Allan Simonsen on the Advantages and Challenges of the Virtual Office

Gamesauce interviews our Tech Director Allan Simonsen about Boomzap’s virtual set-up! Check out the full article here.


ALLAN SIMONSEN ON THE ADVANTAGES AND CHALLENGES OF THE VIRTUAL OFFICE
December 19, 2012 — by Catherine Quinton

Allan Simonsen’s interest in video games goes back a long way, to when he first played Popeye and Donkey Kong at the age of six. His interest intensified throughout the years, as he learned programming at age 12 and convinced his computer professor at university to allow him to do his thesis on the computer game Camouflage. This game led to his first job in the industry, followed by two other jobs with local companies, before starting Boomzap Entertainment with co-founder Chris Natsuume (presenting in the video above). This company has continued to succeed and grow to the point where they now have a staff of 65 and growing.

WHY A VIRTUAL OFFICE?

Simonsen and Natsuume created Boomzap for a simple reason: to provide employment for the two of them. However, the plan was complicated by the fact that Simonsen was living in Singapore, Natsuume was in Seattle, and neither was interested in moving. When they hired their first employee, Ben, who was living in Malaysia, they had a company of three in three different countries. The obvious answer was a virtual office.

The result of the decision to keep their office virtual was a better company that continued to grow. They were able to hire outstanding people in different countries who could work from home, allowing them an improved quality of life. Many of these people came with experience, but they had become disillusioned with the video game industry because of the long hours and the effect that was having on their family life. “There is a point when you’re about thirty, you’re married, you have a kid and the idea of spending 80 hours in the office suddenly doesn’t feel so tempting anymore,” says Simonsen. Boomzap offered them the opportunity to continue working in an industry they loved from the comfort of their homes, allowing them greater family time. Over time, the company expanded into a number of teams that feel an internal, independent loyalty to the members of the team. Simonsen and Natsuume now are responsible for setting goals and mentoring the teams, but they do not micromanage, or even directly manage them. And as Simonsen says, “That’s fascinating, watching these guys kind of take our ideas, or one of them, and make it into their own.”

RUNNING A SUCCESSFUL VIRTUAL OFFICE

Running a virtual office is relatively easy. There are a number of small issues resulting from differences in cultures, but there are no large ones. According to Simonsen, he does not have to worry about managing his staff; they tend to do the managing themselves.

The key to running a successful virtual office is trust. “The biggest thing is you have to trust people,” says Simonsen. “Then you have to trust yourself that you did the right thing in hiring them and to do that you have to be very rigorous about the hiring process. And then once you’ve done that, you have to get the hell out of their way.” The hiring process for Boomzap takes two weeks from beginning to end. At the end of that time, the prospective employee will have something significant to add to a portfolio, whether or not he is hired, and Boomzap will have a good idea how the employee will fit in the company.

The work space is critical in a successful virtual office. You need an area that will allow you to focus and also let those around you know you are working and must not be disturbed. It is also important to be sure you are focusing on work during your work time, not on other things such as the TV, music, a game console, etc. Or, you may have your computer open, but if you also have MSN or Facebook open, you will not be fully focused on your work. The other side of the problem with working from home is making sure work does not take over all your time simply because it is always there. You have to know when to end your work or you will burn out working 80 or 100 hours a week.

The work space is such a critical issue that one of the standard interview questions is “Describe your work space. Do you have a quiet place to work? Do you have a good internet connection?” It is very common for people to imagine that having a table in the living room is a good work space, but it is actually almost impossible to focus in that situation. Simonsen often recommends his own setup: a room with a large Boomzap sign on the door. When he closes it, his family knows he must not be disturbed.

At Boomzap, they continue to work toward streamlining and improving the process involved in game creation, knowing that these improvements add efficiency throughout the entire virtual office. These improvements include looking at how to make better tools for artists, speed up the development process, and make things easier for programmers and artists. Each improvement in process and tools multiplies over the number of employees using them, allowing huge growth for the company.

The biggest challenge Boomzap has had is the same problem all small companies have: cash flow. Even if you have a project with real commercial value, if you can’t meet payroll that month, you can’t go forward. They have combined internal funding with partnering, and have found success in meeting this challenge. Recently they have found that partnering with Big Fish has given them a more predictable cash flow.

Simonsen tells us that at Boomzap they are very happy doing what they do now: making games they love for people who appreciate them. They hope to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.

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