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Cartographic Survey: The Year In Video Game Maps

Editor's Note: This was originally published by our partners at Kill Screen as part of Kill Screen's Year In Ideas series.  

Open a map in one of this year’s big video games and you’ll see mostly blank space. Sometimes it’s pitch dark outside the bubble of detail around your landing in the world. Sometimes the landscape is sketched out but not yet colored with icons, which spread wherever you set foot. We don’t ask how our character draws the map, or why, in a modern setting, she would ever need to.

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Though not common to all games, these conventions are instantly recognized. Beating the game means illuminating the map. Maybe it dates back to Wizardry-era dungeon crawls and the age of graph paper mapping, a tradition carried on in this year’s Persona Q and the re-released Elminage Gothic (which makes players buy consumable maps to spot-check their location.) But however they started, dark maps were everywhere in games this year.

The map of a game like Grand Theft Auto V or Far Cry 4 works more like a memory than a pocket reference. The real work of navigation is usually done by floating icons onscreen, distance counters, and GPS overlays; the skin of the map grows in as you chase symbols. The characters of GTA V should be able to see every corner of Los Santos just by glancing at their phones. Instead they do the legwork themselves, filling in the city like a giant scratch card.

GTA V: A Clean Guide To A Complex World 

The form of a map tells us about a game’s ambitions, or at least helps us guess. In the latest GTA our slowly expanding vision suggests the series’ new emphasis on progression, as does the return of San Andreas’ character stats. That wasn’t always Rockstar’s focus: in 2008, Niko could survey the whole layout of Liberty City as soon as he got off the boat. Franklin has to turn on the lights in his hometown block by block.

In a year of overcrowded maps, GTA V gave us a clean guide to a complex world. The skeleton of the city is laid out like a monochrome negative, but the black-bordered gray roadways have more pop than their predecessors in GTA IV or Watch Dogs, and the arterial lines twine together with elegance that puts real maps of Los Angeles to shame. Icons are kept small and sparingly colored, making them easy to match with the relevant protagonist (green for Franklin, light blue for Michael, orange for Trevor). The irrelevant symbols even shrink when you’re playing another character.

GTA’s real achievement is using multiple viewpoints to help players build a layered mental map of the area. At one point in Kevin Lynch’s seminal 1960 study, "The Image of the City," he mentions that L.A. residents could vividly describe to him the areas surrounding their home, but got progressively more vague when envisioning a journey downtown. (Lynch contrasts “formless” L.A. with Boston, where residents could clearly describe the city center.) 

See also: Want To Learn About Game Design? Go To Ikea

If not for GTA V’s character-swapping, players might remember little except their safehouse and the city’s two poles, the Del Perro Pier and the Vinewood sign. But our leaps between different homes and perspectives literally give each district its own character: we learn the alleys around Franklin’s first place in Strawberry/Crenshaw, then the sloping roads behind Michael’s mansion in Rockford/Beverly Hills, then the shortest path to the ocean from Trevor’s place in Vespucci/Venice Beach.

Outside of GTA—which is, technically, a 2013 game that happened to get an essential remaster—recent “open worlds” have been dispiritingly similar. The maps of Assassin’s Creed Unity, Shadow of Mordor, Far Cry 4, and Dragon Age: Inquisition are all cut from the same cloth. Each is filled in progressively as the player claims structures that double as fast travel points: AC’s Viewpoints, Mordor’s Forge Towers,Far Cry’s Outposts and Radio Towers, and DA:I’s camps. It’s the template Ubisoft popularized.

Assassin’s Creed:  A War Between Mathematicians And Realtors

If GTA V was the best of this year’s maximalist maps, then Assassin’s Creed Unity was by far the worst—a clownish bleed of distractions over plots of ghostly buildings shipped in from Chengdu. Synchronizing a new map section reveals a mass of hexagons with magnifying glasses or scrolls or shields inside, GPS flags, medals inside transparent circles, staircases, orange hexagons containing various symbols, fast-forward icons, chests in four different colors, houses colored red or black, and hexagons with houses inside them. 

