Junior Tech Artist looking for advice

Hey all. I’m usually a lurker, both here and on the slack channel, so apologies in advance if this post feels way off topic…

I started out as an environment artist a few years ago and sort of organically formed into a Tech artist in the last year; I found myself doing less and less art while learning on the job as needed how to make shaders, troubleshoot art related bugs in apps, optimize for performance on lower end platforms, write c# code for tools and gameplay, list goes on.

I love doing all of it. Most of all it seems, I love learning new stuff…for example, I’ve been really into teaching myself HLSL (so far I’ve really only used graph editors), python in DCCs, and specific advanced math topics.

Though I’m in a stable job at the moment, I feel like I need to move on at some point to keep growing, largely because I don’t have any tech art leadership or comrades where I’m at.

So here’s my quandary: I want to be around other people I can learn more from, preferably somewhere I could be making games I’m passionate about, but I don’t think I currently have the portfolio to get a job anywhere. I’m just scratching the surface in my education in a lot of ways. My plan is to soon take some vacation days and really hone in on something that I can add to my portfolio. It’s not gonna happen overnight, but I hope I can start building something that could get me hired without relying on lucky circumstance and recommendations (which is how I feel I got both jobs in my career so far).

Here’s my current portfolio:

I’ve asked for feedback before, and I generally receive positive comments or very minor notes. But I have no illusions that it’s not weak, because it’s never—on it’s own—got me even so much as an interview. I guess what I’m asking for is some brutal honesty here; if you guys saw this portfolio come in, what is missing from it or what about it might make you consider another candidate? Are there specific foundational kinds of work that you look out for in a tech artist? What I’m hoping I get out of this is some clear guidance for my magpie brain, to focus on specific things instead of wanting to learn every topic I come across.

Much needed TLDR; working as Tech Artist, but never been hired as a Tech Artist. Would love advice.

“Love of learning” is absolutely the single best predictor of success as a tech artist. This is a field that attracts – and over time, rewards – people who are curious and self-motivated. It’s a kind of mirror image of other creative fields: just like going to school for creative writing or art can give you tools, but it can’t actually make you creative, picking up techniques online or in school gives you tools you need to solve problems but it doesn’t actually help you do the tricky bit, which is learning how to balance all of the conflicting needs that surround the problem.

It is really valuable to operate in an environment where there are good mentorship opportunities. If there aren’t TAs where you currently work you see if there’s a TA meetup in your area where you can meet other people in the field. Nothing beats the existence proof: seeing people who are dealing with all the dimensions of the problem – one very tough aspect of being on your own is how hard it is to know if your hard-won solutions to things are actually good solutions.

The good news is, you have a lot more options than you might think, especially today. An easy way to learn from experienced folks is to get involved with an open source project (there are a couple of them on the techartists.org github. That will have you interacting with people, learning from them, getting some public credit for your work. Even making a submission that gets shot down can be a good learning experience – assuming, of course, that the people running the project aren’t jerks! – because if they are good at explaining why your idea is out of scope or technically flawed you’re getting free technical education. If you approach it in that spirit you can learn a lot. There’s always an element of catch-22 in getting off the ground: no jobs without experience; no experience without jobs. Any work in the field helps chip away at that. Open source participation has a positive side effect here, since it pads your resume in a way that’s pretty easy to for outsiders to verify since they can see your actual contributions.

As a practical matter, don’t count on your portfolio to be your golden ticket. Portfolio review tends to play a smaller part in TA hiring than it does for, say, production artists – it’s rare for the hiring manager to have the time to really dig in to the work. The portfolio typically matters a the second stage of your application: there might be a fifty or a hundred applicants in the first round, and ten of them might look “close enough” for detailed review. A good portfolio proves its worth when you get to the interview stage: there, it gives you something to show off and talk about, but even a really killer project is unlikely to land you the interview.

Don’t let that discourage you, it’s just the way of the world. In the early stage of your career the hiring equation tends to be dominated by the hiring manager’s needs, not yours: few companies have the luxury of hiring a junior person on potential alone, they are typically looking for somebody who can fill an immediate need because they have relevant experience. There’s an unfortunate element of luck there, or at least of market forces. But the longer you stick it out and the more skills you pick up the more “holes” you can fill for potential employers.

Besides a portfolio proper it’s good to keep a record of problems you have solved and processes you have improived. Once you’re in an interview it’s great to be able to tell a clear, coherent story about how you made things better for your team ; that could be solving a production problem or writing a new tool; it could be debugging something really obscure or just training artists how to get around a problem.

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Wow. Thank you so much for the reply; it was not only extremely informative and encouraging, but gave me several actionable points to walk away with. I never considered open source projects or writing down solutions in prep to cohesively explain problem solving I’ve done…

What you said about portfolios for TAs not being the golden ticket is something that part of me has felt, so it’s awesome to see it articulated so well to wholly convince me. It makes me more confident to worry less about just cranking projects out and instead focusing on gaining practical knowledge.

Also I’m dedicating one of my unused journals officially today as my ‘problems solved journal’ :grin:.

Again, thank you so so much for taking time to so thoroughly answer not just the surface of my questions but what I needed to know!