Valve and Its Handbook

Valve’s employee handbook has been leaked to the outside. It has nothing to do with benefits, HR, vacation, etc. It has everything to do with how to make great games.

It’s a great read. Everyone should read it. So read it. Seriously. Even if you’re someone who doesn’t make games. Go read it now.

Now that you’ve read it.

I’m sure you’ve found it interesting. Funny in parts, insightful in others. You may disagree with some places and agree with others. While I’m no expert on Valve, I do believe there are some key dos and don’ts to take away from it:

Don’t:

  • Think every company should be Valve
  • Immediately try and change your company or team to be more like Valve
  • Think that the point is that flat orgs always create good companies
  • Think that Valve won’t be successful because you don’t understand or agree with their culture
  • Believe that they adhere to this 100% of the time
  • Think there aren’t tradeoffs
  • Believe that it’s the only way to make great games

Do:

  • Recognize that the handbook is really about Valve’s culture
  • See the deeper wisdom behind the handbook
  • Reflect on your own company’s culture
  • Recognize every culture / structure has limitations
  • Realize that great hiring is the most important thing in ANY company, culture, or structure
  • Know that company culture can make or break your company
  • Be inspired to find ways to work more effectively

PopCap has its own culture. We have our own (unwritten) employee handbook that has some similarities and differences. The Valve handbook has spawned many great conversations and will probably spawn many more within PopCap. I’m certain we’re going to be continuing work on codifying how we make games, how we hire, and what makes a great PopCap employee. I’m just as certain that the above Dos and Don’ts will apply to our handbook as well.

Culture comes from many places in companies. It comes from founders, CEOs, executives, and key employees. A strong corporate culture helps make decisions. Whether product, hiring, customer, or long term vs. short term, the better the culture, the easier some of those things are.

Corporate culture is similar automatic or emotional parts of our brains. When we see something that looks like a snake, we get startled, our heart beats faster, flight or fight is enabled (flight). Our body’s goal is to avoid danger, and so we are equipped with automatic responses. If we had to spend time analyzing the situation we will lose precious seconds. What kind of snake is it? Perhaps it’s a twig. If it is a snake and it is dangerous should…OUCH IT BIT ME. Instead, our bodies have these great automatic responses to save our lives.

A strong culture means the many employees can make a lot of decisions quickly and without a lot of organizational overhead. A very product driven culture will know that it’s okay to take a little longer a product if it means a better product. This will be felt by engineers and artists, but also by sales and marketing teams, PR, and executives.

Valve clearly has a strong culture. I think PopCap does too. They’re very different cultures, and though we are both product focused companies, I doubt many great employees at either company would thrive in the culture of the other.

I am inspired by and jealous of their handbook though. It’s a great cultural initiation tool and a beautiful piece of recruitment propaganda. I look forward to leaking the PopCap handbook (in which everyone works for the Bejeweled God, and Peggle is our Chet).

Penn and his Sword

One of the great things about Quakers is that they’re prolific writers, which allows me to learn from the wisdom of others. I paraphrase the words of Geoffry Durham in his book Being a Quaker: A Guide for Newcomers:

William Penn, renowned Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania had a problem: he had troubles living a life of simplicity and had difficulties giving up his fancy clothes. In particular he had difficulty giving up the sword which hung by his side, as was tradition for the English aristocracy. Heck – it had once saved his life. He asked for Quaker “founder” George Fox’s advice how to deal with his frustrating dilema. Fox’s response was “Wear the sword as long as you can.”

I’ve been stressing out and beating myself up this week for a variety of reasons. While I won’t go into details, this story resonated with me. It helped me gain some much needed self compassion and helped me realize that while I might hold myself to some pretty high ideals, beating myself up or being impatient isn’t the answer.

Sometimes waiting and letting yourself season a bit is all we need.

 

Gossip Police

I’ve been thinking of self challenge of quite some time. I’ll define a self challenge as a challenge that I put upon myself with the goal to increase my awareness and change a behavior for the better. Here’s my challenge:

Do no gossip

That is, don’t talk about people behind their back. I don’t mean the stereotypical gossip of “did you hear that so and so has been…” type of stuff, I mean generally avoiding speaking about people when they’re not there.

Why? Well. I think it would be good. I’m not sure that gossiping does anyone much good, and I think that if I’m civil and fair to everyone, regardless of whether they’re in the room or not, I’ll be more open minded and constructive. Additionally, I think following my challenge would constitute a pretty solid check mark in the golden rule department, which is still one of the most elegant moral systems.

Here are the rules I’m thinking of laying out (examples in parenthesis):

  • Speak no ill of anyone when they’re not there (So and so is lazy)
  • Speak no trivialities of anyone when they’re not there (So and so has a bad haircut)
  • Do Speak good of others when they’re not there (So and so is really smart at solving problems)
  • When I must speak critically of others, focus on non-judgmental observations (So and so has been coming in past 10:00am three days this week)
  • When I must speak of others, only phrase things in ways I would as if they were there (So and so is trying hard to solve the problem, but potentially is missing X or Y thing)

I had first thought that I could avoid speaking about others behind there back completely, but that is unrealistic. I have a job and a role that requires me to speak about others to solve problems for them or the company.

