Outfit7's Milena Dolenc Talks People Strategy & Tips for Job-Seeking

Outfit7 Group's Vice President of HR Milena Dolenc, 2D Artist Jude Christoper Roxas, and Tech Artist Maria Fontes spoke about team dynamics at the studio, explained how to create a welcoming atmosphere at the studio, and shared some advice for aspiring developers.

Introduction

80.lv: Please introduce yourself. Where did you study? How did you join the team? 

Milena Dolenc, VP of HR at Outfit7 Group: At the start of my professional life, I studied psychology at the University of Belgrade, with an eye to making that my profession. HR wasn’t really on my radar in the same way – at that time, companies were looking at employees as resources, and the HR team kind of handled admin. It was when that perception shifted, and it was recognized that people are the most important part of any business, that I started falling in love with HR. 

I was already working in HR in the gaming industry when I met the team from Outfit7. This was back in 2017. For me, this industry had everything – amazing people, great projects, and a fun and creative atmosphere. What more could I ask for? And I wasn’t actually looking to move companies at the time. But we met at a conference and the team asked me to come out to Slovenia for a visit. I was actually planning to say no, but the team was so enthusiastic and, before I knew it, I was moving to Slovenia and starting a whole new life with Outfit7! When I met the team, I just knew I had to be involved. It was such a dynamic group, with such a passion for what they were doing! I wanted to be part of it, and it would be a great professional and personal challenge too, which really excited me. There were just so many possibilities. 

Outfit7's Teams and Projects

80.lv: How is work organized at Outfit7? Could you tell us about different teams? What projects you are proud of the most?

Milena Dolenc: We’re constantly growing at Outfit7 – it’s been that way since we started back in 2009. This means that teams are constantly growing and things are changing. At our core though, some things never change. We put a premium on open, honest, and direct communication, and since we’re a global company with offices around the world, we communicate virtually to stay connected. So we use emails, Slack, Discord, and video calls – all this means we can stay together even while apart. 

And there’s not a lot of formal hierarchy at Outfit7. People really work together as a team, and titles aren’t that important. Communication and information are shared as transparently as possible. We have quarterly and weekly meetings with the whole company, for example, where we cover company news and developments, meet newcomers, and answer questions. 

In terms of day-to-day work, our teams are organized functionally – so experts lead teams. This means that your manager is usually a mentor who can help you level up, and learn and achieve more in the process. But we also work cross-functionally on all our projects, which is part of the beauty of how we work. Different disciplines bring different perspectives, so when you bring all of those perspectives together, we can learn a lot from each other and we can really achieve great things together. This happens and resonates deeply at all levels of the company. It’s part of our DNA. Of course, as we get bigger, things get more complicated, and we need more time for alignments and follow-ups. But it also essentially means that we have more ideas and more perspectives to benefit from, which is a great thing.

I think that’s why it’s quite hard for me to pick only a few projects that I’m proud of! There are so many. And it’s never siloed either – people are involved from all over the company, even on projects they’re not directly connected to, which is amazing. In HR, for example, I can’t think of any big projects that didn’t involve a working group of people from all the various disciplines who helped with ideas and troubleshooting, and implementation. And this happens across the company. Take game tests, for example. I’m in HR, so you’d think I wouldn’t be involved in this, but I am – we all are! This reaching across the company to help, share knowledge and ideas, and boost each others’ creativity, makes us feel connected and proud of what we as a company achieve.

Jude Christoper Roxas, 2D Artist: I am most definitely proud of My Talking Angela 2!  It is also the very first project that I worked on from scratch so that makes it even more special. It gave me chances to test out new things and techniques to make our UI workflow a lot more efficient and optimized. The game turned out to be something really big and modern without losing its appeal and connection to the players of the original My Talking Angela game. The game turned out to be really fun, bubbly, and just so full of energy! And it’s always nice to hear from my little nephew and nieces about how much they enjoy the game. I used to play the original game with them when they were younger and it feels good to work on the sequel to the game that they really love and I’m sure that kids around the world also feel the same love for our little Angela! 

