From coding to leading: CEO of ZIMAD talks organizing the work of a big game company
Principles of forming the team and organizing its work from Dmitry Bobrov, who went from being a developer to being the CEO of an international gaming company
Note: ZiMAD is an international developer and publisher of games and entertainment applications headquartered in San Francisco. The company was founded in August 2009. As of the end of 2019, the monthly active audience of the company’s products on mobile platforms exceeded 6 million users.
I would like to talk about some general principles that have helped and continue to help me throughout my journey in the industry and in my work. The principles are pretty simple and always on the surface, but it’s one thing to know them and another to apply them correctly.
I joined the ZiMAD team at the beginning of 2010, while still studying at Ulyanovsk State Technical University for a master’s degree in software development.
Since I was 4 years old I had a home computer. I have an impressive gaming experience, but I can not say that since childhood I dreamed of working in a company that creates games. Now it has become a real calling, without which it is very difficult to imagine my life.
Looking ahead, I’ll say that in the life of the gaming company everything is much more prosaic than it seems from the outside. This is especially true for the work of the management team. Endless flow of problems and conflict situations, routine tasks, meetings and coordination of work — all this can distract from the main goal, namely, to create a quality product for millions of people around the world. In this situation, it saves and motivates the final result and the understanding that we have done something right. It comes with positive feedback from the players and with the achievement of high metrics.
In any situation, do not forget about the product and its end-user, for whom your product is designed.
Let’s get back to the beginning. While studying for a master’s degree, I was looking for a job as a Java, C# or an Android developer and came across a ZiMAD Android vacancy. I responded, and according to the results of the interview I was accepted, but on the condition that I will be coding for Blackberry devices.
Now ZiMAD is a game developer and publisher. But, in the beginning, besides simple games, the company released Live Books, Reference applications with quotes, slang dictionaries, jokes, facts about the world, etc. It is worth mentioning that a few years ago we went by the name XIMAD. It was my first serious work in commercial development, so I tried to do everything possible to be useful to the company and to get a foothold in the team.
This “everything possible”, of course, included working at night, because I wanted to prove myself and get the result immediately. There was also an immersion in the work of other directions, communication with the direct management and the company’s management in an attempt to understand how to build interaction and to understand what problems could be solved.
I got an understanding of the importance of timely escalation of problems and timely asked questions.
A lot of things were simplified by the small size of the team. The first couple of years ZiMAD functioned more like a startup, so there was practically no bureaucracy. It was possible to make decisions quickly and see the results of their implementation. The average employee had a better chance to influence the decisions made by the management. The lack of bureaucracy also played a negative role: we made the same mistakes over and over because of the poorly set processes. The duties of employees and entire departments were also not entirely set.
This period of work taught me the following:
If you want to develop as a specialist in one particular field, get knowledge from related fields, and take an interest in things that are not part of your direct responsibilities.
Try not to use the concepts of “mine” and “yours”. If you see a problem in the work of others, let them know. If you can’t help directly, at least give some advice.
Before the full-scale development of cross-platform engines, the company was divided into business units responsible for the delivery of native funds and monetization of products for specific platforms.
In the course of my work, I managed to become of the head of BlackBerry and Amazon business units, and also temporarily combined it with the position of PM. Leaving, albeit gradual, from the direct coding to solving business problems was a real challenge and a way out of the comfort zone.
The period of work in the role of Platform Lead was accompanied by a rapid development of ZiMAD: in fact, there was a transformation from a startup to a fairly mature team with a strong backbone, standing on its feet, having a fairly clear structure and understanding of what the company is capable of in the nearest future. Such a development allowed the team to begin to devote more time to market analysis and analyze their work.
Thanks to this, we were able to identify an important trend that soon turned the market upside down.
In the early days of mobile app stores, these same apps (primarily games) mostly had paid versions with the so-called satellite trial versions. We were in the first wave of gaming companies, whose business model was more based on mobile advertising revenue in the full app itself, providing the player with the full functionality of the paid version.
Since 2010, players have been paying us with time spent in the game than real money.
Don’t let the routine get to you. Invest time and resources in looking at your work from another perspective. Don’t save money on market analysis.
Products changed. In our case, it was mostly casual games: match-3 / bubble shooters, different puzzles, runners. Meanwhile, in-app purchases, interstitial ads, rewarded videos, subscriptions appeared on mobile platforms… All this influenced the final look of our products, approaches to their development, game design and promotion, which changed the business model of the company as a whole.
At the same time, strong cross-platform solutions appeared on the market, allowing us to create universal cross-platform products. We started to move from completely native development to Marmalade, and later on to Unity.
The transition to cross-platform development has led to the need to gradually move from a model with business platform units to the creation of gaming business units.
The transition was amazingly painless because we all agreed that the market was changing rapidly and we knew we were on the right track.
Don’t be afraid of reorganizations. They are inevitable, they’ll give a boost to new development or simply will save the business if you are growing or are in a dynamic market.
