In this Asian Women in Games series, we interview women who are currently in the gaming industry to learn more about them, their journeys, and their culture. We want to showcase the amazing women who are already driving change and representation in the industry by being themselves!
This week, we speak to Iris Zhang—a high school teacher turned engineer! The gaming industry is not always an easy place to grow, but she shares her experiences on progressing through it both as an engineer and now as a manager. Read on to learn more about her time bringing Champions to life on League of Legends—and her hectic family zoom calls!
Give us a brief introduction to yourself!
I’m Iris, an Engineering Manager for Riot Games. I manage a team of gameplay engineers that embed on multidisciplinary pods that make new and reworked Champions for League of Legends. I’ve been at Riot for 3 years, and before that I’ve worked at Microsoft, various startups, and have done backend and mobile engineering. Software is my second career. Before transitioning to tech I was a high school teacher.
How does your parents perceive the games industry?
This is a funny one, because they didn’t start off being proud that I work for Riot. I distinctly remember they were shocked at my decision to leave my (in their eyes) cushy, stable prestigious Microsoft job to pursue something so frivolous. My parents tried to limit computer and video game time when I was growing up, so it must have been disappointing that I chose to pursue it when I finally gained independence and a degree of financial freedom. But their support has meant the world to me. Over time I won them over by sharing tidbits of my career stories, all its ups and downs, and promotions and successes. Also it helps that my mother has heard of Tencent.
What, in your experience, makes for a good manager?
I’m still learning as I go (caveat). From my personal experience with my managers, the thing that stands out the most for me is actions over words. I’m fortunate to have had managers at Riot who truly stuck their necks out for me and got results. This ranged from them putting their reputations on the line to support my ideas, going out of their way to give me opportunities to work on high profile projects, or getting me promoted. I didn’t need to cajole or convince. They listened deeply, trusted my track record, and simply did the work. I think folks call this sponsorship, which can be truly transformational. Also, Twitter is a wonderful resource if you know where to look. @polotek and @mipsytipsy are two of my favorite engineering managers to follow.
How has the female engineering space developed in the time that you’ve been in it?
The landscape has changed significantly. There are more female engineering grads than ever before. Calling it a pipeline problem now seems tone deaf. In 2019 I advocated for Riot to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration. Two friends that I met there now work at Riot! I’m glad we as a company invested into these communities.
At the same time, I hope the conversation evolves to being about a problem of retention. Though strides have been made, there’s still work to be done. Women leave tech and games at far higher rates. Pushing back against crunch and unrealistic production deadlines, fighting for reasonable parental leave policy, and more equitable financial compensation for devs—these efforts lead to better working conditions for all, meaning we can get a workforce that reflects the diversity of our world.
Can you speak to failure and trudging through it in this industry?
Now that I’ve been in the industry for a few years, this is a very personal journey for folks so I can only speak to my own experience. Sometimes you go through something so appalling that it makes you take a step back and ask, “Do I want to be a part of this industry? Is it worth my health/relationships?” If the answer is no, you owe it to yourself and the people who love you to be honest about that.
If you do stay, know that there will be people around fighting for better conditions. The journey is much easier when you’re not alone.
Having done things such as coding the backend of League of Legends to bringing Champions to life, what is the most rewarding part about game development for you?
As much as I love delighting players, I hold a very special place in my heart for bringing joy to my fellow devs—especially the artists on League. They truly make magic, and if I could do one thing forever it would be making their artistic visions a reality. My fondest task as an engineer was bringing animated palette textures to particles in the League engine.
As a manager, my greatest honor has been being able to carve out a work stream last year to address workflow and tools efficiency. There are behind-the-scenes tech debt that tends to get passed over for shiny new product. Now that League has passed its 10 year anniversary, I believe investing in our tools and our content creators in the long haul will make our success last for the next 10 years.
What is one thing from the Chinese culture that you want to share with everyone?
This is a difficult one because I grew up with a lot of media that were about Chinese culture but not made by Chinese people. I’m glad that’s changing with more folks understanding that even among Chinese people there are many competing and different viewpoints and cultures—diaspora vs not, mainland vs HK/Taiwan, etc.
One of my favorite traditions—which I’m sure is not unique to Chinese culture—is the family zoom call we’ve started doing since the pandemic. Both my parents have a lot of siblings and when we all gather it’s just a complete chaos of people all talking at the same time. Oftentimes, they’re commenting silly things about how we might look different from the last call. I think some Western friends of mine might perceive that as being insensitive, especially when it comes to comments about weight or skin tone. I think this is more about seeing someone and making them know you perceive them. You can feel everyone’s love for each other, despite us all living in far flung countries.
Where can people continue to follow you and your journey?