Important Skills

80.lv: What skills do you consider when hiring a new specialist? Are there any particular soft skills that are important to your team?

Milena Dolenc: I think of it, rather than hard or soft skills, as a mindset. When we’re hiring, we look for people who’d be a great fit with our team and our culture. For a long time, this “Outfit7 mindset” as we call it was just a feeling. But we tried to verbalize it, and we came up with a few ideas of what it meant to us. It’s partly about passion – and it’s not just about what people do, but what they’re excited about. I’m a real geek, so I always liked fantasy worlds and all sorts of board and video games. That’s part of the reason I love working in gaming! I get to help, in my way, create new worlds of fun for players. For me, this passion and love for gaming meant I was plugged into the world – I knew what was going on, and there were things I wanted to try and new things I wanted to learn. This curiosity and desire to learn and improve goes hand-in-hand with passion. You always want to learn, try new things, and be better. So that’s a big, big part of it for us. 

The second thing is empathy and caring. We’re one big team here, so it’s important internally, and it’s vital for our work externally. We are creating products for our players – we want to understand them, connect with them, and make things that they like. And with caring, of course, comes open-mindedness. You care about and appreciate the feelings and perspectives of other people. 

So we’re looking for people who are passionate about what they do, who care about others and the product, and who are achievers. They have an urge to do more. If they see an issue, they’ll act on it and make it happen. They’re not afraid to take on a challenge. They take responsibility and run with it! 

Creating a Welcoming Atmosphere

80.lv: How do you make sure that beginners feel welcomed and safe at the studio? How do you help them build a common understanding with other teammates?

Milena Dolenc: This is a big focus for us. For juniors, we always try to make it clear that we understand how they feel. After all, we were all juniors and we remember how it felt! We’ve been there, done that, and lived to talk about it! We want to connect with them on this level so they truly know that we don’t expect them to have all the answers. They’re here to learn. And they can trust they will be cared for and accepted for who they are – they are welcome here, and part of our team. 

In terms of support, they also have a buddy (a member of the team to show them the ropes), as well as a mentor and a manager (often they’re the same person) to help drive their career long-term. During the early stages, we encourage questions, prepare a plan, give them feedback, and pay attention to give them the support they need. 

For more senior members of the team, we try to tailor our approach to suit the individual. And we’re not just talking administratively. Sometimes, yes, we’re helping them handle relocation for them and their family. But it goes deeper and further than that. It might be connecting them with an arts or sports organization that might interest them, based on what we know about them. Or putting them in touch with our expat community (they do some awesome things together). It’s a very customized process that’s essentially about getting to know them as much as they are getting to know us. And supporting them in the best, more relevant, way for them.

80.lv: Do you consider freedom an important part of your environment? Can artists suggest new strategies and workflows? Can they affect strategic decisions?

Milena Dolenc: Freedom is a big part of any creative enterprise. You can’t be creative unless you feel empowered and able to experiment, make mistakes, try new things and think outside the box. And that means sharing ideas and pushing back if you think something’s not right. We’re all working towards shared goals so we always want to hear everyone’s opinions. For us, it’s all about the power of argument, not the argument of power. So while management drives strategy, we all have a part to play – we’re all involved. That’s why whenever any new development happens or a new strategy is implemented or a change happens, it’s communicated openly and honestly. It’s important people understand why things are happening because we are all in this together. And the more they know, the more they are empowered to get involved and contribute.

Jude Christoper Roxas: Freedom is definitely important in my work environment, and I am very happy that having this mindset is an integral part of our team. We are encouraged to think of ideas that do not follow the norm and It helps us to think more creatively and not be stuck with the trends but rather to be potentially a trendsetter as well in the field. 