It looks like the record of a war between mathematicians and realtors. And it barely even works. Overlapping icons obscure fast-travel points until you change filters or zoom in and tease out the edge of what you’re trying to click on. Once, my mission icons disappeared on every filter setting. But the flat map does have a tilt function, which I imagine is a comfort to the lunatic who created it.

Mordor steals AC’s ideas, but at least it improves them. Its markers get more space to breathe and can be sized up at a glance: red shields (orc events), yellow shields (story), white shields (challenges), and blue Forge Towers. It beats AC at the little things, like the sharper snap your cursor does when it rolls over an icon, the crisper borders around each district, and the fine outlines of walls provided in place ofUnity’s hazy tofu shapes. Apart from the scratchy Ithildin symbols, it doesn’t look very Tolkienesque; then again, neither do the zipline stealth kills. Mordor is a playground, and its map takes care to keep things simple.

 See also: Call Of Duty Doesn't Understand Grief—But Who Does?

Both games lack distinct areas and routes—in Kevin Lynch’s framework, they lack “imageability.” The lines of fast travel cut up the land and prevent you from holding continuous strips of scenery in your mind. The sensation of traveling isn’t accelerated but removed. After many hours with the game, I didn’t remember much of Unity except the player’s base at the Café Théâtre; Mordor is a blur outside of one stronghold (Tol Crossing?) that I kept finding target orcs in.

The intensity of a mental image, Lynch pointed out, comes from continuous use. He broke down our impressions of an area into paths, edges, nodes, districts, and landmarks, calling paths the “predominant” organizing feature in most cases. That may be why the worlds of Unity and Mordor are so forgettable: they’re all nodes and no paths. Even if you don’t abuse fast travel to turn swaths of the map into flyover country, you can hold down a couple of buttons to make Arno or Talion barrel past almost any enemy and launch themselves over any barrier, taking the shortest line from point A to B. There’s no starch in either game to stop players from walking all over it. (The one inconvenience I remember in Unity is the Seine, which sometimes made you look for a bridge.)

Compare that to the mindfulness of the Los Santos resident, who takes his life into his hands whenever he crosses the city. Steering a vehicle around poles and pedestrians, weaving between trucks and into oncoming traffic, glancing from the mini-map to the street: these are all complex tasks that challenge us to balance speed and caution and draw on our memory of the area as well as the map. We learn the city road by road, rather than having entire districts dropped on us at once. The result is a lasting after-image of the area that we can call to mind weeks or months later.

See also: Sweden's Sexism Test For Games Is A Great Idea

The maps of Far Cry 4 and Dragon Age: Inquisition amend AC’s template, but never go too far afield. FC4’s map may be the year’s most colorful, having seemingly absorbed every pigment absent from GTA’s negatives and Mordor’s blueprints. The splashy look suits the franchise’s celebration (ostensibly, interrogation) of tourism, also seen in the gold boxes that surround chapter titles like the National Geographic logo. Even the names of places have their own energy: Satish’s Sad Room, Great Drought Chorten, Kalinag Returned, and so on.

The main novelty of FC4’s map, outside of fiddling like the division of Viewpoints into Outposts (fast travel) and Radio Towers (map illumination), is the prominence of animal ranges. Giant rhinos and wolves are a larger-than-life presence on the landscape of Kyrat, and the knowledge that you’ve wandered into “badger country” tends to have more weight than being told that you’re in Faubourg. By suggesting each animal’s territory rather than marking it outright with a dotted line or glow, the map introduces welcome ambiguity to a game that is otherwise about driving between icons while listening to the worst radio station that has ever been created or imagined.

