The Question Of When

This blog is an opportunity to explore whatever’s on my mind that week, which means I’m covering topics from Riot Games, to people- and talent-related topics, to League of Legends. Last week was all about talent (and thanks to those who chimed in on the comments, which were the richest and most thoughtful I’ve seen yet).

Today, it’s League time.

I hit level 30 at the beginning of January. Since then, I’ve been logging pretty much equal time in Summoner’s Rift (the “classic” game, and the basis for our e-sports) and ARAM (the most played “casual” format). It’s amazing to me how much better I’ve gotten in both game modes since January. I still play Fizz as my main champion, and now can confidently say that I don’t suck with him. In fact, if I’m playing Fizz mid-lane, I’m almost never the primary reason my team loses–something I couldn’t say even a few months ago.

One of the things that happens when you hit level 30 in League is that you open up the opportunity to play Ranked games. Check out this forums thread to explain Ranked, or here’s the information from the Wiki. Suffice it to say, once you start Ranked you have to play ten unranked games, and based on your performance in those games you get slotted into a tier and division. Once you’re slotted, you fight your way with and against other people in that tier. Do well and you move up. Do poorly (or don’t play) and you eventually move down. It’s a slightly complicated system, but not any more complicated than other competitive formats, from chess to tennis.

There is a fair amount of lore associated with Ranked play. For example, the general belief is that players are more toxic in Ranked because the pressure is higher. People will yell at you over chat and call you names. Trash talking between teams is in effect. Most people also believe there is a “grind” associated with Ranked, because to move up you generally need to play a lot of games and if you take any time off during the season you run the risk of falling. That said, the people who play Ranked generally love it. League’s highest highs occur in Ranked play.

For the last two months, I’ve been wondering when I’ll wade into Ranked.

And it’s clearly a matter of “when,” not “if.” Why? I can think of three main reasons why Ranked appeals to me. First, I’m competitive. I ran track in college and played four sports in high school (alas, people used to look at me and ask “What sports do you play?” Now they ask, “You played sports?” Must… get back to… gym!). Measuring myself against others and seeing if I can play well under pressure, improve, and win, are all things that drive me. I’ve got sort of a laid-back personality, so sometimes it surprises people how competitive I am. But lordy… I’m competitive.

Second, I’m achievement oriented and the idea of “mastery” appeals to me. If I’m going to dedicate time to something, I want to feel both confident and competent at it. The idea of climbing tiers and having a tangible gauge of how I’m doing is super attractive. Being competitive means I like to measure myself against others. Being achievement oriented means I like to measure myself against myself. Ranked play allows me to do both. I’m never going to be Challenger tier just because I have a demanding job and a family, but… how far can I get?

Finally, I work for Riot Games and am passionate about what we do. Most League players–and the vast majority of those who reach level 30–play Ranked. I want to have the same experience as our players and understand Ranked from the inside-out. I think it makes me a better head of Talent and a better Rioter. I suppose there’s also a sense of belonging going on here, since wading more deeply into competitive League play helps me feel more deeply a part of the Riot “tribe.”

Also, it’s worth noting that my son Jonah is level 30 and itching to get started in Ranked. My daughter hit level 28 this past weekend, and my wife is level 22. We’re not too far away from having four-fifths of our own Ranked team.

So. I’m clear that I will eventually play Ranked. The question now is… When to start?

I’ve been asking a ton of really good players that question, and I’ve been astounded by how diverse the answers are. Here are some of the advice I’ve received, all delivered with equal amounts of conviction:

  • Don’t wait. Just jump in. You need to start somewhere, so just get in there.
  • Know three different Champions in at least three different positions (Top, Mid, Jungle, ADC, Support) and be able to play them well. Then you’re ready.
  • Get 200-300 wins in unranked Summoner’s Rift games to give yourself a good experience base.
  • Have one main Champion you know super well, especially if you can play him/her in multiple positions. You’ll learn others organically, but you only need to know one well to start playing Ranked.
  • Play 1,000 games of Summoner’s Rift before wading into Ranked. Otherwise you’ll just be stuck in Bronze V and people will yell at you.
  • You’ll know when you feel ready. Don’t rush it.
  • You and Jonah should do it together. When you both have time to dedicate to Ranked (maybe this Summer?), you should have it as a shared experience. It will be more fun for both of you.

I’m pretty sure that I’ve only scratched the surface on Yoda-like wisdom here. The more people I ask, the more I’m confused.

But apparently that’s not stopping me from asking. Okay, League of Legends-playing readers… What say you? When’s the right time to start my Ranked journey? Chime in on the Comments and I’m all ears.

-jms

Un-Titled

As with every time I write this blog, the views here are my own, and not the official stance of Riot Games. When I reacted to our Great Place to Work ranking or our new campus headquarters, I had a strong sense that I was aligned to at least a good portion of Rioters. Today, well… This is a topic I haven’t discussed widely. As a result, take today’s musings as just that: A way of getting some half-formed thoughts out of my head and into someplace where we can discuss them.

I’ve been thinking about job titles.

As long as I’ve had Human Resources roles, across five disparate industries, the question of “title equity” comes up. Person A is angry because Person B is a Director or Vice President or Senior Manager or something and thinks he deserves the same title. Or maybe Person C runs a tiny part of the business in a remote country, so why does she get to be a Managing Director when I worked so hard to get that same title and have such a bigger job? These disgruntled arguments rarely end well, and usually lead to some sort of ill will towards a manager, company, or in many cases HR.

When I moved from Starbucks Coffee Corp to Riot, I went from being a Senior Vice President to a Vice President. Some people—including my weekly LinkedIn recommended jobs feed—thought I’d been demoted, when in fact Riot represents the most autonomy, impact, and accountability I’ve ever had. The term “Senior Vice President” (much less Executive Vice President, Chief People Officer, or Chief Human Resources Officer), I’ve had to explain, doesn’t exist at Riot.

