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Become an IDOL 80: Instructional Design at Activision Blizzards

#becomeaninstructionaldesigner #instructionaldesign #podcast become an idol May 19, 2023

Guest: John Reynolds

In this episode, I'll be chatting with John Reynolds, an Instructional Designer with Activision Blizzard,  and a lifelong nerd. He strives to blur the line between creative training content creator and quest-giver. As an insatiable learner, he hopes to continuously connect with new people and gather fresh and exciting ways to change the game and keep training fun! Tune in to hear his full story and what its like to work for a video game company! 

Listen to this episode below: 

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Enjoy the Episode Transcript below:   

Robin Sargent  I have here with me today, John Martin Reynolds. And I met John through LinkedIn. And he is an instructional designer at Activision Blizzard. But John, would you please do a better job of introducing yourself and given us a little background?

John Reynolds  Yeah, so my name is John, I'm an Instructional Designer at Activision Blizzard, which is kind of this is my mountain, right. And this is the top of my mountain, you know, as a kid, as a video gamer, Blizzard was one of those companies where it's like, that's where I want to be when I grow up, you know, I want to do something with video games. So much so that I did pursue a degree in in software engineering, and quickly found out that's not me. And that's okay. More power and respect to the folks who can do those things because it's very technical, obviously. Right? And you have to have the right kind of mindset for it. But to kind of back that up to how I got here, maybe. And I think that's maybe the question that most people have is how how do you get here? How do you get to be an instructional designer anywhere? But even cooler, if you will, is how do you get to be an instructional designer at a video game company. And for me, my journey was joining the military. So I started off as an aircraft mechanic in the military. It wasn't a career field that was like really hard to get into by any means. And so what happens is, if you do a pretty good job at fixing airplanes, then they'll volunteer you, we call it being voluntold to teach people how to fix airplanes, and I was very fortunate enough to get picked to be a tech school instructor. And so at that time, then you kind of transition from that tactical level where you're on the boots on the ground, and I'm turning the wrench and I'm I'm doing the job to now we're flipping to more of this kind of strategic level is where now I'm enabling the next level of airmen to kind of come up and replace me right and train your replacements. What happened there is I was pretty okay at being an instructor to so much so that, hey, we would like you to help design our courses. And that's how I first got into instructional development. So I went through a class first a basic instructor course. And then I went through another class on ISD got a certificate from ATC the Air Education and training command and an associate's degree later on instructional design, which I had no idea was a thing was a job was a role that anybody could do. And it turns out, it was awesome. Because as I dug into it, you know, at the time, I wasn't pursuing kind of further education, my plan was, I'm gonna ride this thing out, I'm gonna do my 20 years in the military, this is where I am. So I had picked up some credits, and then I got a bachelor's degree in music, because the Air Force kind of helped me offset the cost. And, you know, I was like, Oh, this is kind of fun. And, and then my life kind of changed abruptly where they said, Hey, by the way, we're going to have to medically retire you, you're no longer tactically able to complete the mission. And I thought, oh, my gosh, I wasted my bachelor's degree on this thing that how am I going to monetize this? How am I gonna you know, I've got a family and all that. But what I realized was that instructional design kind of scratches that that same that itch, that desire to be creative to make something right. And whether it's doing voiceover work for an eLearning module, I've developed like jingles as the intro to all of our elearning stuff, or kind of branding the Training Department at an organization. It's a very similar skill set. And from there, I bounced around a little bit I did some other things that I thought were cool chase some other hobbies and passions. And I kind of found myself back in the training instructional design world at a previous company before Activision Blizzard did some awesome work for them for about a year. And then this job was like, when you see this kind of thing on LinkedIn, or indeed, you have to click the button, right? I mean, how, what do you what do you not do? And so now I'm here and it's really awesome, because I can take this passion for games. And I can take some of this information that I learned, inadvertently, almost right through this kind of journey through the military and be really useful here in I guess a corporate environment doesn't feel corporate, but I guess technically it is.

Robin Sargent  So my I bet a lot of people are wondering, John, so when you exited the military, you have a certificate, you had some experience, designing instruction and being a facilitator. How did you actually then translate that to land your first job in corporate from the military? Did you create a portfolio? Was your education enough and your experience? What that look like?

