Confession: I’m an entry-level gamer. You won’t find me on World of Warcraft (for now, if my younger brother has anything to do with it), but I have put in my fair share of hours assassinating Templars and taking too many arrows to the knee. Of course, most people will just assume the Playstation 3 hooked up to my TV spends its days streaming The Notebook on repeat. Frustrating, right? But then I turn around and get all surprised to find out a woman is behind Temple Run, one of the most addicting games ever.
Natalia Luckyanova is another woman in tech who got a late start. A physics/chem major at Harvard, she stumbled into a computer science course during her junior year and found was love at first line of code. She went on to get an MA in computer science at Boston University and, after a few years as a software engineer, started up Imangi Studios, an independent game company she still runs with her husband and business partner, Keith Shepherd. (Game artist Kiril Tchangov completes the trio.)
Imangi has released a few other games, but really hit the jackpot with Temple Run. The racing game taps into that heady combination of adrenaline—Scary monkeys! Behind you!—and my own childhood dream of competing in Legends of the Hidden Temple. I’m not alone in getting hooked: Over 50 million downloads is Angry Birds-level successful, not to mention Justin Bieber, LeBron James, and Mary J. Blige are all fans. Thanks to her app’s runaway success and her insistence on staying independent when many smaller tech companies are getting snapped up left and right, Luckyanova has a rare perspective on building a career, being a woman in a male-dominated field, and keeping a smile through the whole thing.
GLAMOUR: What factors led to your decision to pursue a graduate degree, and would you recommend that path to other women looking to get involved in tech?
NATALIA LUCKYANOVA: The first time I took any CS courses was in junior year of undergrad in Harvard. I stumbled into it on a whim because I wasn’t quite satisfied with what I was doing at the time (a lot of physics and chemistry) and I wanted to see what’s out there. I loved CS and realized this is where I want my career to be, so after taking as many CS courses as I could in two years, I got a job as a software engineer when I graduated. I learned a ton on the job, but I always felt a little behind because it seemed that everyone had a degree in CS, and most people had been programming since they were kids.
I learned a ton in my Master’s degree, but I also learned that the most important knowledge in a software engineering job is picked up on the job. You can learn everything you can in school, but when you go into the field, they are using completely different technologies, so it’s all about being a quick learner and figuring things out by asking questions and doing your own research. So a Masters in CS is definitely not necessary for a software engineering job. In fact, most people in the field only have BS degrees.
GLAMOUR: Who were some of your mentors while you were in school and as you began your career?
NATALIA LUCKYANOVA: Jumping into business was a complete deviation from the standard path and different from what anyone I knew was doing. Keith and I jumped into it together, and most people thought we were crazy at the time. That’s usually a good sign you’re doing something right.
GLAMOUR: What do you think about apps or other platforms that are marketed or widely regarded as being for women, i.e. Pinterest?
NATALIA LUCKYANOVA: Women are a huge target for the game industry right now. In the past couple of years, the industry has finally realized that “gamers” are not just 13- to 18-year-old boys playing Modern Warfare on their consoles. Women and girls love games, all sorts of games, and the industry is finally waking up to the fact that they can make a lot of money off women. This may surprise people, but 55 percent of Temple Run players are women. I think it’s great that the industry is starting to take female players seriously. I hope the phenomenon keeps spreading, and women can continue to feel more and more included when they want to play video games.
GLAMOUR: Looking at the stories written about Imangi’s success, I haven’t found too much written about your takes on being business partners and a husband-and-wife team. I think our readers would be very interested to hear about that dynamic.
NATALIA LUCKYANOVA: It’s pretty great. I don’t like to get too cheesy in public, but I’m very lucky to have an amazing husband, and we’re very lucky to be able to work and be together pretty much 24/7.
GLAMOUR: As the woman in this business partnership, did you ever notice other people deferring to Keith about business decisions or tech issues?
NATALIA LUCKYANOVA: Absolutely. It gets annoying. However, people who want anything from our company but only make eye contact with Keith are making a big mistake, because we are definitely a 50/50 partnership. But the truth of the matter is that Keith is a better communicator, so he is generally the spokesman in our business transactions. He is truly amazing at working with people diplomatically and keeping everyone happy, while still keeping things on track and keeping the end goal in mind.
GLAMOUR: Do you think that working with your husband in your own company has made being a woman in tech any easier, in that you don’t have to deal with a creepy boss or coworkers who don’t think you belong there?
NATALIA LUCKYANOVA: This job is so much better than any other job I ever had, for so many reasons, that it’s hard to even start enumerating why. Doing what I want for myself and working with my husband are definitely awesome. I was lucky enough not to have too many issues with sexism in my previous jobs, but it’s definitely nice not to even think about it now. Probably the only times it seems to come up is when we go to conferences, and people we don’t know assume Keith does all the tech and I’m the artist (I only wish I had art skills!), and act shocked when I say I write code as well, as if it’s some kind of impossible feat for a woman.
GLAMOUR: I also read that you are expecting your first child in June. First of all, congratulations! Second, have you given much thought to how you’re going to balance work and motherhood down the road?
NATALIA LUCKYANOVA: Thank you! We are extremely excited. I’ve only thought about balancing motherhood and work in very vague terms, because we’re not great planners. We’re very fortunate to have a very flexible work schedule and work from home together, so right now we’re thinking we’ll both take a bit of time when the baby first comes and try to deal with pressing work issues whenever we can squeeze them in. After things settle down a bit (because they do settle down a bit, right? Or is that the sound of parents everywhere laughing?), we’ll have to figure things out.
And one more big thing from Luckyanova:
In other profiles of Temple Run’s success, Luckynova’s outlier status of being a woman in the gaming industry is taken for granted—there’s no need for further explanation when saying she’s not a stereotypical developer. Natalia has plenty of insight on being one of the few women in her field. I was particularly excited to share this quote with you ladies, which I think really gets at the heart of what Luckyanova has to share:
“I’ve been to industry tech conferences with thousands of people which had under 50 women in attendance. It’s true, I don’t look like a stereotypical game hacker/programmer. I wish there were more women in the industry, and I hope that is changing. Honestly, the comments on my appearance make me laugh more than anything, because they’re generally pretty stupid/obvious (yes, I know I’m short and look younger than my age, thanks for the heads up, Internet), but not really mean. I’ve seen comments like that get vicious for some women though, and it sucks that women have to deal with that kind of scrutiny, especially when their job has nothing to do with their appearance. I wish that female developers, entrepreneurs, politicians, etc. who are in the public eye wouldn’t have to deal with that kind of nitpicking of all their physical characteristics, because it is completely irrelevant to anything, but I guess people have evolved to judge women’s looks more than men’s. Hopefully, as we see more and more women in these traditionally male-dominated fields, their appearance will become less of a rarity and people will be less inclined to judge.”
In related news, I’m taking that last sentence and, like, framing it.
Have you played Temple Run and more importantly, if you have, how does your score compare to the Biebs? What other games do you guys enjoy playing? My Draw Something user name is atotalmonet, just saying.