If you prefer the dotted line, Inquisition is there for you, drawing purplish search zones all over its map in an unmistakably Azerothian touch. If the ground wasn’t oversalted with lost shards, Dragon Age would be a capable mashup of the Ubisoft map and World of Warcraft. But the former doesn’t need another imitator, and the latter deserves to be copied more. In WoW, quest-givers move to new zones in pursuit of their own goals, the landscape is transfigured by story events, fast-travel points are generously spaced, and every wilderness sometimes holds rare mobs that give you a reason to visit. In Inquisition and in most of its open-world cohorts, the map is static.

See also: Four Things I Learned While Writing A Book About Super Mario Bros. 2

Inquisition’s maps are finely illustrated, though, and an area cleared of icons wouldn’t look out of place printed inside a fantasy hardcover. It’s one of the only navigation aids I saw this year that avoids a technical, schematic appearance—even the terrain of FC4 looks like a grainy satellite capture when you zoom in. DA:I doesn’t maintain the extravagant detail of its War Table map on its blown-up area maps, but I doubt anyone expected it to.

A few major games this year escaped the influence of the Ubimap. Grimrock II carries on the old practice of step-by-step, tile-by-tile exploration, and its directions and riddles require actual study of one’s surroundings. (Kentucky Route Zero and Grimrock II sometimes feel like the last two games in the world that still trust you to find an old oak or take the second left after the crossing without marking it with a beacon visible from space.) As mentioned above, Persona Q gets even closer to the days of manual mapping, though it saves everyone graph paper by providing a digital grid.

Alien: Isolation: One Of The Most Tactile Digital Maps Ever Made

The real map of the year wasn’t of a dungeon, though it came from another game where every step counted. It was even laid over a grid. Of course I mean the lovably antiquated, closely packed, curiously aqua-colored widescreen schematics of the Sevastopol in Alien: Isolation, which are always on the verge of being snowed in by the inches of static piling at the base of the screen.

See also: Hatsune Miku Is Here To Destroy Everything You Love (And Hate) About Pop Stardom

I have no doubt that it’s one of the most tactile digital maps ever made. Just listen to the snap and whirr of unseen reels as you zoom—not in one continuous motion, but shuddering between two fixed positions. Listen to the plonk of the new button used to switch floors. For once, the map isn’t just in your head. Ripley collects it personally, pulling new layouts from glowing terminals around the station.

And sometimes this analog masterpiece is wrong, apparently by design. One of the game’s peak suspense sequences later on, for instance, makes you explore an altered area of the ship where your map critically misleads you. But it’ll occasionally lead you astray even before that, sending you to the wrong floor or to a vent that’s not there. The magical thing is that I think sometimes the map wasn’t even at fault. I was just livid that it left me room to make my own mistakes.

The mission of many game mapmakers is to destroy ambiguity. Isolation infuriated people by restoring it. In Isolation, you are only human and your map is only a map. You look at the map and make a plan, and sometimes your plan is only a guess. No onscreen marker stops you from taking the second right instead of the third, even when the second right means death. The gap between our memory of the map and the reality of it becomes a space for fear to grow.

Since no actually qualified individuals seem to be rating the year’s maps, it falls to me. Alien: Isolation receives every award. Best Map Design. Best Map Font. Best Adapted Map. Rookie of the Year. Thanks, Creative Assembly. Carry these accolades in your head, like an image of Michael’s driveway.

More From Kill Screen

For more stories about video games and culture, follow@killscreen on Twitter.

Date: Thu, 18 Dec 2014 09:49:58 -0800
Author: :: Category: Play

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Pigs Fly And VMware Vaults Into The Top-3 OpenStack Vendors

OpenStack can make for strange bedfellows.

If any one vendor served as the proprietary bogeyman to motivate the creation of an open source private cloud stack, it’s VMware. For more than a decade, the virtualization giant owned the core infrastructure of Global 2000 data centers, only to have the industry fight back in 2010 with the non-profit OpenStack Foundation. As the industry rallied around open-source OpenStack, proprietary VMware looked to be reeling.

