Evolving the leadership at Sumo to bridge the industry skills gap | Pocket Gamer.biz

Over the past two years, the gaming industry has experienced serious challenges, with many studios laying off staff and restructuring their business. Many of those who have lost jobs are searching for something new, and of course, there are still those looking to enter the industry for the first time.

However, another issue we see is the skills gap within the industry, particularly between those in junior roles acquiring the means to rise into something more senior.

Sumo Group recently announced the launch of a new free careers programme called Evolve. The programme aims to provide developers with a learning experience and grant them crucial management skills that could help them obtain a role in leadership in the future. To discuss the programme further and how the skills gap impacts the industry, we spoke with Jenny Muhlwa, learning & development partner consultant at Sumo Group, to find out more.

PocketGamer.biz: Can you tell us a little about yourself? As someone who specialises in behaviour change, what significant changes do you see in the games industry regarding leadership and guiding new talent?

Jenny Muhlwa: I have a postgraduate in coaching for behavioural change, and I’ve worked in L&D for over 16 years, working with national and international brands – including with Sumo for five. I also have two kids with whom I play Just Dance regularly, but I don’t know how much I can guide their talent there!

The most significant change I see is the need to upskill to keep ahead of new innovations as technology advances. The hard part is that to get people to upskill, you need an engaged workforce. Employees who understand the vision of what is being made, their part to play, and how they can work with others to achieve it.

Creating and maintaining that engagement is really hard, but to have a strong continued success a studio needs to focus on the leadership skills as much as the technical skills.

I believe leaders today need to be equipped with coaching skills rather than traditional management skills. As we advance at a much faster rate than ever before, we need to allow people to bring more of their ideas without needing to be told every step. A leader who can unlock these ideas and motivate them is going to have greater success.

Gen Z is graduating from universities now, but they have completely different demands from the workplace.

Jenny Muhlwa

Sumo Group has just launched a new leadership career programme. Can you tell us a little about what it includes?

Evolve is a course that will provide soft leadership and management skills through a series of virtual workshops run by the learning and development team and experienced Sumo developers. Across these three workshops, the programme offers free and flexible bitesize learning to give people the fundamental skills ahead of their first leadership role.

Each workshop will build confidence in leading and managing teams, give practical frameworks to use right away and gain a sense of community from fellow professionals looking to take their leadership skills to the next level.

The programme is open to people with technical experience in game development who are looking to take their first step into a lead or management position but don’t have easy access to such learning and development opportunities.

The soft skills taught are designed with the future of the workforce in mind. Attitudes to work are changing. Gen Z is graduating from universities now, but they have completely different demands from the workplace. Teaching someone how to be an empathetic leader is hard, but it’s what the industry needs now to accommodate graduate students.

There has been talk of skills shortages within the industry, mainly the skills gap between junior and senior roles. Why do you think this is?

It goes back to what I mentioned about the difference between management and coaching skills. There are lots of amazing leaders in the industry who have incredible technical skills but sometimes, they lack the soft skills necessary to mentor and inspire the next generation of leaders.

You see all over the industry that getting in, to begin with, is normally through being technically competent. However, this doesn’t often mean having great communication and feedback skills, and all these softer skills aren’t often taught at college and university.

When you’re in a junior role and not receiving constructive and actionable feedback, it makes it really difficult to grow over a long period of time. Your technical skills will improve as you work, but leadership skills typically aren’t taught to executives, you haven’t learned them at university, and you can’t pick them up vicariously. That’s the crux of the issue in the games industry. I think we need leaders to teach future leaders, and currently, that isn’t happening as effectively as it should.

How could a careers programme like this help close the skills gap? What are the short- and long-term benefits?

Video games is a passion industry like most entertainment industries, and literally millions of people have a vested interest in making it a success- including us! In the long term, overcoming any hurdle is a good thing for a huge number of people, but Evolve is specifically targeting one of the biggest hurdles that the industry has faced for a very long time. We really want to empower future leaders in the industry to take the next step forward with confidence, enabling them to empower other leaders. Creating that positive cycle of leadership in the industry is how we believe that the skills gap can be solved long term.

In the short term we can’t ignore how turbulent the industry is at the moment. A huge number of people have lost their jobs at the moment – we know Evolve can’t fix what’s been a structural problem in the industry for several years, but it can provide an opportunity for those who’ve lost their jobs to upskill and prepare themselves for the future.

There are very few junior vacancies in video games at the moment, but there are still a lot of vacancies at the senior level. For those who are aspiring for that senior level, Evolve can provide them with the skills needed to make the jump.

I think those are the two main ways leadership courses can close the skills gap in the long and short term- creating a positive cycle of leaders nurturing talent and helping people make the jump to the senior level now.

The point remains that there are still vacancies at the management level, and they are the hardest to fill.

Jenny Muhlwa

You mentioned the industry layoffs; what do you feel are some of the contributing factors to this, and could courses such as this one help individuals gain skills for higher opportunities in the future?

It’s hard to comment on why the industry has suffered so many layoffs because there are so many factors. The industry had a huge boom during COVID-19, where investor money was flowing a lot more freely, but when access to that funding became more restricted, the companies that expanded quickly a couple of years ago are now having to scale down.

I feel like layoffs are more of a consequence of that contraction than anything to do with poor leadership at the mid-senior level, but the point remains that there are still vacancies at the management level, and they are the hardest to fill. Evolve is looking to upskill those ready to make the jump to leading others, which will hopefully help those people find work in the industry they might be newly qualified for.

However, training courses are just one part of addressing a structural problem in the industry, and will likely take a lot of effort from a huge number of studios to remedy in the long term.

If you’d like to get involved with Evolve and shape the future of the industry, please reach out and apply for the course!

More information can be found on the Sumo Group Evolve website, where people can apply to be part of the first cohort.