Sofia Vanhanen wanted to be in game development since she was 13 years old. Today the 20-year-old software developer works for Small Giant Games and was primarily responsible for the latest expansion to the wildly popular mobile game Empires & Puzzles.
Heavy spoke with Vanhanen via email about her career before and after joining Small Giant Games and her advice on how to make it in the video game industry.
Here’s everything you need to know about Vanhanen.
1. Vanhanen Has Been a Gamer from a Young Age
Vanhanen told Heavy that she’s played video games ever since she found out about them.
She said that her family isn’t very tech-oriented, so she had to learn about computers on her own. She was modifying games and changing the RAM of her PC as a young kid.
“At around 13, when I wanted to choose a profession to start working towards, game development seemed like the perfect path,” Vanhanen said.
2. She Built a Minecraft Server for the Finish Red Cross in High School
Vanhanen said that while she was in high school and learning how to code, she volunteered for the Finnish Red Cross. Part of her work was to help build a Minecraft server to give kids a safe space to meet, play and make new friends together.
“I love how technology and video games can be used to bring people together, and on a larger scale, help alleviate problems such as social isolation,” Vanhanen said.
She joined Health Revolution as the junior software lead after she turned 18 and started studying Computer Science at the University of Helsinki. By that time she had many games, apps and other solo and group projects under her belt from her time coding since high school.
“It was intense to start at my first real coding job and be the only coder there,” Vanhanen said. “My job depended on me learning as much as possible about app development and putting those learnings [sic] into practice.”
3. She Joined Small Giant Games as a Software Developer
Eventually, Vanhanen started looking into the video game industry and sent applications to different game companies. She saw that Small Giant Games was looking for a software developer, so she confidently sent them and email with the title “Software developer here!”
“They were impressed by how far I’d gotten so early on – I think I was still 18 when the interview happened – and I was impressed by their great story and culture, which already seemed amazing,” Vanhanen said.
She got a call back right after the interview.
Small Giant Games is a subsidiary of Zynga Inc., who acquired the Helsinki-based developer in January 2019 according to a press release sent to Heavy.
4. She Led the Latest Update for Empires & Puzzles
Vanhanen led the latest expansion for Empires & Puzzles back in June. The update increased the max level of the Stronghold and added new Advanced Buildings, the Hunter’s Lodge and a number of new items and missions along with a number of other small changes and bug fixes. You can read more about the update here.
Vanhanen said that with the update the team wanted to add more content that their players wanted, including more things to achieve and look forward to.
According to the press release, Vanhanen is not only a developer for Empires & Puzzles but also an avid player.
“Working on a game that you’re playing yourself is ridiculously fun,” she told Heavy. “When I work on new features, I get so excited thinking about when I’ll be playing with them. It also makes me want to work harder, and better, of course – because I’ll get to enjoy the end result.”
5. She Has Some Great Advice for Women Aspiring to be Software Developers
Vanhanen told Heavy that a huge obstacle that she faced at the beginning of her career was not having anyone to ask for help. She spent a lot of time trying to figure things out by herself, especially with her solo projects and working as a solo developer at Health Revolution. She always figured it out, but there was a lot of frustration.
“Doing work such as software development, you easily get into a funk if you spend too much time on a problem,” Vanhanen said. “I’ve learned the importance of breaks and letting your brain rest before trying again.”
She advises aspiring female developers to work hard and believe in themselves.
“When I started at university, I was afraid people wouldn’t take me seriously – even though I already had years of coding experience and a got a job in software just weeks into my studies at university,” Vanhanen said. “It’s easy to internalize the idea that you have to prove yourself to your peers but you shouldn’t have to do that.”
Empires & Puzzles has been downloaded more than 34 million times and has reached the number one grossing position in 57 countries on the Apple App Store and 24 countries on Google Play since its release in 2017, according to the press release. The game was also among the top 10 grossing games charts globally in a combined 124 countries on the Apple App Store and Google Play.
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