Interview by Adriane Kuzminski
Hello, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Ariel Gross (AG) – Hey! Sure! I’m Ariel! Greetings! Salutations! Thank you so much for inviting me to chat with you.
I’ve been working in game development, mostly in audio, since 1996. I’ve also carved out a little niche for myself due to my fascination with things like organizational culture, leadership, psychology, and sociology. My nose is always in some book or article, studying what it is that motivates us, makes us feel like we’re better people, and gives our lives meaning. That’s part of why I felt like it was important to start The Audio Mentoring Project.
The Audio Mentoring Project (AMP) was recently launched this year, the week before GDC. Could you tell us a little about the program and its creation?
(AG) – Yes! The Audio Mentoring Project is a council of game audio developers that promote healthy professional relationships within our field by coordinating and facilitating one-on-one mentorships.
It was at GDC 2016 when I made a personal commitment to bringing the AMP to life. I gave a microtalk about leadership at that conference, and it must have struck a chord, because so many people afterwards, in many cases complete strangers, started opening up to me about their struggles. It was inspiring and it also made me realize how far we still need to go in this industry. I’d had the idea to set up a framework for mentoring for a couple years before that, but that’s what tipped the scales.
After GDC 2016, I wrote a brief manifesto and started sharing it with maybe 20 or so game audio friends that I knew and trusted. The response was encouraging: Tons of great criticism that helped refine the message and the process. Tons of healthy debate and thought-provoking questions. Some people bowed out, others stepped in. Over the course of the next year, we collaborated on building a website, documentation, and processes, and we launched right before GDC 2017.
That purity of intent resonated with the core group and I think it’s what is resonating with the game audio community.
What really resonated with everyone was the purity of intention. This wasn’t about making money. This wasn’t about publicity or personal advancement. Quite the opposite. It was about volunteering and helping people for nothing in return except maybe making new friends. That purity of intent resonated with the core group and I think it’s what is resonating with the game audio community.
Mentors, apply here – mentees, apply here
The project sounds like it has a lot of passion behind it – the kind that comes from valuing everyone in a community no matter how new they are to it. What were your experiences with mentorship when you were first starting your career?
(AG) – When I was first starting out, I didn’t have direct access to anyone doing game audio professionally, so I pretty much winged it. I would have done anything to have someone guiding me in those early days.
Volition was the first place I worked where I had consistent one-on-one meetings with project and studio leadership. Because I didn’t have a lot of professional guidance before that, I took advantage of the time I was given with people more experienced. I would prepare before my one-on-one meetings, coming in with updates and questions and things to discuss. I still do.
I’m the type of person that seeks mentorship out. I’ll find someone successful that I can learn from and will do whatever I can to spend time with that person. The people who’ve mentored me have made a hugely positive impact on my life.
Are there any trends in the industry that AMP is hoping to start or improve?
(AG) – The game audio community is already pretty inclusive, but there’s still evidence that some people are still having a hard time reaching in for any number of reasons. We want to create a psychologically safe environment for women and other underrepresented groups. We would like to play a part in increasing the diversity in our field.
It’s also completely free, and that’s by design. Just because people have no money doesn’t mean that they don’t have a ton of potential, right? We’d like to help those people as well, as they often have more on the line and the most to gain from these sorts of initiatives.
Ultimately this project is about leveling people up across the entire industry. The AMP is not a school or a business. With the AMP, mentoring is not a teacher-to-student relationship, nor is it a supervisory relationship. This is something that I feel is important and sets us apart. We promote the idea that the mentor and the mentee are peers. Two human beings on equal footing. It’s just that one of them is going to be more experienced in some area than the other.
Entry-level candidates will be better prepared. People who are already working in the industry can fast-track their growth with a mentor. And mentors will get a new perspective.
Because of the AMP, our entry-level candidates will be better prepared. People who are already working in the industry can fast-track their growth with a mentor. And mentors will get a new perspective and will grow a ton, too. We’ve already seen it happening. Everyone wins with this.
I hope this project inspires lots of people to do other cool stuff that we haven’t thought of yet!