John Reynolds  That's a great question. And honestly, I didn't do that at first. So the very first thing I did was I chased my passion in music, and I moved out west and I worked as an assistant to a film composer and I was like, this is me. I'm going to write music. And you know, it doesn't work out right. A lot of people move out west to try to do that and didn't work out. So the next thing, I was a general manager of a Games Workshop Warhammer store selling little plastic goblins that you build and paint and you play on the tabletop with each other super fun, not related to ISD at all. I did that for a couple years, and I realized that I had hit the ceiling. This was it for the next, however long of my life, I was the store manager. And something clicked in there and I was like, this can't be all. So now it's been years since I've done legitimate instructional design work, there's probably new things that have come out in this time that I've kind of not been up on. And so what I did is I spent that time I started job hunting, I started looking at what roles were requiring. And as we all probably kind of know, in the ISC world, sometimes the titles of the roles can all be interchangeable and kind of flow, you can be in an instructional designer, you can be a curriculum manager, you could be a training coordinator, there's all this kind of weird lingo that roughly means the same thing not to devalue anybody's title, because that's not at all what I'm trying to do, but but there's some some correlations there. So I looked at these titles, and I asked, what are they asking for? What are these companies want me to do? So I went back to the drawing board. So this is what I know, this is what I know from the military. This is what my certificate says, I know how to do, how can I take these skill and how can I apply this to a job that I maybe haven't done in a couple of years. So that's what I did. Now, what I did not do, which this maybe doesn't work for everyone is I didn't go out and I didn't make a portfolio, I didn't go buy a domain, I didn't make a portfolio of elearning modules that I use the 30 day free trial to articulate or storyline. And I know that's very popular. And a lot of folks do that. And if that works for them, that's amazing. I was very fortunate to talk at a higher level. So when I was being interviewed, the company I first got back into ISd was when I was being interviewed, it was more, this is the problem, how can you use your skills to solve the problem. Oftentimes, I think people jump into will have get into storyline and make this really cool elearning. And then I would have the score module or whatever. And when you're talking to that other person on the other end of the computer, who maybe doesn't know the things that we know, that maybe doesn't mean anything to them, they don't know what those tools are, and they don't know the value of those tools. So if you can kind of back up from that 10,000 foot view and say, Well, I hear I hear you saying this, this is the problem that you're facing. In the military, we used ADDIE for everything right, that waterfall model, the military, not agile by any means almost a detriment to doing this in the outside world because I had the luxury of time and funding, which I have come to find out does not exist in the corporate world. But I can explain this is how I would solve that problem. Step one we're going to analyze is this training, right? If we kind of talked about action mapping, and I break down the problem and communicate it in a way that doesn't require tools, it doesn't require knowledge of ISD, that has worked well for me. And that's kind of how I got to where I am as being able to understand problems and present solutions to solve them without them being technical without the need of a here's a portfolio of things I've made.

Robin Sargent  That was good. I was in there. I was right there with you, John. I was like, continue please. Tell them how you interview without a portfolio. And I think when they're asking those questions to it's almost like a choke point even right, they are looking to see can you actually solve problems? Can you think critically? Or do you think that our job is just making things? So what you had to learn pick up those skills at some point, right? Do you do any type of eLearning Developmen or are you just on the design side of instructional design?

