a severance package, you just lengthened your runway (and increased your choices).

Build up that reserve.  And don’t ever be tempted to use it for anything  except an emergency.

Attacking the Budget

Finally, if you’re extra paranoid like myself, you can aggressively attack your monthly budget and attempt to get that monthly cash burn rate as low as possible.  Refinance your house if you can; rates are so low that chances are you can save $100 a month or more if you haven’t refi’d lately.

You can apply “Build or Buy“-type analysis to a lot of monthly liabilities that will give you an opportunity to remove $50 a month here, $100 a month there.  Did you get a “free” smartphone in exchange for a 2-year commitment with a big bloated contract?  Guess what?  That phone wasn’t free.  In fact, it’ll end up costing you several hundred dollars more than a prepaid phone with service running on the same network.

Why does this matter?  Again, it’s all about choices.

Wrap It Up, Socrates, You’re Rambling

The PMP is a four-hour exam covering an immense amount of information, and some of it won’t be relevant to your career as a game developer.  What should be, though, is the concept of treating your career like a very well thought-out plan and working every day to complete tasks in that plan.  And when it goes to hell (and it will go to hell, because all plans do), you must be ready with fallback plans and the resources to execute them.

Don’t let someone else control your career.  Manage it like a boss.