Q. Breathing life and making people look great? Sounds pretty selfless. What do you do for yourself in your spare time?
Tam Armstrong is a man who knows what he wants out of life. From work to relaxation, a major portion of his passion lies in developing games. And if you've been consuming previously published "Breaking In" interviews you're already well aware - passion can pay dividends.
Speaking of payments, we owe Tam a debt of gratitude for taking a few minutes out of his busy schedule to answer a handful of our not-so-pressing questions. Read on to see how an interviewee can once again steal the show. Tam's brought his A game.
Q. Who are you and what do you do?
A. My name is Tam Armstrong and I am an animation engineer. My job is to support our animators in their quest to breathe life into the characters and machines that occupy our game world. This can involve things like helping to make sure the correct animations play at the proper time, making gun turrets and characters aim the way they are supposed to, or to make a player look great when she is ripping around on the Mongoose. Artificial intelligence and animation are often closely interacting in game code, so my job also involves a little bit of work on AI systems from time to time. I have worked as an AI programmer doing some animation work in the past, so I love both areas.
A. Game development is my main hobby, something I even do at home in my free time. It gives me the perfect balance of technical and creative expression I need. In addition to that I enjoy in no particular order: reading well written books of all genres to broaden my outlook, snowboarding through back-country for feeling like I can fly, kickboxing because it uses every ounce of your focus and energy, playing video games to relax, riding my motorcycle to be free, and brewing beer with my friends because you end up standing around talking for hours.
Q. That's quite the complete list. Complete the following sentence as you would have at twelve years of age: When I grow up, I want to be a…
A. Game developer. That would be about the age I started teaching myself to program from the game development books I had found at the library and the excellent Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon. Before that I had been drawing out levels for a Mario-like game I wanted to make on notebook paper. I remember my game had something to do with time travel… this allowed me to fit the awesomeness of dinosaurs, medieval knights, mutants and laser weapons all into the same game. I had sheets for all four stages in each of my eight levels, plus pages for all of the enemies and characters. I saved all of that in a folder for quite a long time, so hopefully I can find it sometime and frame it.
Q. Wow. That's a pretty early start. Did your High School Guidance Counselors agree with your early assessment?
A. I honestly don’t remember. I had already decided what I was going to do and which university I wanted to attend so by that time I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to what anybody else’s suggestions might have been. This was still prior to the time when games had started being compared against the success of Hollywood, so several people questioned the intelligence of dedicating myself to such a pursuit. My parents were always supportive though, which helped make it easy for me to ignore the rest.
Q. And did you go on to earn a college diploma?
A. I earned a degree in Computer Science as well as one in Applied and Computational Mathematical Sciences from the University of Washington. Going to school was a great experience because it taught me how to learn and how to teach myself. It also taught me how to get incredibly focused in order to achieve my goals. Finally, school opened my eyes to the idea that I can really understand how any system works piece by piece if I set my mind to it. Once you realize that, a lot of problems that sound huge and intimidating can be broken down into little ideas that you can understand and build back up.
Q. Two degrees? Impressive. Most impressive! When did you first come into contact with Bungie?
A. A good friend of mine knows one of the lead engineers here at Bungie. I sent this lead engineer an email with a link to my work history and asked whether it would be too much trouble to get lunch sometime. He obliged me, and I spent that entire lunch asking questions about Bungie. I asked what the work environment is like, how the team is structured, who gets which responsibilities…basically everything I could think of to make sure that Bungie was the place for me. Making great games is one very important part of the equation, but it is also extremely important to love your job and the environment you work in on a day to day basis. If you are serious about working somewhere it is just as important for you to interview them as it is for them to interview you.
Q. Good advice. What about the interview? Did you bring anything along besides pertinent questions.
A. Bandages and aspirin! I wrecked my bicycle two days prior and tore up my right hand, elbow, and hip pretty good. I had planned to go on a bike ride past Bungie to make sure I knew where it was for the upcoming interview, but I crashed on the way there. Luckily I didn’t have any serious injuries and the adrenaline pumping through my system from the interview definitely took my mind off of it. I wore a long-sleeve shirt to hide the bandages with the hope that people wouldn’t think I was trying to inspire pity.
Q. Outside of the pre-interview, preparatory bike crash, was there one moment in the interview process itself that sticks out?
A. The interview is kind of a blur, but I do remember having fun and being challenged the whole time. Everybody I talked to was great, and if I had any doubts about whether Bungie would be the right place for me before I went in they were gone by the time I was done. The part I remember the most clearly was the tour at the end. There was a lot of excitement in being invited to see the inside of the secretive studio. I got to meet more great people, and see the inside of a biometrically secured server room which was very cool.
Q. Now that you've not only toured, but embedded yourself into the studio, describe in a single sentence what it’s like to work at Bungie.
A. It feels like being a rockstar in a famous band where everybody is amazing at what they do and you want to bring your A game every day.
Q. Any amazing advice for aspiring rockstars and/or applicants on developing their own A game?
Study your core subjects. Know your key areas well enough so that you can explain the concepts and mechanics to another person confidently. This is true regardless of the type of job. If you can’t communicate what you know there may be no way for the person interviewing to determine your knowledge independently. Remember that the interviewer is not looking to see you fail. Your interviewer wants to collect enough positive information to make the smart decision to hire you. If you find yourself not getting an offer, don’t think of it as not being good enough. It might mean that you need to improve those communication skills. It might mean that you need to study a particular subject a bit more. It might mean that you just need more experience first. What it doesn’t mean is that you can’t get there. Plenty of people fail before they succeed; it is the people who don’t give up that make it in the end.
Once again, thanks to Tam for taking time out to guide interested parties and wayward applicants along the balance beam - it's pretty clear he has an expert command of his key areas and core subjects. If you read along and think you have the talent it takes to work at Bungie, and you want to take your shot at explaining some concepts and mechanics confidently in an interview - bandaged limbs and otherwise - why not hit the Jobs page and test your mettle? We're hiring.