Advancing Engineering in a Fast-Paced Environment
What happens when your organization takes off like a rocket ship? It’s certainly a great problem to have, but it also means change. How does the culture of a team morph when scaling? Gaming startups are often envied for their cool-kid culture of fun and energy, but what happens as they transform into larger companies? EPAM recently moderated a panel, bringing together leaders from Iron Galaxy, Epic Games and Gearbox Entertainment to share their experiences and advice on how to maintain a strong culture as your organization evolves. Below are excerpts from the conversation that touch on the power of rituals, written communication, relationships and being in the same space.
- Moderator: Vitalii Vashchuk, Head of Gaming Solutions, EPAM
- Panelist: Sean Reardon, COO, Gearbox Entertainment
- Panelist: Justin Sargent, Sr. Director, Engineering, Online, Epic Games
- Panelist: Dan Coleman, Head of Product Development, Iron Galaxy Studios
Vitalii (EPAM): At what size did your team hit an “inflection point,” where something about it changed, and what changed?
Sean (Gearbox): There are so many inflection points, I’d say we’re constantly evolving. We've had a couple of different org chart changes. At one point, we decided we couldn't just be an amoeba anymore. I believe that adjustments to the org chart are sometimes unavoidable.
Justin (Epic Games): I think certainly the big inflection point for us was back in 2017, when Fortnite Battle Royale came out and saw huge success. That really launched internal growth. I think back then we were maybe a few hundred employees and now we're over 5,000. So in retrospect, that isn't really that much time, and we’ve been constantly evolving. When the systems that you put in place — to help culture or organize work — break down every few months because the company is growing and reinventing itself, that’s an interesting challenge.
Dan (Iron Galaxy): We tried to maintain a flat organization for a really long time and that didn't work as we scaled. Then, we started centralizing, creating heads of departments, and enabling them to make decisions. We made that successful by incorporating our values. Sometimes we have to figure out how to help our partners without impacting our people in a negative way. Probably the hardest one is to get continuous improvement in everything we do. And that's where I come in because I try to bring those values to decisionmakers and help them model decisions using those values.
Vitalii (EPAM): How has your organization’s leadership structure evolved as you’ve changed size and what has helped maintain alignment and culture in the new structure?
Sean (Gearbox): When we built the engineering team, one of the things that we really baked hard into that interview process was to make sure that we liked the person, not just that they were competent and smart. But we actually wanted to enjoy the person's company, knowing that we're going to spend so much time together, oftentimes in the same room. In some ways, I think the most important organization at Gearbox is HR and Recruiting.
Justin (Epic Games): Back when we were a few hundred people, Epic [Games] was still very much about a face-to-face communication culture. It was poetically described to me once as individuals going from campfire to campfire telling the story, and that doesn’t scale very well into a 5,000-person company. At least not quite the same way. Eventually we went to fully remote work for obvious reasons, and that meant we lost a little bit of that personal touch that came with the storytelling ritual. That really led, as Epic was moving in different directions, to various business units creating more structured communication APIs, rules for those business units, and then those business units kind of function like mini companies.
Online really wasn’t particularly different. We’re at the intersection of many projects at Epic. When it comes to communication, the important thing is to understand that people really don’t have that much time and you need to customize your message to your audience. You also need to recognize that your company goes through fluctuations and your projects go through cycles, so different communication structures are important for different phases. You really need to keep asking your audiences, “Hey, is this working for you? Are you getting what you need out of my communications?” Because if you’re spending time writing status emails or building presentations and they’re not landing, you’re wasting your time.
Vitalii (EPAM): How do you prevent miscommunication?
Justin (Epic Games): Writing it down. Writing is an extremely effective way to get a consistent, concise message to a large group. For example, online we hold all-hands meetings fairly regularly, and during that we put together a fancy presentation where we talk about the celebrations and the hot topics and all that stuff. But we also put together a long form written document that's a companion to the presentation. And that goes over all the same topics we talked about but in more detail. We're an international company, people go on vacation, and not everyone can attend every meeting. That's an important takeaway, right? The document helps those people stay connected to the story and the message, and is, really importantly, an artifact that can be linked and referenced and shared.