When I worked in retail, several people scheduled time to talk with me about their career and started the conversation with, “So, I’ve been a Director for X years. I think it’s time for me to be a Senior Director.” I then busted out my career homework assignment and sent them away, bewildered that having a career conversation has anything to do with titles.

The two most painful projects I’ve ever been involved in have been “title architecture” projects, trying to make titles consistent across functions, products, and regions. It’s a TON of detailed, arduous work, and usually causes more argument than clarity. I literally just stared off into space and shivered thinking about those projects.

Which is all to say that job titles have led to a lot of confusing and frustrating experiences that consistently catch me off guard. As I like to think of myself as somewhat of a learner, the fact that I keep tripping up on the same topic concerns me.

As I reflect on the purpose of job titles, here’s what I come up with. Why are job titles valuable?

  1. Titles describe what a person does. Need to know who to talk to about a candidate referral? Go talk to someone with “Recruiting” in their title. A Systems Architect probably, you know… architects systems and stuff.
  2. Titles are a proxy for scope of responsibility. The assumption here is that organizations need to know who’s in charge of something, which is efficient for communicating within and outside of the company. Who do I go to if I have a marketing complaint? Well, someone who’s a Director of VP of Marketing is a good start, because they’re supposedly occupying a leadership role in that function.
  3. Titles are a signal of rank in a hierarchy. The assumption here is that each rank trumps lower ranks. So companies can have “Vice President and Above” meetings to align on strategy (because “strategy” is apparently only something leaders discuss, which is weird in and of itself) or decide that if you’re running into a roadblock with a Manager you can go find the Director to overrule her.
  4. Titles are a signal of status. The assumption here is that being more “senior” gives you certain perks, whether it’s a parking spot, or an office, or a personalized Christmas letter from the CEO. Titles, then, are useful motivation tools and can be something that helps retention.

Recently, as you know, I’ve found myself leading Talent at Riot Games. It’s a company culture unlike any I’ve experienced, and thrives on the idea that we’re a flat structure, where literally anyone is empowered to make awesome happen for our players. Entrepreneurship, passion, humility, and problem-solving rule the day. We throw around words like “meritocracy” and “transparency” constantly. We don’t have offices or parking spaces. And, thanks to Agile software development principles, we push hard to ensure that accountability on any significant piece of work is crystal clear.

The more I think about the purposes for a job title, the less I’m convinced that reasons 2-4 I listed above are important.  Especially at Riot. As I said, we have lots of mechanisms for making accountability clear here. Not only do we not care about rank or status, we actively try to deny that these things matter. We don’t have perks tied to title. Everyone has stock options. No one tells their subordinates at Riot what to do and expects it to be blindly followed (at least without a shouting match of epic proportions). Even the word “subordinate” makes my skin crawl.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m not a fan of Zappo’s organizational experiment, and I’m not in favor of banishing all titles. Describing someone’s role in an organization is valuable. But I’m getting increasingly convinced that titles should only be descriptive of what a person does, full stop.  They should shift as responsibilities shift. Anything and everything related to rank and status should just go away. The word “Senior,” I’ve decided, is the fastest bullet-train to internal conflict.

I’ve changed my LinkedIn profile from “Vice President of Talent” to “Head of Talent.” Who cares whether I’m a Vice President, Managing Director, or Chief something? What I do is head the Talent craft at Riot Games. Anything Talent-related within Riot, send it my way and I’ll either help support you or find someone who can. Whether I’m “more senior” than the head of Art, Engineering, or Game Design is just a silly and unproductive conversation.

I don’t know if my current thinking will signal a change within and across Riot, but it’s something I’m discussing with our founders (or, more accurately, they came to me to discuss it). Certainly if I can save myself a bunch of unexpected and unpleasant title-related grumpiness down the road, I’m all for it.

What do you think? Am I missing something here?

-jms

I Am A Grumpy (and hopeful) Old Man

When Riot debuted at #13 on Fortune Magazine’s Best Places to Work list, I compared us to an adolescent, a still-gawky kid finding his proverbial feet. I still think that analogy is apt, though Riot just experienced a significant maturity growth-spurt this week. On Monday, we moved into our new campus and headquarters in Los Angeles.

Previously—and for my journey with Riot until now—we rented space out of a perfectly-acceptable office park. Our old spot in Santa Monica was a fine, even pretty, environment in which to work. The best I could say for it was that it reeked of Riot’s edgy weirdness because we had done everything possible to claim the space as our own. The worst I could say about our old offices is that they were like any other office space someone could rent. Our old digs weren’t designed for our specific needs, from unique artist lighting to configurable desks needed to do agile software development. They were quintessentially… adequate.

Now, for the first time since the company started in 2006, we’ve moved into a space specifically created for Riot Games. You can see a whole ton of photos here in an article on riotgames.com. As cool as those photos are, they don’t do the place justice. I knew what to expect on Monday when we all moved in and I was still blown away. The words “overwhelmed” and “holy crap” echoed across Los Angeles on Monday as Rioters experienced the new campus for the first time en masse. It’s like a Nerd Paradise, a shrine to every person who’s loved League of Legends. Every corner of it screams that we take play seriously (there is a basketball court, knee-high chess set, old school arcade, and PC bang, to just name a few features) and that we are craftspeople (the art populating the campus, for example, is stunning). Players are celebrated throughout, from our lobby to our inner recesses.

One leader wrote to the rest of us on Monday:

Just wanted to say I’m speechless.  

I’ve always been a firm believer that the quality of the habitat we surround ourselves with has an important impact on the quality of our lives and of our thinking. This is the kind of place that’ll inspire us to make awesome.

