The First Jobs of Gaming/Tech CEOs: Why Breaking into the Industry Might Not be as Hard as You Think

Their companies are responsible for the video games and tech that we enjoy every day, and yet it can feel as though the world’s foremost CEOs exist on another planet that many of us could only dream of occupying. 

Incredibly wealthy and with seemingly supernatural talents, you’d be forgiven for assuming that they emerged fully formed into their lofty positions and have always worked within their industry of choice, benefitting from years of experience and the ability to progress up the ladder.

And indeed, our research has found that roles in gaming and tech are perceived by the general public as some of the most desirable to work in, but also among the most difficult to break into.

We’re living through turbulent times, with many individuals and businesses facing real difficulties as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. But gaming and tech have been some of the most resilient industries, with so many of us turning to video games, on-demand TV streaming and other digital entertainment to keep ourselves entertained.

Tech companies have also enjoyed a smoother transition to remote working than most, and at Kwalee we’ve even been inspired to embrace remote working in the longer term as well as continuing to hire as normal. We’re in good company in this regard, with the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Slack all committing to permanent remote working options for staff.

So with gaming and tech firms already adapting and beginning to look beyond COVID-19, these industries are becoming even more attractive. But is there truth to the perception that they’re difficult to break into?

To help provide some perspective, we went back to the very beginning and researched the first jobs of more than 100 of the most notable CEOs in gaming and tech. This revealed some surprises, but also a lot of hope, with 65% of CEOs  beginning their careers outside of their current sectors.

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If the majority of the world’s most notable CEOs didn’t start within their industry of choice, where did they start?

The career paths of these CEOs came from fifteen different areas, ranging from deliveries all the way to law, showing that there really is no best place to be if you want to make it in tech or gaming. Of course, many did unsurprisingly start in the likes of Software & IT, but a large amount also started their working lives in retail and sales backgrounds.

Below, you can see the full breakdown by job category.

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But what of those who defy categorisation? Take for instance Melissa Tarleton, CEO of online voucher code company RetailMeNot, whose first paid work was as a child model. Likewise AirBnB CEO Brian Chesky, a former competitive bodybuilder, does not neatly fit with our preconceptions of a tech CEOs backstory. Again, this helps to show that no matter where your career currently is, the barrier to entry is much lower than you might have thought – you just have to take the leap!

Elsewhere, McDonalds can claim to be the first employer of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos; Netflix CEO Reed Hastings sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door; while Emmett Shear – the head of streaming platform TwitchTV – began as an intern at a cancer research centre.

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Specifically among the gaming CEOs we studied, even fewer began in their eventual industry – only 33%. Of those who did start in the industry and have made it to the top, around 30% began as independent developers/entrepreneurs and another 30% worked in Programming positions. Beyond that, 13% began as Game Designers while around 9% were in Production. The final 17% is made up of multiple roles within the industry, including Accountancy, Game Testing and Game Art.

But even beyond the roles themselves lie some interesting and inspiring stories. Hidetaka Miyazaki, responsible for some of the generation’s most critically-acclaimed video games as the President of From Software, has told of growing up “tremendously poor” and being entirely unambitious in his early life. He joined From Software, and the games industry, aged 29. 

Tencent CEO Ma Huateng, named China’s richest man in August 2019, reportedly earned just $176 per month in his first job developing software for pagers. 

Kenzo Tsujimoto, CEO of Capcom (Street Fighter, Resident Evil, etc.) has written candidly about his humble beginnings. He reflects that “to rise above poverty requires two to three lifetime’s worth of effort… it was adversity that gave me the confidence to succeed, and it is without a doubt the source of my management philosophy.”

And then of course, our very own CEO and one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the UK games industry, David Darling started out like many of us did, by delivering newspapers in his local area. That was of course until game development caught his and his brother’s attention, and the rest was history! 

With a job in gaming being viewed as one of the top three most fun and enjoyable industries to work in, we’re happy that our findings hopefully go some way to showing that if many of the people at the top of this world didn’t start in the industry, then there’s no reason to write yourself off! Gaming and tech are environments in which a broad range of individuals can thrive, and if you’re interested in taking the leap working in the fast and fun world of hyper-casual, why not check out our current vacancies!