Another thing that we've done over time is the introduction of long form documents combined with silent meetings. If you're not familiar with the silent meeting format, that’s where in the first part, the attendees just sit in silence and read the documents. And generally there's some kind of active commenting and a little bit of active messaging going on. Then the second half of the meeting, you pick one or two spicy topics and discuss them more in real time. And that has been excellent, life changing in some ways. It's not good for every kind of communication, every type of meeting, but for the ones that it is, it definitely helps provide deeper alignment if everyone actually sat and read the documents instead of skimming — as well as just helps produce juicier and more fruitful conversations.
Vitalii (EPAM): Awesome. Sean, with a growing team how do you listen to individual employees?
Sean (Gearbox): When I'm communicating with an individual, I'm really doing my best to understand who they are. The world wants us to be in boxes that are pretty squared off, pretty simple. As a leader, I want to understand a person's puzzle piece better. I have friends who've been in therapy; they're never changing the core personality of who they are. If you report to me, it is not my responsibility to change you, it is my responsibility to understand you, to love you, and figure out how you fit into the bigger puzzle.
Vitalii (EPAM): Dan, how do you maintain culture across multiple teams, locations, regions, especially in remote work?
Dan (Iron Galaxy): We are mostly a US-based company, but we are regional. What we did at IG was trying to visit the different offices and really understand people; we sat next to them and listened to them. We tried to teach Chicago about Orlando and vice versa. Over time, that worked in getting the culture to permeate across different geographies.
Here's another piece of intentionality: We don't co-locate teams. The thing that's really allowed us to keep one IG culture is to mix some teams, and after a couple of project cycles, things feel natural.
Let me bring up one story that resonated just last week. I had the privilege of visiting Nashville, and I was sitting there watching the interns collaborating like we used to back in the old IG days. I'm seeing them looking over each other's shoulders and collaborating in person, like a team, and they're just jamming in person. It's really awesome. Later, on Friday, I flew back to Chicago. I went to the Chicago office, not a ton of people there because it's a Friday, but I got to see some familiar faces. And the thing is, I still felt like I was in Nashville. The walls were different colors. The logos were different. It wasn't those things that were bringing the IG culture. It was the people. It was the fact that we somehow transferred that culture.
Vitalii (EPAM): And how do you think remote work has factored into this?
Dan (Iron Galaxy): That's a really big challenge. Because we mix the teams between Chicago and Orlando, we got really good at remote work way before the pandemic started. When it hit, we got everyone set up and collaborating, hitting milestones. But over time, something changed, and I didn't know what it was. But I think now, in retrospect, it was that loss of physical IG culture, that connection. And so that's why we're back in a hybrid capacity.
We've doubled in size over the pandemic. What that means logistically is most of the people at IG now have never met each other, even if they were in the same physical location. Now they're starting to come back, and they don’t have that vibe. We had some attrition as a result. But we just started bringing people back in the last few months. Energy in the offices is really increasing. We were able to achieve a lot during remote work, but that physical presence and the physical IG culture is super important to have.
Vitalii (EPAM): And Justin what about you?
Justin (Epic Games): I think that having principles defined in a culture is great. It's kind of like goal setting, but I think that culture is literally the actions we take every day. To rephrase that, I would say the definition for me of culture is the average shared habits of a group of individuals. And as we know, environment has a huge impact on the habits of an individual. And that's why remote work is so challenging in building cultures because everyone's working from different environments.
What you want to latch onto in particular are your company and team rituals. These have a huge amount of power. I know we don't have a lot of time to talk about this topic, but I would highly recommend that everyone go and read the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. I know that is a book for individuals who want to improve themselves, but if you read that book, and you apply the principles instead to a group, you'll find that you will have added tremendous new tools to your toolbox. Culture starts with individuals, and as an individual, you can focus on making yourself better. And if you show principles in your everyday actions and decisions, those in your circles will follow you because people want to belong, and people naturally emulate the close, the tribe and the powerful.