IN DISCUSSION WITH: DR JO TWIST OBE - CEO OF UKIE
IN DISCUSSION WITH: DR JO TWIST OBE - CEO OF UKIE
Tell us about what you do at UKIE?
Ukie stands for UK Interactive Entertainment, and we are the trade association that represents games and interactive entertainment businesses across the UK. We do a lot of advocacy work, political lobbying, supporting and promoting businesses and people within the industry. Our mission is to make the UK the best place in the world to make, sell and play games.
Is this an industry you’ve always wanted to work in? How did you get to where you are now?
I was born in Hong Kong and we moved to Scotland when I was 10 years old, I also went to university there. I then went onto Newcastle to do my Doctorate and moved to London in 2000 for my first job. I’ve fallen into jobs as most people tend to do and I certainly never had an aspiration to work for a trade association, but it’s fun and really important. I’ve always loved games as much as I love films, tv, books, anything.
My first job started off at BBC Newsround and we were the first integrated web team which was brilliant. Originally, I applied for a role as an Associate Producer and Researcher for the “Virtual Community” they wanted to create online. I knew I wouldn’t get the job, but I applied, and they invited me for an interview anyway and said they’d create another researcher role which was amazing - that was the beginning of the journey.
One of our challenges at BBC Newsround was to get kids to read news, so we’d always hook them in with something interactive whether that be a vote or a gallery or a guide to something or a game. It was during the height of Harry Potter mania, S Club 7, Hear’Say - it was a brilliant time! From here I moved to BBC News as an Online Technology reporter and spent three years there. It was a really interesting time, at the start of Facebook, YouTube, next gen consoles.
I then moved into commissioning content, so I became multi-platform entertainment commissioner at the BBC. It was all during the 2000s, so it was really interesting times for the industry. Then I went onto Channel 4 and was able to commission games and comic books and things that are relevant to a young audience.
I’m such a fan of technology but I do feel we’ve let it take a turn to how we are as humans. People are trying to make links with mental health and screen time and a lot of assumptions are made about what people are doing online. One of the things we learnt at Channel 4 is the importance of being resilient as a teenager and as an adult - games are a great way to build resilience and perseverance.
Games are important both as ways to understand mental health issues and as ways to help support people with mental health issues. Minecraft is played by a lot of people who are neurodiverse and we do a lot of work supporting people who want to make games that explore these things.
I’m also BAFTA Games Chair and last year we introduced a category in the awards called ‘Game Beyond Entertainment’ to specifically highlight games that are having an impact on people’s lives beyond the fun. At Ukie we also try and highlight a lot of companies in the games industry that are providing their managers and work force with mental health training and trying to create a studio culture that supports people.
The games industry is such a reactive and self-adjusting one compared to a lot of other sectors - I think that’s because we’re born digital and we’re only about 40-something years old. So, we’re growing up with the industry and living through the issues that you encounter at different life stages.
Was there ever a turning point in your career?
I don’t believe in a job for life, I don’t believe in a typical template of what society says you should be doing or not doing; our society is changing completely because of what the internet has done for us. I don’t ever take anything for granted and I always keep an open mind of what the next challenge might be because you never know what might happen – good or bad.
What is it like managing a company of people?
Everyone has to do something for the first time, nobody knows how to be a CEO - you don’t get training for it!
When I got this job, my friend bought me a book called ‘You’re in charge, now what’ so I read that, and it advised on what you should be aiming to achieve within the first 100 days. I treated it like a start-up because the company went through a rebrand 2010, so when I was recruited in 2012 it was to drive through the transformation of the organisation, looking at who we were, what we did, how we acted and how we were perceived.
I’ve got an incredibly supportive board which is 26% women, which for a gaming industry that has 19% women working in it, that’s pretty good. It can be lonely sometimes – a lot of the staff are in their 20s so they’re an entirely different generation to me and have different expectations to how the workplace should work. So, it can be a challenge, but I always work better when I’m bouncing ideas off of people or I’ve got a trusted group that I can turn to.