How hard will it be for me to keep to my five rules? Should I add another rule or rephrase them? Is it a worthwhile challenge? Should I try and log each time I break it? How should I remind myself to keep at it? And what kind of category should I put this under in my blog?

To Pay or Not to Pay

One of the more challenging aspects of wealth is how to share it. This time I don’t mean charity, but instead with friends and family. Life is a great journey and we are lucky when our loved ones have our backs in bad times, but just as important when we can share the good parts.

While generosity is a noble quality, there can be a thing as too much. Throwing money around can allow people to take advantage, fuel other’s misperceptions of you or themselves, and cause imbalances in relationships. On the other side, most wealthy people I know want to share some of the cool things wealth offers, help others when able, and just have a good time with those they love.

So how do people find that balance? One friend of mine plans and throws destination weekends, often footing the bill for many aspects, while requiring others to “do their part” by arranging and paying for their own transportation and incidentals. Another takes a different approach and just pays for everyone, forcing him and his friends to get over any weirdness. Some I know spend their money less on parties or travel, but things that are more acceptable to share, like vacation homes.

It’s something I constantly struggle with. I do have a few rules that I try to follow:

  • I never fight over a bill. If someone wants to pay or really doesn’t want me to, I don’t force it
  • I will often try to pick up the tab, but not always, and almost never with people who I don’t know
  • I try to pay for little things (like a round of drinks after dinner), in non-obvious ways
  • A gift, once given, is no longer mine and comes with no unspoken obligations
  • I always graciously accept other people’s gifts in return
  • I work hard at being inviting and open to everyone equally
Most importantly:
  • I try to focus my friendships around time and energy – money and things are secondary

I’m not perfect at it. I’m sure there are some in my life who feel embittered about my paying for something, and those who feel I don’t do my part. While I don’t necessarily worry what other people think about me, I would prefer those around me to know the authentic John, and would like my interactions to be based on authenticity and intimacy, not money or power.

 

Listening in Meetings

I’ve been attending Quaker Meetings this year at University Friends Meeting (UFM). You can learn a little bit of back story about Quakers on my earlier blog post. There are three types of activities that I’ve participated in:

  1. Meeting for Worship – The (mostly) silent hour long meeting in which people speak when compelled to
  2. Adult Education – An hour long discussion group covering a wide range of topics (peace activism, brain science, role of religion in quakerism are all topics that have been touched)
  3. Meeting for Business – Once a month UFM limits their meeting for worship to about 30 minutes, the clerk then has a reading, and an agenda-led meeting about the corporate life of the community ensues

My first meeting was actually a Meeting for Business. It blew my mind. The main topic for discussion was highly controversial and sensitive but the general civility and listening of all the community members still astounds me. Nearly every point along the spectrum of opinions was represented, while everyone had a chance to speak, more importantly everyone who spoke was also listened to.

This is pretty amazing. How many times in a work meeting do we say something, but yet no one is listening? How many times is someone talking, and we’re just thinking about something else, either waiting to speak, or waiting for the meeting to be over?

Since attending quaker meetings I’ve started to pay attention to the amount people listen in meetings at PopCap. I’ve started by first paying attention to how much (or little) I’m listening, but also watched others. Additionally, I’ve tried to notice the effects of not listening. I’ve really tried hard not to ascribe judgement to non-listening and have focused solely on awareness.

My summary is this: we don’t listen much, and this causes all sorts of problems.

We waste so much time because we’re not listening. People repeat themselves (which is funny, because it doesn’t seem more people are listening on the second, third, and fourth time around), circular conversations don’t stop, idealogical differences pop up, we question peoples motives instead of looking deeper at what they’re trying to say, others can’t step in and help clarify, frustration rises, people feel unsatisfied, it’s harder to receive or give buy off, we don’t fully understand the problems we’re facing, and more.

Basically we waste our and other people’s time. If we could somehow capture the listening the quakers have instilled in the culture of their spiritual community I’m willing to bet job satisfaction and productivity would increase, we’d make better decisions and ultimately have a way more successful company.

 

 

 

 

PopCap – Now the Worst Company in America

The voters have spoken over at consumerist.com. Loud and clear they told me: We sold PopCap to the worst company in America (2012 edition). Wow. Of all the companies we could have sold our souls to, we picked the deplorable, evil, Electronic Arts. The company that has the gall to release a new football game every-single-year! The company that had the audacity to create a game which inspires anger with the ending! A corporation in America that has made hard business decisions and had to close studios! The company which has bought studios that didn’t work out! EA! You tricked me! You promised perfection and now I see the truth! YOU EVEN SELL DIGITAL GOODS! DIGITAL GOODS!!!!!!!