Methodology

Our list includes Newzoo’s top 25 public companies by game revenues (where CEO data was available), selected subsidiaries thereof, alongside a broader selection of some of the world’s most recognisable gaming and tech companies. CEOs included in the research are as follows:

Full list of CEOs researched (Alphabetical)*

343 Industries – Bonnie Ross, Head of Studio – Systems Engineer

Accenture – Julie Sweet, CEO – Reservation Agent

Activision-Blizzard – Bobby Kotick, CEO – Independent Game Developer

AirBNB – Brian Chesky, CEO – Competitive Bodybuilder

Amazon – Jeff Bezos, CEO – McDonalds Crew Member

Apple – Tim Cook, CEO – Newspaper Delivery Boy

Apple – Steve Jobs, Founder – Video Game Designer

Arc System Works – Minoru Kidooka, CEO – Games Programmer

Bandai Namco – Shigeru Yokoyama, CEO Bandai Namco Studios

Bethesda Softworks – Todd Howard, Director – Game Producer

BioWare – Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, co-founders – Medical Doctors

Bungie Inc – Pete Parsons, CEO – Fitness and Nutrition Marketing

Capcom – Kenzo Tsujimoto, CEO – Running a confectionary store

Cisco – Chuck Robbins, CEO – App developer

Com2us – Song Byung-joon, CEO – Chairman of a startup community at a Seoul university

Craigslist – Jim Buckmaster, CEO – Survey Researcher at a university 

Deliveroo – Will Shu, CEO – Investment Banking Analyst

Dell – Michael Dell, CEO – Dish washer

Dontnod Entertainment – Oskar Guilbert, CEO – Computer science researcher and lecturer

Double Fine Productions – Tim Schafer, Founder – Database Development Intern

EA – Andrew Wilson, CEO – Executive Producer

eBay – Scott Schenkel, CEO – Finance Manager

Enterprise Alumni – Emma Sinclair, Founder – McDonalds Crew Member

Epic – Tim Sweeney, CEO – Mowing lawns and working in a hardware store

Facebook – Mark Zuckerberg, CEO – Independent Software Developer

Firaxis – Sid Meier, Director of Creative Development – Cash register systems developer

From Software – Hidetaka Miyazaki, CEO – Account Manager

Game Freak (Pokemon) – Satoshi Tajiri, President – Fanzine Founder, Writer and Editor

Gameloft – Stephane Roussel, CEO – Human Resources

Ghost Story Games – Ken Levine, Founder and Creative Director – IT Installation

Giant Sparrow – Ian Dallas, Creative Director – Comedy writer

Glassdoor – Robert Hohman, Chairman and co-founder – Lawn mower

Goodreads – Veronica Moss, CEO – Business Analyst

Google – Sundar Pichai, CEO – Materials Engineer

Google – Sergey Brin, Co-Founder – Intern, computer technology company

Google – RJ Mical, Director of Games – Pinball and arcade gaming Software Engineer

Hazelight – Josef Fares, Founder – Filmmaker

HP – Dion Weisler, CEO – IT Technician

Huawei – Ren Zhengfei, CEO – Military Technologist

HubSpot – Brian Halligan, CEO – Sales assistant

IGDA – Renee Gittins, Executive Director – Gamestop Clerk

IMDB – Col Needham, CEO – Software Engineer

Insomniac Games Inc. – Ted Price, CEO – Accountant

Jam City – Chris DeWolfe, CEO – Popcorn and Peanuts Vendor

King – Humam Sakhnini, President – Financier

Kojima Productions – Hideo Kojima, Founder and CEO – Game Designer

Double Loop Games – Emily Greer, Founder and CEO – Accountant

Kwalee – David Darling, Founder and CEO – Newspaper delivery 

Larian Studios – Swen Vincke, CEO – Independent Game Developer

Level-5 – Akihiro Hino, CEO – Games Programmer

LinkedIn – Jeff Weiner, CEO – Snow Shoveller

Microsoft – Satya Nadella, CEO – Software Engineer

Microsoft – Bill Gates, Founder – Computer Programmer

Microsoft – Phil Spencer, VP of Gaming at Xbox – Microsoft Intern

Miniclip – Robert Small, CEO – Entrepreneur; founder of Miniclip

Mojang – Jonas Martensson, CEO – Bank Agent

Monzo – Tom Blomfield, CEO – Leaflet deliveries for estate agent

Naughty Dog – Neil Druckmann, Vice President – University Research Assistant

NCSoft – Kim Taek-jin, CEO and Founder – Research & Development for electronics firm

NetEase – Ding Lei, CEO and founder – Software Engineer

Netflix – Reed Hastings, CEO – Door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman

Netherrealm Studios – Ed Boon, Creative Director – Pinball Software Engineer

Nexon – Owen Mahoney, CEO – Business Development

Niantic – John Hanke, CEO – Foreign Affairs

Ninja Theory – Tameem Antoniades, Chief Creative Director – Games Programmer

Nintendo – Shuntaro Furukawa, President – Nintendo Accountant

Oaknorth – Rishi Khosla, CEO – Banker

OnePlus – Carl Pei, Co-founder – Games store clerk

Oracle – Safra Catz, CEO – Banker

Paypal – Dan Schulman, CEO – Account Manager

Peak Games – Sidar Şahin, CEO – Serial entrepreneur and founder

Pinterest – Ben Silbermann, CEO – Tech consultant

PlatinumGames – Kenichi Sato, President and CEO – Department Store Worker

Playground Games – Gavin Raeburn, CEO – Freelance Programmer

Playrix – Dmitry Bukhman, CEO – Entrepreneur

Quantic Dream – David Cage, CEO – Freelance Musician

Quora – Adam D’Angelo, CEO – Software developer

Rare – Tim and Chris Stamper, co-founders – Game designers

Ready at Dawn – Ru Weerasuriya, CEO – Game Artist

Reddit – Steve Huffman, CEO – Entrepreneur

Reddit – Alexis Ohanian, co-founder – Computer shop worker

Remedy Entertainment – Tero Virtala, CEO – Management Consultant

RetailMeNot – Marissa Tarleton, CEO – Child model

Retro Studios – Michael Kelbaugh, CEO and President – US Navy Communications 

Rockstar – Sam Houser, Outgoing President – Mail Sorter at a record label

Romero Games – Brenda Romero, Founder and CEO – Game tester

Rovio – Kati Levoranta, CEO – Trainee lawyer

Salesforce – Marc Benioff, CEO – Jewellery Store Shop Assistant

SAP – Jennifer Morgan, CEO – Client Manager

Sega – Hajime Satomi, CEO – Arcade gaming/casino entrepreneur

Skype – Niklas Zennstrom, CEO – Telecommunications Operator

Slack – Stewart Butterfield, CEO – Freelance web designer

Snapchat – Evan Spiegel, Co-Founder – Marketing Intern

Spotify – Daniel Ek, CEO – Freelance web developer

Sprout Social – Justyn Howard, CEO – Working in a pizza shop

Starbreeze – Mikael Nermark, CEO – Electronics retail worker

Supercell – Ilkka Paananen, CEO – Volunteer at gaming startup

TakeTwo Interactive – Strauss Zelnick, CEO – National Public Relations Director for the Coalition of Independent College and University Students

Team17 – Debbie Bestwick, CEO – Video game shop assistant

Tencent – Ma Huateng (AKA Pony Ma), CEO and Founder – Software Developer for pagers

Tesla, Space X – Elon Musk, CEO & Founder – Video game programmer

Thatgamecompany – Jenova Chen, CEO – Student game developer

The Cheezburger Network – Ben Huh, CEO – House Painter’s Assistant

TikTok – Zhang Yiming, CEO – Junior Engineer, travel website

TwitchTV – Emmet Shear, CEO – Intern at a Cancer Research Centre

Twitter – Jack Dorsey, CEO – Software Engineer at a taxi firm

Uber – Dara Khosrowshahi, CEO – Financier

Uber – Travis Kalanick, Founder and Former CEO – Door-to-door knife salesman

Ubisoft – Yves Guillemot, CEO – Assistant at a farming support business

Valve – Gabe Newell, CEO – Operating System Producer at Microsoft

Wizards of the Coast – Chris Cocks, CEO – Marketing

Wizards of the Coast – Mark Rosewater, Head Designer of Magic: The Gathering – Magician

Workday – Aneel Bhusri, CEO – Corporate Finance Analyst

Yahoo! – Marissa Mayer, CEO – Grocery store clerk

YouTube – Susan Wojcicki, CEO – Door-to-door sales

ZeniMax Media – Robert Altman, CEO – Lawyer

Zoom – Erin S. Yuan, CEO – Coder

Zynga – Frank D. Gibeau, CEO – Photocopier Salesman

Positions accurate as of March 2020

The first roles of the 121 CEOs detailed in the research were acquired from the following sources. These sources included interviews that referenced the CEO’s first roles, or tweets from the CEO’s personal account, that detailed their first job:

Wikipedia
Business Insider
Twitter
The Guardian
Kotaku
LinkedIn
Bloomberg
PocketGamer.biz
Medium
GQ
LA Times
Financial Times
CNBC
Forbes
Inc.
Startups
Monster
New York Times