To all the ones responsible for the creation of this place: this is fucking amazing.

Thank you.

So yeah. As headquarters go, our new LA space is pretty special.

And yet, I’m feeling like a grumpy old man.

I’ll be honest… This whole new campus thing makes me uneasy. I’m the guy who worked in Silicon Valley during the height of the tech boom in the 1990s. I remember Celine Dion singing at our town halls and a billion different ways that we spent to excess. It felt unsustainable and full of hubris. Which, of course, it was. You can’t un-pop a bubble, and when the bubble burst in tech it was brutal. My company’s stock fell from 120 to 2 in nine months. I watched friend after friend laid off as we frantically cut costs. We argued over how thin we could make the cups in the break rooms to save money, and eventually stopped supplying the clocks with batteries. Oh, and let’s not forget that I was also working in investment banking during the financial collapse in 2008. That, too, was a case study of hubris, full of ridiculous feast and a long, inevitable famine.

Let’s overlook for a moment that I am a doombringer to industries, and instead pray that these rather extreme moments in history have provided me some wisdom. I’ve seen companies at the height of their empires. I have also seen the collapse of those empires. As I wandered around on Monday, slack-jawed, was I witnessing the birth of Hubris #3? Certainly my stomach fluttered more than once at this question.

But, I admit, I’m also filled with a sense of hope along with my unease. If you read that e-mail above, it’s full of humility and awe, not entitlement. Our founders Brandon and Marc gave a moving speech on Monday that reminded everyone that League players had created this campus, and it was for them we had to earn it every day. Our head of facilities, Joseph, was given a three-minute standing ovation that sent him (and many of us) to tears—we all know how hard he and his team have worked the past few years on this campus, and he had finally seen his labor of love arrive. At one point someone with a mic warned us that we weren’t supposed to work that first day, because the day was about getting oriented to the new space. The crowd booed. They actually booed at the idea of not working. Throughout Monday, amidst the “overwhelmeds” and “holy craps,” I also heard gratitude and a yearning to pull on Riot’s oars twice as hard as before.

And, as an old fogey, I say: GOOD. I hope Rioters understand how fleeting success can be. I hope we stay humble and awe-struck. I hope we stay hungry. I hope that the e-mail author is correct, and that creative space leads to creative minds. I hope this campus helps us attract the best talent in the world, I hope it’s a reason that Rioters love working here, and I hope people believe it’s worth fighting for. Those are all ingredients that will help this new headquarters be a catalyst for an even better and cooler future.

Now please excuse me… I gotta go earn my keep!

-jms

https://myherobrain.wordpress.com/

Family Ties

“Hey Mommy,” my son Jonah said as my wife entered the room. “We’ve all been talking and we think it’s time for you to play against real humans.”

“Real humans?” Sarah clutched at her chest. “Do you think I’m ready? I don’t think I’m ready. No more bots?”

“You’re ready,” my daughter Lily gave her a thumbs up. “Do you want to play a game of League? We’ve been waiting for you.”

“Okay. If you think I’m ready. Let me grab some coffee and I’ll be right there.”

Thirty minutes later, the four of us cheered as the opposing team surrendered. We high-fived and typed “thank yous” to our fifth teammate online, a friend of Jonah’s. We all congratulated Sarah, who’d played a terrific game against a much more experienced opponent top lane. It was a family milestone we talked about for the rest of the day, replaying scenes from the game in increasingly dramatic and silly renditions.

Inwardly, I pumped my fist.

See, last year my family realized that we had drifted into dangerous territory with our use of entertainment media.

For years, while Sarah and I slept in on weekend mornings, my son built endless Minecraft worlds. During those same mornings, my daughter watched cartoons in a different room, eventually also drifting towards Minecraft. Meanwhile, after the kids fell asleep each night of the week, I would sit, headphones plugged in and playing City of Heroes, Magic Online, Champions Online, or DC Online, whilst my wife watched television. Over time, we too started spending time in separate rooms, me on my PC and her watching TV. As Android phone apps and iPads became more popular, Sarah logged countless hours during each day on games like Bubble Wars while I played Cards and Castles, Hero Academy, and Kingdom Rush. Our kids would beg for turns on our devices so they could play these games too.

Now, each of these activities is fine. We are clearly a house of game-lovers. And each of those games—from Minecraft to Kingdom Rush—are super fun in their own right and earned the attention we gave them. My wife and daughter loved keeping up on their favorite shows and television characters. We were all, in other words, thoroughly entertained by our individual endeavors.

The problem, we started to realize, is that each endeavor was, in fact, individual.

We were spending time in the same house, occasionally even in the same room, but we weren’t sharing experience. Each of us escaped into our own private fantasy worlds, having our own private triumphs and defeats. We each had rich, detailed adventures completely apart from the other members of the family. The use of headphones to block each other out became common.  Our activities started to look more and more like isolation.

Over time, we each became critical of the others’ entertainment habits. My wife worried that Jonah wasn’t getting outside often enough. Jonah wanted to know why Lily always hogged the television. Lily wanted to know why Jonah wouldn’t play Minecraft with her. I started to realize that my bedtime coincided with my wife’s less and less. We each had long lists of worries and grievances.

Sarah—bless her—called a family meeting.

In the family meeting, we aired our grievances and hashed out possible solutions to our long list of worries. Each person wanted the others to curb their habits, but was reluctant to give up something that personally gave them hours and hours of joy.

Here is where we landed: Entertainment media (i.e. television and games) in my house is now a shared activity. You must find another person to join you, or you simply can’t do it. Period.

That sounds pretty Draconian, and it took a while to get there. But we’ve held true to this rule for the better part of a year now, including the introduction of League of Legends to our household. Our thesis was that a) if you had time to play or watch, you had time to connect with someone, and b) connecting with loved ones is one of the most important things you can do.

