Interview with Phillip Gee (EA, University Relations)

Phil Gee, University Relations Manager for EA, was good enough to answer a few of my questions about the EA internship program — by far the largest (and probably oldest) program in the industry, excepting perhaps the console manufacturers. On to the interview:

How long has EA’s college internship program been active?

If my memory serves, almost 10 years to this day.

When the program first started, how many interns did you accept (and in roughly what proportion: engineers, artists, production, business, etc?) How many interns do you accept now?

I’ve only been here for 3.5 years, but from conversations with early alumni of the internship program, I can tell you it was rather small. We had roughly 20-30 interns during the summer, working predominantly at EA Redwood Shores. A little over half (let’s say 60%) worked in game development (art, engineering, production) and the other half were on the corporate side (marketing, finance, IT). Today, our program is a global one; we host approximately 274 interns (fiscal year 2006) with close to 70% of them being in game development.

What were some of the problems that you had to overcome in the beginning?

There were a number of hurdles to overcome in the beginning:

Lack of defined strategy: Our internship program was very ad hoc. Intern requests were submitted without any forethought into what areas of EA would have the greatest need for future hires/talent. There was no formal approval process to ensure that each internship was a “value add” for EA as well as the candidate.

Lack of structure: For quite some time, the university relations program was run by only one person (yours truly). It was extremely difficult to juggle and prioritize all the facets of a well run college program. There was no real commitment from our executive team in regards to college recruiting (developing hiring formulas, dedicated college reqs, committing to a college headcount plan, etc.)

Sink or Swim Culture: Hiring managers were not trained in how to integrate a new intern. Development plans were not created, 360 degree evaluations were not given, mentors were not assigned, etc. The intern was expected to come in and contribute immediately. A very tall order for even the most talented of students, and certainly not the best experience with a top-ranked game development company.

No global buy-in: There were only a handful of studios open to hiring interns when I first came on board. The other locations were reluctant to host any interns for the summer as they were “unproven talent” and the risk of bringing them on board was “too high.”

What were some of your early success stories?

Our intern-to-full-time conversion rate increased more than 38% in FY’03 vs. FY’02. It was a great win — our managers were beginning to realize the capabilities of college interns, and how effective they could be with a little bit of direction and guidance.

EA Academy was ranked one of the Top 10 internships by Random House. We never applied for this honor; they selected us from thousands of companies based solely on notoriety, student questionnaires, and interviews.

We also tripled the amount of interns in FY’03 vs. FY’02, and secured additional university relations resources at EA Maxis and EA UK to help continue the accelerated growth of the program.

How has the program had to change as it has grown in size? Has the growth made it difficult to manage, and how have you dealt with that?

Our program has certainly changed with growth. In my opinion, most if not all of changes have been positive. We now have a formal process and strategy in place, with hiring and conversion targets. Our ability to track, measure and report on our results has given us the ability to quantify the benefits of having an internship program. Last but not least, we have implemented an intern manager training program to educate and promote that fact that all of our interns are hired with an emphasis on education first rather than merely employment.

There are challenges to keeping our program fairly universal across all locations. We want to ensure that each and every intern has the same high-quality experience regardless of the team they work for and location. When you globalize the internship program, this becomes even more difficult.

What would you say is the single most important thing to running a successful internship program?

Without a doubt, the most important thing is that you develop the program around the common goal of ensuring that it benefits the intern more than the employer. It is vital to the success of the program that interns are assigned challenging work that will allow them to continue to learn, develop, and hone their skills. Ensuring that our interns are allowed the opportunity to get hands on experience with the latest tools or development methods allows them to prepare for careers in the interactive entertainment industry. Our internship program is our core pipeline for future hires. We hope that if given a great experience over the summer, they will want to return to work with EA in a full time capacity post graduation.

EA is presumably flooded by intern candidates. What do you do to weed through them as efficiently as possible?

We always consult the almighty Magic 8 Ball! Just kidding….

We have a number of tools that we use to screen candidates. First and foremost is our applicant tracking system. When students apply through our online jobs page, their resumes are filtered by the system based upon skills sets and defined parameters we set for the particular position. From there, The UR team acts as a secondary filter to further refine our candidate pool. We present only the best candidates to our hiring managers to review. It is a lot of work on our end but well worth it based on the results we have seen so far.

What do you do to make sure that interns get as much out of their experience as you get out of them?

There are a number of things we do to ensure that our interns get the full benefit from their time with us. For example:

  • Ensuring that the assignments given to interns promote a learning experience.
  • Having interns partner with their respective managers to finalize/approve their development plans.
  • Assigning a mentor to assist in ensuring that the intern succeeds in achieving all the goals in their development plan.
  • Soliciting and reviewing evaluations from both their managers and mentors.
  • Conducitng weekly one-on-one meetings with manager/mentor.
  • Hosting a weekly speaker series, in which interns meet and interact with some of the most influential people at EA.

Some companies believe that it just isn’t worth taking a college student for a summer; that the ramp-up period is too long to justify the effort. You clearly disagree with this. Why?

We have realized that the talent pool for individuals with game development experience is finite and as such, growing them from within is the only choice. Our internship program has provided a number of benefits over these past few years. Most notably:

  • The fresh perspective and innovation they bring to the development process.
  • The investment made in our interns is advanced training for future employment. Their ramp up time is reduced significantly, once they join us in a full-time employment capacity.
  • Our talent pipeline gets built up.
  • We generate great PR on campus when students return to school and share their experiences with classmates and professors.

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