As far as the nuts and bolts of AMP, is the mentorship program for sound designers, musicians, audio programmers, voice actors, or all of the above?
(AG) – The vast majority of applications that we’ve seen, both for mentors and mentees, have been in the fields of sound design and composition. We do have audio programmer candidates on both sides as well. I would say when in doubt, apply!
The project as it is right now does not include voice acting. We have, however, been able to arrange for mentorships in the areas of voice recording and editorial. That’s not to say that we won’t expand into that field in the future, though!
Is there a limit on age or level of experience?
(AG) – Everyone is encouraged to apply as a mentee. We believe that there’s a mentor out there for everyone. There’s definitely no age limit. And there’s not really an experience limit, either. We’ve had some working professionals apply for mentorship, and we will absolutely be able to accommodate them because of the caliber of the people that have applied as mentors.
Anyone can apply to be a mentor as well. Don’t worry if you’re less experienced. The primary reason that the AMP Volunteer Council exists is to make sure that the mentorship is appropriate, so let us be the judge of whether we think there’s someone that you can mentor. Apply! Do it!
Could you run us through the application process for both parties?
(AG) – If you’re looking to be mentored, you’d go to our website at audiomentoring.com, and then click ‘Apply For Mentorship’ on the menu at the top. We ask you to agree to our Code of Conduct, and then you fill out the application. It’s the same process to apply to become a mentor. You just click the ‘Be A Mentor’ button instead.
After that, the Volunteer Council reviews every application, both for mentee and mentor, and we each use our own individual criteria to prioritize the applications. This is very challenging, but it’s also super important, considering the experience level of most of our mentors. Not to mention that there are triple the number of people looking for mentorships than there are mentors that have applied.
Then we start looking for patterns between what the mentees say they’re looking for in a mentorship and the skill and experience of the mentors. Once we make a match, we start the introduction process. First we reach out to the mentor to get their availability and to propose the potential mentee. Then we make the introduction over email and get the ball rolling for the first call.
We also send across a few key documents, including discrete guidebooks for the mentor and the mentee. The guidebook gives each of them an agenda and some tools for the first call. And everyone is given methods to reach the Volunteer Council, since we’re here to help.
As far as time commitments and duties, what sort of responsibilities should mentors and mentees expect in each phase of the program?
(AG) – That’s entirely up to the mentor and the mentee. The minimum commitment of Phase A is four hours over a couple months. This provides plenty of flexibility. For example, one pair may just do the calls and nothing in between. Another pair might put together something to present before the next call. It’s really up to both to decide, though we encourage the mentor to take a non-judgmental approach toward whatever the mentee may want to get out of the mentorship.
For Phase B, so far we’ve seen a lot of collaboration on demo reel materials. It might be that the mentor helps the mentee put together a cool tutorial video on some audio software. Or it could be that the mentee will do some critiques of a sound replacement demo. It could also be that the mentor and mentee collaborate on making a virtual instrument, or it could be a series of fake job interviews, or doing some research together. Sky’s kinda the limit on Phase B as long as both people are still into it!
Once the final interviews and projects are finished, where will they be posted? What do you hope to encourage by sharing them with the community?
(AG) – When the interviews and projects are finished, they aren’t necessarily posted publicly anywhere, but if both the mentor and the mentee would like to have them posted, we will post them through typical channels like SoundCloud and YouTube. We have recorded interviews but haven’t yet done anything with them publicly, only because we’re trying to focus our attention on arranging for awesome mentorships.
What we’d hope to encourage with the interviews and projects is participation. We want people to get involved, and we think that showing some results from these mentorships will inspire some people.
How can mentees, who might be nervous about sharing their personal goals and insecurities, prepare to interact with their mentors? What kind of self-analysis should they do?
(AG) – Our guidebooks really help with this. We give the mentee a big list of things to reflect on before the first call. And then we give the mentors a bunch of questions that are geared toward those things that the mentee has been reflecting on. We do a lot to get the relationship started on the right foot.
For example, we ask mentees questions like, what made you get into audio? What games, movies, etc., have you been into recently? What is your dream project? If you could work at any game studios, which ones would you choose? We provide over a dozen questions in the guidebook that help make sure that the duo has plenty to talk about on the first call (or two).