What’s really remarkable as I reflect on them are the results of this family adjustment:

  • Sarah and Lily have largely given up television. The big exception is that my wife and her mom have a weekly date to watch Downton Abby. Sarah and I have also watched every episode of Agents of SHIELD together, the first show I’ve seen in years.
  • We don’t have any mobile game apps on our phones or tablets. This was a loss for all of us at the time, but I haven’t heard any of us complain since.
  • After the kids are asleep, Sarah and I either read to each other or play games. We almost always go to bed now at the same time.
  • We play League together as a family constantly, and have introduced my kids’ friends to play with us too. I hit level 30 in January. Jonah hit level 30 this past Saturday (go Jonah!). Lily is level 25, and Sarah level 19 (almost… Runes…). We coach each other, and joke about the “Salazar Ranked team” we’ll someday assemble. League is obviously perfect for our new orientation because it’s a collaborative, team game.
  • Jonah’s love of Magic: the Gathering has resurfaced, and something he plays with a wide swathe of friends.
  • We host all-ages game nights more than ever, focused on games like Bang!, Spinner, and Settlers of Catan.
  • Last month we started our first family campaign of Dungeons & Dragons.
  • Every Saturday and Sunday morning, we take a family hike through our local regional park, talking and laughing—often about our shared games.
  • For the most part, we don’t really argue anymore. Quite the contrary, in fact. The best word for my family right now is that it’s thriving.

I’m not here to be preachy. Whatever your relationship is to games and television, cool. For my family, however, this “entertainment is meant to be shared” revelation has been, well… a revelation. As a family, we probably don’t log as many total hours each week gaming as we used to, but the quality of our experience is much, much higher.

Most importantly, of course, our family is more connected than it’s ever been.

And now, hawt diggity dawg, we’re officially done playing against bots!

Career Chattery

Next week I’ll talk more specifically about Riot Games and League of Legends, but today I’m covering generic Talent stuff.

I’ve been having a lot of career conversations recently. I don’t know why, exactly. Yes, I understand that having career conversations is part of my job description. I’m the Talent guy, gotta talk careers. But even by my standards I seem to be experiencing a heavy load of career chattery. Twice this week already I’ve even had deep career coaching discussions with job candidates outside of Riot. Apparently there’s some Career Moon rising, and everyone and their grandmother wants to contemplate the future.

Thankfully, I love talking to people about unlocking their potential. And if you want to have a chat with me about your ever-winding career path, here’s the approach I’ll take…

First, I’m going to give you homework. I’ll ask you to answer the following five questions, in whatever format makes sense to you. I’ll tell you that we’ll have Step 2 only after you’ve written these answers down. Take as long as you need. After all, you own your own career.

But do write your answers down. For me, it’s important that we get these concepts out of your brain and into the world. I’m a firm believer that the act of writing forces us to crystalize half-formed thoughts (hello weekly blog, I’m looking at you).

Question 1: What are your life goals?

Make no mistake, I care about your career goals and your short-term job goals. But more important for this homework assignment is what you want to accomplish in this lifetime overall. What does success look like for you as your dying breath rattles forth? Why are you here? What’s your destiny?

Sometimes people’s goals are summed up in their role as spouse or parent. Sometimes the goals are weirdly specific, like wanting to run a flower shop in Honolulu. Again, I’ll ask that you write down whatever it is the question triggers for you.

Question 2: When it comes to work, what do you like and not like to do?

Almost every person out of probably a hundred I’ve seen answer this question says that they don’t like repetitive administrivia. Okay, sure. None of us do. But look past the obvious stuff, and capture what you really love about the work you’ve done and what you really dislike. Another way to put it: What do you do that brings you energy and what drains your energy?

Question 3: When it comes to work, what are you good at and not-so-good at?

Tell me about your strengths and opportunities. What are your superpowers and what’s your Kryptonite? Think about your prior performance reviews, assessments, and feedback from peers. Look for themes. Try your best to capture what strengths you bring to a workplace and where you honestly struggle.

Question 4: What’s your personal “brand” and what do you want it to be?

There’s a lot of literature on personal branding, so I won’t spend time on it here. Suffice it to say, if I asked a bunch of people you’ve worked with in the past, what would they say about you? Do you have three adjectives that follow you around from job to job? And how do you feel about those adjectives? Are there some you like and others you think are either unfair or based on old tapes? Do you aspire to be whispered about in different ways than people whisper about you now? Why?

Question 5: List as many different roles as you can as your possible next move.

It’s ideal if you add the pro’s and con’s of each role, but those are frankly bonus points. Also, pay attention to how many roles you’re listing (i.e. how locked into a particular future you are) and push yourself to create a longer list. Think about lateral moves as well as moves that involve a promotion. Or even–gasp!–think about if there are idiosyncratic, oddball moves you’ve considered in the wee hours of the night and write those down too.

Again, the point here is to write these things down. Doing good, solid, individual work on these five questions is, in my experience, a great way to start a meaningful career chat.

It’s important to note that this exercise is a lot about what you bring to it. The “garbage in, garbage out” theorem is definitely in effect. If you don’t put much thought into your answers, or you leave whole sections blank, or you’re simply not self-aware, then it’s unlikely that any real career insights are on the way. But if you take this homework assignment seriously and bring the right spirit to it, that’s a good Step 1.

Doing the work of introspection and documenting is only half the battle, of course. What really makes for an impactful career conversation is… wait for it… conversation! So Step 2 is that I’ll ask you to talk through your homework with me.

My role in this conversation is twofold. First, I’m asking questions to understand what you’ve written, explore the depth of your answers, and understand your thought process. I’m seeking to understand and practicing active listening. Your job is to educate me so that I fully grok what you’ve done.

