In this podcast episode, Max interviews Robin Linn, Senior Director for Creative Recruiting at Activision Blizzard (the video game company responsible for World of Warcraft, Call of Duty and many more!) Far from the world of high volume recruitment, Robin deals with extremely small talent pools, we’re talking like 70 people worldwide. The relationships and intimate process involved is fascinating.
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MAX: Hello and welcome back to the Recruitment Hackers podcast. I'm your host Max Armbruster and today I'm delighted to welcome you to the show Robin Linn, who is the senior director for creative recruiting. What is creative recruiting, you're going to find out, for a company called Activision Blizzard, one of the leaders of the leading publishers of games, and Robin, welcome to the show.
ROBIN: Lovely to be here. Thank you for having me.
MAX: Pleasure. I was raised on video games and cartoons, and as an adult, I would love to find out what you guys are up to, in the adult world, because I am a big consumer of the output, and you are the factory, you are the input. So, well, first of all, I need to ask you, Robin, for the audience, maybe not all of them know what Activision Blizzard does. Could you tell us a few words about what your company does, to get an idea of the size and the kind of people you hire?
ROBIN: We're about a 9000 seat company right so it's a fairly large video game company we've been around for many years, our game titles that might be most widely known are World of Warcraft, Starcraft, Call of Duty, Overwatch. And we're also associated with King, so if you've played Candy Crush or Crash Bandicoot, those are also titles that we produce.
MAX: Wow, if you add those up, I think it's like half of mankind has played one of your things.
ROBIN: We think so, right.
MAX: Especially the candy crush one. I remember that it was like half the planet on that thing. It was like a drug.
ROBIN: Right casual gaming, right, that is just, it's addictive.
MAX: Oh! I'm trying to shake away my old addiction, thinking about it, and what an unusual world to be in. We've all left the cartoons behind us, and the games behind us, many of us have, unfortunately. But you managed to stay involved and we want to know the secret. How did you end up in this industry? Could you walk us back?
ROBIN: Sure, we'll start back with where I grew up in Orange County, California, which was right next door to Disneyland. Right next door the ashes from the fireworks would fall upon our roof every summer night. And I think you grow up next to a place that's based on animation and based on escapism, it can't help infect you a little bit, and I fell in love with animation, early on, because it's the most liberating medium out there. Anything can be turned into an animated character. There's been a brave little toaster that took a vacuum cleaner and a toaster and an electric blanket and sent them on a journey. And any number of anthropomorphic-sized animals and other characters have populated animation since its earliest days, and that freedom intrigued me. I was raised in a very traditional home so the fact that characters were rebellious, and they were rewarded for being rebellious. You think about the early Mickey Mouse cartoons. He's not the polite little corporate spokesman that he is now he was, you know, he was quite a little rough and tumble character. And I think that appealed to me early on, and then I was exposed through Saturday morning movies right after the cartoons, you'd have the movies come on that were those that had Ray Harryhausen stop motion animation. The Sinbad movies, Jason and the Argonauts, where you could see what you knew were animated characters, right. I knew that those skeletons weren't real but they felt real. And to see them interact with live-action actors was just so fascinating for me, that I got drawn into it. I was lucky enough in school to have a teacher who gave me a box of clay and said well you're not very good at drawing, maybe you can sculpt. And it turns out it could, and I spun that up into a career and I joined Hanna Barbera cartoons in the late 80s as a meerkat sculptor, someone who was sculpting animated characters. This was pre CG. This is back before CG was even thought of. We'd sculpt the statues that the animators could then hold up and see the character from various perspectives to help them draw their drawings. And I did that for a couple of years and then CG came along, Jurassic Park and Toy Story, and that kind of spun the industry on its head a little bit. And I left traditional sculpting and went over to a studio called Sony Pictures Imageworks, which was one of the founders of computer-generated imagery, and worked on Anaconda and contact and then Stuart Little. And while I was there as an artist I had a manager come to me and said, you have a background in management, because I had been a bank manager, million years ago, and he said you're an artist, so we'd like you to be the artist manager. Okay. And part of being an artist manager was recruiting talent.
MAX: That's the hardest part.
