Team Health, Anonymous Surveys, and Data

ThermometerI’m often asked a series of questions related to managing team health, creating realistic schedules, the need for crunch time, how to “squeeze an extra 20%” out of an already efficient team, and so on.

Here I explain what we did at Zynga with anonymous surveys, to objectively assess team health and make improvements.

This topic is especially on my mind as friends and colleagues discuss recent suggestions that working in the gaming industry is just supposed to be insane.

Café WorldCafe World

When I started at Zynga in 2010, I joined the team running the game Café World.

Café World had an incredibly bright and hard working set of folks who were struggling to get releases out on time and hit business targets.  Things got much better over time, though it took some focused effort.

My General Manager (GM) wrote a report each week, summarizing the state of the game from a business perspective.  Part of that report featured a green / yellow / red team health assessment, with a short explanation of the reason for the status.

So once a week the GM would ask me how the team was doing, and I would respond with something like

I think green – bunch of folks took last week off for Christmas and are feeling pretty happy right now

or on another week

Flaming red, we had outages twice in the middle of the night last week, half the team was pulled into it and a couple of guys are ready to quit because they’ve haven’t slept since last Tuesday

Yellow, and more Yellow

In spite of my feedback, the team health in the weekly reports almost always trended to yellow.  This happened on other teams, too. When I inquired about this, I heard something like this

If I mark the team health RED, I get feedback that I’m pushing the team too hard and burning them out.  If I mark the team  GREEN, I get criticized for not pushing them hard enough.  So I usually just mark it YELLOW.

I called BS on this and suggested that we start an anonymous team health survey, and mark the team health objectively based on the survey data.

Thus was born the weekly health survey.

One Minute Weekly Health Survey

The weekly health survey was created with the following goals

  • Lightweight (to encourage participation – less than 1 minute to complete)
  • Objective measure (anonymous collection)
  • Regular cadence for prompt follow-up (weekly collection)
  • Responses support grouping into green / yellow / red categories
  • Only measure vital signs – are we burning people out? (Not a comprehensive satisfaction survey, keep it simple)

To this end, the survey featured 4 simple questions focused on

  • Hours Worked (objective measure of time in office)
  • Tiredness (self-reported state of mind, independent of hours worked)
  • Efficiency (perceived effectiveness, is process working or causing frustration?)
  • Comments (optional section for free-format feedback)

The survey also requested that the individual identify their current team and (optionally) their current role (engineer, product manager, artist, …).

Objective ResultsHealth Survey Grouping

This image shows how the survey questions might be partitioned into green / yellow / red categories.

This part is, of course, subjective, but once decided upon leads to consistent evaluations and apples-to-apples comparisons between teams.

Running The Surveys

Although the surveys originated on the Café World team, they rolled out over time to include many other teams, eventually covering the majority of teams at Zynga.

We collected data for each team, as well as the company as a whole (an aggregate average), and sent summary results back to business leaders for their team, as well as the company averages.

Result Of Surveys

What results did we see from running the surveys?

The immediate result of the surveys was that we could spot obvious hot spots (directly from the multiple choice questions, or indirectly from the free-format comments). This created an opportunity for prompt follow up and corrective action with the affected teams.

However in a broader sense two trends were observed over time

  • Reduction in variation between teams
  • Improvement in average scores overall

In rolling the survey out to multiple teams, it became easier to spot obvious outliers.  No business leader wanted to be the one killing their team with overwork.  On the other hand, no one wanted to be the one whose team was working less than everyone else, either.

As a result, the first trend was a reduction in variation between teams.

Once the results became more uniformly consistent, a second trend emerged – the average results improved, in general.

The second trend it is less obviously a result of the surveys, but it was pleasing to see nonetheless.



Posted in Management, Uncategorized, Zynga | Leave a comment

Who Cheesed My Penguin?

PenguinSome years back, I was seated at a departmental all hands meeting.  My colleagues and I were viewing a series of fairly mundane presentation slides, when up came something new and surprising. 

Without additional context, the slide read something like this:

If we can get all our penguins, birds and chicks in alignment, we’ll be able to move forward smoothly.

It was a classic WTF moment; confused glances were exchanged around the room.

Welcome Back, Kotter

Our Iceberg is MeltingTurns out the senior leaders had recently held an offsite where they became acquainted with the work of John Kotter, including the book Our Iceberg Is Melting.  Kotter is regarded as an authority on leadership and change.

I no longer recall what exactly they were hoping to change, but do recall being intrigued – what about this book was (apparently) so inspiring?