My second role in the conversation is to point out connections. Maybe your life goals appear at complete odds with your possible next moves. Or maybe what you like to do and what you’re good at are sitting in opposition. Maybe it sounds like you’re wanting to make a career move purely for branding reasons but not because it seems to serve any of the other questions. Maybe the list of what you’re good at is five times longer than what you’re not good at, or vice-versa, leading me into questions about self-esteem or humility. Again–no real judgement here. I’m trying to hold up a mirror and see how you respond. It’s amazing how often people don’t see connections between their answers, and pointing out those connections looks like voodoo magic to them.

The reason I’ve started to love this approach is because of the results. No two conversations are the same, yet real revelations seem to occur. In a lot of ways it’s a cheap parlor trick, like a career Rorschach test. My hypothesis is that you already know what the right answer for you is in terms of your career–what you need is the quiet space to reflect on it, and then an empathetic, objective voice to play back your reflections.

So beware ye who asks for a career conversation. Be prepared for homework and for a soul-baring chat. If you’re up for it, though, let the career chattery commence!

https://myherobrain.wordpress.com/

The Gamer Gene

In our recent video for Fortune, you’ll hear me emphasize again and again that we at Riot Games hire gamers. And we don’t just hire gamers for game design and production roles, but also for roles in art, engineering, publishing, facilities, and finance. When we find someone really, really talented at their craft who’s not a gamer, we do a lot of internal hand-wringing about extending an offer. We’ve passed on everyone from terrific lawyers to guru IT architects because they aren’t gamers. In fact, we’ve been kicking around ways to test how much of a gamer a candidate is and debating “gamer-ness” scales because we don’t just want gamers, we want hard-core gamers.

Why, you may be asking, are we so fixated on hiring gamers? First and foremost, because Riot aspires to be the most player-focused game company in the world. One of the best ways to stay player focused is to be players ourselves. We intuitively ask questions that matter to our audience because, at the end of the day, we ARE our audience. Simple logic, but surprisingly refreshing.

Second, it’s because Riot is a company with a fairly tribal culture. Being a gamer is a shorthand, quick proxy to check if you’re going to pass an important culture test. At Riot, we play games at all hours of the day. Our onboarding process is called Denewbification. We start long e-mails with “TL:DR” and say “GGWP” during meetings. We compare notes the morning after a new World of Warcraft expansion. Gamer-ness, whatever it is, weaves throughout the fabric of who we are, how we speak, and how we operate. Being a gamer doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to love Riot (or that we’re going to love you), but NOT being a gamer pretty much guarantees you feeling like a stranger in a strange land.

These days I’m spending a lot of time interviewing people for Riot’s Talent team. In fact, I’m trying to find world-class, epic problem-solvers in the areas of Talent Operations & Systems, Total Rewards (which I’m debating renaming “Meritocracy”), Talent Development, Talent Acquisition, and Diversity & Inclusion. We’ve got a ton of open roles right now across a wide variety of disciplines.

You know what’s frustrating about a lot of Talent/People/HR-ish people I know? They don’t play games! Aargh! It’s amazing how many folks I meet who are really great technical wiz-kids in their chosen field but grind to a halt when I ask “What games do you play?” or “Have you ever played League of Legends?” Those questions can totally stump candidates. Some people seem genuinely surprised that I would ask. And as soon as I get the “No, I’m not a gamer at all. But I knew one once!” line, my eyes start to glaze over.

It reminds me of when I worked at Gap Inc., one of the biggest clothing apparel retailers in the world. We were hiring a lot of technical experts on the Talent team, and interviewing people from a wide swathe of industries. When I first met a candidate—man or woman—I would pick out something they were wearing and say “Cool [insert article of clothing].” Usually I picked shoes since they’re gender-neutral, and because of this my team labeled my approach the “Cute Shoes Test.” If the candidate engaged me in conversation about the piece of clothing, she or he passed the Cute Shoes Test. If the candidate looked at me bewildered or like an alien creature, she or he failed the Cute Shoes Test, and probably failed to get my endorsement as well. Why? Because every single meeting at Gap Inc. starts with “Oh my goodness! Cute shoes!” followed by ten minutes of excited discussion. If a person can’t talk fashion, he or she will stick out like a sore thumb at Gap.

What’s funny is that I am not a fashionista garmento. Um, at all. I would have utterly failed the Cute Shoes Test. But I learned to love and appreciate apparel once I’d found my way inside and the fashionista garmentos surrounded me. I stayed at Gap for five years, and they are to this day some of my favorite colleagues. Maybe it’s because I’m innately curious, or a cultural chameleon, or… or… Well, I don’t know why it happened.

…Which I guess is the point of today’s blog. I’m still working out my Cute Shoes Test at Riot. I do care about knowing whether someone is a gamer. I do. As I said, it’s important that we hire players and a quickie culture hurdle to pass. More often than not, if someone isn’t a gamer, they shouldn’t get a second interview at Riot.

But what I REALLY care about is whether someone has the gamer gene. Take two people from the Talent team as case examples: Jenni and Jordan. Neither Jenni nor Jordan were gamers when they first started interviewing at Riot, and yet now they’re indistinguishable from our Riot tribe. Jordan taught me ARAM and has consistently destroyed me playing Teemo. Jenni (besides also continually beating me in ARAM) has developed an unhealthy addiction to Hearthstone. She sits right behind me and literally squealed when she saw the Lulu plush toy. Forevermore, I believe that both Jenni and Jordan are now officially gamers. Riot unlocked some latent gene.

The question I’m grappling with is: If I can’t naturally find gamer HR peeps, can I find more Jennis and Jordans?