Every week I would check out Consumerist’s NCAA style bracket of evil companies and every week we won. We beat Sony, Best Buy, Comcast, AT&T and Bank of America to reign supreme as worst company. Why did EA win over other companies? Here are my thoughts:

  • The business of games is hard – Unlike movies the technology of games is constantly changing. Production values rise, new platforms come and go, sports games get outdated within days of shipping, acquisitions fail because of the acquirers, acquisitions fail because of the acquired, marketing costs are huge, customers are fickle, it’s tough
  • The art of games is harder – Come on. Make some fun games. Go ahead. Heck, just make one. Make a game that you have to update every year or customers complain. Make a game that has thousands of hours of dialog and story telling. Make a game that requires empathy. Make a game that excites, engages, and inspires. Now do it again. And again. For 30 years. In every genre. On every platform. I double dog dare you
  • Everyone makes mistakes – Yup. EA does not have a perfect past. It’s made HR mistakes. It’s made huge game design screw ups. It’s messed up studios, marketing campaigns and beloved franchises (sometimes all at once). It will do so again. There is no perfect company, and I won’t promise perfection from PopCap
I’m very glad EA acquired PopCap. I believe in EA’s leadership. John Riccitiello has a vision for EA that is important. Every year he’s been boss, the company has made fewer, better games than the year before. The transition to digital is a hard, difficult road, and John has been leading the company through since he started as CEO. Gamers may complain about paid DLC, but there has to be something that sits between Farmville and the $60 price point, EA has been relentlessly trying to find that balance. I’m proud to have my studio sit next to DICE, Visceral, Maxis, Tiburon, Black Box, BioWare and more.

It was a bit frustrating to read EA winning, but when I look at the list of companies, I only see one or two others that actually inspire any emotion or passion. Apple. Google maybe. I may rant or complain about DirectTV’s atrocious customer service, Comcast’s flakey connection speeds, Bank of America’s ATM fees, or ticketmaster charges, but do I really care? Naw. No matter how angry I’ve been at them, I ultimately don’t care.

But man… you miss my expectations on the ending of an epic three game space opera that I’ve spent hundreds of hours enjoying – go f yourself EA!

Importance of Hurling

I play a competitive Irish sport called Hurling. It’s not caber toss, curling, or projectile vomiting. It’s an ancient stick and ball sport that looks like a cross of field hockey, rugby and lacrosse.

 

I’ve been playing for the Seattle Gaels for the past five years. Hurling is the only team sport I’ve ever seriously played. We compete locally in a city league, in regional games and tournaments, culminating in a season finale at the North American Gaelic Athletic Association’s national tournament (which has over 5,000 competitors).

Amidst rain, chilling wind, and triple rainbows, the season started today with my first practice of the year. About midway through practice, it hit me: a new season. For the next six months I will dedicate my Tuesday and Thursday evenings, plus many Sunday afternoons to this team. I will work my ass off to get in and stay in shape. I will be honest about my weaknesses and strive to improve. I will cry out of frustration and I will cheer for joy. I will bleed for the Gaels.

I don’t know what I was thinking when I first went out onto the pitch to play this weird, hyper aggressive sport. I certainly wasn’t aware of all that it would bring me. How it would enrich my life by keeping me healthy, physically, mentally and emotionally. I didn’t realize how many great friends I would make, friends for the rest of my life. I wasn’t aware of how much I’d learn about teams. About camaraderie. About leadership. About myself.

Most importantly: I didn’t realize that hurling would keep me sane.

A few years ago I was struggling at PopCap. I wasn’t succeeding in my role. I was having problems with my peers. I was adrift in failure. I felt absolutely powerless, frustrated and alone in my own company. Every Tuesday and Thursday though, I suited up, forgot all that, and just played. Hurling helped remind me that life wasn’t only PopCap. That my identity wasn’t only as a founder of the company. It helped keep me humble, for I was still learning. Hurling kept me in the world just enough to keep plugging away. It gave me enough energy, enough of a sense of self worth outside of PopCap, that without the Gaels, I don’t know if I would’ve survived that year still employed.

Last year we were in the middle of selling the company. It was the hardest time of my life. After a particular long day in a rather long week which was a part of a especially difficult month, we had a city league match. On the way to the match I was on the phone with a potential acquirer. While talking I had to make a snap judgement on whether we’d communicate our desire to move the relationship forward. We had been previously focused on the soft stuff (cultural fit, vision) and he was pressing hard to start actual negotiating. I was representing where the founders “heads” were at. I made the decision to say yah, the founders are feelin’ it.

After I hung up I slowly walked to the pitch. Every ounce of me was drained. I almost turned back, headed home or to a bar, but instead plopped my gear down and started suiting up. After I laced up my cleats, there were warm ups, stretches, the first half, half time pep talk, the second half (victory!), warm downs, which then ending with a lap around the field. It was on that lap that I realized I hadn’t thought of the deal, lawyers, accountants, bankers, social gaming, PopCap – any of it, for an hour and a half. Joyful tears streamed down my face as I jogged.

Up the Gaels!

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