John Reynolds  What we're doing in our in our company, now, if you're up with the news, and you're watching what's going on in the world, and one of the things that we're doing as an organization is we're doing a new hybrid office role. So as COVID happened, we saw an influx of work from home roles and I think at that same time, we saw a massive influx in our career field as instructional designers of corporations that needed asynchronous learning right now. And they were not prepared for that. Now, we're a couple of years later, the organization has determined that we did some things really, really well work from home. And we do some things a little bit better together. So we are doing a hybrid situation where now we're going to have a couple days in person couple days work from home, there are many roles that will remain work from home forever. One of our organizational level, right. So there's organizational goals, strategic goals and tactical level goals. Our organizational goal was to bring everybody back and then how do we offer them training. So what I'm doing now, more so than elearning is it's facilitated sessions. We have a lot of folks that have been hired since the pandemic who have never been to the office before. They've maybe never sat next to their supervisor, their manager. We have some folks who maybe manage individuals who've never seen them or met them in person. No, you can be very effective and you can do that over slack and over zoom. But it is kind of a different thing to have this conversation in person with your chairs that are 45 degree angles. So it's not intimidating and say, you know, Hey, Jim, Hey, Sally, we're going to sit down, and we're going to talk about whatever we're going to talk about, right. And maybe it's like the SBI model or situation behavior impact. So we're doing a lot of in person facilitator guides, I'm doing right now a lot of in person training. And that kind of goes back to that ADDIE process when they came at us with this problem of we're going to have a large influx of individuals back into the spaces as safely as possible regarding COVID and everything. But how do we solve this problem? How do we train these people? And so we do resource analysis? Do we need rooms? Do we need tables? Do we need chairs? Do I need to get off the shelf content? Does this already exist? Because sometimes that's very useful to they could spend a lot of money to spin our wheels and brand this content that already exists or we could just grab it off the shelf and start doing it and get that value right away? So doing some analysis on that, does it already exist? Is it more effective to use what's already out there. And then for the elearning side, we are doing some of that, but what what's going to happen is that we're going to take the courses that we created and facilitated in person. And then we'll turn that into an asynchronous learning opportunity for somebody who maybe does still work from home was unable to attend the session. And yeah, I guess that's kind of where we're at.

Robin Sargent  And I'm looking at you it looks like you're at home right now.

John Reynolds  Yeah, I am. So I happen to live in Minnesota, if anybody is watching in the future. So this week, we've had historic levels of snow, it's all the way up to my window out here in the office. And luckily, our office is set up. You know, we're a video game company. We're a tech company, we're set up in the way that we can say, everybody stay home, don't go out and drive don't do anything. And we can we can be flexible as a business like that. So that's been pretty cool.

Robin Sargent  Okay, so I mean, I'm just curious. I'm sure others are as well John. So you work in a video game company? Yes, you're doing instructional design, and you're solving problems. But like, do you get to do anything that touches video games? Do you ever look at like, you know, video games have those onboarding tutorials do you guys influence any of that? I'm just curious.

John Reynolds That's a great question. Yeah. So if any, so Activision Blizzard make World of Warcraft, right, and which is one of the most awesome games of all time. And the main thing you do on World of Warcraft is you go on quests, right? And so you have this NPC, and he says, Hey, I need you to go out. And I need you to check this HUD and find this thing and bring it back to me. And oftentimes, what we've we found is that quest design and instructional design are very similar models, you only want to give the player the right amount of information that they can digest, right, we talked about, like chunking, right, and you don't want to tell them, this is the backstory for the whole universe. Here's all this stuff to read. And then in between those lines, that'll tell you where to go. We try to make it very small and very, like approachable and fun. Nobody wants to go kill 10 bores in the forest for no reason, because it's not fun. So I work with quest designers often. So how do you do what you do? Tell me about a cool quest that you design. And they've got these really neat storyboards, you can do the kind of the Microsoft Visio thing where you've got all of these different scenarios and branching scenarios from there. And we can use a lot of that same stuff. But the pitfall is working with gamers, and trying to develop content and gamification of learning is huge right now, but not do it incorrectly. And what I mean by that is, let's say I'm developing these courses that I'm developing now about feedback and about managerial content. And I put Arthas, the Lich King on my slideshow to be like, Yeah, I work at a game company, any gamer will know, that's the worst person you could put on there. As a manager, he's a horrible person, you know. And so you have to be careful to be genuine in your efforts. Or they'll realize, they don't even know they don't even play games. They're just the corporate folks here. So it can really enhance learning if I do it correctly, which is why I partner with with actual designers and quest developers, but it can be done incorrectly where it comes across as insincere. And it can hinder the learning because now they've checked out.

Robin Sargent  Yeah. So what are some of the I mean, now I want to go down this road. So what are some of the things that might you have found useful yes, the chunking, the content and the quests? Are there any other things that you kind of picked up from being in Activision that you've integrated into your instructional design practice?

John Reynolds  That's a good question, too. So one of the things that the company does well is their sourcing of talent.

