Samantha Ryan, senior vice president of development and production for Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment recounted her entire career -- in games and out of games -- and talked about the important lessons she learned, at the IGDA Leadership Forum in San Francisco.
Ryan was inspired to speak because, says says, "If you aspire to have a bigger role in the industry it can be daunting to know how to get there." She says that she never had a mentor, and instead, had to pick and choose her lessons from the personalities she worked with.
"I am a huge proponent of mentoring," says Ryan. "I encourage everybody here to be good mentors to the people around you. I had no mentors, and how much I would have appreciated it if someone would have shown me the path to get to where I am today." Instead, her career "left me to find my own mentorship to find the best pieces of the people around me."
A Start Outside Games
And Ryan did literally work with "personalities" from the outset of her career -- she started in radio, working with men with monikers like "Spaceman Scott" and "Barefoot Bob." But, says Ryan, you can get "inspiration and leadership from very unlikely sources."
She learned a lot working in radio -- besides how to manage huge projects like putting on a concert with Kiss or Bon Jovi. She quickly learned "how important it is to have a one-on-one connection with people you work with," and "how to be extemporaneous," since as a DJ, she couldn't plan her shows -- they were too frequent and too long.
When she moved to her next station, she realized that the team dynamic was what made it a great place to work. Asks Ryan, "Have you worked on a team where things just clicked, and you can't figure out what just clicked about it?" When comparing to competitors, she says, "If I think about it objectively the talent level is the same across these two teams. What is this about the team that makes it click?" It's personality, says Ryan -- which is crucial.
Though her boss was a great radio personality, he was a terrible organizer, and that's how Ryan learned that "I need to step up and complement him because there are places he's falling down on the job" -- a lesson she returned to later.
Ryan recounted a story of a major mistake she made at her next job -- which earned her a major dressing down. While she was trying to recover from it, her boss told her, "it's all about letting the water roll off of your back, like a duck. It doesn't mean that you don't learn, but you're not afraid to try again" -- a lesson she thinks is crucial to trying to rise to leadership.
Another major problem arose when a public event was promoted for the wrong location -- but in that crucial interval where Ryan had to make a decision on how to handle it, she learned that composure is crucial. To pull off the event successfully, "It took a lot of last minute shuffling, but if I had reacted poorly, if I had stomped out, we would not have a lot of good resolution to that."
She also highlights the importance of "DWYSYWD" -- do what you say you will do. She sees it as an essential tool for management. At her old job, subordinates were encouraged to "Make a statement, a line in the sand about what you will do, and then deliver. [The boss] wouldn't tell you what to deliver, but he would ask you to [tell him], and then he would step up and support you."
Lessons From Monolith
After that job, Ryan transitioned to the game industry -- moving to Monolith Software in its brief tenure as a self-publisher, when the company published Shogo
. "I encourage anybody who wants to make into a new industry to take a step back and work your way back up," says Ryan, who had a bigger role in radio but moved to Monolith, then a smaller company -- the lessons were invaluable while she became attuned to the new industry, she says.
At Monolith, Ryan worked for Jason Hall, who she says was another poor organizer, but one who was extremely capable of signing deals -- deals he "shouldn't have gotten." Says Ryan, "One of the things I learned from Jason is that it's all about the pitch. This is a skill that up until this point I had really undervalued. I had always looked down, at my team, and never looked outward."
Leaders, she learned, must be aware of their own weaknesses and work around them. Hall made sure to have a business-minded president at Monolith to compliment him. "Jason is at his best when he's paired with someone who is really business-minded, and he knows that. He knows that he's not the best organizer. He knows he does best when he pairs with someone who brings that piece. [It's crucial that] the person who's at the top admitting and understanding that they need a complement to themselves to succeed."
Monolith soon rolled up its publishing, but Hall asked her to stay to produce what's now recognized as a cult classic -- No One Lives Forever
. Not everyone on the team liked the idea of someone from marketing rolling into a production role, but her skills mapped well, and in the end, she was accepted.
Says Ryan, "It was an amazing experience for me. It taught me a lot about how to put together a great team. It taught me a lot about perseverance and how to take a risk."
What she learned, in particular, was reading the needs of your team. Says Ryan, "That team has an extreme group of personalities, and they had a lot of needs that I had to fulfill. They had a lot of things they needed to do their jobs and I had to remove obstacles. There were a lot of strong personalities, and they had conflicts, and I had to learn to be a buffer."
Says Ryan, "When I started on No One Lives Forever
, this was one of Monolith's first real producer jobs. When I stepped into the role, it was very undefined. Reporting was a big issue. [The team members] didn't know who to talk to." Leads had been promoted primarily based on talent, and that wasn't working, says Ryan. She had to figure out "who should ride the bus who should drive on the bus, and who should have a voice. This did mean some changing of leadership."
According to Ryan, during the development of NOLF
, before it was signed, "There was a period where Monolith was two weeks from death. And Jason closed the deal with Fox Interactive that basically saved the company." That process, including the protagonist changing from male to female, conflicts with the Bond license over the title, and losing the IP rights to Fox, says Ryan, "was a very interesting business, learning, for me."
Asked by an audience member if she has any advice for a woman in the industry, and if she feels she has had different treatment, Ryan says no. "I have not really felt like I have been treated differently. I know that some women do feel like they have, so I may have been lucky in that regard." She suspects it might be that she was already used to the gender mix -- radio was very male-dominated.
Says Ryan, who now has a senior role in an organization that includes the Seattle-based WB Games, encompassing Monolith, Surreal Software, and Snowblind Studios, plus WB Games Chicago (formerly Midway Chicago, acquired after Warner Bros bought much of Midway's assets
"I've never really been fazed by that. I think the greater learning that I've had is the ability to take risk. When people say they have an inability to become a lead or a manager... what I've never been afraid to do is take really crazy leaps and try new things."
Ryan said by way of conclusion that she wasn't initially ambitious to leap up the ladder -- she was just open to trying new things, and that got her on the road to success.