SN Systems share their strategy for winning staff retention

Bristol based SN Systems are the brains behind PlayStation's game development platform and when employees join them, they tend to stay.
16th August 2018

Sian Wilmot has been HR Manager for SN Systems for over 10 years during which time the Sony Interactive Entertainment owned company has more than doubled in size and continues to steadily grow. Managing that growth whilst dealing with an increasingly competitive local market has been a challenge both in terms of recruiting the best candidates and retaining existing staff.

What makes a winning employee retention strategy at SN Systems?

Sian: Whenever we speak to software engineers, there’s always one area that stands out as being the most important point for either joining or remaining in the job, the desire to be challenged. Of course, we do offer a comfortable and relaxed working environment with flexible working hours and competitive pay, along with a range of benefits to suit different needs.

 Ultimately though, it’s having interesting and challenging work that attracts people and keeps them here, including the opportunity to work with highly regarded and experienced colleagues.

 Being part of the PlayStation® family is something we’re all proud of and developing the tools that are used throughout the world, by major games studios, means we always have exciting and challenging work to do. We also have some very talented and demanding users who expect the very best from our products; we understand what a great responsibility and privilege this is.

 It presents us with opportunities and is the catalyst for the technical challenges that the best engineers crave. We’re a dynamic company in a fast moving industry with a wealth of expert software engineers, some of whom have over 20 years of experience of our products. There’s a significant amount of expertise which is transferred across teams and individuals. We have a structured approach to career development, encouraging and supporting engineers along our career development ladder. There are some great success stories here, such as a Principal Engineer who first joined us as an Intern and engineers who have joined us from our sister organisations transferring from London and Tokyo to further develop their careers with us. We also have numerous interns returning after graduating and engineers transferring between teams and locations in SN to add breadth and depth to their SN knowledge and further develop transferable skills. We invest in technical development, giving engineers the opportunity to keep up-to-date through conferences and training.

 As a baseline for working at SN, we look for people with a genuine passion for software development and technical excellence. Most of our products are written in C++ so strong skills in that are key, while recruiting good team players is essential. Our teams are organised around our products and everyone contributes to their success. In return, we ensure new starters are carefully mentored by our talented engineers to give them the solid foundation they will need as their career and personal development progresses. It’s that combination of highly challenging work in a supported environment that I believe attracts the best recruits and keeps our talented and valued staff here.

 We understand people want to develop their careers and ability and it’s very much part of our thought process for everyone here.

TechSPARK: So how does this approach impact SN employees? To get a closer look, we spoke with three SN engineers all at different stages of their career. Tom Weaver – Graduate Software Engineer, Russell Gallop – Principal Software Engineer in Test and Dominic Robinson – Principal Software Engineer and Technical Lead

Tom Weaver: Graduate Software Engineer

 How long have you worked at SN Systems and why did you join?

Tom: I’ve worked at SN Systems for a total of 1 year and 2 months.

My first year was as a student placement intern. I left for 9 months to finish my final year of university and was offered a graduate software engineer role upon graduation.

The last 2 months have seen me back in the office working on the PlayStation®4 (PS4™) compiler. My initial interest in SN Systems was piqued when a university lecturer who has an established relationship with SN announced they were looking for an intern. Within a role at SN, I saw the opportunity to wed my two biggest passions – games and computer science. Whilst we don’t make games, we do build the tools that games studios need to get their products running on PlayStation hardware. This presented a unique opportunity for me to contribute to the games industry in a computer science role.

Russell: I have worked for SN Systems for almost 5 years and joined looking to return to working in compilers and toolchains. At my previous company, I was working on network firmware which, while interesting, was not as good a fit for my previous experience. Joining SN Systems gave me the opportunity to use my previous experience with LLVM.

Dominic: I have worked in games for over 32 years, the last 13 of these at SN Systems.

Having developed games since the mid-80s and seen the technology and tools change massively over the years, I was attracted by the chance to work on the fundamental tools that underpin the industry.  I felt that I had an appreciation of the crazy things that game developers have to do to get the job done and ship innovative, platform stretching games, and wanted to bring some of that experience to influence the tools for future platforms.

Russell Gallop: Principal Software Engineer in Test

What’s been the main draw for you to remain at SN Systems?

Tom: The technical challenge mixed with the opportunity to learn alongside and from some truly exceptional talent. Working on Clang and LLVM means I’m knee deep in cutting-edge compiler technology, written and maintained by some of the best in the industry both at SN Systems and other contributors from around the world. That and the free drinks and chilled office atmosphere, those help too.

Russell: Working on open-source software. I work on the LLVM compiler which is used for the PS4. As well as using the compiler we contribute improvements to the LLVM community so they are available for other users of the software.

Dominic: One of the main attractions has been the opportunity to build relationships, spanning many years, with our demanding customers.  We don’t simply write software to a spec and throw it over the wall.  We have to understand the challenges our customers face so that we can continuously evolve the tools to meet their expanding needs.

We have ultimate responsibility for the tools.  If there is a problem, there is no one else who will fix it.  If things work well it is down to our work. We have the freedom to research and develop technology that produces results.

What part of your career at SN Systems is most important to you?

Tom – The career progression. At SN we have a well-defined progression ladder spanning the first ten years of an engineer’s career, leading from a Graduate role all the way up to Principal. It’s nice knowing that, with enough graft, determination and the support of SN, I could reach the lofty heights of Principal Engineer one day.

Russell: There are always new challenges. Whenever we overcome one hurdle it’s always straight onto solving the next one.

Dominic: There is no place for standing still.  The opportunity to learn and stretch yourself is ever present.  The game teams who rely on our tools do not stand still and continuously push the performance and scale envelopes.  There is no choice but to anticipate this and go with them.

Dominic Robinson: Principal Software Engineer and Technical Lead

If you had to do it all again would you apply to SN Systems again and why?

Tom – Hell yes, I love my work here at SN. I couldn’t have wished for a better post-grad position.

Russell: Yes. I remember the application process seemed quite involved at the time but, having seen it from the other side now, it does allow people to demonstrate their abilities.

Dominic: Certainly. SN Systems has provided a challenging, technically focused environment with interesting problems and the freedom to develop innovative solutions.  It is rare to find all of those things in one place.