I was born into a family with two mothers, Laurie and Kerrie. I wasn’t adopted; I was conceived through artificial insemination using donor sperm. My parents fell in love and went through the process in the late 80’s, which was pretty controversial at the time. I’ve met many other children who were conceived the same way, but they were always younger, conceived after it had become more socially acceptable. The only thing I was told about my father is the color of his hair.
Mum and Kerrie are both female feminist family therapists so I have never exactly had a father figure in my life. Despite this, our family was incredibly close–I grew up in an environment where I became used to telling my parents everything and receiving unconditional love in return. When I was young, I used to pretend to be sick during school so I could spend the day with Mum or Kerrie at work. I’ve never met another family as close as ours.
People often asked me, "Do you think not having a father changed you?”
After I had graduated from high school, my parents asked me to come into the kitchen to listen to a talk show on the radio with them. There was a South Australian politician who was avidly preaching that “Gay parents are discriminating against their children by taking away their right to a father”, which would “handicap them in later life”.
The radio opened up to viewer discussion and I called in, furious. While I waited on hold, I began to shakily scribble what I would say on a discarded piece of paper. I’ve kept it to this day:
“I’ve heard you talk very passionately and at great length about discrimination against children, but you haven’t talked about how you’ve come to this conclusion. Are you close to families where you have experienced, first hand, the negative effects of gay parenting? Are you referencing research? And, what do you even mean by discrimination: mental wellbeing, family relationships, success in life?
From where I stand it seems as though you are simply stating an opinion, one which is not based in research or anecdote. And from that single, subjective, uninformed opinion, you are trying to enforce policy that will affect the entire country’s perspective on my family.”
I was never taken off hold. When the show ended, Laurie, Kerrie and I sat in silence. It was only then that I realized my voice would never be heard–people were so busy listening to politicians and priests that they forgot to ask the children what having gay parents was actually like.
I have no doubt society that will one day accept gay marriage, but before it does we have to collectively change how we think. Right now, opinions are used interchangeably with facts. We often fail to look at things holistically, to look at the evidence and reason, to differentiate between fact and opinion. We lose sight of the fact that we are individuals and that other people with other experiences may feel differently. We get so caught up in our own rationalization that we forget to ask how others feel. Subjectivity is the root of all discrimination.
When I was four years old, I remember complaining to my Mum. I whined “Mum, I wish I had a Dad”. She was shocked, and in retrospect, I can understand why. She must have felt worried that despite all her love, there was some fundmental truth to the discrimination in society. Maybe she had made a mistake. Maybe children did need fathers. She looked down and cautiously asked me “Why?”
I grinned at her – “That way he could go to work and I could spend all day with you and Kerrie!”
I have no recollection of the event, but I’ve heard the story retold so many times that I may as well have seen it all. I was at the gym in my apartment complex with my roommate, Sam. I was running on the treadmill when I turned and told him I was going to faint. I collapsed and fell onto the still-moving belt, which tore the skin off my knee and pushed me onto the floor. Sam was shocked. He called for help. A personal trainer and her client ran over, called an ambulance, and assisted Sam in giving me CPR while my body slowly drained of color.
My heart had gone into ventricular fibrillation. “Vfib”, as I heard numerous doctors call it, is an type of arrhythmia–a series of irregular electrical signals in the ventricle chamber of the heart. Instead of beating normally, the walls quiver erratically, like they’re having a seizure . The heart quickly becomes unable to pump blood to other organs. I had suffered from what is officially, and somewhat morbidly, termed “Sudden Cardiac Death”.
The paramedics arrived and walked slowly down the length of the pool to the gym. This was procedure, they later told me; they didn’t want to run and cause alarm. When they reached me, they defibrillated my heart by strapping patches to my abdomen and running a strong electrical current through my body. I was told that after the first administration my heart had remained in arrhythmia. After the second, it started beating regularly.
For those 4 minutes and 30 seconds, I was clinically dead.
I spent the next two days in a coma while the doctors cooled by body to 32 degrees in order to avoid brain damage. During this time I developed a pulmonary embolism and pneumonia. Whenever I visit a doctor now they are always surprised–“each of those alone could have killed you, it’s a miracle you survived all three!” I survived by sitting through hours of MRIs with oxygen in my nose, three IV’s in my arm and ten pills a day for weeks. Sam and my two mothers, Laurie and Kerrie, rarely left my side.
The stories you hear about people dying usually end with tunnels, lights, flashbacks, God, and big epiphanies. That isn’t what happened to me.
After finally regaining enough consciousness to understand my situation, I sat for hours staring at the hospital walls. I didn’t have any life changing realizations. I wasn’t regretful. In fact, I couldn’t think of anything in my life I wanted to change at all. Being trapped alone in that sterile room with wires hanging off my chest only made me think about everything in my life I wanted back.
Most people I tell this story to think I’m unlucky because I had a cardiac arrest at 21 years old. But I don’t think so. Only five percent of people who suffer ventricular fibrillation out of the hospital survive. Of those that do survive, more than half of them have brain damage. That means only two and a half percent fully recover. Not only did I fully recover, but I did so in the company of the people closest to me.
If there is one lesson I took away from the experience, it is not to “live life to the fullest” or “have no regrets”. It is to feel lucky. Feeling lucky means you are appreciating the things in your life that sometimes go unnoticed. It means you are achieving more than think you deserve. Feeling lucky requires a certain humility we often lose sight of.