ROBIN: Yeah. And when I started the group was about 25 people and I left here about 320, and loved every minute of it and went to work for a couple of smaller studios to get experience there, and then gaming came along, and I thought well I'm not done gaming. And, it's the interactive version of what I love so much in animation, let's give that a try. So I went to Riot for a bit. I left Riot and went to Netflix because when Netflix comes calling, you've got to see what that circus is about, you've got to go figure out what that is. And then, this past fall, the boss I had at Riot, he had left there and gone to Activision and he called me up and said we have a position here of recruiting creatives, what do you think? and so I made the jump back.
MAX: Awesome. So, from that childhood flame, you skip the part where you ended up working in a bank for a couple of years. I guess that was less memorable.
ROBIN: I graduated high school, unfortunately, economic situations were such that I couldn't go to college.
MAX: You had to take a real job, it happens.
Robin: I had to take a real job and I thought banking is a real job where you wear a tie. I remember I was given a gift of a briefcase, right, because I'm going to carry my, I don't know what I was supposed to carry. I carried my lunch in it primarily. Yeah, and that was it. But yeah I did a number of years in banking and I was pretty good at it. I was about to be promoted to be an assistant vice president of operations at a small bank. And at that same time that was coming together, I got that offer to be a sculptor and Hanna Barbera cartoons and I'm sorry. You know when that lands in your lap, the banking just kind of fades away. I ran from finance.
MAX: It faded away, but you mentioned in your story that they looked at your resume and said, Well, you've worked at a bank, therefore you can manage people, it's funny how that association works because why would somebody who is coming from a bank, know how to manage creators, it doesn't make much sense. But I suppose management for some people who are so in love with their craft is considered a chore. And something that I don't want to deal with is the admin type, I don't want to have to deal with people, I just want to be at my desk making beautiful work. And, and so, you know that created a gap in that team. I imagined that's how it played out.
ROBIN: Yeah, well I think it was more than the fact that I'd written performance evaluations in the past and nobody likes doing those so at least Robin knows how to do them. Although, reviewing a bank teller, and reviewing an artist are very different animals. Just the way you speak with artists is very different than you would with an engineer or with you know another type of candidate.
MAX: Yeah, well, let's get into that. We're here to talk about recruitment, not cartoons. So I would love to get some tips from you on when you're at Activision, or Netflix, or even Riot Games, you have a huge brand behind you, anybody in the industry would know who you are and your reputation would somewhat proceed you. But if you remove the brand and we can talk about the brand later, just focus on the art of recruiting, which is the mano a mano battle between recruiter and candidate. Yeah, how do you appeal to that creative audience, and how do you put together a team with creative people who just want to jump on board. Is it all about getting them excited about the vision of a project or, is it more about creating the right environment? How does it differ from let's say hiring for a bank?
ROBIN: Well I think we have to go back to the foundation, the fact that I came up as an artist before I moved into the recruiting space I think gives me a little bit of calling it street cred for lack of a better. We're sitting down you're talking with an animator about what it's like to work on a deadline. Most films are budgeted on a 50 hour week, so there's overtime going into it, there's crunch time coming out at the end of it where you might be working 60-70 hour weeks. If you can sit down and talk with the candidate and through your language and your sharing of whatever they understand that you sat in that chair, that it's not abstract, you're selling a product that you're familiar with, that you have already have used you. You've been on a production that's gone haywire, you've been through working on weekends to have your shot canceled. I think that that lends a little bit of again credibility to you as a recruiter, as opposed to someone who may have come up through an agency, who has been a professional recruiter all of their time in the industry may not have that understanding. At least that's been my experience. And it also gives you a vocabulary that you can talk to a candidate in such a way that they know you know their role, right. I'm probably cursed or it's unfortunate to me that I can't sell an opportunity that I don't have a complete in-depth understanding of. Like if you were to put me in front of an engineering role I would struggle at being able to sell that because I just don't have the in-depth understanding of it, but even coming in front of art and animation and visual effects and gaming, and the creative spaces in there, and I'll have either the experience myself or I'll have worked closely with people who have, and be able to have that same vocabulary resume.
MAX: I think whether you're in your industry or others, it's something that we can all get better at. I do hire engineers and I'm not an engineer myself and I've often felt that I could get a little bit deeper into it so I could describe the environment better. If you're a recruiter, you're not necessarily going to maintain that relationship, post the point of hire. But you are that first impression and so, should sound familiar enough.
