At the 2022 Lauds & Laurels ceremony on May 26, 2022, the UCI Alumni Association honored 23 accomplished individuals with the Distinguished Alumnus Award, including two graduates of the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). Melissa Tullues, director of technical program management at Electronic Arts (EA), and her husband, Lloyd Tullues, co-founder and CTO of Carbonated, were recognized for their successful tech careers and continued engagement with ICS as mentors, speakers and research collaborators.
For almost 20 years, these two have been successfully navigating the gaming and entertainment industry. Lloyd had extensive experience building video games for a variety of platforms and companies before co-founding the independent mobile/PC studio Carbonated in 2015. Melissa, who was at DirecTV and Headspring Consulting before moving to EA, has worked on diverse software, from set-top boxes to medical devices to customer support technology. She has also been named on four “method and system” patents over the years.
What’s the secret to their success, and what first sparked this ICS romance? Here, Melissa and Lloyd talk about their early days in ICS, their University Club wedding, why they love the fast-paced gaming and entertainment industries, and what motivates them to stay engaged with their alma mater.
How did you two first meet?
Melissa: We had a true geek beginning! We had known of each other through mutual friends, but in the middle of an artificial intelligence class one day, he caught my eye and we started flirting, bonding over an alpha-beta pruning homework assignment.
Lloyd: I had no idea she was trying to flirt! I thought she wanted help on our homework, but when she asked how she could make it up to me, I suggested a trip to Carl’s Jr. and the rest is, as they say, history.
Melissa: We’re just two nerds who fell for each other. When we got married, we decided to have our wedding at the University Club because it was within spitting distance of the lab where we had spent so much time together. On the back of our wedding program, we had the lyrics to our song in binary. You could tell which table had our ICS friends, because they were busy decoding it. Everyone else was like, “What are these random ones and zeros?” It was very much an ICS romance.
Lloyd, as you explain in this 2017 ICS video, you’ve always had a passion for games. How did you turn that passion into a successful company?
Lloyd: I started coding when I was young and always knew that I was going to make games, even if it took a while to get there. When I got to UCI, knowing that the games industry used quite a broad spectrum of technology, I curated my courses to cover as much of that spectrum as possible. Software engineering was especially important to me, as game development involves intensely large systems and architectures, and making sense of it all tends to be a challenge.
After UCI and building up my career for a little over a decade, I finally got the opportunity to follow my dream of starting my own studio. And it turns out that running a company is much like game development in that it involves learning an avalanche of new things on the fly and adapting to changing markets, technology and platforms, and business models. It involves more soft skills — not nearly as much coding and looking at bits all day — but it’s the same foundational skills of adaptation and knowing how to learn (quick).
I think people underestimate the amount of work it takes to be in this particular industry. We work a lot, we work hard, we work fast — it’s intense — but it’s also a lot of fun. I’m surrounded not only by incredibly smart engineers, but also hyper creative and passionate folks (think artists, writers, etc.). I love being surrounded by an energy that’s not just pure tech all the time.
Melissa, what sparked your interest in computer science and what do you like about working at EA?
Melissa: I joke that nobody should follow my example — I chose ICS as a major because I was an overachiever in high school and computer science sounded hard. So not the best way to pick a major, but when I started taking the classes, I discovered that I really love technology. I like building things and getting hands-on in figuring out how to solve a problem. And that just continued to evolve throughout my career as I changed from being a software engineer to more in the project/program management space.
I also realized that I love it when things are messy because I like to sort through a situation and bring people together, charging forward toward a common goal. I went through this exercise last year where I had to build a personal mantra, and mine ended up being, “Sorting through chaos to find a better way, together,” which really encompasses everything that I love about my work at EA, where I’m working with a team to deal with a different challenge every day. Sometimes we’re rebuilding a tech stack in place without disrupting the business, and sometimes we’re developing a new 360 feedback process to help with career development. Ultimately, it’s about figuring out how to sort through the noise to find the most successful path forward.
And to Lloyd’s point about working in the game industry, even though I’m not directly making the games, it’s just a fun culture. I started off at DirecTV, and then worked at a small consulting firm where I really missed the entertainment vibe, so I was happy to return to that culture when I came to EA.
How has your ICS education helped throughout your careers?
Lloyd: In the games industry, we pull in practically every aspect of computer science that you can think of to ultimately make a fun game. That covers the stuff you would normally expect in high tech — databases, services, transactions, etc. — but then you have areas where relatively few people have tangible skills in, like animation, physics, real-time networking, and making those all work in unison. Knowing what I was going to get myself into, I not only focused on covering as much of computer science as I could, but also getting used to picking up new areas rapidly.
Imagine jumping from Java to Assembly. That’s a big jump, but you have to dive in and be fearless because technology moves so fast that whatever you learned in school is practically already on its way out. So what do you take post-graduation to build a successful career? Adaptability. It’s more about how you learn and pick things up.
Melissa: I remember being super daunted by classes like ICS 141, where you had to learn multiple programming languages in a single quarter, and it was terrifying and stressful. When we were upperclassmen, we had a senior project class where we worked with an outside company to plan, design and build a real solution in areas in which we didn’t have expertise. Through those experiences, as scary as they were, we learned that it’s not just memorizing a bunch of facts but rather taking the problem and breaking it down into manageable pieces. Then you can apply your creative thinking to find a solution.
Lloyd: Building up that confidence and knowing that you can tackle all kinds of different things is important. I recall this one conversation where I asked some students a simple question: Could they reach working knowledge of a brand new language by, say, mid next week? If their immediate response was, “Oh gosh, that’s unreasonable, I can’t do that,” I knew they were going to have a hard time in our industry. The students who say, “I’ve never seen that language, but I’ll give it a try” are the ones who are set up for success.
