Rapid hiring for a tech team is a warning sign

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

Although rapid hiring suggests that something good is happening (money is coming in) when a tech team expands 100% in a year, it is likely that the short-term growth will undermine the long term growth. Every since Fredrick Brooks published “The Mythical Man Month” we’ve understood that rapid hiring in a tech team leads to very difficult communication issues.

And yet somehow, these problems are still normal in the game industry:

The culture of the company changed dramatically as a result. Former employees describe Telltale in its early days as a small, tight-knit group with a strong sense of camaraderie. New hires trickled in slowly. Upper management had been much less involved in the day-to-day, and developers were given more freedom to do their jobs as they saw best. But the success of The Walking Dead spurred the company to expand rapidly: in order to suit both its growing ambitions and keep investors happy, it became a company that many long-standing employees no longer recognized. “We went from a small and scrappy team to kind of a giant studio full of 300-plus people,” says former Telltale programmer and designer Andrew Langley, who worked at the studio from 2008 to 2015. “You walk around the office, and you don’t really recognize anybody anymore.”

Sources say the culture of the studio never properly adapted from its indie mentality to one more appropriate for its larger size. Tribal knowledge persisted over clearly documented processes, and a lack of communication among employees bred confusion. “Very rarely people were writing things down on a wiki or a confluence page or any sort of documentation,” says a former employee. “People were shifting so often that you would hear a version of a story that was actually weeks old, and the person telling you has no idea because that’s the last thing they heard.”

…To keep up with the workload, the company started rotating developers in and out of different games during the development process, sometimes in ways that employees say made little sense. As the developer’s schedule grew more aggressive, management sought to remedy tighter turnarounds by adding more people to the department — a “solution” that did little to help the problem. As one former Telltale developer put it: nine women can’t make a baby in one month. “Focus on quality really started to shift to ‘let’s just get as many episodes out as we can,’” the source says.

…“Crunch culture” is well-documented and endemic in the game industry, and Telltale was no exception. Some former employees reported working 14- to 18-hour days or coming in every day of the week for weeks on end. But where most developers go into “crunch mode” in the final months of a game leading up to its launch, they described it as constant. Because of the episodic nature of Telltale’s games, the studio’s development cycle was a constantly turning wheel. As soon as one episode wrapped, it was on to the next one, over and over with no end in sight. “Everything [was] always on fire,” one source with direct knowledge of the company says. “You never [got] a break.” This sentiment was echoed over and over to The Verge by four different people across several parts of Telltale.

This is the funniest and saddest part:

Telltale offers unlimited paid time off, but as is often the case, that places the burden on individuals directly to establish their limit and makes some people less likely to take vacations. At Telltale, sources say taking time off meant a willingness to push that work on to other members of their team and that while the crunch was never billed as a “mandatory” time to be in the office, it often felt that way.

Unlimited time off often means no time off.