ROBIN: It's interesting you say that because I still keep in contact with people that I recruited 25 years ago. Social media has made it so much easier now. But it's rare that a week goes by that I don't exchange an email or a text or something with people that I have hired early in my career and early in their career and we both kind of advanced up. You'll reach back and share more stories or whatever. I think because you're recruiting for lack of a better term is an intimate process. You get to know somebody very well over the weeks you may spend with them because you're talking about where their challenges are. If you're a good recruiter, you don't go in saying, this is the great stuff about the candidate, you have to go into your hiring manager and say these are the challenges, this is where this person is going to need to support. And the only way you can find that is by having really in-depth conversations with that candidate in developing trust. On top of that, the financials are right, you're going into that knowing what that person makes her living which is, in many cases their significant other may not even know that. So you develop a friendship is probably too strong of a word. We should develop a relationship with these candidates that certainly is kind of the bedding for a friendship, it's bedding for a relationship that will spawn up out of that.
MAX: You need to bleed a little bit and worry a little bit about if this is gonna fit, otherwise, this is gonna hurt my relationship, and we will suffer from it. Whereas, in the high volume recruitment space, it is a one-time interaction so it's a very different world.
ROBIN: Yeah. So we were talking before we started recording. The talent pools that I'm working within are very finite. If we're talking about Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisors, there are 60, maybe 70 of those on the planet. I cannot letter bomb all 50 of them with a templated email and expecting a response back from any of them because they'll delete it before they even get-go. So you have to have the ability to understand what these people have done, what their background is, what the connective tissue is, who do you know who knows them that can introduce you. It becomes much more of a social game at some level than just reaching out with a cold email.
MAX: The Netflix culture made a lot of noise emphasizing accountability and performance in the early days. I haven't heard that much about it since. I suppose that would resonate relatively well with creatives because there are also very autonomous people who want to get things done, and who have a strong drive for personal accomplishments. Would you say that's a fair statement or that people kind of rejected corporatism?
ROBIN: Well I think we can't paint with too broad of a brush, this is appropriate for everyone. My experience with the Netflix culture was that it was a great kind of litmus test, right. Every call that I had when I was working there for the three years I did, started with, have you read the Netflix culture memo, what are your thoughts on it? And also sharing that with there were things that were written on that document that was like, Oh, I don't know if I agree with that. I don't think anyone can lock step in with all 52 points that are made on that document. It was a great opportunity, like a conversation icebreaker to talk about where they didn't align. It's one thing and I'm sure you've experienced that in recruiting as well. At some point, with certain levels of candidates, you stop talking about the benefits of the job and you start talking about the challenges, right. You don't say oh this is the best place in the world to work, you start saying, this place has got some challenges we're broken because that's why we need you to come in. That's why we need you to help fix us. That's for a certain type of candidate, the fact that everything is running smoothly is like red meat to a tiger, like, I want that. I want to come in, I want to leave a mark, I want to make a stand, I will make a difference. I want to feel like I've contributed. And if the workplace is seamless, there's no opportunity to do that. So the more challenging an environment is, the more intriguing and interesting that will be to the right level of a candidate.
MAX: Yeah, well let's talk about the recent challenges of your industry where, my mental image of the creatives and the developers, everybody's living in basements, drinking Mountain Dew under green neon lights, and having sleepless nights of coding and gaming. I'm sure it's not exactly like that, but that doesn't sound very COVID-friendly.
ROBIN: No, and I think what this situation has taught us, especially in animation, and in gaming as well, is that the artists no longer have to be in-house, right. They can operate from home, and produce work safely and without there being too big of a hit on our production cycles. For recruiting this means that our talent pools are no longer geographically locked, right. I'm no longer looking for people who are necessarily in Los Angeles based in or in proximity to our studios, and the campuses. It opens the world up, right, especially if you're looking for people to come in and do contract work where we might need seven or eight paintings done or we might need character designer or prop design. All of a sudden we can start looking on a global scale as to where those people are located and track them down and this is when it becomes all-important to candidates to brand themselves. When we started this conversation talking about branding, candidates have to be forward-facing. They have to put themselves out there and they can do that. It's so much easier now than it was in the older days before to the web where you had to send around a portfolio just so you can get work. Now you can create a website, you can utilize social media channels like Tik-Tok, and Instagram to put your artwork out there. You can follow recruiters, and recruiters have Instagram accounts. You can find them, you can follow them, you can interact with them, you can share your work with them, ask for feedback and they won't necessarily give it but it's always good to ask.