People think the CEO has all the answers which is a complete fallacy. The best CEOs are the ones who listen and ask questions, and then making a decision after listening to all the different views.
Statistically, the gaming industry is predominantly male. Have you felt that this has been a challenge? Has this affected your career in any way?
I wouldn’t say it’s affected my career, you still experience it in all walks of life and you just become resilient and learn how to deal and react to it. I react a lot of the time with stern humour, but I am in a fortunate position where as CEO I can insist on things and set those targets such as ‘25% women at least on my board’. I can insist we change our language in our legal documents to be gender neutral. Those little things do matter.
I think as an industry we are so aware of our diversity problem, but we are also constrained by the people coming through the education system - for example lots of people can’t take arts with physics in school – which is the ideal combination for working in the gaming industry. We lobbied to get Computer Science back onto the school curriculum back in 2013 and we now have a programme at Ukie which helps the teachers to teach CS creatively and at a young age.
There’s also a separate challenge around people not realising there’s a games industry in this country. We have over 2,000 games businesses in the UK but if you ask a young child where they think the Lego games are made, they’ll probably say America or Japan when in fact the Lego games are made in the UK. We have a tremendous number of different careers open for young people, but they just don’t know about it.
Do you feel a lot more responsibility to make people aware of these issues?
Yes, most definitely because we love what we do and we’re proud of our industry and heritage. As I said, we are only 40 something years old so we want to shout as much as possible, but we can’t do it on our own.
With broadband speeds getting better, the shift to digital, the explosion of mobile games companies, and the diversity of business models in games – all this over the last eight to 10 years has transformed the industry. The tools to make games which a lot of big companies use are mostly free and accessible online to a whole generation. You can self-teach and get a job.
The industry is self-correcting because as we make and sell games we’re constantly connected to our players, and we want them to come back. So, we have to treat them with respect and be responsible - which we are. You can rapidly change if rules in a game aren’t working, so we are self-correcting as an industry because of how we make games. I get nervous when I think about where I go from this job because I don’t want to be in an industry where you can’t do that.
You’ve been awarded an OBE, could you tell us a bit about the experience and how it came about?
I received a letter in the post and I initially thought I was in trouble - it was completely out of the blue! I’d just won the MCV Women in Games Award for Outstanding Contribution to the industry and in the same month I found out I was going to be awarded an OBE for my contribution to the creative industries. I was proud and deeply honoured.
You get your day at the palace and I brought my sister and two nieces and it’s absolutely terrifying because you’re told you have to walk backwards in your high heels for five steps and curtsy - I did the most flamboyant curtsy because I was a little unbalanced and not used to wearing heels.
One of the best parts about it was that Ant and Dec also received theirs on the same day, so I got to meet them!
What advice would you give to other career women with aspirations like yourself in terms of developing and stepping up to CEO?
You’ve got to look after yourself, listen lots and never be afraid of asking questions. Ensure you keep a close circle of trusted friends who you can sound off to.
I always tell myself that it’s better to make a decision than no decision at all and it’s okay if that decision is sometimes the wrong one - everyone makes mistakes. What counts is how you bounce back and how you help others in your organisation deal with it too.
Perseverance and resilience are something you have to practice.
Finally, how do you switch off from being CEO?
Burnout is something I’ve been finding out about and reading up on as I have to ensure I check up on myself.
I like getting my nails and hair done and going for a massage - I’m out most nights for work so that can be tiring. I checked myself in the last month because I realised I was sitting at home at 9pm feeling guilty for not working which is really unhealthy.
Being self-aware is important. I switch off totally at the weekends, but I don’t tend to go out, I recover, and I enjoy that. I love watching Netflix - political thrillers and films. I go on a yoga retreat every year too which is an incredible opportunity to reboot. I also play games, there are some good games that give you that meditative flow state which really helps.