That was then. This is now.

Today VMware is emerging as a serious champion of OpenStack, pivoting quickly to prove that they were not going to be the next victim of Clayton Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma.” With few customers lining up to use vCloud Director, VMware has augmented its otherwise proprietary approach with OpenStack. 

VMware also found an unlikely OpenStack champion: Mirantis, the last remaining private pure-play OpenStack vendor. Mirantis was the first OpenStack vendor to announce support for VMware’s hypervisor technology, vCenter. 

Boris Renski

Today, the two companies published a Mirantis OpenStack reference architecture for VMware vCenter Server and VMware NSX. Publicly available for download, Mirantis OpenStack lets customers deploy and control workloads that run on VMware vSphere in their VMware vCenter Server clusters within Mirantis OpenStack. 

I spoke with Boris Renski, Mirantis co-founder and CMO, and board member of the OpenStack Foundation, to understand his company’s coopetition with VMware and how he thinks the virtualization giant will fare with OpenStack customers.

ReadWriteI thought VMware was the enemy of OpenStack–the proprietary private cloud solution?

Renski: I can’t speak for VMware, but I can assure you that from our perspective as the largest standalone OpenStack vendor, we take VMware very seriously. They recognize that their sophisticated customer base wants to get more value out of their investments in VMware while also wanting the flexibility of working with alternative open source cloud solutions like OpenStack. Big companies are not going to allow a single vendor to determine their computing fate. When Pat Gelsinger, the CEO of VMware, gives a keynote address at VMworld committing the company to OpenStack support, it sends a message that they’re here to stay. 

Every infrastructure vendor does “OpenStack something” today. I separate those vendors into two buckets: ones who have a real OpenStack strategy backed by an engineering investment and ones who use OpenStack as a checkmark in their marketing story. 

The more I work with VMware, the more it becomes clear to me that VMware Integrated OpenStack is a strategic move that follows customer demand. This motivates our announcement today, where we have made it easier for VMware customers to run OpenStack alongside VMware’s solutions.

RW: The same Gelsinger who moans that , "We all lose if [applications] end up in these commodity public clouds" like Amazon Web Services and, presumably, OpenStack," right? Let's get real. VMware is battling at the technology level to ensure that customers continue to embrace its ESXi hypervisor technology to fight for market share.

BR: I’ll concede that, powered by the KVM hypervisor, OpenStack indirectly competes with ESXi. 

But it’s important to remember that cloud infrastructure has two very different use cases. One is the systems administrator use case. Systems administrators want to manage process, policy and security while provisioning infrastructure to their internal customers. Historically, both VMware and Red Hat designed their solutions with the systems administrator use case as their focus–VMware with vCenter and Red Hat with RHEL Virtualization.

The other is the developer use case. Developers don’t want to deal with the systems administrators or processes; they want direct, self-service access to their infrastructure. Both VMware and Red Hat are effectively using their existing “system administrator” offerings to wedge themselves into organizations to go after developers. The key difference is that VMware is a standard for at least 60% of systems administrators, whereas the RHEL Virtualization footprint in the enterprise is virtually non-existent.

RW: It makes sense that an enterprise would look to a company like Mirantis for OpenStack software and support, given that you're a core contributor and have been selling your own OpenStack distribution into the Global 2000 market now for more than a year with some noted successes, like the $30M Ericsson deal earlier this year. From your perspective, why would an enterprise customer look to VMware for OpenStack? Wouldn't they more likely turn to a “known” OpenStack vendor like Mirantis or Red Hat?

BR: Actually, I think VMware will overtake Red Hat in OpenStack sales in 2015. In fact, I doubt Red Hat will manage to stay in the top three in OpenStack revenues and workloads managed next year. Mirantis is seeing great customer traction, and we aim to keep the lead (grins). I predict we will be followed by HP and VMware. 

