Carol Ryan Thomas is Vice President of Operations for a private financial management company and she was test and debugging Atari games while still in college.
“I think most kids today would love a job where they got paid to sit and play video games for 40 hours a week. That’s what I did.”Carol Ryan Thomas
Carol Ryan Thomas was a game tester at General Computer Company (GCC). As an intern in the Test and Debug group, Carol ensured that gameplay and graphics on the Atari home games were bug free. Carol was responsible for Joust, Pole Position, Dig Dug and the GCC version of Millipede. At the same time Carol was also a student at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. She really enjoyed math and started as a Math major, but switched to English for her BA because she loved literature too. Eventually Carol made her way back to Math as a career, as she is now Vice President of Operations for a private financial management company.
Carol was introduced to the gaming industry by her sister, Betty Ryan Tylko, who worked as a programmer at GCC. Carol was hired to test and debug video games before release to Atari. While the work might sound like a dream job, it actually required very careful and dedicated attention to minute details. Carol first played a game through all possible paths and noted any irregularities, then reproduced and documented bugs and worked with the engineers to isolate and rectify any issues. If the bugs could be reproduced, they were classified as a valid, and the programmers needed to fix them. Bugs occurred with scores not calculating correctly or colors or visual output suddenly changing. Carol explains, “You would consider questions like, ‘The visuals are all dark now because you’re underground, but did it change when you moved up on the ground? Is the underground feeling gone and now you’re above ground?’” Carol was not just assessing the factual details of the games, but also the graphics.
Carol enjoyed working with the programmers. She remembers, “They were great. They were absolutely fantastic. I think that they were so thankful, because they didn’t have the time themselves to sit and really dig into and play the game in order to find these problems.” Carol saw her work as similar to that of a proofreader for the programmers. The programmers were so close to their code that it would be hard for them to notice small issues. But those issues were essential to the players’ experiences. Having fresh eyes look at the games was critical, and when Carol was able to reproduce an issue, the programmers were thankful.
Carol also experienced stereotypical attitudes about women while working as a game tester. She remembers, “We went upstairs to get lunch and came back down to our area to eat. Afterwards we were expected to take our lunch trays back. One day, however, one of the male game testers told Carol, “’You’re the girl. You can take the trays back for us to the kitchen.’ He wasn’t kidding! It didn’t go over well with me, and I stood my ground. ‘No, I’ll take my tray back but you can get up and take your own tray.’ It sounds like small potatoes, but there was a lot of that male-trying-to-dominate-you behavior. I wasn’t one to back down though and I wouldn’t stand for it back then or now.” When asked why she was able to stand strong, she explained, “Seeing my sister Betty get into Harvard at a time when computer science wasn’t even a major, and seeing her go through everything she had to go through in a field that was really male-dominated, I guess I felt like I’d let her down if I let somebody walk all over me back then. They’re the true ones that had the courage back then. If she could do it, I could certainly deal with this one guy telling me to carry his lunch tray. I was always stubborn and stood up against what wasn’t right.”
After graduating from college, Carol returned to GCC for a job in the credit department. GCC had transitioned out of the gaming industry and into the business of making hardware products for the Apple Macintosh. Carol worked herself up in the company to the position of manager of import and export operations. She oversaw the financial aspects of customs and duty obligations for GCC products that were shipped overseas. Carol worked for GCC for 2 ½ years, right up until the birth of her first son. She decided to stay home to take care of her child, so GCC hired her to work as a consultant from home. Carol oversaw the Duty Drawback Program for GCC, which allowed the company to recover monies for products imported and then reshipped overseas. GCC really needed Carol’s expertise. When her daughter was born, they even paid for a babysitter so Carol could continue as a consultant working from home.
Carol went on to have three more children. When her consultancy with GCC ended, she started another business from home. Carol bought an industrial four-head custom embroidery machine, and built a thriving business embroidering t-shirts, hats, duffle bags and other paraphernalia for local sports clubs, schools and other organizations. A few years later, Carol also started working in Operations at the financial management company. When her youngest child finally started high school, Carol doubled down and worked full-time at both jobs for two years. This wasn’t sustainable, though, and eventually Carol sold the embroidery business. She now concentrates all of her time as Vice President of Operations for the company. But one thing has remained the same. Her tasks and projects have always required her to be very detail-oriented. Paying attention to details is as critical now when moving money and writing reports as it was back then when noticing miniscule irregularities in a video game. Everything has to be exact.
When asked about her current job, Carol explains, “I love my job. I love the people I work with. I am actually thrilled to get up and go to work every day. Not many people can say that, but I actually do.” She also states, clearly, that she could never play another video game. Even her children are intrigued and surprised that she debugged some of the top games for Atari, but she would never consider a long-term career in the gaming world.
Looking back at her experience as a game tester, Carol humbly says, “I see my contribution as a very, very small part of that whole gaming world. When I look at the engineers and artists involved designing the visual effects, and people like my sister, mathematical geniuses programing the games, I think I don’t hold a candle to those people. I really feel that my work was insignificant. But then my sister Betty says, ‘Absolutely not. GCC had world class games compared to other companies, and it was due to the work that we did in test and debug.’ Without finding those bugs and helping the programmers fix them, the final games would not have been top-notch. Betty said, “That’s due in huge part to those who sat there and played those video games 40 hours straight and found issues that needed to be fixed.” Thinking about it now, it was amazing to be a part of that whole beginning of the gaming industry. That’s the biggest story. That, and given the culture in this day and age of women standing up for themselves, that we (my sister, me and the few other women there) stood up for ourselves over 30 years ago and forged our paths without apology, toward equality, respect and accomplishment.