Last week I was interviewing a really engaging candidate for one of our roles. She let me know early in the conversation that she wasn’t a gamer and didn’t want to waste my time. I sensed something intriguing about her, though, so I started to ask questions about hobbies, about what sort of books and movies she loved, and what sort of art captured her imagination. It turns out that she is a passionate, lifelong Scrabble player, she organizes large-scale party games for her birthdays, her favorite book series is Dune, and she took days off of work for each release of a new Harry Potter movie. Huh. An inner gamer waiting to be unlocked? After the phonecall we moved her to an onsite interview panel. We’ll pressure test her gamer-ness and latent gamer-ness in as many ways as possible, alongside testing whether she has the horsepower and aptitude to excel here (I’ve talked today about only gamer / not-gamer, but Riot screens for a ton of other cultural attributes and overall excellence). We’ll also strongly suggest that she play League of Legends between now and the panel and see how seriously she takes this homework assignment.

Sometimes we’ve taken a chance on hiring a non-gamer and that person self-selects out after a few months, costing everyone—them and us—a ton of time and momentum. Hiring a non-gamer is a huge risk at Riot. Yet I’m also looking for any and every way to widen the candidate pool for Talent roles. There’s a Cute Shoes Test for that gamer gene, and by golly I want to know it. Or maybe, just like me at Gap Inc., it’s not a gamer gene at all and instead a test of intellectual curiosity and adaptability. I honestly don’t know, but these are important questions for me right now. If you have thoughts or ideas, please chime in on the comments below!

-jms

p.s. For those wondering about the Riot Rumble, the Golden Ganks lost our last two matches and ended the season 2-5. Alas. We will surely rise from our rocking chairs for another Rumble season, though!

Lucky Number 13

(also published on Riot Games’ website)

My son Jonah is 13. He grew five inches this past year and is now taller than his mom (hasn’t… quite… caught me). He’s got a deep voice now, and although Hollywood continues to throw glorious superhero movies our way, he’s also genuinely interested in flicks like Selma. He’s teaching himself computer programming and playing Magic: the Gathering and League of Legends fervently. Middle school dances are a thing, and he’s already begun and ended his first relationship. Which is all to say that my baby boy, while still young, is growing up. There’s a man there, and time is quickly whittling away to reveal him. I’m living the number 13 every day.

Meanwhile, I’ve been at Riot Games since September. My sense is that Riot is younger than 13 in company maturity. It’s a pre-teen company, definitely older than kindergarten but younger than middle school. We joke that the “s” in our name is aspirational, since right now we’re still a single-game studio. We’re dipping our toes into entertainment media and merchandise, and we’re pioneering the world of esports — all natural extensions of the League of Legends universe. But, like a gawky kid, how we get things done hasn’t nearly caught up to our size nor our growth, so a lot of life at Riot still feels chaotic and unpredictable. Honestly, I can’t envision what we’re going to look like as an adult, mature company. It’s exciting and unnerving to realize how much we have yet to grow and change… rather like, well, rather like parenting a pre-teen.

Last Thursday I woke up to discover that Riot placed number 13 on Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For list. It’s the first year we’ve been large enough to participate in the annual selection process (in 2013 we made the Great Places to Work Best Small and Medium Companies list), so to make this list at all is a terrific achievement. But to debut at number 13?!? I mean… that’s just stunning. My entire morning consisted of excited texts, emails, and phone calls to various Rioters. And yes, okay… I may have squealed once or twice.

See, I’m admittedly an “HR nerd” and the Fortune and Great Place to Work list is a huge measuring stick of a company’s people practices. It’s THE list, the one everyone knows about. Folks in the talent profession like me point to the Fortune list for companies we admire, perks and benefits we should consider, and cultures we think are worth understanding. I’ve worked at truly great companies that tried and failed to make the list each and every year. This list is recognition of the programs and processes a company has put in place.

Since joining Riot, I’ve been blogging on LinkedIn (today is post #13, incidentally. Spooooooky). A huge part of that blog is showcasing why I think Riot is a special place to work. I’m genuinely in awe of what Rioters have created, both in terms of values and culture. It’s a place that puts talent at the center of its ideals. We aspire to hire people who are the best in the world at their individual crafts. We play and have fun. I love it. Since joining Riot, I can’t imagine working anywhere else, and that’s coming from a guy whose career has spanned six industries.

So, for me, the placement on Fortune’s list is a nice validation of what I’m seeing every day. Riot is an awesome place to work. We have something worth fighting for and preserving as we grow. And yes indeedy this list placement does help with finding talent. Selfishly speaking, this list will help me woo world-class talent professionals into Riot’s midst.

And yet…

My Thursday morning conversations held a degree of bewilderment in them as well. “We placed thirteenth?” came the exclamations of confusion, “But… but… wait, really?”

I think Rioters understand at some visceral level that we’re in our pre-teens. We’re struck by all of the things we can’t yet do, or at least do well. To place so high on the list is a tad embarrassing, because we’re not sure we’ve entirely earned it. Our flaws are as glaring as our successes, and our desire to improve is what earned Riot a place on this list.

Take recruiting, for example. We hire roughly one percent of all applicants to our full-time jobs, and we’re hiring for a metric ton of new roles. Our candidate experience is sometimes so good that it earns Riot a fan for life. A lot of times, though, well…  not so much. We’ve caused plenty of angry LinkedIn and Reddit posts about our lack of communication, unclear feedback, and general slowness. Each time we’ve failed a candidate is a time we’ve failed, period. And right now we’re failing way too often.

Once you get inside Riot, you’ll find that we have a lot of room to improve, too. We’ve received ample feedback regarding the fact that career paths here are unclear. We expect people to bootstrap their way as a general principle, but we need to provide more career and development handholds for our young company and its cadre of inexperienced managers. Our performance management system is also a work in progress… getting better but still not awesome. Too often, our feedback is overly blunt or withheld, and trust between individuals and teams is strained.

