In addition I'm going to cater these posts towards getting a Producer job at a major developer/publisher on a large console title since, for many (not all, of course) that is the holy grail. I, in no way, mean to suggest that people who serve as Producers on "smaller" projects are any less accomplished (in fact, I've found from experience its often the opposite).
The first inkling I had that I might actually be able to build a career in videgames was when I founded and led an online MMO guild called 'OSC'. In the summer of 1996 I created this group in order to ensure I had people to play Diablo with, and the guild grew in size and organization through Ultima Online, Everquest, Dark Age Of Camelot, and basically every MMO of significance to come out since. Much has been written about people learning leadership and management skills from running an online guild and I second all of these findings - through running OSC for 5 years I learned organizational skills, how to mediate, how to motivate and how to keep a large diverse group of people with often diverging interests and priorities focused on a single goal. I never necessarily focused on these learnings when applying for jobs after school but I also never hesitated to list this achievement on my resume. If you play (or played) an MMO and ever assumed a leadership role (on raids, etc) you'll know this first hand.
Around the same time I began to become increasingly interested in computers and programming and pursued a degree in computer science thinking my path into the game industry would be as a programmer. While in University I took advantage of a few 'project' courses (3 credits to do a programming project of your choice, assuming you can find a supervisor to monitor and approve of your workload) to work on some game projects that further cemented my interest. I was going to be a game programmer...except for one small detail: I was a horrible programmer, and no one ever bothered to tell me.
Both the MMO experience as well as the game projects I developed in and out of school combine for my first 'lesson' for would-be game producers: find extracurricular activities that allow you to practise and hone relevant skills.
Around the spring of 2000 I got my big break. I had just returned from a 4 month trip to South America (my "travelling days") and was looking for work in the height of the dot-com bubble bust. My limited programming skills meant I only felt comfortable applying for web development jobs and the market was crashing all around me. On a whim I contacted a casual aquaintance who I knew was in the gaming industry and asked if he knew of anyone looking to hire. As it happens he had, just that morning, had a meeting with a wireless entertainment company called Airborne Entertainment who were looking to increase their gaming presence. They were looking for someone young (read: willing to work cheaply), hungry (read: willing to work a lot) and who knew games. I applied, got the job, and suddenly found myself in the unpredictable position of having to program videogames (for cellphones grant you) much sooner then I ever thought possible.
When I had imagined myself working in the gaming industry I always imagined I would design the next Ultima Online or help program the next Diablo. Making a 'Rock Paper Scissors' clone for cell phones with no color graphics and screens hardly an inch tall was hardly the most glamorous introduction to the industry. In fact when I told all of my friends and guildmates about my glorious introduction into gaming, few of them were impressed. They would never play the games I made and had certainly never heard of the company I worked for.
But did I ever learn a lot! I had to design the games, program them, work with the artists to create the (limited) artwork for them, work with the writers to get the scripts done, test them, debug them, help marketing try to pitch them to carriers, etc. One time I even got to help promote them.
Simply put - I would not have become a game producer in the time that I did had I not taken that job at Airborne. In the two and a half years there I was forced to wear many hats and cut my teeth in some crucial areas that it might have taken me many more years to be allowed to explore at a larger company. Airborne was small enough and agile enough that a young, hungry (and ambitous) gamer was able to attract the right kind of positive attention rather then fade into the background.
So my second lesson for this post is this: if you are trying to break into the industry, seek out the backdoors. If you are fresh out of school (or in another industry, etc) you are not going to be hired as a AAA producer at EA (or Ubisoft, or Activision, etc). The stakes are too high for any hiring manager in their right mind to put that much money and control in your hands. But there are many opprotunities to get that requisite leadership/management experience in the industry in other ways. Indie games, iPhone/Downloadable games, Mods, Flash games, etc. Many of these 'smaller' games are still extremely complex to bring together and require the collaboration of multiple contributers. Someone needs to lead the charge, bring people together and keep them on task and a few Producer credits on these titles will definitely add up.
Next time - my days at Gameloft and Ubisoft and the lessons learned there.