I vowed to give it a thorough read, and did.  I also took time to acquire and read the (somewhat related) book Who Moved My Cheese?

Neither impressed me very much.

Capsule Summaries

In the bird book, an observant and forward-thinking penguin concludes that his community’s home iceberg is melting.  Initially ridiculed, avian opinion eventually sways in favor of relocating the colony, as the penguin overcomes skeptics and enlists the support of key allies.

Our Workplace is DeterioratingThe rodent book deals with residents living in a maze, reliant on a steady supply of cheese.  One day the cheese disappears, and they deal with the consequences, with varying degrees of denial and proactive behavior.

While the penguin book does offer a few strategies for leverage (recruit respected experts, build support from key leaders), I didn’t find either book particularly compelling. 

Nonetheless Inspiring

Hot Chick - WhiteboardI shouldn’t downplay the overall usefulness of the literature, however. 

These books were uplifting in an indirect way, as they provided nearly endless material for satirical Photoshop modifications and whiteboard drawings (see book cover above right, and the picture to the right). 

So it would be a lie to imply that I did not find these books inspiring, though not for the reasons intended.

What’s the bottom line?  I found these books unhelpful or objectionable primarily for these reasons

  • The fable format is patronizing
  • A predetermined outcome is featured
  • The struggle for change is not nuanced; it is for life or death


Both books employ a fable format, which I found patronizing.  You are not a human being pondering reasonable real life trade-offs; instead you are a bird or (worse) a rodent.

At least one review on Amazon compares the penguin book favorably to Animal Farm, which to me is puzzling.  In Animal Farm the animals are delightfully symbolic and ironic.  I’m unaware of penguin characteristics that lend themselves well to climate analysis or adaptability (excepting swimming and extreme tolerance to cold).  I will grant that rodents are symbolically opportunistic, though not in a particularly positive way.

In the end, I don’t feel the fable format lends value.  Rather the animals provide an unnecessary layer of abstraction from what might otherwise be a compellingly pragmatic story.

Predetermined Outcome

To complete the fable, the stories need a moral lesson.

As such, the outcomes are predetermined: the animals successfully adapt to change.  There is no room for ambiguity; to succeed, you must change.  Those who change, win.

What if instead one of the rodents ran ragged through the maze, failing to find cheese, eventually collapsing in despair and starvation in a dark, forgotten corner?  What if the cheese supply returned in its original location, better than ever before (the supplier had been on a brief trip to Europe, collecting artisanal cheeses)?

Perhaps the penguins’ dilemma is rooted more deeply than a single iceberg.  Global warming may doom their new home to the same fate, slightly delayed.  Just maybe, their selected strategy was misguided and even worse than staying put.

These possibilities are not part of the story.  In these books, change must happen, somehow.

In reality, it’s the nuanced consequences, and their associated risk, which makes implementing change challenging. 

For example, employees who gave up on Apple in 2004 to join the promising start-up that went belly up may well have believed at the time they were successfully implementing change management in their financial opportunities.

Life or Death

The message of these books is clear: you must change, or you will die.

Not only are the outcomes in these stories predetermined, but the consequences are as large as they can get – life or death.  Move or freeze.  Search or starve.

This of course is a ploy to raise the stakes to the greatest possible levels, inhibiting the possibility for contrary considerations. 

You’d have to be crazy to avoid changing, if you risk death as a result.  Everyone should get on board with that, right?

In reality, the change you’re likely looking to implement involves something less exciting like convincing a team to convert from C++ to Java.  Or you’re trying figure out whether to join the hot startup or let your remaining 25% of stock continue to vest.  No easy life-or-death scenarios here.

One can even imagine the manager thinking …

“I want my team to change, but they’re pushing back.  I’ll have them read this book, then they’ll realize they must change.  Or else they’ll die.  Maybe I’ll even kill them myself … “

Go Change It!

If you need to effect change, don’t hand out books – go make it happen! 

Impress on your colleagues that change is needed, and why.  Propose an improvement and explain why it’s better.  Get folks to agree to it, and follow up to make sure it happens.

If you’re looking to change the semantics of an optional field in JIRA, then an 8-step change process is almost certainly overkill.  But those guidelines are fairly sound and intuitive overall.

But you don’t need to read a silly animal book to understand them.

Posted in Books, Leadership, Management | Leave a comment

Future Home Of …

Future Home of Network AppliancePeople keep bugging me to retell funny stories.

At my previous employer NetApp® (Network Appliance), funny things would often happen around April 1 each year (surprise!).