MAX: Is there unemployment in your space? Are there animation artists and game developers that are sitting on the bench?
ROBIN: Always, right. A part of that is because we're a finite industry but schools keep graduating students. And that's just, I don't know, in the best of yours we could absorb everybody who's looking to get into the industry. It just doesn't happen. There was a stat, years ago and it was probably still the same, that there were more professional football players in the NFL than there were professional working animators. And that's a fairly accurate parallel because the desire to do something, the desire to be an animator, the desire to be an artist, the desire to be a game developer does not guarantee you employment in that space.
MAX: That's right. Not enough to want it, I don't know what you need, what do you need?
ROBIN: Talent. You don't have the talent to.You can want to be an actor, and you can study all the lines, and you can memorize everything and you can know where to stand, and where the lighting is, but if the performance isn't there, you're never going to be an actor.
MAX: So how do you measure that? Are there some exercises you can submit, for the younger crowd? When you seem to get older you can see their professional outputs but for the younger crowd, are there ways for you to evaluate that talent that can be applied by others?
ROBIN: Certainly. The web has made all this so much easier because you could find, you can type into Google, animators reels, or if you're a prop designer, professional prop designers worksheets, whatever it is, you can type it in there and find examples online of what good looks like. And odds are you can find somebody who's willing to teach, right. Or you can find tutorials that someone's already completed for you, then it's up to you to do the legwork. We're not necessarily concerned about where you go to school or where you have a degree or if you have an advanced degree. We're more concerned if you have talent and you can do the job. And there are a million different pathways to get to that result, you don't have to just go through formal education.
MAX: But those reels, that are online, that's going to be the basis for your evaluation, there's going to be the first interview, get to know each other and then afterward, somebody is going to evaluate your work on its creative merits?
ROBIN: Yeah, normally what we do when we're looking for an artist is we'll go on to Instagram or go on to YouTube or any of these media channels. And we'll just start vetting art, we'll start looking, we'll put in a search engine, right. So we're going to search for you so if you create a profile, you're going to want to use keywords that we can find. That's how we're going to find you. So you can put in animation, you can put in character design, you can put in prop design. Build those out so you're easily searchable. And we're going to gather those up into a database. We're going to then go through that database and that candidates, and it's one of the sad realities that just the mechanics of the process of vetting candidates means we only look at your artwork, for maybe 10 to 15 seconds. Right, so you have to make a fantastic first impression because you won't get a second opportunity to make that work. If we like your work well we'll watch it longer, we'll look at it longer if we don't like your work if your work is really bad, we'll also look at it a bit longer but for a different reason. But that's it, 10 To 15 seconds is all you get. We'll boil those lists down. I think the ratios that I'm comfortable speaking about, for every 50 websites or 50 reels or 50 portfolios we look at, we may find one that we advance.
MAX: Okay, so 2.5% conversion rate.
MAX: I've seen worse.
MAX: And you get to browse Instagram all day, that sounds like a Millennials dream job.
ROBIN: Yeah, but I'm not looking at cat videos necessarily.
MAX: Or other robots or other monsters.
ROBIN: We'll gather those up and we'll take those to the supervisor in that particular discipline and ask them what do you think, and out of that list of 10 or 15, we may get one or two that they like. And then we'll do a phone screen, we'll go grab a phone call with the candidate and just talk to them and try and get a feel for who they are. We've already assessed craft we know you can do the work, then it's about who they are as a candidate. Are they brave, are they timid, just all those things you started looking for because we're casting. Right, that's what we're doing at that point. We're trying to see what's the deficit on the team that I'm looking to fill and how does this person fit into that. Candidates need to understand that, especially first-time emerging talent. But we often hear from emerging talent or when we talk to them is oh I want to be a sponge I just want to come in there and I just want to learn and I just want to be like, I just want to take everything and just take it all in. And that's great, but what are you bringing right. What do you bring to it? If I'm making this meal over here. Right, what's your addition to the menu. How are you going to make us better by your presence, and that can be in your talent, that can be in your feedback, that can be in your personnel. It's a number of factors that they bring, or they can bring to the team to improve that, it's not just their ability to create, especially with emerging talent, we hire primarily. We've seen that you can do it, we don't know if you can necessarily do it again but we hope you can.
