Thursday, April 18, 2013

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Video Game Programmer

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and the AAS Employment Committee have compiled dozens of interviews highlighting the diversity of career trajectories available to astronomers. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with Amy Nelson, an astronomer turned software engineer. She writes software for Disney’s online virtual worlds, manages a small team, and is very satisfied with her work-life balance within a family-friendly environment. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit We plan to post a new career profile to this blog every first and third Thursday of the month.

What field do you currently work in?

What is the job title for your current position?
Staff Software Engineer Architect. I implement core software components for our online virtual worlds. Manage a small team of software engineers.

What is the name of your company/organization/institution? 
Disney Interactive Worlds

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
live - Los Angeles, CA. work - Glendale, CA.

What is the highest degree in astronomy/physics you have received?

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?

What has been your career path since you completed your degree? 
Instructor at University of California - Santa Cruz (2001). 
Earned a certificate from UCLA Extension in C/C++ (2002).
Employed at Mass Media Inc/THQ as Associate Software Engineer (2002 - 2008). 
Employed at Disney: Flash Engineer (2008) 
Senior Flash Engineer (2009-2010) 
Senior Software Engineer (2011) 
Staff Software Engineer (2012 - present)

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
I left the field of astronomy primarily because I found, after doing it for a few years, that I didn't enjoy research enough to want to make a career of it. I also wasn't thrilled about reading and writing peer-reviewed journal articles, writing grant proposals, and other administrative tasks. 

Secondary, yet still important factors, were: 
~ amount of hours you're expected to work (especially for postdocs and young faculty) 
~ amount of research you're expected to produce (especially for postdocs and young faculty) 
~ little to no say in where you live 
~ low pay 
~ having to put your life on hold until you have a secure, tenure-track faculty position.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
I made a career change from astronomy to video game programming at age 29.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
Problem-solving! ** Learning and working independently - how to find answers yourself, knowing when to ask questions and to whom to ask them, not being afraid to tackle problems with which you have little to no experience.

Computer programming - In grad school I used Fortran, which wasn't a directly transferable skill whatsoever. But understanding programming and scripting fundamentals helped me pick up an object-oriented language (C/C++) quickly.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
Earned a certificate in C/C++ programming from UCLA Extension. (5 - 6 extension classes, I think.)

Describe a typical day at work.
- Daily morning scrum (Agile development) meetings -- 15-30 min. 
- Various meetings throughout the day to discuss: planning and allocation of resources, feasibility and architecture of game systems, assorted managerial meetings -- 1 - 2 hrs
- Coding -- 4 hr. 
- Mentoring, answering questions, code reviews -- 1 - 2 hrs

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
I got into the video game industry because my girlfriend's father was the game designer at the first company I worked for and he and I talked about video games and the work he did. A PhD in astronomy, without any other experience, simultaneously over-qualifies you for some jobs and under-qualifies you for the rest, thus making it virtually impossible to get past the automated sorting/filtering of job applications. Therefore, my experience was that it was very difficult to get a foot in the door in any other industry besides academic astronomy, unless you know someone. 

Once in the door, however, I found that while I had a very steep learning curve because I had almost no direct knowledge of how to make games, I picked things up quite quickly and wasn't afraid to just dive right in. My advice is to stick with the program and finish your degree! You'll feel good about yourself, continue to learn indirect, but valuable skills, and demonstrate to future employers that you finish what you start. 

See if you can take advantage of your university enrollment and take a class here or there that will help prepare you for your new career. Spend whatever time you can spare gaining new skills or be prepared that you might need some time after you finish to do that. However, don't let either of these things steal your focus of finishing your degree. 

From what I've seen, most fields have trade organizations, shows, meetings, online communities, etc, so get active in them and start meeting people! Remember that university extension classes are usually taught by people who actively have jobs in that industry and therefore are great places to learn new skills and network. 