BeforeThe year 2002 was not a particularly happy one in silicon valley.  Following years of dotcom fueled growth, NetApp and other companies saw the business environment weaken.

NetApp had been growing quickly and was rapidly constructing offices to hold the expected employee growth.  Following the downturn, unfinished construction and materials sat idle, a sad sight. 

Also disheartening – NetApp sat in a sprawling corporate park, with the nearest espresso shop miles away.

A New Sign

StarbucksOn the morning of April 1, 2002, employees arriving to work were pleased to see a new sign.  Starbucks® was coming to town! 

The Future Home of Network Appliance sign had been replaced with a sign announcing a forthcoming coffee shop, a welcome sight.

One of the funniest things about this event was that it generated very little buzz on April 1.  Starbucks shops were spreading like weeds, and it simply was not surprising to see yet another one arriving down the street.

Widespread discussion did not ensue until the next day, when the sign was pulled down.

“What happened?!?  I thought we were getting a Starbucks!” and similar comments were frequently heard in the office hallways.

Then and Now

AfterI’m happy to say things have changed in the years since.

NetApp recovered, resumed growing, and filled the empty field with new buildings and parking facilities.

But still no Starbucks.


My disclaimer: Starbucks and their logo are registered trademarks of Starbucks Corporation.  The appearance of the new Starbucks location described here appears to have been a hoax (though if true, would have been welcome).  I think their coffee is tasty and recommend it, but I otherwise have no association with Starbucks.

Posted in Humor, NetApp, Pranks | 1 Comment

Aaaaaand … ChefVille is Live

600695_257212824384356_797360924_nAbout a month ago, we had an Unleashed event featuring ChefVille.

Our game is now live, you can find it at

Here are a few articles about the game.

I hope you enjoy it.  Congratulations to the whole ChefVille team.

Posted in ChefVille, Cooking, Zynga | 4 Comments

ChefVille Unleashed

ChefVilleFor the past few months I’ve been working on a game called ChefVille, announced today at Zynga Unleashed

It’s nice to have the game announced publicly so I can say a little more about it going forward.

ChefVille has a Facebook page where you can find a trailer video and some early screen shots.

ChefVille — The Culinary Event of the Year

You can get a rough idea of the game from the trailer and screen shots.  It’s got wonderful fresh art, cute animations, and fun game play.  I’m proud to be part of the awesome team we’ve assembled to create and support the game.

Look forward to additional news on ChefVille, including a launch … soon.

Posted in ChefVille, Zynga | 1 Comment

Computer Science for Parents

babyI was discussing recently with friends that it would be amusing to create a computer science reference for parents.

So for those of you out there who know something about computers and babies, I offer a few definitions.

critical section

The urgent period between removing the old dirty diaper and securing the clean new one.

code review

A diaper fails the sniff test, and you request a clean-up.  Ideally this is done by the person who was holding the baby when the error occurred.

core dump

Self explanatory :-|

debugging session

You lift the baby, sniff the diaper, but can’t make an obvious conclusion.  You start opening layers of clothing in search of additional evidence.

scope creep

You ask spouse to “hold” the baby, knowing full well that a diaper change is already needed.

turing machine

A device which formerly accepted tape as input, but is now gummed up with oatmeal.  “Turing complete” means “filled entirely” with oatmeal.

code re-use

Examine yesterday’s clothes for obvious signs of stains / barf / poop.  Continue using if they don’t look or smell too bad.


An arrangement of toys, ideally in a storage bin.  Often these are scattered randomly around the house; we call this “fragmentation”.


You cannot get out of the house because each child poops / barfs at a frequency greater than they can be cleaned up and prepped for departure.

port exhaustion

Juggling baby, bottle, barf cloth, iDevice, tissues, you finally run out of appendages available to hold anything.

child process

What you got.

sleep(unsigned int seconds)

This is formally deprecated, having been delegated to child processes.


You hired a baby sitter.

resource leak

Maladjusted diaper results in loss of … resources.

Posted in Computing, Humor | 2 Comments

Oddball Questions, Part 2

monkeyHere is my part 2 follow up from Oddball Questions Part 1.

These are my responses to the Top 25 Oddball Interview Questions from Glassdoor, presented in Snappy Answers format.

Snappy Answers 13-25

13. “Name 5 uses of a stapler without staple pins.” – (EvaluServe)

Snappy answer: Entirely useless. See also: caffeine-free coffee and alcohol-free beer.

Alternatively (1) dental drill (2) geosynchronous satellite (3) pizza cutter (4) forklift (5) crampon.

