Growing a Successful Culture at a New Location v10


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Presented by: Aaryn, and Yanick from Bioware

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  • September 2008 marks the beginning of the BioWare Montreal adventure as this is when the first BioWare employee to work from the Montreal location started. At that time, it had not been decided yet if this would evolve into a full-blown BioWare studio or if it would simply remain a location BioWare employee could remotely work from.By March 2009, not only had it been decided to establish BioWare Montreal as a full studio, but it also had officially been announced. It is also around that time that I was put in charge of the studio.Because I was the Franchise Development Director for Mass Effect 2 at that time and we did not want my move to negatively impact the project, we worked out a fairly long transition period for my replacement, and I finally only relocated to the Montreal studio in August of 2009. Over this 5 months period, I was working closely with the Edmonton management team to help set BioWare Montreal up for success.
  • At BioWare, we believe we build the games we do because of the people we have and the culture they operate within. Our culture makes us BioWare.Right from the beginning, we knew we wanted to build a true BioWare studio in Montreal, not a just a studio with a BioWare logo on the doorWe needed to transplant the BioWare Edmonton culture to our new Montreal location, but culture cannot be packed in a boxWe value our culture so much that we go to great lengths to protect even its most minor applications. We put so much emphasis on our core values that I sometimes get the feeling outside observers look at us scratching their heads, wondering why we spend so much energy on seemingly minor details. But the thing is that a culture is made up of those details: every thing we do and everything we choose not to do ultimately contributes to our culture, so it is with this knowledge in mind that we try to make decisions, even minor ones, on a daily basis.
  • This probably is a good time to define what a corporate culture is, or at least the definition of culture we think of when we speak of the BioWare culture. After all, there apparently are 164 different definitions for the word culture, so it probably is worth clarifying which one we are talking about!The definition we are using, and that you can find on Wikipedia, is that a culture is “The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group”It is historically determined, which means that past experiences of that group have helped defining the culture it has todayIt is socially constructed, which means that all the members of that group have contributed their own personal values to the group culture, usually in proportions to their level of influence over that groupIt is not something you can freeze in time – just like yesterday’s event and people built it, today’s events and people are still modifying itThe paradox is that while it is easy to define, it is very difficult to change as you never are in control of all its elements
  • In other words, it’s the way things get done around here
  • So… since culture is not something that can be packed in a box and moved to another location, how do you transplant it?It turns out it’s pretty straightforward: you make a big announcement about the opening of your studio and the 150 positions you are hiring for, you fill these positions over the course of a few months, and then you trust that they will integrate the values that were printed in their welcome packages. Easy.Well… NOT!
  • Then, how did we do it?By taking slow, deliberate steps, valuing “doing it right” over doing it quickly and/or cheaplyThere really is no shortcut if you want to do it right. While you can make a complex, elaborate recipe by using pre-made mixes instead of fresh, individual ingredient, I can assure you it will not taste the same!
  • Here are the steps we took to transplant our cultureTransfer experienced BioWare leaders from Edmonton that we know have completely integrated BioWare’s values. Between the two other senior leaders at BioWare and myself, we had about 20 years of experience at BioWare Edmonton before we relocated to MontrealSeed the studio with BioWare-experienced peopleHire new, highly talented people, focusing the selection process as much on values and team fit as on the actual skillsGive the newcomers a full year before you assume they’ve assimilate your valuesNever allow those newcomers to represent the majority of your studio and indirectly dictate your values based on what they brought with themWhy did we rely on transferring people? Because people carry the culture with them, whether they realize it or not. This, in some ways, relate to a story some of you might have heard about.There was an interesting experiment conducted years ago using monkeys and bananas.The researchers placed five monkeys in a room with a ladder and a some bananas at the top of it. It didn’t take long before one of the monkeys saw the bananas and decided to climb the ladder.As soon as the monkey reached the banana, all five monkeys were showered with cold water.This frustrated the monkeys, but shortly after the showering ended a second monkey braved climbing the ladder once again.Again all five monkeys were showered with cold water.  The monkeys were starting to see a pattern.  So the researchers decided to change the scenario.  This time they would take out the water and replace one of the monkeys with a new one.The new monkey comes into the room and notices the banana sitting safely on the ladder. He sees an easy snack and approaches the ladder.As soon as he starts to climb the other four monkeys attack him. The new monkey doesn’t understand what he did wrong but no longer approaches the ladder.The researchers continue the new pattern by replacing another monkey. This new monkey sees the banana and does the same thing as the last monkey to enter the room. Upon climbing the ladder the original three monkeys attack once again, as well as the first new monkey.A third, fourth, and eventually fifth monkey is replaced. By now all the new monkeys are attacking each new monkey that tries to get the banana. They’ve never been sprayed for attempting to get the banana, but choose to attack each monkey that tries anyways.Of course, this experiment shows us the dangers of repeating behaviours without ever questioning why we actually behave this way in the first place, and I certainly don’t want to say we see our people as monkeys, but this reflex that we all have to repeat the behaviours we see around us and even enforce them when we see incompatible behaviours is actually something we can choose to rely on to transfer desirable traits as well. And in essence, this is what we did… but with extremely talented monkeys! 