Out in the 'real world' PhDs in astronomy have quite a 'wow' factor. People like knowing a 'rocket scientist' and companies like to brag about having one on their staff.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
They should be: 
- honest about the positives and negatives of an academic research position. 
- approachable, so that students feel they can talk to them without fear of reprisal, disinterest, or disdain. - knowledgeable and willing to discuss alternative careers path. 
- willing to introduce their students to professors in other fields. 
- able to help their students get in contact with former students who have alternative careers.

How many hours do you work in a week?
40-45 hours. All hours are @work, although my company is flexible and I can work from home as needed and/or desired.

What is your salary? 
$100k - 150k.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Very Satisfied. 

My job is a wonderful combination of coming up with ideas to solve technical problems and executing on those ideas. I work in a creative, social, interactive, and collaborative environment, which I enjoy. I also get to mentor less-experienced engineers which satisfies my desire to teach and work with others. 

My company takes very seriously the issue of a healthy work/life balance. We do work extra hours at 'crunch time,' but that is infrequent, particularly for the games industry. 

I am quite satisfied with my pay, benefits, and perks. I really like my coworkers and look forward to seeing them at work, as well as in our spare time. 

My job is pretty low stress, but engaging. I rarely find myself 'taking my job home with me,' unless I happen to be working on something particularly interesting and then I'm too excited to stop thinking about it after work!

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
I love working in a creative, collaborative field with smart, talented people who are passionate about games. I really enjoy problem-solving with my co-workers and listening to their ideas. The least enjoyable aspects of my job are attending too many meetings (this has gotten much better, though, after we complained), not having full control of my projects (executives make the ultimate decisions), and working for a business which means market forces and profits are the guiding forces (less R&D or risk-taking).

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most? 
I like that it has structure, but is still fairly flexible. I dislike the lack of job security - people in corporate America seem to get hired, laid off, hired by a different company, etc. Luckily, this hasn't happened to me yet, but you have to be ok with that cycle.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
Engineers are given the opportunity to design and implement their own technical solutions and are also free to contribute game ideas in brainstorming sessions. Employees are encouraged to take initiative and ownership of their work and are actively rewarded for it (promotions, awards, shout-outs, etc).

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
Very Satisfied. 

My company places an emphasis on work-life balance, which is really important to me. We do work extra-hours sometimes during 'crunch time,' but that happens infrequently and they try to keep the additional hours to a minimum.

How family-friendly is your current position?
Very family friendly.

We have flex-time, where you can (with supervisor approval): - telecommute (work from home) - shift your schedule early or late, as long as you're here during the 'core hours,' so that you can drop kids off or pick them up, etc. Paid maternity and paternity leave. A company-owned and operated daycare across the street (although it is very full and has a long waiting list, but I believe they are building another on). Good benefits and a company-sponsored Flexible Spending Account. Family-friendly work functions/parties.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
Make having a healthy work-life balance a priority when choosing your position and ask the company/institution direct questions about their policies towards it. Once you start working, set boundaries and stick to them. No matter where you work, if you're seen as the person who will always pick up other people's slack, stay late, and work extra hours, that will become expected of you and you're setting yourself up for failure. You do not have to be a workaholic to be successful!

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?
Yes. My best friend is an astronomical lecturer at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. He also still does some research with colleagues at UCLA and UC Santa Cruz.

There is a worry among those considering careers outside of astronomy or academia that you can't "go back" and/or that you feel that you betrayed advisors, friends, colleagues. Have you felt this way?
Yes. I do believe that it would be difficult to re-enter the field of astronomy after leaving the rather strictly prescribed academic career track. Also, the field moves at a very rapid pace, so it's easy to get left behind. While I was in grad school and grappling with my decision, I worried that I would disappoint my professors and colleagues by leaving the field, especially since I didn't have a clear idea of what I wanted to do instead. In the end, though, it's your life (and hopefully a long one!) so you need to put yourself first and do whatever you think is best for you.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)? 
I love to walk my dogs, read, garden, and play - video games, music, nerdy board games, pinball. I also enjoy volunteering and have been a crisis counselor on LA's suicide hotline for the past ten years. Having time to do all these things was a major factor in deciding not to stay in astronomy.

May we include your email address for people who might want to contact you directly about your career route? 
public [at]

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