I could go on and on. So… yeah. At every turn, seemingly, we have a long way to go before it feels like we should be winning awards. Like an adolescent, we make mistakes… sometimes to test boundaries, but often times because we just don’t know any better.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m genuinely thrilled with our placement on the Fortune list. Truly. It’s awesome.

And, in the same breath, I’m genuinely freaked out by all of the ways our people practices here could and should be better. If anything, the recognition of this list is placing more urgency on fixing what’s broken and holding on to what feels special. I feel like we’ve just won our first ranked game. Cool, but can we keep it up and get to Challenger tier?

Whew. From experience, I know the pre-teen years are tough on the nerves. And we’re not even to the middle school dances yet!

-jms

https://myherobrain.wordpress.com

Am I A Loser?

Hate is a very strong word. I tend to agree with those folks who say hate comes from either ignorance (“Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love,” says John Steinbeck) or fear (“In time we hate that which we often fear,” says Billy Shakespeare).

I’m wired as a Pollyanna. I’m an optimist. I usually trust people and institutions. I seek harmony and joy in life. I’m blessed to have loving, deep relationships with my wife, two kids, and several friends. I’m intellectually curious and seek to understand the mysteries in my life. Hatred is a word I rarely use with any sort of seriousness.

But…

I hate losing. Hate. It.

My League of Legends-ful weekend ended with me winning a game of ARAM with my kids. I rolled up Ashe, a Champion I hadn’t played in ages, with which I went 30-3-23. For those who don’t play League, that’s a truly dominant game—thirty kills against the opposing team, three deaths, and twenty-three assists. It was the kind of game that had teammates and opponents alike commenting in the post-game chat screen, usually with lots of exclamation points. It was so stunning a result, in fact, that I had to seriously wonder why I don’t play Ashe more often in regular League games.

On Monday, I found myself craving more ARAM games. With a meeting cancelled that afternoon, I convinced some folks from the Talent team at Riot to play.

The result? Roll up Trundle. 0-10-4. Defeat. It was so fast and brutal a loss, in fact, that we all decided to try again before running off to our next meetings.

Roll up Corki. 2-8-5. Defeat.

Now I was annoyed. I’d just experienced humiliation in front of my own co-workers and team. I’d let them down. I knew that I was a better player than that, and I wanted to get the feeling of uselessness out of my system. I ended the day begging those around me for more ARAM. We ended up finding ten whole folks from Talent on Monday evening, made a custom ARAM game so we could all play…

Darius… my first main Champion. 3-8-4. Defeat.

Jinx. 6-8-5. Defeat.

That night before bed, I was still fuming at my day of futility. I wanted to get a better proverbial taste in my mouth. Where was that I-played-Ashe-and-carried-my-team feeling? So against my better judgment, instead of sleeping I logged back into League for more ARAM…

Sion. 9-14-25. Defeat.

AARGH! That’s five—FIVE!—losses in a row, all in one day.  [pounding head against desk]

On Tuesday morning, I woke up thinking about when I could carve out time for another game of ARAM. I arranged with a few folks around me to try a game or two from 1-2pm, the only time I could justify some games amidst an otherwise packed day.

Karma. 2-11-7. Defeat.

Jinx again. 3-10-5. Defeat.

You have got to be kidding me.

At the end of the day on Tuesday, I prepared for Riot Rumble. Because of GDC, though, both teams could only field three players each so we decided to reschedule for some time after the conference. That meant a chance for more, hopefully redemptive, ARAM…

Kayle. 19-11-27. Victory! Finally!

Sejuani. 1-7-28. Victory! (this game doesn’t look like much, but I got kudos from my team for playing tank well, acting as a meat shield while they focused on offense)

Okay, whew. Pause. Catch breath. Reflect.

That’s honestly the most games of League I’ve played at Riot in a two-day span since joining the company. And yet as I reflect on those two days, they were mostly characterized by deep frustration, shame, hopelessness, and anger. I didn’t sleep particularly well on Monday, and I am 100% convinced that it was my ARAM performance that caused it.

Say what you want about games being only games, but losing stinks. Games are competition. If I spend time (easily my most valuable resource these days) on playing a game with peers, I want to win. Losing feels like a personal affront, a bad piece of food I’ve eaten and need to get out of my system.  I had measured myself up against others seven times in a row, and seven times in a row I’d been found lacking.

This attitude has helped me out in life. I’ve achieved a lot—way beyond what you’d think from my upbringing. And, hey, I fit in at Riot Games, which is a company full of highly-competitive people. We’re constantly testing ourselves against epic challenges, and Rioters refuse to take “no” for an answer.

Still, the full range of my negative emotions brought on by losing is staggering. So staggering, in fact, that I would call it hatred.

I hate losing.

Amidst my seven-game streak, I was visibly distracted. Rioters, who also index high on empathy, regaled me with stories of long, deep furrows of losing in their League of Legends careers. It appears to be a game with about a 50-50 winning percentage over the course of a player’s lifespan thanks to a matching system that gives you opponents of your same skill level. As you get better, your games get harder. And just like coin flips, it’s easy to get a long streak of “tails.”

(I also received a lot of “Wait until you start playing Ranked games… Oy” comments from Rioters, which frankly makes me more hesitant than ever to wade into Ranked.)

I’m pretty sure that my hatred of losing is borne more out of Shakespeare than Steinbeck. Clearly I know losing. I try very hard to use my losses as learning experiences, ways to regroup and be better next time. What I fear, though, is losing’s consequences. I’ve achieved so much… Will it all be taken away somehow? Will people stop respecting or liking me? Will I never win again? Am I bad person/player/[insert descriptor here]? Am I… [shudder] a … loser?!?

