What’s fun about the Game Developer Conference (GDC), just held in San Francisco and ending on Friday of last week, is the number of talented and experienced folks you meet at parties, via friends, or just hanging out in the lobby of the W Hotel, the unofficial hub of GDC social activity.
I managed to meet and talk at length with someone who worked as a consultant at Zynga, hoping to score a more permanent position that didn’t happen. When I asked what it was like to work at the Facebook-based game company, this person said “It was awful. They run it like a sweatshop. Now, people there do get a lot of perks, like good food and you can bring your dog, but the pay is horrible. What’s worth it are the bonuses. Other than that, it’s not fun.”
What’s more, my source says that we should expect to see a mass-exodus of talent away from Zynga after the April date to cash-in stock options hits.
That’s not the first time I’ve heard that remark about the company that grew large, fast, and helped usher in the field of social gaming. Indeed, Zynga’s alleged “sweatshop” working conditions became a question topic on Quora:
Is Zynga run like a sweatshop?
To which one responder, Gregory Wild-Smith, chimed in to say “no”:
As an ex-employee of Zynga who resigned after the mini-studio I was in was shut down after our game was end-of-lifed/put into “maintainance mode” I feel I can speak about this.
No. No they are not a sweatshop. Not at all.
As an employee you are aware you are a cog in the machine, but a very well looked after cog. There are free massages, haircuts, reflexology, acupuncture, membership of the local gym.. etc. Food is catered, kitchens are well stocked.
You are expected to work a lot, but that is par of the course in a startup (and make no mistake, Zynga is still a startup, as large as it is). A lot of time is spent in “crunch” mode, which is honestly just a by-product of their processes being top (management) heavy while still trying to behave like an agile startup.
But you are a cog, a well looked after cog, but a cog nonetheless. This is par for the course in most games companies – less so in general web start-ups, but not uncommon either.
I’m currently at a place where I feel more valued as an individual, but that doesn’t reflect badly on Zynga at all. The teams there are highly motivated, smart, and well looked after in general.
Again, certainly not a sweatshop. I don’t think anyone there would describe it as such – only disgruntled ex-workers who couldn’t take the high-pressure environment (and as they hire a lot of people who are relatively green… that will be a lot of people).
That response was voted on 37 times, and the next two answers also boil down to “no’s.”
But even with those accounts of a hard-driving working environment, with good bonuses at the end, but not rising to sweatshop status, the idea that Zynga is a sweatshop still persists. In his online post called “Why Zynga Is Not Worth $7 Billion” Forbes Contributor Peter Cohan started by calling it, well take a look:
Social media gaming sweat shop Zynga filed to sell 14.3%, or 100 million, of its shares, valuing the lot at $7 billion.
And claims that…
No amount of sweat-shopping will fix Zynga’s slowing growth and razor thin 3.7% net profit margins (a fraction of Tencent’s 33% net margin). Avoid this stock.
And then there’s this very stinging account (posted at the site Glassdoor) of what it was like to work for Zynga in 2010 (at least when this was written):
Zynga Anonymous in San Francisco, CA: (Past Employee – 2010)
Pace (but see below); reach (millions of users – for now)
* No sense of company direction; Zynga cannot come up with a strategy to overcome the fact that it is entirely dependent on Facebook.
* It is a loose collection of “studios” with little or no sharing of resources between them, resulting in serious inefficiency.
* Disingenuousness is pervasive and seeps down all the way from the very top.
* Zynga is not a meritocratic organization. Pettiness, paranoia, fear and back-stabbing win the day; those who “play the game” float to the top.
* One of the company values is something called “Zynga Speed”, which means accepting that quality will be sacrificed and long hours will be expected, over and over again. For employees aged over 25 this means your years of experience in your field will be routinely ignored; just to get the job done, you will be expected to abandon just about every principle you have learned as a skilled professional.
* Deadlines are arbitrary and extremely aggressive, yet in some cases slip by several months as strategies change on a whim at the top level.
* Expect to find yourself micromanaged by someone much less skilled than you, and who also has no skills in management.
* A large proportion of the employees are in their first job and are treated like slaves; they will stay there until they burn out and discover a life outside Zynga. This is challenging for experienced people as the same is expected of them too.
* Seasoned workers are open and vocal about their dissatisfaction with working there (read other Glassdoor reviews for confirmation).
* The “no vacation policy” sounds good on the face of it, but basically it means your manager will decide not to let you take time off.
* The games themselves are of dubious value. Do you want to believe in your company’s products?
Advice to Senior Management
Take a serious look at the negative feedback you’re getting, including that from your past and present employees.
Keep an eye out to see what happens to Zynga’s talent just after April.