Yes, VMware. How has VMware vaulted into the top ranks so quickly? 

The main reason OpenStack is so popular is because it enables one to leverage existing infrastructure investments. For example, if you already have storage from NetApp, a load balancer from A10 and vCenter licenses, you can layer OpenStack right on top and have yourself a cloud. This works great for Mirantis because we have no ulterior infrastructure agenda. It poses a problem for vendors who have to compete with existing infrastructure investments. 

Enterprises invested a lot more in VMware infrastructure than they did in RHEL. They will have no reason to switch to “RHEL Integrated OpenStack” when it functions as a rip-and-replace of VMware with no less lock-in. VMware Integrated OpenStack will be a shoo-in.

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Date: Thu, 18 Dec 2014 08:34:32 -0800
Author: :: Category: Cloud

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Everything We Know About Wannabe YouTube Killer Vessel

New Web video startup Vessel plans to challenge YouTube in 2015. And with the might of Hulu chief executive Jason Kilar and chief technology officer Richard Tom standing behind it, Vessel could even have a chance.

The target of speculation since July, Vessel released an update on its progress on Wednesday that suggests the site will finally open up “early next year.”

Until then, here’s everything we know about the startup so far:

Vessel Will Offer Ad-Free Subscriptions

It’s hard to imagine the people behind Hulu providing ad-free video, but that’s exactly what’s happening here. If you’re tired of watching your favorite YouTube vloggers like Shane Dawson and Ingrid Nilsen with ads, Vessel will provide a place for you to watch them ad-free and sooner than everyone else for a monthly subscription of $2.99. It will accomplish this by signing contracts with stars that grant Vessel exclusive rights to their videos for a period anywhere from three days to a month.

But Really, Vessel Is A Service For Vloggers

For something like Vessel to turn a profit, it needs the support of video bloggers, including some of YouTube’s recognizable stars. So Kilar has emphasized that vloggers who use Vessel will earn about 20 times more than they do on “ad supported sites,” such as YouTube. “During the early access period on Vessel, we estimate that creators will earn approximately $50 for every thousand views,” the Vessel update states. Meanwhile, YouTube pays creators around $2 per every thousand views.

Vessel Will Take Advantage Of Existing YouTube Beefs

Creators on YouTube only keep 55% of their earnings. For years now, vloggers have been nagging YouTube to pay them more while exploring alternate revenue options. This is making it easy for Vessel to reach out to YouTube’s top 100 to 200 content creators to offer them deals. YouTube hasn’t had to pay content creators more because there wasn’t any incentive. That could make it easy for Vessel to profit heavily off of the stars YouTube made big.

"Despite the many positive things that the Internet has made possible in media, to date there hasn't been a clear path for most of these talented creators to build sustainable, enduring businesses on the basis of their video storytelling alone," Kilar wrote. "We believe that media can, and should, do much better."

Vessel isn’t even out yet, but YouTube should be getting worried. While Vessel doesn’t poach stars away, it could snag viewers. After all, if they’ve already watched stars’ content on Vessel, there’s no reason to watch it on YouTube or anywhere else.

Photo by Vessel

Date: Thu, 18 Dec 2014 07:25:18 -0800
Author: :: Category: Play

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Amazon Rolls Out One-Hour Delivery Service In Manhattan

Imagine if you could order something you desperately needed, and get it delivered a mere hour later. That’s the reality of Prime Now, the service Amazon is rolling out in parts of Manhattan today and several additional cities in 2015.

See also: Amazon Reportedly Hitting The Bricks With A Store In New York

Customers who use Prime Now can have toys, books, and essentials like paper towels and batteries delivered to their doorsteps within sixty minutes for $7.99. Additionally, if users opt to wait a grueling two hours for their Prime Now delivery, shipping is free. Prime Now will be available from 6 AM to midnight, seven days a week via Amazon’s new Manhattan hub.

