Tips for Developers Moving Sectors in the Software Industry

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An important career pivot for any developer — whether forced by layoffs or perhaps a desire to start something new — is moving from one industry sector to another. This might even involve a complete change — from gaming to medical instruments, banking to food manufacturing, etc. Regardless, to be attractive to a potential employer, you must not only bring fresh insights but also an encapsulated understanding of the sector you just left.

As developers, we can learn from data from the job we’ve just left, understand how problems manifest through other sectors, and maybe gain insights that can help our careers when moving from one sector to another.

Lessons from the Gaming Sector

I’m well aware that many software developers, whichever sector they toil in now, have thought about working in the games industry — or have experience working in it like I do. For my generation, the games sector was the equivalent of the moon landing: a wonderful, if slightly distant, encouragement. Today, it remains a very observable fast-moving sector, still slightly exotic but much closer to every other part of our industry.

Layoffs have hit everyone in the development community, but gaming has taken the brunt most recently. Around 8,000 employees from the games industry have been laid off this March already, which is approaching the total for the whole of last year. Executives have been placed in many embarrassing situations, even partying with the staff they are about to sack. Many projects have been canceled midway through development.

During COVID, the games industry got a temporary boost as people stayed at home but wanted online ways to entertain themselves or commune with the outside world. This was interpreted by the market as the signal that “now everyone is playing games” and an upward trend was on the way. The industry was ready for Big Money.

The investment money that moved into the industry was now looking for steady growth, not a hidden goldmine. This dictated that big bets on new ideas were highly risky, but existing Intellectual Property (IP) was good. However, the vast majority of middleweight game publishers do not develop much in the way of strong IP. It is notable that the handful of very successful single-player releases have come from companies that have not needed to find new money.

More people were playing games, but once COVID was tamed they had less time and spent what time they had left playing fewer games. So while the sector looked healthy, in fact, it had been hollowed out.

And don’t blame AI, because it has yet to impact gaming. While there has been concern about AI reproduction of existing assets in at least one recent game (Palworld comes to mind), there does not seem to be a strong case that this is a serious issue as yet. There is a strong feeling throughout gaming that straight-up asset copying is beyond the pale, with an acceptance that games improve in an evolutionary style, so some reference to existing material is inevitable.

What Sectors Should You Look at?

While there are constant changes throughout the software industry, they just come faster in games. The likelihood is that even if your customers are less fickle than truculent gamers, as a developer you may have something to learn about what might hit your sector in the not-too-distant future.

If your company or project has latched onto a trend, is it vulnerable to changes in fashion or politics? You can always compete with a company in the same space by just doing what you do better, but when the business environment changes sharply, previous assumptions may no longer apply. COVID appeared to boost the games industry, but was a false signal.

Is the idea behind the company you work in a mighty sandworm, ready to swallow the world, or an idea that may be lost in the next desert storm? The data suggests that the stronger play is to become a platform and develop an ecosystem. The gaming industry is starting to get more out of live service games (like Fortnight) that work closer to platforms.

If your company is in green tech, note that this is highly vulnerable to local political machinations, despite the worldwide trend. Many health trends also wax and wane. Ideas that don’t show safe and constant profits will not attract funds backed by institutional investors. This is why launch is so much easier than growth, just as we have seen with games.

There is a difference between positioning for a potential future and betting on the time it will arrive. Cloud gaming has always seemed inevitable, but even Google got the timing wrong. Companies in the electronic and autonomous vehicles space understand what the future might look like, but not how it will arrive.

The potential for Large Language Model (LLM) based Artificial Intelligence (AI) to transform industries is still moving out of the hype stage. A quick look in the medical sector has the example of early breast cancer scanning being effective, but as the AI could not say “why” it came to its conclusions, the advice often could not be used by medical professionals. Small companies often don’t have the runway to deal with lengthy cultural adjustments.

Tips for Moving Sectors

The term “transferable skills” is too simplistic to be of much use. Coding skills are transferable, but don’t express what you are comfortable with. When you want to take opportunities in a different sector, you need to make it evident that the jump will not be beyond you.

Make sure you spend some time applying your skills to particular types of real-world problems, whether that is using payment systems, reading values from sensors, or running recommendation engines. In whatever sector you move to, businesses need these things. Gamification trends appeared to be a good match for game developers, for instance, especially if they spent time analyzing comparative statistics.

Most computing skills can be applied anywhere, but don’t directly add the type of stakeholder value that an employer may need to see ticked to increase headcount. If a company is experimenting with AI, they want people who can explore options within their setup, not just an expert with one model. Lip service is always given to expertise in something new, but that has to somehow connect to the business as it stands.

So, What Are Employers Looking for?

Employers nearly always value gaining skills from other sectors; which means it’s up to you to prove you can make the jump confidently. If they are looking for people who understand streaming content, never forget they need you to help stream their content. Perhaps you have an angle on efficiency or space saving that would apply. This all helps to remove the friction.

Use as many different tools as you can, as these give potential employers the signal that you are flexible about how you approach problems. It also makes it easier for them to imagine you using their stack. Note that games industry artists are still in demand, and improve their chances by being familiar with more tools — even though they know which ones they prefer.

If you have multiple real-world interests that drive your enthusiasm, these can help an employer understand that what motivates you is more than just the last project you worked on. This is more important when you are looking to move into a sector you have no direct experience in. I always think of Yanis Varoufakis, who started with in-game economies for the games publisher Valve, and then ended up as Minister of Finance in a Greek government.

Of course, studying any other sector can help you understand how the underlying digital world runs alongside the humans who oversee it, and how business problems are usually shared in any part of our industry — even if the responses to those problems differ markedly.

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