Understanding Mark Pincus and Zynga’s Intense Data-Driven Culture

The New York Times published a great article this weekend on the “tough culture” within Zynga, the creator of FarmVille, CityVille and dozens of other social games. I’m not surprised by the report — more than a few employees have told me that Zynga isn’t exactly the easiest or happiest place to work.

From Evelyn Rusli’s NYT piece:

“Led by the hard-charging Mr. Pincus, the company operates like a federation of city-states, with autonomous teams for each game, like FarmVille and CityVille. At times, it can be a messy and ruthless war. Employees log long hours, managers relentlessly track progress, and the weak links are demoted or let go.

But that culture, which has been at the root of Zynga’s success, could become a serious liability, warn several former senior employees who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals.

As the discord increases, the situation may jeopardize the company’s ability to retain top talent at a time when Silicon Valley start-ups are fiercely jockeying for the best executives and engineers. It could also hamper deal-making, a critical growth engine for Zynga, which has spent about $119 million on acquisitions in the last two years.”

Zynga has a relentless culture that is, like Google, focused on data. The numbers need to be up for you to keep your job. The result is an IPO that could be worth north of $20 billion.

However, that same culture is clearly at its breaking point. Without big changes, Zynga could experience an exodus that could seriously damage the bottom line. I’ve been told things are getting better though, and that the culture isn’t as unforgiving as it once was.

Understanding Mark Pincus

To understand the culture at Zynga, you need to understand its unquestioned leader, Mark Pincus.

He’s a unique character to Silicon Valley. He’s a business guy, not an engineer. He got a degree in Economics from UPenn and an MBA from Harvard. He worked in finance for many years.

The result: Pincus lives and breathes numbers and data — it is his comfort zone. It’s no wonder Zynga is so data-driven.

By his own admission, he also didn’t fit in with a lot of these places. “I found that I couldn’t be successful in anyone else’s company,” Pincus told a group of entrepreneurs at the 2009 Y Combinator Startup School. “So I got kicked out of some of the best companies in America.”

(by the way, I’ve embedded the video of that talk above. If you really want to understand Pincus, watch it.)

The man follows his own vision, and it rubs a lot of people the wrong way. He’s also incredibly intense about it. It’s made Zynga relentless in its quest to be #1, but its rank-and-file have definitely paid a high price for it.

Understanding Zynga’s Culture

Why is Zynga so data-obsessed? Why is it so intense that countless employees are simply burning out?

The answer should be obvious: it all stems from Mark Pincus and his personality. His intensity and obsession with data are fundamental to his nature, and thus they are fundamental to Zynga. Those traits made Zynga into a multi-billion dollar company.

However, I think Pincus is finally realizing that his level of intensity and his style of leadership aren’t something most people can sustain for long periods of time. That’s why Zynga’s doing more to ease workloads and make its employees happier.

Zynga is in a period of transition. It’s about to turn into a public company, and it will no longer be able to use the promise of pre-IPO stock to retain talent. It will have use other weapons, such as perks and keeping employees happy, to stay on top.

Zynga’s culture will have to adapt if the company expects to continue growing.