  • Here’s how we actually put this approach in action.In the beginning, as you can see, our focus was on making sure BioWare veterans, mostly transfers from Edmonton, always represented the majority of the team in Montreal. Over time, we switched the focus to making sure that, at any point in time, the majority of the team had been with us for more than a year.
  • As you can see, this actually is a pretty simple thing to do…NOT!
  • While the theory is simple, the reality is actually filled with challenges because, as I said before, you’re never in control of all the elements that influence a culture.One big aspect of it is that people’s values might be aligned with corporate ones, but they’re almost never an exact replica – we all come with our own baggageAnother fundemental challenge is that values are influenced by our environmentMontreal is not EdmontonYanick is not Aaryn and is not “Ray & Greg”We share facilities with other EA teams, so their cultures interact with oursAnd I think it’s fair to say that the economic environment we were building our studio within was not one to facilitate our growth
  • Another big challenge actually was created by the very approach we had chosen.Because of our deliberately slow growth, we have not had the size so far to take on a full project autonomously, so we started by doing cutscenes… then side-missions… then downloadable content… and we’ve recently driven the co-op multiplayer portion of Mass Effect 3But distributed development is hard, and doing 90+ Metacritic content is really hard, so you can imagine that doing them both together is really, really hard!The challenge we ended up facing is that building a team of talented high-performers and then asking them to accept reduced responsibilities as the team grows and learns is not something that comes to them naturally. Not everybody was willing to pay this short term cost to reap the longer term benefits.
  • On top of the challenges we would have had to face no matter what, there were some by were created by our own mistakes and oversights.For example, we initially assumed that all transfers from Edmonton were good cultural ambassadors, but some of the early volunteers were actually trying to move away from elements of that cultureAnother mistake we made was to initially apply the same “cultural filter” to our new hires as we did in Edmonton, but the more fragile culture actually needed us to be much more strict on that aspect. Our small, newly formed team was not as good at defending BioWare values as our large and experienced Edmonton one, so more of that responsibility was falling on us.We also had no definite timeline to build the studio and get it its own project, and we pretty much were using a “when it’s ready” mentality, but that encouraged some people to make up their own timeline – and some were disappointed to see us miss these “personal” timelinesLast but not least, we were inexperienced with distributed development and underestimated the amount of work we would need to invest in order to keep the train on the rails
  • So, how did we grow a successful culture at a new location? What was our recipe?Well, it has three simple steps:First, take your time. This is a marathon, not a sprint. There is no shortcut to doing it right.Second, your culture is made of a thousand small details – they all matter.Last but not least: Just like in your personal life, we move forward by making compromises all the time, and this is normal, but just like in your personal life, you can never compromise on your values as you will always regret it. Defending these values might be painful now, but not defending them will be painful for a long time.
  • So, where are we at today?Distributed development is still hard – but the reflex to over-communicate is now part of our culture… and it works! It is not necessarily the development we are shooting to use in the future, but it certainly is one we will need to keep relying on to some extent or another, so it is good to see we have tamed the best… as much as it can be!Both the Edmonton and Montreal teams are hard at work finishing ME3, with Montreal in charge of some single-player content and most of multi-player… and trust me when I say the whole game is looking great and will be the high point of the trilogy!We’re now large enough to support significant growth over the next couple of years, without losing our culture in the process. It feels like we’re now growing a BioWare studio instead of actually giving birth to one!We’ve earned our stripes and are considered by our peers as a “real” BioWare studioWe’re now ready for the next, exciting steps!
  • And what is next for BioWare Montreal?We are getting ready to start driving our own project, either through the creation of a new franchise or within an existing BioWare oneWe expect to have an accelerated growth over the next 2-3 years in order to support the development of this project, enabling us to reach autonomyAnd we now have full access to a wide range of exciting EA-developed technologies, like the Frostbite engine used by the latest Battlefield game, to develop our games
  • And we will be doing all this with a real BioWare team, located in a real BioWare studio, working on real BioWare games… 3,750 km away from where it all started!