And so one of my colleagues has a really strong instructional design background in the medical field, which you would think, wouldn't relate. But what it does really well is it. We talked about chunking. And we talked about kind of the layout, the the ADDIE model, it does that really well, where things are done purposefully, and they're done safe. The biggest thing, right would be safety in that, and we're able to take a lot of that and put it into our content. We have a really diverse audience, where some of our our folks in our office here are early in their career. And so they require kind of a different approach, as opposed to a senior software engineer who's been at the company for 20 years, and we can feed them different information in a different way. And I guess from working here, what I've learned more about is the skill set of your audience. So in the military, I could rely on the fact that everybody had been to basic training, everybody knew the standards. And also everybody would do it, because they were told to do it. Now I'm learning that everybody's background is very diverse. And everybody learns in these different ways, which obviously, we know. And we're not going to get into learning styles because right that's not a real thing, right. But everybody learns in this different way, everybody's motivated in a different way. And everybody's back, I can't rely on the fact that everybody has the same skill set. And so what I've learned in agile and flexibility is meeting my learners where they are, which has been pretty insightful, right? It helps you design things with accessibility in mind, right? And it helps you to try new ways that maybe maybe I wouldn't have tried before, maybe before, I would have made a facilitator guide, put a PowerPoint on there and that would have worked for that audience. But now I need to meet these learners where they are. And maybe it's something small, like engaging with them on slack to make sure that we're absorbing the content, and then we're still using it later on down the road. Like some maybe it's asynchronous, maybe it's video based content. There's a whole demographic of folks that that learn maybe differently than I learned 10-15 years ago, so meeting them where they're at.

Robin Sargent Do you guys actually create learner personas? Do you do surveys? What kind of things do you do to glean the information about these specific learner groups that you have?

John Reynolds  Yeah, so we've done surveys, the pitfall for that is death by survey, you're right, where you just ping the group over and over and over, and then they start clicking through it, just to get down into sort of skews your dataset, we definitely do learn a persona. So that's something that my whole department for a little backstory with the company, our whole department is very new, there was a number of years where the company went without learning and development. And so we're kind of getting to build everything from the ground up. And personas was one of the first things that we did. And to keep it like said that 10,000 foot view, there's this, and I'm guilty of this, the what I do when I want to learn something is the first thing I do is I type it into YouTube. And I've watched somebody else do it, how do they do that. And we have a large population of folks in our office, that's also the way they learn, because the metrics that they have. And the tasks that they do they're not able to maybe take an hour out of their day to click through an eLearning module and take a test. And then we measure that output. But what they could do is on the secondary monitor while they're doing their tasks, they could pull up a video and listen to me in the background, talk about whatever it is that we're learning. And so we've kind of glean that from our persona, as our early career folks, that's maybe more the content that they desire, and that in the style of learning. I did it right, I said it and the way that they choose to engage with that content. But yeah, so that's been that's been kind of new and exciting is using these new methodologies to deliver content to folks that I hadn't done before.

Robin Sargent  Do you ever put them on any learning paths or anything like that? I mean, since everything's so new, and in your department, what is what are some of the things that you guys have done that you haven't maybe done in other places, since you get to start it from the ground up?

John Reynolds  Sure. So needs analysis was was huge to figure out our need, was it to upskill or was it to reskill? And so in my specific department, I work in the quality assurance department. And it's a lot of early career folks. And quality assurance, unfortunately, has this stigma as a stepping stone position to get your foot in the door. And then you use that to move into game design, game development or the project management of the games. And what we found, I mean, right away in the needs analysis, as I talked to some extremely talented individuals who that path was not for them. They said well, I'm here I'm a tester and and my only option is to leave or to become a people manager. I want to be a master of my craft. I want to continue to do what I'm doing and specialize even. And so now we're looking at those those career paths. And how do we upskill these folks and how do we break out and obviously there's a lot of partnering to do here with HR and compensation in creation of new roles, but there is a huge opportunity to take those skilled individuals and retain them. Because what happens at any company is if they get bored and they don't feel compensated, then they will go do this task for somebody else. And then that costs substantially more money than if I were to able to build something for them to keep them engaged and keep them with us. So that's one thing we're doing is the upskilling. And how do we how do we keep them fulfilled? How do they feel like they're being invested in what options for specialization might they have? And the other option is the rescale option where those folks that are doing that, hey, I've my foots in the door, but really, my passion is in art. And they have this amazing portfolio of work. Even sometimes it's of our IP, they've got ideas for areas and World of Warcraft and different skins and character options, and how do I get them to that place. And we've started to do that. If you guys look at what's called Level Up University, it's this new thing that that Activision Blizzard has piloted, it's an amazing program, where folks can come in with even a limited background, there is a test to make sure you have some background in game design, but you don't have to have in we look at job titles, and it says you have to have shipped out two games or you have to have worked on something already, that's no longer a requirement, we want to take you where you are, you know, these basic skills, and we're going to build you up and our last graduating cohort had, I think, 103 folks who were able to get placed immediately within our organization, because those are needs that we had. So we kind of build these Level Up University cohorts of 12 week cohorts around our needs, we get our applicants, both internal and external, we upskill them or rescale them if they're already in QA, but they want to move to art, well, then we'll pivot them and then we'll put them in that art department. So that's been a huge win, we have a whole team of folks that Level Up University who are doing really amazing work, we're going to continue to do that this year, as well.

