99. Alicia Iott – Game Developer

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“I just do good work, vocalize my opinions often and loudly, stay kind to my coworkers and hope that my presence in the tech industry is a positive one that will encourage the assimilation of more minorities!”

Tell us a little bit about what a typical day looks like for you.

I work from home, so I get to budget my time in a really flexible way. It varies a lot depending on what I need to get done. Usually I wake up around 8. I lounge around the house and eat breakfast until about 9 or 9:30 when I start planning out my day (all on pen and paper). I have between 1-3 meetings a day to get on the same page as my team (about 7 people) and then usually I’ll have smaller follow up talks about specific tasks. The team I work on follows agile development process, which means we work in two week sprints. On laid back days, I take breaks to water my plants or go for walks between meetings because it’s hard to get in that coding flow when you’ve only got an hour to focus. Some days I work 14 hours, like at the end of a sprint when we’re really pushing to finish a game, and some days I can work as few as 6.

How do you stay passionate in your career?

This is such an interesting question. I’ll start out by saying I studied Fine Art and I really do love making things, whether digital or not. It’s incredibly satisfying to see something come to life on a screen after you spent hours staring at Visual Studio. But there are things I don’t love about my career and to be frank, passion isn’t a term I readily apply to myself. To me, that word implies that I have some inherent, fiery, burning desire to code all day. (I don’t.) So instead of “passion,” I exercise a lot of self discipline. I have to remind myself of my commitment to my chosen profession. I motivate myself to learn new technologies by browsing art blogs and instagram profiles of new media artists. And on top of all that, I try to cultivate balance in my work and my life. When I’m frustrated I draw, paint, do yoga, or read books. Passion isn’t as sustainable as balance, self discipline, and hard work.

Did you have a traditional path into tech (i.e.: CS/IT degree transitioned into tech job)?

Actually I changed my major twice and took a semester off in the meantime, much to the chagrin of my mom. She was a first generation immigrant from Vietnam and really encouraged me to pursue a lucrative career (read: doctor, lawyer, engineer), but my dad was an artist and I always sort of knew I wanted to do art in some way. When I got to Carnegie Mellon, I started out as a materials science engineer and I was challenged mentally, for sure, but in a lot of ways I was also a bored (and jealous of the art kids). I couldn’t imagine doing lab work to study the strength of carbon nanotubes for any extended amount of time, least of all the rest of my life. I realized then that I needed to do something creative or I’d regret it forever. So after my freshman year, I canceled my internship and went home to take art classes at the local community college. I put together a portfolio and voila! The Fine Art department at CMU was gracious enough to accept me into their program. A semester into my art degree, I realized that while I loved the work I was doing, I wanted to be technically challenged as well (maybe I missed those sleepless Sunday nights spend in the stacks). Computer science was the logical choice, because armed with the capacity to code I would be able to make my work accessible to anyone with an internet connection! So thusly, I graduated with a dual degree in computer science and fine art. I interned at Deeplocal, a interactive ad agency and then I landed my current gig as a game developer through a high school friend.

Are there any apps, software, or tools you cannot live without?

I was pretty bummed when the kinect was discontinued. I’d miss Unity and Git, and a lot of really cool open source software like OpenCV and OpenFrameworks if they were to disappear. But things change quickly in the tech world and I try not to become attached to any one methodology. That being said, I’d be pretty hard pressed to get by without google maps on my iPhone.

It’s common knowledge that women often face obstacles in the tech industry based on their gender. Have you ever had to deal with this type of experience and if so how did you handle it?

One of the hardest things about gender bias is that it’s really hard to pin down. Was it because I was a woman? Or was it because I was new on the team? Or was it because my ideas suck? So much ambiguity. But I will tell you about one very unambiguous case I remember. I was on a bus with two coworkers and we were talking about what we did that day at the office. Coworker A listened politely as all the dudes said what they were working on and then when someone asked about what I had done, he interrupted and proceeded to tell everyone what I was working on that day. Obviously I was capable of explaining my own work so as soon as he was done, I told him he didn’t need to speak for me. Often people (of any gender) can be squeamish when you confront them about their own attitudes concerning gender inequality and you get a lot of “not me!” reactions. Good people have sexist conceptions of the world and say sexist things –it’s ingrained in our society. Doing something sexist doesn’t immediately make you a bad person unless you’re unreceptive to feedback. I believe women (and men) have a responsibility to point out sexist behavior for correction. So I try to do that in as understanding a way as possible. It’s also really important for women to just be aware of what they can do to mediate gender imbalances. For example, if you know that women negotiate less during salary offers, you can compensate. If you know that women don’t speak up in meetings as often as men, you can compensate for that too! Fortunately, most days I’m not confronted with any overt gender disparity so I just do good work, vocalize my opinions often and loudly, stay kind to my coworkers and hope that my presence in the tech industry is a positive one that will encourage the assimilation of more minorities! We’ve come a long way and it’s only getting better.

What’s your favorite thing about being a woman in tech?

I sort of have a love-hate relationship with this title “woman in tech.” A lot of people will automatically respect you more since you code or put you on a pedestal, and that’s nice to have… but part of me is like “you should have the same respect for women in the humanities.”

Tell us about a time you felt extremely accomplished in the past year.

I work currently as a game developer and last week, while playing through the game, I noticed a critical discrepancy between the way content was being created and the way it was being displayed in the game. The game had been through many revisions and we were quickly approaching “just ship it” territory so we didn’t have a lot of time to rewrite the code for importing content. I had a solution up my sleeve which would just involve rearranging some of the content behind the scenes to solve the problem. I’m just a junior developer, but I called a meeting with the head developer and the game designer (who also is responsible for integrating content) and in a matter of an hour, I was able to point out a critical problem and offer a solution which was used in the game. I was really proud of myself for getting it done really efficiently and without a whole lot of debate or fanfare— I feel like my attention to detail, willingness to find a solution on my own time, and then communicate my ideas really helped the flow of the game and expedited the release. I didn’t receive a whole lot of external praise, but for me, accomplishment is the feeling of being able to to my job exceptionally well.

If applicable, how have you given back to the WIT community?

I’m always willing to help people learn to code and I talk really openly about my career. I also talk about how men and women respond differently in professional situations a lot and I think that helps my friends (both male and female) mediate a lot of the inequality.

What is a piece of advice you would give to others wanting to or currently pursuing a career in tech?

There’s studies that show that persistence is the best determiner of success is math-related fields. There may be times when you think you’re not smart enough, but that’s not what it’s about. Math and coding require patience and practice. Expect a lot of head-to-wall banging, but hang in there. And find balance!

Favorite quote:

“So it goes.”

― Kurt Vonnegut