This isn’t the first time companies have attempted to bring one-day shipping to New York. The failed and Urbanfetch attempted the same in the late ‘90s, and were both out of business by 2001. Fifteen years later, Amazon might succeed where they failed based on sheer size and experience. After all, Amazon has already offered same-day delivery in New York and other cities for years.

Will your city be next? Amazon hasn’t revealed anything yet, but said it will notify users when information is available through the Prime Now app.

Screenshot via Amazon

Date: Thu, 18 Dec 2014 06:31:38 -0800
Author: :: Category: Web

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How Zendesk Reluctantly Staked Out A Customer-Support Empire

ReadWrite's Inside Tech series takes a close look at the workspaces and office culture of companies creating new technologies.

Mikkel Svane, the CEO of Zendesk, nervously runs his hands through his luxurious, dark mane as he tries to explain how he got here.

He's sitting in a light-filled conference room overlooking Market Street in a still-rough part of San Francisco, on the top floor of a building. He's just a few blocks away from a hotel where he remembers waiting for a phone call that never came from venture capitalists who rejected his pitch to invest in Zendesk, then a nascent Danish startup offering Web-based tools for customer support.

He kept coming back to San Francisco, though, and by 2009, he'd made it his and Zendesk's home. He was so determined to put down roots here that he spent two years without getting in an airplane. He and his cofounders, Alex Aghassipour and Morten Primdahl, embraced the city's scrappy startup lifestyle, an adventure Svane chronicled in his new book Startupland.

Zendesk engineers in San Francisco spin their chairs around to talk.

How To Expand Without Expanding

Svane eventually had to face the gates at San Francisco International again. By 2011, Zendesk was growing explosively fast, and it couldn't hire enough engineers in San Francisco.

Zendesk's first stop was Svane's old stomping grounds in Copenhagen. Since then it's spread to Melbourne, Australia; Dublin, Ireland; London; and recently Singapore, through the acquisition of a live-chat startup called Zopim in April. It's also set up a second American customer-support base in Madison, Wisconsin.

Along the way, it managed to go public in May during a rough patch for the markets, and has nearly doubled in value since then to $1.8 billion.

What Svane's been trying to preserve, now that he's the CEO of a public company with more than 800 employees, is the simultaneous sense of looseness and rootedness he found when the company first moved to San Francisco. How can it share one culture across continents—without adopting the kind of bureaucracy he hated back in the days when he worked as a consultant in Denmark?

One of Svane's key hires was Adrian McDermott, now the company's senior vice president of product development, who joined Zendesk in 2010. One of his first challenges: finding more developers familiar with Ruby on Rails, the framework Zendesk's founders had used to build the product.

Go Home, Young Entrepreneur

"By 2011, every person in San Francisco who could vaguely code Ruby had multiple job offers," McDermott recalls. "You began to ask yourself, is our growth as a company going to be constrained by our ability to hire hipsters in San Francisco?"

At Zendesk, Jesper Christiansen chats with Saroj Yadav while Adrian McDermott looks on.

So the company took on hipsters in Copenhagen instead—codeslingers like Jesper Christiansen. (Ruby on Rails has strong ties to Denmark—its creator, David Heinemeier Hansson, is Danish, and previously worked for Svane at another company.)

Christiansen transferred to San Francisco this summer, but he recalls Zendesk's early days of being a multinational as rocky.

"The time difference is hard for us," says Christiansen. "It's something we struggled with in Copenhagen. You got some introduction to the codebase and then we were on our own. You didn't have that person you could ask for help."

Engineers in San Francisco would roll out changes to the codebase—and then expect their colleagues in Copenhagen to stay up to fix bugs.

"It wasn't as big a deal for me because I was single," says Christiansen. "Some of my coworkers definitely suffered more than I did."

