Girls Who Code Q&A with Janice Thoms, Director at EA Games

Girls Who Code Q&A with Janice Thoms, Director at EA Games

Girls Who Code Facebook fans recently had the unique opportunity for a Q&A with Janice Thoms, Director of Programming and Technology for BioWare Canada at EA, who’s worked on titles like Dragon Age Origins and Mass Effect. Thoms graduated from the University of Alberta in 1993 with a degree in Computing Science and worked in the IT industry before joining BioWare in 2002. Today, she manages the programming teams in Montreal and Edmonton, works with leads to select third part software, and helps set standards for in-house software development.
Check out Thoms’ responses to fans’ burning questions on life as a programmer, her inspiration, and career advice for aspiring programmers.

Who do you look up to in the gaming industry and why?
I’ve been impressed by Jane McGonigal for her insistence that games need not just be viewed as mindless entertainment. It’s an important message. I have friends who work in a local rehab hospital and they use games to encourage kids and adults alike to rebuild their muscles or retrain their brains after an injury. BioWare receives countless emails from fans telling us how much our games helped them cope with difficult life events. I’d love to see games continue to gain acceptance in this way.

What was the biggest obstacle you faced in becoming the person who you are today and how did you overcome it?
I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis when I was a teenager. When everyone else was worried about dating and gossip I was dealing with treatment protocols and chronic pain. In the end, as odd as it may sound, it was a bit of a blessing. Challenges like that have a way of putting things into perspective, and it made me a more determined person. I don’t feel like I need to overcome things like gender inequality; I just need to keep myself healthy and do the best job I can do. Everything else will naturally follow from that.

What was the hardest thing to learn about coding?
I found most of it pretty intuitive, but learning low-level memory management took a bit of concentrated effort. During my first job out of University I remember spending hours puzzling over memory problems with a coworker (also a new grad), until one day it just clicked.

Which is your favorite programming language and why?
I spent a lot of years programming in C, and I still like it. There’s a simplicity to it, and yet it’s powerful at the same time. C++ is similar, but I learned object-oriented programming a lot later in my career so I think some of my affection for C is just nostalgia. J And Fortran is definitely my least favourite.

When did you realize this was the field you wanted to go into?
When I was trying to decide what to study in University, I knew wanted to study math or science, but was put off by the idea of studying for 10-12 years to get a PhD and end up unemployed! I settled on Computing Science as a pragmatic compromise, and by the end of my first year I was in love. It was so satisfying to turn words on a screen into a functioning program. I was an amateur artist at the time but my paintings never turned out the way I wanted them to, and with programming I’d finally found a medium where I could be precise and see the results I wanted.

As for games, I never actually expected to get into that as a career. If someone had asked me back in the 90’s if I’d like to be a game developer I would have said “sure, but that’s not realistic”. It’s pure luck that one of the best game studios in the world happened to start up in my home town, and almost a decade later agreed to take a chance on an IT programmer with no games experience.

Please tell us about your biggest achievement. What do you feel especially proud about?
I’d probably have to say that shipping Mass Effect was one of my bigger professional achievements. I spent more time on that project than any of my previous games at BioWare so I felt I’d made a larger contribution to the final game. I also become a team lead at BioWare for the first time, and became a Technical Director immediately after the game launched. It was a new IP, and we were developing on a new game engine, so it was a lot of work, a lot of hours, and a lot of stress, but in the end it came together. There are things I would change, but I learned to be happy with the end result instead of nitpicking every decision and flaw. At the time I saw it as the culmination of my work at BioWare, and in hindsight it was a kicking off point for eventually becoming Director of Programming.

Can we know more about your role as Programming Director?
As the Director of Programming & Technology, I need to balance what we need right now to support our ongoing projects, and what we’ll need down the road to continue being successful as a studio. I need to stay current on a lot of information, and I spend a lot of time making backup plans and strategies. The real key, though, is that I have an amazing team of leaders who work with me to make sure the day-to-day is running smoothly.

A large part of my time is spent managing the department. That includes things like managing our budgets, hiring, making sure the team has what they need, and setting standards for work quality and process. To keep the team healthy we need to consider things like training opportunities, and ways to get involved with teams outside of BioWare and even outside of EA. I feel that I am accountable to the company, but I am also accountable to my employees.

The rest of my time is spent working with my Associate Director of Technology, and together we make sure we have a long range plan for our hardware, software, and development process. We define coding standards, make sure we’re making sound technological decisions, and are delivering on our commitments to the projects.

What was the defining moment in your life that inspired you to pursue a career in this field?
I had worked in IT for about a decade, and after spending a few years in a less than satisfying job I was starting to think about changing careers. I guess you could say I was burned out. We had to move for my husband’s job anyway and it seemed like a good time to make a change so I started investigating other options, looking into University programs, that sort of thing. And that’s when I just happened to run into a friend who had been working at BioWare for a couple of years. He recommended BioWare as a place to work, but also warned me that there weren’t a lot of women in the 50 person studio. Perhaps I took that as a challenge, but I decided to postpone the career change and see if game development was any better than my previous job. I was a bit skeptical because on the one hand, programming is programming, right? On that other hand, I’d be making GAMES! That was almost 13 years ago, and I’m still happy, so I’d say it was a good decision.

What’s your favorite snack and drink when in a meeting or when programming?
I find it too distracting to snack while programming, but English Breakfast tea with a bit of milk would be my drink of choice (or water). When I was younger (with a higher metabolism!) my favourite snack probably would have been some kind of cheesy junk food, but I’ve traded that for really fresh veggies from my local farmer’s market.

What’s a silly game that you have enjoyed playing thoroughly?
The Star Wars version of Angry Birds was a lot of fun.

What is your favorite Mass Effect game and character?
I’d definitely pick ME1 as my favourite, though that is biased because it was one of the last games I wrote code for. It was hard work, but I love the IP and it really resonated with me. For a change, working on the game didn’t actually ruin the story for me; even though I knew all the spoilers I was still keen to see the game play out end-to-end. Picking a single character is a bit harder, but I’d probably pick Wrex. I’ve always liked the big powerhouse characters in games.

What about DAO are you most proud of?
From a technical perspective, I’m proud that we were able to create such a large-scale adventure for our fans. Writing software to support that amount of content is no small feat, and our content teams are constantly pushing the boundaries of what we can do so it’s something the programming team needs to stay on top of for the duration of the project. And as always, I’m proud of having worked with such a great team.

What advice can you offer girls who are interested in a similar career path?
Programming, and particularly the games industry, are still male-dominated fields. Many women seem to feel that means they need to “act like a man” to fit in or to be able to compete. I think it’s more about figuring out how your natural talents and personality can work to your benefit. Diversity is always a boon to a team, regardless of whether you’re talking about gender, sexual orientation, race, etc. It leads to fresh perspectives, more ideas, more innovation, so trying to ignore that part of yourself that makes you unique will only make you miserable, disingenuous, and therefore less effective than you could otherwise be.