MAX: In engineering, there are some fields that are extremely hot, and if you get in early, you will find jobs, you will find work. If you're one of the first developers to build on AWS, and it took off, I'm sure you would find a job in that field if you're one of the first developers building chatbots, your salary would go up by 50% the first year, etc. That there must be still some pockets of grade gaps where somebody has done that and then they get picked up.
ROBIN: It's the less glamorous job like everybody wants to be an animator because animators are actors. And it's performance-based very sexily to see your character come to life on the screen, but there are a number of disciplines. I won't even say support. I almost did it and caught myself. They partner with animators to make that performance possible, right, character riggers that actually take a static model and input the controls that allow it to move, that allows the animator to drive that performance. That's a great career path for somebody who may not have the acting chops, they may not have made the best acting decisions, but they're more technically minded and they have a sculptural mind, they understand that when you bend a finger this is what happens to the skin, and they can duplicate that using technology. People who are proficient in software called Houdini, which builds visual effects, right, now all the visual effects you see out there. All the new kinds of AR and VR technology. So if you can animate or you can work and build visual effects in that new space.
MAX: Does that Houdini software cost an arm and a leg?
ROBIN: Yeah, pretty much. Like real-time, we can't find real-time visual effects artists, that's always an area that just drives us crazy. So further if you can find joy in doing something that someone else doesn't want to, you will never be unemployed. And I think that holds true in our industry as well.
MAX: Yeah, those are good last words. But before we part ways. Robin, I have a question I always ask, and it's kind of shitty of me to end on a sad note but I always like to ask about hiring mistakes made in the past and what we can learn from them. And so I'd ask you to think about one person, without giving a name. One person in particular, where you made a mistake and blew up in your face and in then their face, and what that mistake was? Could you walk us back? One coming to mind?
ROBIN: Sure. Oh immediately. I think every recruiter got like a handful of these like Oh yeah, that one. I'll start with this. If you love chocolate it doesn't necessarily mean you want to work in a factory that makes chocolate. Right. You have to be able to distance yourself from the process of making the product, what the actual product is. And I remember sitting down with a candidate, and his significant other who came into the interview with us, and that's fine. This is a business where the animator is going to be away from home quite a bit working on these projects. And I remember her saying in the course of the interview, to me, Oh, I'm so happy he's done with animation school because the hours were so long and now he'll just have a regular nine to five job. I was young in my recruiting career, and I should have just gone, wait, let's talk about that because that's not the case. And I didn't and we hired him anyway. And I think the first time he went on a 60-70 hour week, it may have put some strain on their relationship that I felt in some way responsible.
MAX: Okay, yeah. We all put our heads in the sand sometimes when we hear something and we just brush it over, that'll be fine.
ROBIN: Yeah, that's a ghost that haunts me. That's one of those 3 am thoughts like god why.
MAX: Well, if their relationship survived it, then it'll be stronger for it.
ROBIN: So the good news is I hired him subsequently a couple of other times and they're together and have kids everyone's been great. Man, you do learn from those experiences, never to just skip over something lightly in an effort to make a hire.
MAX: It was very kind of you to come and share with us the wonderful world of gaming, and studios, and animation, and on the off chance that Houdini developer. Here's our conversation, where can you be reached? Can people connect with you on Instagram or what's the best way to connect?
ROBIN: LinkedIn, I'm old school, right. My Instagram is filled with gardening pics and videos with my grandchildren. But, LinkedIn is the best way to get hold of me and I try to respond to everybody on there. This was my New Year's resolution this year to be very active on LinkedIn so I try to post something every couple of weeks that's related to recruiting and getting a job in animation and sharing whatever I picked up over my 30 years.
MAX: Thanks for sharing with our audience, Robin.
ROBIN: My pleasure.
MAX: Good luck with hiring people from all over the world and making the dreams of these young animators come true.
ROBIN: It's the most fun I've ever had. It's just been the most rewarding career to do that, right. I feel very very fortunate to have had the years I've had.
MAX: That was Robin Lynn, who is in charge of creative recruiting for Activision Blizzard. And who reminded us of how important it is and how useful it can be for a recruiter to know to have sat in the shoes of the candidate and to know their industry jargon and so on. It does make everything go better and the trust builds faster.
So a good reminder for all of us recruiters out there to really know our industry deeply. Hope you enjoyed it. I certainly did. And you'll be back for more, please follow us on the recruitment hackers podcast and share with friends.
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