Working in a Virtual Reality

Boomzap - gaming company based in Singapore - Shopkeeper Stories

Allan Simonsen (left) shares his experience running a “virtual office” from Singapore

The award-winning book and documentary “Guns, Germs, and Steel” introduced the gripping theory that the fate of human development is intimately connected to our physical environment. The author Jared Diamond provides a convincing case that unique geographical circumstances— rather than intellectual brilliance— enabled some societies to progress faster than others, combating illusions of cultural superiority in advanced nations.

Physical location matters, and businesses uproot in search of proximity to resources such as ports, funds, stability, or talent. People are also mobile, but we are not as mobile as we want to be: after all, we feel sentimentally attached to our home, moving comes with costs, and immigration laws inhibit the free-flow of individuals to opportunities.

While many companies insist on huddling in the same air-conditioned office to work on projects, more companies are embracing the benefits of telecommuting and virtual offices. Boomzap Entertainment— a gaming company— is one such company that has risen to this challenge.

Allan Simonsen, Norwegian co-founder of Boomzap, was invited to speak at the “Friday Huddle” run by NUS Enterprise at Plug-In@Blk71 where he shared his experience working with remote technical teams across Asia. He spoke candidly about his challenges running a virtual office and offered practical tips for managing the growth smoothly.

Here are some key notes and quotes from the lively discussion with entrepreneurs at the session!

Where is your team based?

We have people working in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Ukraine and, in Russia, we have people in Ekaterinaberg and Moscow.

How do you coordinate the task of programming and debugging across so many cities?

We are a defensive coding company: we make sure that whatever you do, the code will not crash. Designers will not be allowed to crash the code— no matter what they do. Every file and every image they load gets vetted and tested. Everything gets built from ground zero, so there is rarely a bug. Whenever anything crashes, it gets emailed to every coder in the company so we can see when it crashed and why.

How do you deal with time zones?

Most of us are in Asia, so we tell people to be available between 10am to 5pm Singapore time.

The reason why we are so anal about crashing is because something that crashes in Philippines might depend on something in Moscow and they don’t wake up for another 3 hours. We have to handle the interdependencies.

Can people feel alienated when they don’t meet personally?

The way most virtual studios crash-and-burn is when they go half-and-half: some people are based at the office, and others work remotely— so they have two separate tiers of workers.

But our company was born virtual— we were never hybrid! We don’t have 1st class and 2nd class citizens (the ones who work remotely).

In regular offices, when you all go out for a beer after work, you might chat casually about projects, and this information doesn’t get communicated to the 2nd class citizens.

And then whenever something goes wrong, the first people to be fired are the 2nd class citizens because there’s a lot of institutional knowledge they don’t have.

In our case, everything is structured around documentation.

What tools do you use to communicate?

HipChat is our office; it is the real flow of the company: people can pop in anytime to start a conversation… or post internet memes, as people do. We have a communication channel for each project and vertical.

The trouble with chatting is that finding information from 2 days ago is hard. We have to scroll back through all the noise. So we use BaseCamp – the external version is clear, and our internal is frank.

Also, getting people to chat is easy, but documenting is hard work. We use Google Docs & Spreadsheets, as well as Wiki for rock-solid notes. This way, the information will always be in black-and-white to trace everything. People hate doing the documentation, but it needs to be done.

For business deals, we use HighRise.

What happens when the team grows—can you still run a virtual office?

Communication is vital in virtual offices. We scaled from 3 people to 10 and 50 – now we have 70 plus people – but we still run relatively small projects with 9-10 people each.

Our tagline has been always simple: don’t be a dick.

It worked great at 20 people because everyone knew each other, but once you hit 50, people can start to feel more disconnected from the soul of the company, so we needed to rethink who we were and how we managed people. We needed to be more formal.

Robin Dunbar is a Scottish psychologist who said: at 5 people, you are one happy bunch. At 20, you have people who aren’t singing from the same hymn sheet. You will run straight into a wall at 20 people and struggle to maintain the same level of connectivity. Next number is 50, then 100.

At each of those steps, the way your company manages itself needs to change— and that’s what we did.

Tell us about your organizational structure.

There are 73 people in the company, so we cannot manage everything.

We see ourselves as project “owners” rather than “managers”. We set the milestones and overall vision for the company, but we don’t tell people what to do day-to-day.

The reality is that 2-3 people will be the strongest leaders in each team, and the project gels around them.

As the boss, how do you know what’s going on “in the office”?

This is a virtual office, so everyone sets their goals for the week: what we did, what we are planning to do, and what are the dependencies.

It is easily clear when people are screwing around, because you know what a programmer ought to be doing in 40 hours of work. So they’re either screwing around, or they’re not a good programmer.

Unless I track what you’re doing, I don’t know what you’re doing.

If you are not performing, we need to find out why. So we talk to them and see if it can be worked out. You can’t track everything in a virtual office, but you know, even in a real office, the boss just sees your face at the desk.

Do you pay the employees full-time?

We provide a full-time exclusive contract which includes health care, annual leave, and a monthly salary.

You have a flat organizational structure. How do you keep people motivated without promotions?

We give pay raises. Why should a good programmer spend his time as a manager? We can just hire a manager. Good programmers might be bad managers.

What’s the best part of running a virtual office?

The average games company has 5-10 people. We have more than 50.

The big thing we are getting out of it is the ability to hire anywhere.

Hiring C++ programmers in Singapore is really hard, but they do that work really well in Russia and Eastern Europe. If we were required to bring those programmers to Singapore, it would be really expensive.

If we built an office in Manila, the commute would be 1.5 hours each way in the city — riding at the back of a jipney! That’s a waste of time.

Now we are hiring people who would otherwise be unhireable.

And that’s the touchpoint: your wife can bear not seeing you all day for 12 hours — we call them the “games industry widows — but not your children, so eventually they exit the games industry. We even have moms in our teams: these are strong people we can hire whom we might not otherwise access— this is the benefit of a virtual office.

Allan Simonsen responds to a fire of questions from entrepreneurs incubating at Plug-In@Blk71 in Singapore

Allan Simonsen and entrepreneurs from Plug-In@Blk71 hash out their HR challenges & strategies

Check out Boomzap online!

Want to join events at Block 71? Here’s the event calendar!

Shopkeeper Stories is a photographic documentary of small business owners around the world. You can browse all the posts on Facebook and Instagram – just look for @ShopkeeperStories!


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