For me, it took losing everything to remember how lucky I am.
A little more than a year ago, I sat in a conference room with 30 other Zynga new hires. The energy in the room was palpable. People were sitting on the edges of their seats, waiting anxiously. We were about to meet our CEO, Mark Pincus.
He came into the room and sat on the arm of a chair with his feet resting on the seat. He looked around and smiled. His casual, inviting persona has a way of making people instantly admire him. As he began to talk, I furiously scribbled notes.
Since I was six years old, I had wanted to build a games company. At 16, I was making games. By 19, I had two employees and a small amount of revenue. But despite my early luck, I had never been more excited to be in the games industry as I was in that room with Mark Pincus. At age 21, I was starting to realize just how much I had left to learn about building a company.
After Mark finished talking I nervously introduced myself, we talked briefly and I sent him an email with my background and an intimidatingly long list of questions. He simply replied: “Do you want to be my technical assistant?” I was speechless. Before I even knew what that role would involve, I agreed.
The opportunity was incredible. During the time I spent as Mark’s technical assistant, I was lucky enough to work very closely with him. I followed him to meetings and turned his ideas into prototypes. I deconstructed games and performed in-depth research on the industry. Because I was working directly with the CEO, I was able to operate outside the regular hierarchy. I had a rare view of exactly how Zynga operates and how Mark leads it.
After spending the weekend interviewing me for the position, Mark immediately put me to work. He sent me an email outlining an ambitious project with an ambitious deadline. Before I could even start, he set up back-to-back meetings with people from around the company–people I later learned were some of the most respected in the industry.
As the project grew, I quickly realized it was too much to handle alone. I was going to need another engineer. I reached out to Mark again, but instead of setting up more meetings he simply said: “Go get one”. This time there were no connections, no instructions, no advice. He just watched as I found and interviewed five engineers and a week later helped me choose the best.
For the next month my team worked on the project relentlessly, spending many late nights at the office. We were all fueled by the same passion to build something great. This is true for people from every corner of the company and it was infectious–Zynga still feels like one big startup.
As we sprinted to make the deadline, I realized the project was going to be a failure. After a month, we had the prototype he asked for, but it required at least another two months of work. The game just wasn’t fun. I sheepishly showed it to Mark, expecting him to be disappointed, mad, or if nothing else, dismissive. Instead he just asked, “What did you learn?”
Only then did it hit me: in the first month I spent with Mark, he taught me the fundamentals of entrepreneurship. He taught me how to network, how to learn from others, how to hire the right people and how to lead a team to get a project done at “Zynga Speed”. He had taught me to be his Technical Assistant.
I wasn’t the only one to have this experience. Jon Tien, who is now SVP of Product at 29, started as a product manager on Farmville and was groomed to be an executive. Other examples were everywhere. I saw community managers become executive producers, engineers become CTO’s, and product managers become GM’s. My impression of Zynga is it’s a company where everyone is taught how to succeed - it’s a rare environment where talent and passion, not experience, are the most important qualities.
In late June just after I had settled into my new role, I had an accident. I remember very little, but my friends tell me I was running on a treadmill when I collapsed and experienced a cardiac arrest. My heart went into fibrillation. Blood stopped pumping to my brain. About 95% of people who suffer from this disorder die on the spot, but I was lucky enough to be administered CPR for 5 minutes before paramedics could bring me back to life. I spent two days in a coma, two weeks in the hospital, and two months away from work.
The first day I regained consciousness was the day of Zynga Unleashed, Zynga’s annual press event. Despite that this means 12 hours of uninterrupted work for Mark, he scheduled two hours to come visit and listen to my half conscious rambling. I even insisted on making him play every game I developed before I came to Zynga. He was my first visitor.
I wasn’t the only employee Mark would go out of his way for. Everything he does has an undertone of empathy: his habit of replying to every email, his insistence on great perks and a fun office space, and the amount of time he spends working to properly communicate with employees. He would have me meet people from all over the company to capture their ideas and find ways to make them heard.
Admittedly, my circumstances in the hospital and as technical assistant were exceptional, but Mark’s reaction was not. I learned that, as CEO, he places value on everyone’s opinions because he believes Zynga is a company in which everyone matters and everyone is smart enough to have a voice.
I continued to work with Mark more and more intensely, but despite the unique experience I was having it was only a little more than a year before I felt I had to leave.
Working with Mark had been a transformative experience. He had taught me to think and to solve problems objectively. He taught me that everything is a hypothesis until you’ve been able to validate it. He taught me to connect with and learn from everyone. Fundamentally, he had taught me to be an entrepreneur, and I was itching to be in an environment where I could put it to use.
I had decided to leave Zynga to help run MinoMonsters, a profitable, VC-backed iPhone gaming company run by my one of my best friends, Josh Buckley. It was like Pokémon for the iPhone, a game I had loved since childhood. It was the perfect opportunity.
The day I told Mark was more nerve-racking than the day I met him. I couldn’t work out how to explain that I was passing up an opportunity almost nobody has, for something fairly commonplace. After taking the whole day to build up the courage, I cornered him. He invited me over to his house to talk.
We sat for hours that night trying to find a role at Zynga that would make sense for me, but I knew there wasn’t one. The conversation gradually shifted to talking about the industry and the future when Mark said, “Sash, I think you should do what your heart tells you to do. It sounds like you want to be doing your own thing.” I had done what I set out to do. I had learned from Zynga and, unexpectedly, I had learned from Mark.