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.
My six-year-old self would have been proud.