Our teams vary and collectively do amazing things, and we constantly work a lot with each other so we always think of new ways to develop new strategies and workflows for sure! We regularly have these meetings called Retrospectives which assess how we worked on projects as a whole within a certain timeframe to give us valuable insights on what we did well, what we would like to continue doing, and of course what we would like to improve and how to achieve them. We constantly work on new things and new teams: it is very dynamic! So it is no surprise that we get more ideas for improvements as we get to work with different people, with different styles, and different workflows but guided with the same goal: make an awesome game that we will all be proud of!

Maria Fontes, Technical Artist/Rigger: In short, yes. To work in a company where you feel comfortable enough to state your opinion and suggest ideas or different ways to do something is something that I value a lot. Doesn't mean that everything you suggest is going to be implemented but you know that it will be taken into consideration and that's invaluable. I can't even describe how much that helps when you are someone that has a bit of trouble speaking their mind. You end up being in an environment that helps you improve that part of yourself.

I really like that we are free to learn and even encouraged to do so. For example, the fact that I already did a rigging course; I joined recently and will do another in October - with lots of support given by my manager and mentor. And even if I wanted to do another one that is not precisely related to rigging, it would be okay too.

Managing Burnout

80.lv: How do you manage burnout? What strategies do you use? What do you do to keep the employees' mental health balanced?

Milena Dolenc: This has been a hot topic in recent years and, let’s be honest, the pandemic didn’t help things for a lot of people! With deadlines and project-based work, it’s easy to see why the fast-paced entertainment and gaming industries can prime people for burnout, especially when that’s all compounded with lockdowns, working from home, childcare, and things like that. For us, again, it’s about creating a personal approach. To do this, we make sure that our managers usually look after teams of around four to eight people. We want to keep it small so managers can have genuine relationships with their teams. Even with HR partnering, we try to keep it small too – with HR partners working with 60-80 people, rather than the usual 100 people or more. We want to be able to craft custom approaches and meaningfully support people. 

What we try to do first and foremost is make sure people feel safe. Work tasks aren’t paramount – people are the most important thing. And we are all in this together. That’s the foundation we start from. Building on that, we try to respond to peoples’ individual needs. Some people, for example, dealing with issues like burnout, find talking to be effective, and we encourage that. Sometimes professional help is beneficial, sometimes an extended period on sick leave, or a sabbatical is what’s required. We support them in whatever way they need. And we make sure that they feel safe to seek our assistance, to be open with us, and we reassure them that their job is secure. It’s important they know they can take the time they need and get the help they need, and all the while we will save a place for them. We will be here when they’re ready to return.

We also try to be open and aware day to day. With high achievers, particularly ones who are passionate about what they do, there is always the possibility that they will push too hard for too long. That is something we’re aware of, and with our smaller teams, it’s something that we can watch out for. We can then check in with them, and make sure they’re alright. We also host talks and workshops about this issue as a way to raise awareness. Our culture is open, and we encourage people to talk to each other and listen, and they are a really wonderful group. Everyone looks out for each other as well. We had a game designer recently, who noticed that team morale was taking a hit while they were working on a new jewelry-making feature, and she organized an IRL jewelry-making workshop! It reinvigorated the team and brought back the fun. 

Approach to Education

80.lv: How do you approach education? How do you train your staff and motivate them to level up?

Milena Dolenc: Learning and development opportunities are a big part of the career growth plans we craft with our teams. In addition to the mentoring and on-the-job training we provide juniors, we also host internal workshops, talks, and knowledge-sharing events. We also get our people into conferences and external training that are beneficial. And the team themselves is very much encouraged to follow the industry events and opportunities and request training they recognize as beneficial. If there is a need or growth opportunity we will always support the participation, both financially and organizationally.

COVID

80.lv: What's your take on the COVID situation? How did it change your team dynamics? What did you have to modify? 

Milena Dolenc: Covid changed so much for so many people, and we weren’t immune. But we were privileged in that we were already working with our teams in different locations around the world. So we were already in a mindset where we used digital communication tools to connect with our teams, wherever they were. And we had the infrastructure to support it, including flexible working arrangements. The situation with the pandemic just meant we had to push our efforts further. 