Zendesk Jockeys

The solution was to break up Zendesk's product into pieces that each office would own, so that no one would have to wake up their colleagues at midnight. Copenhagen now manages Zendesk's self-service support tools, for example, while the Dublin office is taking over mobile apps and Zendesk's voice-support product. Zopim, the Singaporean acquisition, is continuing to run its chat product. Zendesk now has engineers organized into 23 "scrum teams."

Wenchao Ng, Yang Bin, Jason Smale and Hoang Trinh work on the Zopim-Zendesk integration. (Photo courtesy of Zendesk)

Zendesk also stopped trying to have one global engineering-management meeting, says Jason Smale, the company's director of engineering for Asia Pacific in Melbourne, Australia. Finding a time that worked for Europe, San Francisco, and Asia was impossible—it meant the Australians stayed up until 2 a.m. So instead, San Francisco takes turn hosting a call with Europe and Asia, and someone takes notes for the other teams.

Having multiple offices also made it hard to track what teams were working on in their latest sprints, or work cycles.

"Team projects and details were all over the place," McDermott recalls. "Rather than having a common tool to manage all their progress, the Danes decided to film what they were working on, Dogme style, with cell phones. The Irish team was taking photos of their Post-It scrum board. And the Australians had gone surfing."

McDermott and his engineering managers did, however, eventually decide on a single tool for sprint planning—a relatively rare intrusion into the autonomy of teams.

Going With The Flow

There are some other companywide standards. Zendesk uses Yammer for casual chatter—where you might learn about colleagues' birthdays or kids—and Flowdock for work-focused chat within teams. And employees do a lot of videoconferencing.

Trans-Pacific conference calls now involve Australia, Singapore, and San Francisco.

There's not the same making-it-up-as-they-go feel Zendesk had in its early days. In Startupland, Svane recounts how he hired Amanda Kleha away from Google to work on product marketing—and then sent her to the Apple Store on her first day after forgetting to get her a laptop.

That kind of thing doesn't happen anymore. It can't, given Zendesk's pace of hiring: It's doubled its staff in the past year.

"Half of the team has been with the company for less than a year," says Svane. "You need healthy processes, structures, communication, to be able to scale. It's about certainty, when you start with a company, there's an onboarding process."

Despite Svane's personal aversion to planes, he now embraces flying his employees around (to his CFO's chagrin). Every new employee comes to headquarters in San Francisco—and does a stint answering emails in Zendesk's own customer-service operation. Others go from office to office to work on projects, or relocate to a different office around the world.

McDermott and colleagues meet over sushi at headquarters.

Beyond an emphasis on simplicity in design and kindness in interactions with customers—traits Svane and his cofounders packed in their bags with them when they first moved from Denmark to America—there's little emphasis on doing things in a unified "Zendesk way." 

Instead, Svane and McDermott look for independent thinkers, especially when starting up new offices. They also look for cities that, like San Francisco, have an entrepreneurial culture. It's as far from the consulting world Svane once worked in as he can make it, while still running a fast-growing, multinational company with hundreds of employees effectively.

"One principle that I like is leaving enough room for interpretation," says Svane. The company's business processes are "not fully baked yet," he says, retaining "a certain element of ambiguity."

He points to Zendesk's decision to open up an office in Madison, Wisconsin, as an example of the company's go-with-the-flow decisionmaking. Zendesk had hired two support employees from Madison, with a plan to relocate them to San Francisco. Suddenly they needed to hire more people, and the Madison hires had friends who were ready to join. The next thing Svane knew, that team had turned into a 60-person office, and now serves as Zendesk's primary customer-support center.

No corporate planner would pick Madison: It's not a hub for a major airline and most flights involve changing planes. But once Svane suffers through the flight there, the quiet college town reminds him of Copenhagen. It's a pleasant place. Very Zendesk, in its own particular way.

San Francisco photos by Owen Thomas and Stephanie Ellen Chan for ReadWrite; others courtesy Zendesk

Date: Thu, 18 Dec 2014 06:00:00 -0800
Author: :: Category: Work

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