One additional thing, we do ask is for people to also be considerate of the other person’s privacy. For example, in the guidebooks we ask the mentor and the mentee to check with the other before disclosing any details of the mentorship over social media.
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How are mentors and mentees paired together? And since you have more mentees applying than mentors, how do you select candidates?
(AG) – We realized pretty quickly that we needed to come up with a way to choose who gets mentorships, and we wanted to try to create a high likelihood for a match that would be beneficial for everyone. We want these mentorships to benefit the mentee, the mentor, the AMP, and the entire game industry. For that reason, we decided not to go with a lottery approach.
It’s all done by hand. A whole bunch of us look at every single application, for both mentees and mentors, and we discuss it on our calls and over email, and we look for patterns, and we simulate what a mentorship might look like between this person and that. And then we make a judgment call and start sending emails. Each member of the Volunteer Council is able to voice their opinion on candidates and to contribute to the prioritization of who gets selected for mentorships. I will say that the Volunteer Council for the AMP consists of some of the most thoughtful, conscientious, and caring people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Each person has been hand-picked, each person provides their perspective, and we all pour ourselves into this process. We want it to be as awesome as possible.
What happens if a mentee cannot be paired with a mentor immediately?
What steps can they take to be involved later on?
(AG) – Rather than leaving people hanging indefinitely, we have a process for advising people to reapply again at a later date, usually within three to six months from the date of the email. But when we send that email, we also provide them with guidance on how to improve their chances next time, and we also give them a document filled with helpful resources and study materials.
We have a section on our Application Best Practices page that provides a bit of guidance on that topic. The big ones are to make progress before and between applications and to make your application as compelling as possible. If you’re asked to reapply at a later date, don’t take it personally, but do ask yourself what you can do to improve yourself before the next time you apply.
Put the best version of yourself forward in your application, and always be honest!
Other than seeking out mentorship, do you have any advice for how aspiring sound designers can take control of their careers and creativity?
What do you want out of your life? What’s important to you? What are you grateful for? … The idea is to know where you stand so that you can be more intentional about your choices.
(AG) – I think there’s something magical about putting pen to paper. Try taking a notebook to somewhere that you can have a good think, and ask yourself questions. What do you want out of your life? What’s important to you? What are you grateful for? How can you make a difference? How do you get from where you are today to where you want to be? What’s standing in your way? Try writing it all down by hand. At least once every few months, ask those questions again and repeat the exercise. The idea is to know where you stand so that you can be more intentional about your choices.
Finally, what are some of the future goals of AMP, and what challenges do you foresee?
(AG) – The biggest challenge now is that it launched with a bigger splash than we were prepared for. We had a small press release and the Volunteer Council pointed people to it on social media, but we didn’t do an all-out blitz by any means. But here we are with hundreds of applications and a small team of working volunteers trying to make our way through it! We’re working on that right now.
We’ve all talked quite a lot about where the AMP could go in the future. Those discussions are really fun and we have documented all sorts of truly wonderful ideas, and with the momentum that we have, I believe that we will be expanding into those ideas soon.
But we have not yet strayed even one inch from our purpose, which is to arrange for awesome mentorships. That’s the dream that we sold, that’s what we’ve promised to our applicants, that’s our mission to the world, so all the other awesome ideas will have to wait, as tough as it is to avoid the shiny objects!
Thank you very much for speaking with us and for starting this much-needed initiative! If people would like to learn more about the Audio Mentoring Project, where can they go?
(AG) – Our website is audiomentoring.com. That’s where you can read about our process and fill out an application. We’re also on Twitter at @audiomentoring and on Facebook. If you message us on any of these platforms, you will get a response.
But the most important thing I can say right now is go apply. Whether you want a mentorship, or you want to be a mentor, please apply! There’s nothing to be afraid of and so much to gain. Join us and spread the word!
A big thanks to Ariel Gross for starting The Audio Mentoring Project and for sharing the details with us – and to Adriane Kuzminski for conducting the interview!
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