Can you share any memorable ICS moments?
Melissa: Meeting this weird guy named Lloyd was kind of memorable! Aside from that, I have great memories of the late nights in the lab — sitting in that basement lab, frustrated, because for whatever reason, your program wouldn’t compile, and you’re desperately adding plus one because you don’t know what else to try, then hiking over to Del Taco for late night food to take a brain break. There was just such camaraderie. I still can’t drive past a Del Taco without remembering our time in the lab. And then that euphoria when your code actually worked! During my first internship at UCI, my friend and I were struggling to understand Java containers (that reference will probably age me) and after multiple tries we couldn’t get the stupid thing to work, and then finally, a box appeared on the screen — we were cheering and dancing in the hall! It sounds crazy to tell college students that they’re going to look back and love those 2 a.m. struggles, but those really are such fond memories of bonding.
Lloyd: I fondly remember that senior year where we were in the lab for what seemed to be an eternity, being “stuck” with our classmates until the early morning hours, and yet still bonding and learning from each other. There’s something to be said about being in the trenches and working through a problem together.
Do you share and bounce ideas off each other throughout the workweek now?
Melissa: We balance each other really well, and we’re good at finding the line between acting as a cheerleader, saying, “you can do it” and keeping it real and saying, “you’re full of it and need to look at this from a different perspective!” Then there’s other times where we’re a little competitive and there’s a fair amount of ribbing and trash talk that happens.
Lloyd: I’m still super jealous of her credit on Battlefield!
Melissa: [grins] Yep!
And do you do any gaming together?
Lloyd: We play some games together. Missy has a particular affinity to the Nintendo Mario games, so when the new one comes out and there’s a way to play together, we tend to crank through it and have a lot of fun together. We’re also trying to introduce our kids to video games. They love “Mario Kart” on the Switch, and “Unraveled Two” is particularly fun with a 9 year old.
And you’re both still very involved with UCI. What motivates you to stay engaged?
Lloyd: There’s a number of things that we wish we knew when we were in school, like “don’t fret about what you’re learning — it’s more how you’re learning.” And so, part of giving back is to impart our lessons learned to other students. When we participate in panels and talk with students, we like to share our different perspectives: Missy went into UCI as a freshman and lived on campus, whereas I was a transfer student who lived off campus. Also, selfishly, I do it in part to support the gaming industry and promote computer science for game development.
Melissa: It’s nice to help the community, and we get something out of it too — it fills my bucket to support women in tech. Right before the pandemic, I went to the Grace Hopper Celebration and as I sat down before the keynote and looked around, I started tearing up because it was the first time in my life that I had seen so many female technologists all in one spot. It had me flashing back to my first day of ICS, when I walked into my classroom and there were only three other women. When I was going through ICS, groups like Women in Information and Computer Science (WICS) were a vital part of my support system. WICS helped me find women mentors who made such a big difference by allowing me to see women in very successful careers while still having families and other things I wanted. So that experience deeply ingrained in me the importance of giving back and showing that representation.
Right now, I lead the women’s ERG [Employee Resource Group] for EA in Austin, Texas. I’m also always available if a WICS alumni or student wants to message me with questions on LinkedIn, or I’m up for joining a panel to share my journey. I come out of those experiences energized. I love my job, but sometimes we lose sight of the magic, so talking to a student and realizing how far our worlds have evolved gives me perspective too. The engagement can be big or little, but just getting involved is really important to us, especially now that we’re raising kids and trying to nudge them as much as we can toward the STEM world.
What was your reaction to learning you received the Lauds & Laurels Award?
Melissa: Total surprise! We both have bouts of imposter syndrome, so there was definitely shock, but ultimately we’re honored to be recognized and we hope to continue to give back to the community and to do UCI proud.
Finally, any words of advice for ICS students hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Melissa: What I usually tell folks who are starting off in their careers is to make sure they look for the good in whatever situation they’re in, because life is a journey. It’s not like you get the dream job instantly and your life is set. Every hiccup is a growing opportunity that makes me who I am today.
Lloyd was lucky enough to get a gaming industry job right out of school, which is hard and rare. [He started at Sony Computer Entertainment in the 989 Sports division, working on MLB 05 and MLB 06.] But it also wasn’t his ideal game. He was working on baseball, and he’s South African, and they don’t really have that there.
Lloyd: I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, until we immigrated to the U.S. in 1998. Baseball was something you largely saw in American movies, so when I started my first game dev role on MLB ’05, it was a bit of a learning curve. Doesn’t help that I’m not at all into sports, either!
Melissa: But it set him up in a place where he could learn about the gaming industry firsthand. So if you don’t get that perfect job right off the bat, figure out how you can still grow from it. Also, make sure you have a good support system, with people who are willing to have those honest conversations with you, cheering you on when you need it or telling you when it’s time to end the pity party.
Lloyd: Be absolutely fearless when it comes to learning, even if that means learning on the job or learning-while-doing. And take at least one business class. Even if you have no interest in becoming a manager, it’s imperative to learn how the business itself works and to understand, when you’re in the trenches, how these other factors are at play.
Also, enjoy your time at UCI! Hang out with friends, be social and go to events. Be sure to balance the intense work that UCI throws your way with making time for yourself. It’s a skill I’m still trying to learn, but it’s important.
Lastly, it’s super important to understand that, even if you go through ICS, your career isn’t necessarily going to be just programming. Missy heavily leverages her degree in her role as a program manager, and there’s so many other tech roles out there besides programming. So don’t resign yourself to this idea that “I’ve learned how to code and if I start disliking it in five years, I’m trapped.” An ICS degree opens up a myriad of interesting doors … make sure to explore them!