  • Growing a Successful Culture at a New Location v10

    1. 1. Growing a Successful Culture at a New Location Learnings and Opportunities
    2. 2. Background• BioWare joined EA in early 2008 after more than a decade as an independent developer• Our second studio in Austin was well underway, focusing solely on Star Wars: The Old Republic• For Dragon Age and Mass Effect, we felt we could justify growth, but how? And where?
    3. 3. Growth for RPGsGrowth plans were reviewed, with options:1. Continue growing in Edmonton2. Grow in a new location3. Combined strategy of of #1 and #2To make our decision, we had to go right to our core values
    4. 4. Vision & Values• Our guiding principles from the very first days of BioWare• Critical to: – Pursue our growth strategy with these values in mind – Seed any future locations with these core values
    5. 5. VisionCreate, Deliver, and Evolve the Most Emotionally Engaging Games in the World
    6. 6. Values1. Quality in the Products2. Quality in Our Workplace3. Entrepreneurship All in a context of humility in integrity
    7. 7. Plus Some More• “No play, no say”• “The closer you are to the game, the more important you are” – inverted org chart (managers support team)• “We are only as good as our next game”
    8. 8. Growth Strategy• After reviewing, we felt strongly that we needed another location in addition to growth in Edmonton• Next question was, where would our third location after Edmonton & Austin be?
    9. 9. Candidate LocationsThree locations were short-listed (alphabetically):1. Montreal2. San Francisco (EA campus)3. Vancouver• All had existing large & successful EA presences with multiple teams
    10. 10. Selection CriteriaWe built some selection criteria, including: – Access to local talent – Desirability to transfer – Cost of living – Available space in EA location – Impact to existing locations – Long-term viability – Cost-base to run the studio – Plus many, many othersWe looked at a LOT of variables!
    11. 11. DecisionIn the end Montreal won out, thanks largely to:• Access to local talent - Vancouver market was very crowded when we did our analysis• Location – Montreal is on the east coast, balancing Edmonton & Austin, and a perceived draw for European talent• Familiarity – We had several senior leaders (including Yanick!) from Montreal• Cost-base – MMTC helps the overall cost structure along with decent rental costs, etc.
    12. 12. Now What?• With the choice of Montreal made, we needed a plan to start and grow the studio• On to Montreal!
    13. 13. In the beginning… - September 2008 - March 2009 - August 2009
    14. 14. Importance of our cultureMakes us BioWareMore than a sign on our doorCannot be put in a boxEven the details matter
    15. 15. Defining Culture“The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group” - Wikipedia – Historically determined – Socially constructed, defined by the people – Soft, changing, malleable, evolving – Paradoxically difficult to change, composed of too many factors which are almost impossible to determine
    16. 16. In other words… “the way things get done around here” Deal T.E. and Kennedy, A.A.
    17. 17. How to transplant a culture: 1. Make a big announcement 2. Hire 150 people over the first few months 3. Trust they will integrate our values
    18. 18. How did we do it?By taking slow, deliberate steps, valuing “doing it right” over doing it quickly and/or cheaply
    19. 19. The steps…1. Leading2. Seeding3. Filtering4. Integrating5. Protecting
    20. 20. …in action1st year anniversary: 77% BioWare Edmonton veterans, 23% newcomers2nd year anniversary: 66% BioWare Edmonton veterans, 34% newcomers 76% more than 1 year at BioWare, 24% less than 1 year at BioWare3rd year anniversary: 58% more than 1 year at BioWare, 42% less than 1 year at BioWare
    21. 21. Easy!
    22. 22. Some challenges… Different people Different environment
    23. 23. …and a big oneAsking high-performers to progress slowly and carefully
    24. 24. And some mistakes• Assumptions about transfers• Assumptions about hiring• Lack of clear timeline• Underestimating remote development challenges
    25. 25. Long distance relationship• Working so closely with Montreal had an impact on Edmonton – Budgetary restrictions (especially during the global recession) – Edmonton team members perceived Montreal’s growth was at their expense at times• Needed to evolve the Edmonton culture at the same time to grow past these
    26. 26. The recipeDon’t rush itSweat the small stuffNever compromise on your values
    27. 27. Where are we at?• Team tamed distributed development challenges• Hard at work on Mass Effect 3• Set up for accelerated growth• A real BioWare studio• Ready for next challenges
    28. 28. TomorrowIn charge of our own projectGrowth, leading to autonomyCutting-edge technology
    29. 29. A real BioWare team, in a real BioWare studio, doing realBioWare games… 3,750 km away from where it all started!
    30. 30. Contact Info• Aaryn –• Yanick –• Moustaches Info• Aaryn – Doing it out of sympathy!• Yanick –