For reorganizations, you need to prepare yourself in advance. You have to have internal and external expertise so that everything goes according to the scenario.
It was at this evolutionary stage of ZiMAD’s development that I was entrusted to lead the entire company as CEO. This happened 3 years later, in the spring of 2013. The workload increased, and at one point 24 hours a day was no longer enough.
This kind of situation is inevitable, but nothing works wonders more than competent time management and distribution of tasks in the team. In the issue of delegating, it is important to remember about such an achievement of mankind as the division of labor, which works not only on the scale of the company’s staff but the entire market.
At ZiMAD, we recognize the importance of developing our own solutions, but we also understand that it is foolish to avoid using the experience of other companies. This helps not only to temporarily cover the necessary need of the team but also to attract new expertise, develop internal solutions and processes based on the best examples in the market.
So, following these principles helped us gradually reorganize our work:
Delegate. Learn to be aware that you can’t be the best in every field, and you can’t do a lot at the same time without reducing efficiency.
Be aware of the cost of your time and the cost of other employees’ time. This helps you prioritize tasks and create a chain of delegation. The top priority for the CEO should be to solve the tasks that only he or she can solve. The work of many people and the success of the company depends on it.
Clearly distinguish between work and personal time, otherwise, burnout is inevitable. A company in the person of a leader needs a mentor who will point out the mistakes and encourage, a diplomat, a motivator and a visionary. It will be difficult for you to be such a manager if you are constantly irritated, overworked, working in an emergency mode.
Since I became the CEO, the company’s profits have increased by 1-1.5 orders of magnitude. This does not mean that there have not been any major mistakes made on the way by me and the team.
There were months and years of developing commercially successful products that we’ve wasted, and millions of dollars spent on the development of products that didn’t make it to soft-launch and were not released globally. Some products couldn’t become profitable.
We still have a lot to learn about risk control and quick rollback in case of failure.
Don’t be afraid to admit your mistakes. It is mistakes that give us the necessary experience to move forward. You should be more afraid not of the error you’ve made, but of its wrong analysis.
A significant increase in profits was accompanied by the growth of the team and the complication of the structure.
Now our team consists of more than 200 people, 10 offices in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and the United States. It can be divided into two parts: studios/business units that create products, and departments that cover the full cycle of work on said products.
At the moment we have 2 large development studios with their own internal structure, art-departments, and game-design departments. The company’s departments as a whole are represented by marketing, consisting of functional areas, analytics, monetization, infrastructure, etc.
We try to preserve the positive qualities of small teams, so wherever it is justified (limited only by NDA), we have free communication between employees of different departments. Any ideas and criticisms between the teams are welcome.
The basis for the creation of any department/team is initially to ensure that the head of the department/team has the necessary level of transparency in their work processes and that they have a clear understanding of their responsibilities and authority.
I see this as a recipe for many diseases of big companies.
Create a workflow that is as transparent as possible for everyone. Everyone should understand their role in the team, know their KPIs, and therefore what they can do to advance in the team and influence the conditions provided by the company.
An important element of transparency is the coverage of the company’s processes, including the decision-making process by the work of the BI (Business Intelligence) team. In our case, this role is taken over by the analytics department.
In the work of a gaming company, as well as many others, the result may be adversely affected by the subjective opinion of its employees (primarily managers), the desire to issue or prioritize specific functionality, choose a certain setting for the product, etc. Prioritizing your work by numbers allows you to minimize the influence of such subjective factors.
We try to instill a data-driven approach wherever the necessary infrastructure is objectively OK for this purpose. Of course, we should not rush, as obtaining incorrect data may lead to a wrong trail and end badly.
Trust the figures more than you trust yourself.
Also in our history, we have, for example, a hardcore collectible card game (CCG) in a space setting, Star Crusade. It was a great, useful, but unsuccessful experience. There are also a number of unsuccessful projects hidden from the public, which were not included in the global release. Right now the company is working on dozens of ideas, prototypes and soft-launch products.
The cost of the error increases with the increase in the size of the company and its budgets. The probability of error increases with the constant growth of competition. This requires a special approach to team building.
Find the right people for your team, respect their aspirations and understand the motivation, use a personal approach.
When searching for a specialist for the ZiMAD team, we want to see a desire to develop in the field, to benefit the team locally and globally. It is necessary to understand that everybody has different motivations and it is necessary to be okay with it. Just find the right approach to everyone. For some people it is always more important to have a high and stable income, for some people it is more important to have growth prospects, a comfortable office, a possibility to work from home, for some people it is enough to have interesting and difficult tasks that will keep their brains working and increase their value in the market as an expert.
The candidate should not see us as a springboard to move to a new place or a higher position elsewhere. Often this is guessed from the first words of the interview, sometimes the candidates, say it indirectly without even realizing it. Of course, when hiring any full-time specialist, we count on a long-term cooperation.