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.
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.
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 model. Likewise AirBnB CEO Brian Chesky, a former competitive bodybuilder, does not neatly fit with our preconceptions of a tech CEO’s 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.
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!
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 – 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:
New York Times