Clearly the answer to these questions is no. Being more internally confident and grounded is something for me to practice. If I ever learn to take the fear out of losing, I’ll stop hating it quite so much.

I’ll also, paradoxically, probably win more.

-jms

Gone Fishin’

Greetings, weary web wanderer. You may be wondering as to the whereabouts of the otherwise-regular-Wednesday blog.

Alas, Jay took a computer-free family vacation to Chile (he reports that it was quite fun and that he now needs to lose weight). As a result, he is officially behind on all things computer-related, including this blog. He’ll return next week. Promise.

In the meantime, he suggests you give yourself the gift of Riot CEO Brandon Beck’s keynote speech at DICE, one of the premiere game development conferences, about being a talent-driven company. Perhaps enjoy the wonders of DJ Sona. Or maybe ponder the impending arrival of Bard, the Wandering Caretaker.

Whatever you do, DON’T focus on him getting crushed in the Riot Rumble on Twisted Treeline by fellow Rioter Jenni. The Golden Ganks lost 1-2 in the best-of-three, and the last game was painful. They’re now 2-2 overall.

Enjoy your week!

Signed,

Jay’s egomaniacal-third-person-voice

DJ Jonah (or Riot Games’ values in action)

Today, a story.

On Tuesday of last week, Riot Games released news of its DJ Sona skin, the third-ever “Ultimate” skin for League of Legends. A guy at Forbes went so far as to call it the Mona Lisa of videogames (it’s a great article, by the way). And it’s true that there is something deep and profoundly beautiful about DJ Sona, the care and fun that was clearly part of its creation and what it will bring to the game. The skin’s killer music is being played all over Riot’s offices, along with the recently-released League soundtrack.

Well, it just so happens that my son Jonah has been playing Sona as a main Champion. He’s also a League fanatic and makes it a point to stay up on news about the game. So it shouldn’t have surprised me that I received the following e-mail:

OMG U HAVE TO SEE THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

IT IS THE BEST THING EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

http://promo.na.leagueoflegends.com/en/dj-sona/

P.S.  i am so happy

Nothing like living with my own Riot focus group, eh? Jonah’s message put a huge smile on my face, and I showed it to several people at Riot throughout the day. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that his e-mail was a symbol of Riot’s ability to surprise and delight players. He didn’t see DJ Sona coming, and when he discovered it, his brain basically exploded with glee.

The following day, I asked around Riot to discover who on the Skins team was responsible for this particular Mona Lisa. I forwarded my son’s e-mail to Liz with the following header:

Liz,

I just wanted to forward an email from my 13-year old son. He’s been playing Sona a lot and you definitely made his wildest dreams come true

-jms

Within ten seconds she had responded:

This is fantastic!! Thank you for sharing Jay. We’re so humbled and floored by the response. 🙂 I’ll pass this on to the team as well!

I smiled again, happy that the good mojo of DJ Sona was moving throughout the world. Here is where I thought this particular story would end.

To my surprise, I received a chat hangout from someone else on the Skins team about two hours later. He’d read Jonah’s e-mail, he said, and he thought it would be cool to send Jonah enough RP to buy DJ Sona when it’s released.

Now it was my brain’s turn to explode. What had started as me hoping to make Liz feel proud had come full circle. If Jonah was excited about DJ Sona, he would be triple-excited to have it gifted to him (and the skin runs about $25 US, so it’s a significant gift). In addition, to hear from a Riot-Games-person-who’s-not-me would put him over the moon. I gushed my thanks over chat, and smiled a third time, knowing that I was about the win the Ultra Cool Dad award of the day.

Which, in turn, led to the following e-mail exchange:

Hey!

My name is David. I’m a Development Manager on the Skins Team for League of Legends. Your email about how excited you were for DJ Sona made it to our team today and wanted to say I’m really happy you’re so excited! The reaction we get from players is what makes us come to work every day. We love when something we’ve been jamming on for months finally goes out and people get excited.

Our team loves the reaction we’re getting to her, we’re crazy excited as well. I’ve gone ahead and sent you enough RP so that you can buy her when she comes out (plus a little extra). Hope she’s as awesome as you expect! 🙂

Good luck on the rift!

*****

My name is Jonah Salazar and… Thank you so much!!!!!!!!! And I’m glad that you got to read my email!  I think it’s SO cool what you and your team, and everyone at Riot, does and I hope to maybe meet you in the future, and maybe work for you, we’ll see where my future lies 😉

P.S. This skin maybe, might have, had something to do with why I was too excited to sleep last night (but its ok, IT WAS WORTH IT)

That’s the end of the story. We talk a lot about Riot Games being a player-focused company. Passion for the player experience echoes in our Santa Monica hallways. Occasionally I see tangible examples of it happening before my eyes. Last week, our core values were on full display, and those values touched one of the people I love most in the world. My son is thrilled. THRILLED. For a week he hasn’t really talked about anything else. He’s never felt so connected to any brand, ever. And the Riot recipe for his adoration seems to be: a) make a great game, b) find ways to make that game’s players’ brains explode with glee, and c) rinse and repeat.

A cynic might say that the only reason my son received his RP is because he’s my son and I’m a senior dude at the company. Pff. Those people don’t understand this strange and wonderful company I’ve joined. Acts like this one happen when Rioters see a way to make any player happy, and the more personal the touch the better. I’m pretty sure that if Jonah’s e-mail had said that he also collected action figures that the Skins team would team up with our Merchandise team to create a one-of-a-kind DJ Sona figurine. It’s how Rioters are wired.

Thank you Liz. Thank you David. And thank you Riot. It’s been so fun this past week to see our company mission in action, up close and personal.

-jms

p.s. All Riot Rumble teams in both divisions are off this week. No, I don’t know why either. The competition resumes next week!