Dev Blog: Reflecting on Lucky Number 13

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