14. “How much money did residents of Dallas/Ft. Worth spend on gasoline in 2008?” – (American Airlines)

Snappy answer: About $3.00 a gallon?

15. “How would you get an elephant into a refrigerator?” – (Horizon Group Properties)

Snappy answer: Cuisinart (The easy answer – this question is the subject of some amusing math responses)

16. “You have a bouquet of flowers. All but two are roses, all but two are daisies, and all but two are tulips. How many flowers do you have?” – (Epic Systems)

Snappy answer: None, I tossed them out after they wilted.

17. “How many planes are currently flying over Kansas?” – (Best Buy)

Snappy answer: Euclidean or Cartesian?

18. “How many different ways can you get water from a lake at the foot of a mountain, up to the top of the mountain?” – (Disney Parks & Resorts)

Snappy answer: Infinite number of ways. Isn’t that obvious?

19. “What is 37 times 37?” –(Jane Street Capital)

Snappy answer: BD1

20. “If you could be a superhero, what power would you possess?” – (Rain and Hail Insurance)

Snappy answer: The power to end senseless interviews in a single bound!

21. “If you were a Microsoft Office program, which one would you be?” –(Summit Racing Equipment)

Snappy answer: Notepad.

22. “Pepsi or Coke?” – (United Health Group)

Snappy answer: Yes please.

23. “Are you exhaling warm air?” – (Walker Marketing)

Snappy answer: Get your hand off my leg, you pervert.

24. “You’re in a row boat, which is in a large tank filled with water. You have an anchor on board, which you throw overboard (the chain is long enough so the anchor rests completely on the bottom of the tank). Does the water level in the tank rise or fall?” – (Tesla Motors)

Snappy answer: If the anchor is thrown far enough so it clears the side wall of the tank, the level will rise. If the anchor consists of a massive sponge larger than the tank, then the level will fall.

25. “How do you feel about those jokers at Congress?” – (Consolidated Electrical)

Snappy answer: They’re not nearly as funny as I am ;-)

Posted in Humor, Interviewing | Leave a comment

Oddball Questions, Part 1

monkeyWhen I was a kid, I loved Mad Magazine, and read it a lot (And from an early age! What were my parents thinking?!?)

One item I really enjoyed was Al Jaffee’s Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, and those come to mind as I continue my thread on interview questions.

Oddball Questions

Glassdoor recently had an article titled Top 25 Oddball Interview Questions.

Oddball, indeed.  In reading them over, was sorely tempted to answer them with “snappy answers”.  Here are a few for your amusement.

The original questions from the article are in this color.  The snappy answers are basically what occurred to me when I first read the question.

Snappy Answers 1-12

1. “How many people are using Facebook in San Francisco at 2:30pm on a Friday?” – (Google)

Snappy answer: All of them.  It’s San Francisco.

2. “Just entertain me for five minutes, I’m not going to talk.” – (Acosta)

Snappy answer:

3. “If Germans were the tallest people in the world, how would you prove it?” – (Hewlett-Packard)

Snappy answer: Measure all instances of Germans pairwise against all other humans by transporting them all to Düsseldorf and placing them back-to-back in the Marktplatz . This means measuring all 81 million Germans against the other 7 billion inhabitants. This only requires worst case  67,000,000,000,000,000 comparisons and hence is computationally efficient. We can accomplish this in a few hours on a dual core Pentium, though it may require a little more time on an Apple ][ running iOS.  If all Germans are pairwise taller than all other humans, it is proven.

4. “What do you think of garden gnomes?” – (Trader Joe’s)

Snappy answer: White hat or black hat?

5. “Is your college GPA reflective of your potential?” – (Advisory Board)

Snappy answer: Not sure why they would be related.  To measure my potential, I recommend a voltmeter.

6. “Would Mahatma Gandhi have made a good software engineer?” –(Deloitte)

Snappy answer: Unlikely. This great man passed in 1948, only two years after the debut of ENIAC.  Though Turing complete, programming the ENIAC was pretty far removed from what we now call software engineering.

7. “If you could be #1 employee but have all your coworkers dislike you or you could be #15 employee and have all your coworkers like you, which would you choose?” – (ADP)

Snappy answer: If the company has fewer than 15 employees, I’d choose #1.

8. “How would you cure world hunger?” – (

Snappy answer: First solve for global conflict; this generalizes to solve world hunger by side effect.

9. “Room, desk and car – which do you clean first?” – (Pinkberry)

Snappy answer: Work from home.

10. “Does life fascinate you?” – (Ernst & Young)

Snappy answer: Very much so! I particularly like the Gosper glider gun.