Like everyone, we had to adapt though. So we had to work harder to onboard newcomers so they felt part of the team, for example. We had to learn new skills, and figure out how to work completely remotely – and manage people completely remotely. It was challenging, but we learned, and we keep learning as things progress. And now things are changing again, with workplaces opening up. Here, we felt it was important not to set rules about when people should be in the office. We left it to the individual teams to arrange it among themselves. After all, different roles have different requirements. And different schedules! We’re seeing a lot more people choosing to come into the office lately, and we do understand. There are some things, even with great tools and communication, that are just better face-to-face, like brainstorming. And then there are some times when it’s much better to work in your own home, so it’s up to teams to decide what works for them. And alongside that, we’re working to adapt our workplaces to suit better how we work now, and what our employees need.

Tips for Beginners

80.lv: Could you share some tips for artists looking to work at your studio? What should they focus on?

Milena Dolenc: For juniors, my advice is just to try! I know you might be afraid that you’re not good enough or that you don’t stand a chance, but I promise, you’ll get a great experience out of it! And don’t worry about not having enough experience – we don’t expect it. Share what you do for fun, for yourselves, and for your education. Create concepts for a whole new world, or take your favorite character and upgrade it. Take what you’re passionate about and interested in, and put it in a portfolio to show us what you can do! And even if you’re not successful this time around, we will be supportive and give you valuable feedback! And feedback and experience will help make you better, and help you find your ideal job.

For more senior individuals, I would just say to take your time and choose wisely. Right now, there are loads of opportunities in the gaming and entertainment industries. You need to find the environment that suits you the best – somewhere you can work on projects that interest you, and where you can be yourself, both as a professional and as a person. 

Jude Christoper Roxas: Having a solid portfolio definitely helps. It is important to display works that focus on the job you’d be most interested to continue working on here. Show how you work by sharing sketches and initial ideas and work your way up to show the final output as people are generally interested in behind the scenes! Let your portfolio do most of the talking about your skills and abilities. (Tip: prepare an offline PDF version of your portfolio as well. This way, if the system fails in your domain, they can still have another way to check out your works. And it will be printer friendly if in case art directors and recruiter need to do it!)

Also, don’t be scared to reach out even if we don’t have any positions open at a certain time for the thing you want the most! When I applied for Outfit7, they didn’t have any open positions that I initially wanted to work with as a concept artist, so I sent them an open application but didn’t really expect any answers from them at the beginning. But oh boy they proved me wrong. After a few weeks, I got an email from one of the HR Partners that gave me 2 options: I can continue with my open application for concept artist by keeping my portfolio in their talent pool and wait for any open positions OR to apply for another position as a UI artist since they noticed that I have a solid background in UI design. They wanted to see the possibility of where this will go. I really didn’t think about that route at first, but little did I know that this will be the start of something more exciting for me. I gave it a go, tailored a new application for the UI designer position and after a series of tests and interviews, I am now working with an awesome team for more than 3 years now!  It gave me a new sense of direction, and I was able to grow not only as an artist because I gained new knowledge and a deeper understanding of this expertise – I learned so much about UI/UX Design, Unity Implementation, and hopefully soon more about UI animation. Overall, the experience gave me a lot of new things to be passionate about and I’m loving the experiences a lot!

Even if your original plan might not work at the beginning, trust me that there are a lot of doors that you can open in this field. Trust the process and trust in the things you can do and it will be easier for others to see the things you’re capable of and they will always be there to support you.

Maria Fontes: Learn everything you can about the company you are applying to. Check what type of work they do, so you know what type of projects you should have in your portfolio. You can check the art style and show that you can do a similar one and also add some other projects of yours. In case you do something more technical, for example, we work with mobile, so show projects that were made for the same medium.

The Outfit7 Team

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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