Robin Sargent  It's probably all you also recruit such great talent, because you get to look at how they do and the Level Up University and you get to go, I'll take this moment, this one and this one. And so there's a whole team at Activision, that also does the Level Up. But have you been a part of it, or you just are reporting on it?

John Reynolds  So I have not been a part of it. I joined the company like right as the first cohort was fishing, we're going to do another one this year. But there are there's a whole like set a team of folks, a curriculum manager, the director of Level Up University, a talent sorcerer for Lever Up University, who is making sure that the program, you know, operates super, super smoothly, and so far it's been great.

Robin Sargent  It's brilliant. What's your favorite part of your job? I mean, you've been in this for a while you've had a couple of different jobs. So what's your favorite thing? I know, you kind of mentioned at the beginning creativity, but what's your favorite part?

John Reynolds  So I think the best part that I've had is people, there's this kind of, you can survey people and you can put out emails, and for a long time working remotely, you put out slack messages, but I think what I've really enjoyed most is walking over to somebody's desk and saying, Hey, I'm John, and then you know, Hi, I'm so and so I'm like, that's really cool. What are you doing? Oh, I'm testing this function in the game, right? We want to make sure that if you do this, this, this and this, you don't end up with infinite ammo like this, this weird sequence of events, you never know what a player might do. Or I'm checking collision so I'm going to walk around this level, and I'm going to put my body into every door and make sure that I can't fall through it. And if I can, and I'm going to annotate that as a bug shouldn't be able to do that. And so I can walk around to these different workstations, I've got to know so many cool people that I maybe wouldn't have met before. And it's kind of this like field level research. One, I get to meet cool people and two kind of get to see what they're doing and where they are, and then just have these conversations of, okay, well, this is who I am. I'm the instructional designer, and most of the times they're like, what is that? And said, well, great, let's have that conversation, how can I help? You know, what are you looking for? And you can get this really candid real information. It's real feedback that sometimes you wouldn't get from like a qualitive survey.

Robin Sargent  Oh, my gosh, I can see that why that would be your favorite because it's like you get an inside look into one of your favorite things, which would be video games and of people who made them and so Okay, yeah. And so my favorite and final question for you, John, is what is your best and final advice for those that want to become an instructional designer?

John Reynolds  I think if we go back to getting started, I happened to have success through the military having this instructional design. I was voluntold to do it, and I got the certificate out of it. And that's really important. And I think knowing how the process works and being able to speak to the process, for me, has been more important than making a portfolio of of work. I have been asked in some interviews to even could you do this little exercise this little body of work for us before we get hired. I think that's pretty common. But for me, it's being able to solve somebody's problem and articulate that without getting super technical, and maybe soft skills, which are hard to train. But I think communication is super important in our job. And if you're able to be confident, and if you're able to have these conversations, sell yourself a little bit as your brand, you know of why you're awesome, right? And why why somebody should talk to you and give you a shot. That's been the most important thing for me. And you know, I'm happy to talk more about that to anybody, but it's not technical, it's not scientific. It's just be confident. And then, if you know the process, and you can explain the process, I think you'll be alright.

Robin Sargent  Yeah, that's been so great. And John, just being able to like, look inside your world has been such an illumination for so many, I'm sure. And even me, because now I'm like, oh, I want to know more about what's going on Activision but thank you so much for coming and being my guest.

John Reynolds  Yeah. Thanks for having me. It's been awesome.

Thank you so much for reading the show notes for this episode.  If you enjoyed this episode, you may like:

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