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Brenda Romero knows a thing or two about how to lead a development team. The celebrated developer got her start in the industry at 15 years old, and now she’s the CEO and cofounder of Empire of Sin studio Romero Games. And one of the most rewarding parts about her job is the people she works with.
“A downside to [the COVID-19 pandemic] is that our team had to go virtual, and I really miss the people that I work with,” Romero said. “I really miss hanging out with them. I miss the morning coffee that I would have with coders.”
Romero joined moderator and Prodigy Education technical director Sushama Chakraverty at GamesBeat Summit 2021 to talk about their experiences as team leads, and how people can encourage their colleagues to become the next generation of leaders. This isn’t the first time they’ve met: Chakraverty and Romero have a long history of working together at companies like MicroProse and Cyberlore, and they infused their talk with memories and moments from their past.
They reflected on their first leadership roles during their careers and shared what helped them the most during that transition. For Chakraverty, finding a mentor was vital to helping her understand the responsibilities of a lead and the day-to-day decisions they have to make. With Romero, it was remembering that even as a senior member of the team, it’s OK to admit that she doesn’t have all the answers — she just had to surround herself with talented people who could help her.
“From a lead’s perspective, it’s not about pointing [and saying] ‘This is exactly what we’re doing.’ It’s about working with a group of people and making sure they are all able to contribute in a positive way,” said Romero.
Both developers were also careful to not emulate the toxic behaviors of people they worked under during the darker moments of their careers. Romero recalled a harrowing time when she and her team were in the middle of a “death march,” a period of near-endless crunch while working on a game. Employees were expected to be in the office as much as possible, and were even shamed with notes if they ever left home early.
While bad leaders taught them what they shouldn’t do in those positions, good leaders provided valuable insight and mentorship opportunities. Romero often reached out to the leads she admired and picked their brains about their leadership styles.
“There’s no finishing school for games industry leads. The finishing school is [you] usually go through something challenging and then go, ‘Alright let’s take stock of that, let’s do a post-mortem. What would I’ve done differently?’ Or making some ridiculous mistake and sort of crashing and burning and rising from that,” she said.
One of the things Romero learned was how to critique your teammates’ work without being mean or insulting. For example, telling someone “the early game is too aggressive” and explaining how it compares to other games is much more useful than just saying “this sucks.” The more actionable your feedback is, the better off your team will be.
When it comes to picking out potential leaders, Romero and Chakraverty said that in addition to having great communication skills, they look for people who have a strong sense of humility and integrity. They want someone who’s willing to praise their team members, and who won’t hog all the credit at the end of the day.
“Because when you’re leading a team, your result — whatever you deliver at the end — is the sum of everybody’s work. It’s not yours. You helped [complete] it, you might have done some parts of it, but it’s not entirely yours,” said Chakraverty.
Romero shared how Romero Games recently promoted programmer Ian Dunbar to a leadership role. She said that it was obvious that Dunbar would be a natural leader early on. It helped that his former lead, Ronan Pearce, “continuously elevated him” to the studio’s senior team. Dunbar shadowed Pearce for a while so that his transition to the new role would be a lot smoother.
Having that kind of studio culture, where employees actively promote their colleagues, is vital to helping create the next generation of leaders.
“That type of an environment — where regardless of your role, you feel valued — is a place that you want to stay, a place that you want to grow, a place that you want to enter into leadership,” Romero said. “It’s a place that you want to see stay around because you feel the impact of your own work.”
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