11. “Given 20 ‘destructible’ light bulbs (which breaks at certain height), and a building with 100 floors, how do you determine the height that the light bulb breaks?” – (QUALCOMM)

Snappy answer: Drop one from the 100th floor.  If it breaks, you have found a height at which it breaks.  If compact fluorescent, report to the EPA.

12. “Please spell ‘diverticulitis’.” – (EMSI Engineering)

Snappy answer: P-I-T-A

More soon.

Posted in Humor, Interviewing | 1 Comment

New Pedals

MKS FD-7My Dahon-D7 originally came with the standard Suntour folding pedals

One of them went bad on me recently.  The pedal was making crunching noises and wasn’t rotating properly – not good!  Apparently a ball bearing crumbled. 

Reading online reviews, it seems others have had this problem, too.

I decided to replace them with another pair of folding pedals.  I use the bike almost exclusively for commuting to work.  When folding the bike up for the train, I don’t normally need to fold the pedals.  But the folding pedals do come in handy on rare occasions when I put the bike in the trunk of my car. 

I chose a pair of MKS FD-7 pedals for the swap (pictured to the above right).  These are an upgrade both in terms of durability and grip.  The serrated edge prevents my tennis shoes from slipping much better than the rubber on the Suntour pedals.

These apparently come in black finish in addition to silver.  In retrospect, the chrome pedals make the bike look a little bit pimped-out.

Posted in Biking | Leave a comment

Wizards and Dwarves

dwarvesI wrote about interview puzzle questions recently to set the context for this article.

A few years back, a colleague asked me to ponder a Wizards and Dwarves puzzle as a potential interview question.  A typical statement goes something like this:

A village of wizards is nearby a village of dwarves.  Once a year, the wizards visit the dwarves, and line up the dwarves in increasing order of height, so that each dwarf can only see the dwarves smaller than himself.

The wizards have white and black hats.  They place a white or black hat on the head of each dwarf (using a strategy of their choosing, perhaps even randomly).  Then starting at the back of the line (the tallest dwarf), they ask each what color hat he is wearing. 

Each dwarf who answers incorrectly is killed by the wizards.  The other dwarves can hear his answer, but do not know whether he was killed.

What strategy minimizes the number of dwarves killed?

Ok, I thought about it.


thinkingAmong many irritations I have for puzzle questions, the fiction is frequently distracting: 

Why villages?  Why wizards and dwarves?  Why in order of height?  What if they are all of the same height?  How can you kill a dwarf and not have his neighbor nearby hear it?

And my brain spins with other tangents:

Dwarves have high magic resistance and constitution – don’t they get a saving throw?  Toss in a few +5 battle axes and there would be a wizard slaughter!


Wizards, Dwarves and Barometers

barometerIn the spirit of the barometer question, I formulated the following responses:

  • Non-violent non-cooperation.  It is not stated that there is a penalty for non-cooperation.  In the spirit of Gandhi, the dwarves refuse to be sorted by height, do not line up, and will not wear hats.  Wizards are known weaklings and will be unable to forcefully move the dwarves into place.
  • Scatter.  The dwarves split their village up into smaller villages, until each village consists of a single dwarf.  Each dwarf now has an equal chance of survival (this strategy, while fair, will be popular with the tall dwarves, but less so with the short ones).  The maximum number of dwarves killed will always be one.
  • UN Convention on Genocide.  The dwarves are being unfairly singled out as a group for destruction.  Citing Resolution 260 (III), they appeal to the United Nations and await protracted discussion.
  • Mini-guns.  Despite their diminutive size and desire peace, the dwarves obtain special weapons training, obtain mini-guns and when threatened, and whoop some major wizard ass.
  • Mobile Phone.  First variant – dwarf uses a mobile phone to take a picture of his hat, revealing the color.  Second variant – dwarf snaps a photo of the dwarf in front of him and texts it to him.
  • Low tech (no mobile phone required).  Dwarf turns around and asks the dwarf behind him the color of his hat.
  • Vacation.  The wizards arrive once a year.  The dwarves arrange to be out of town on that day (ideally somewhere warm and sunny).
  • Insubordination.  Each dwarf takes off his hat and reports its color.

And so on.


If you follow the intended script, you can find solutions in which no more than one dwarf is killed (the tallest has no knowledge of his hat color and his odds are essentially subject to chance).

But as shown above, one can simplify and further optimize the solution by exploiting ambiguities in the fiction.

And it’s a lot more entertaining.

Posted in Humor, Interviewing | 3 Comments