People, culture and recruiting at Zynga

November 1, 2010

Colleen McCreary, Chief People Officer at Zynga talked recently at BizTechDay about Zynga’s culture, values, and approach to recruiting. Here’s my summary of what she said.

What is Zynga?

Zynga is one of silicon valley’s hottest companies, and is responsible for the hit games you will have seen on Facebook such as Farmville and Mafia Wars which are played by an incredible 60M people every day. Recognising the massive commercial opportunity it has been able to raise over $500M in venture funding to date. Zynga is just over 3 years old, and in the last 18 months alone has grown from just 100 employees, to over 1800, operating 6 locations in the US as well as India, China, Japan and soon, Germany.

Colleen McCreary is in charge of all things HR and started with the company in Summer 2009. One of the first things she set about doing was to clarify the mission, values and objectives of the company. She explains that having a mission helps potential and current employees understand and talk about Zynga.

Zynga’s mission: “Connecting the world through games”

Colleen’s first meeting with CEO, Mark Pincus, turned out to be a 3 hour therapy session about HR, instead of the brief encounter she was expecting. “I’d heard that Mark hated HR due to past experiences in corporate life with lots of rules and restrictions”.

Instead of these Zynga has its core values. “Be your own CEO” is one of the most famous and talked about quirks of Zynga’s management style and Pincus is well known for challenging employees on the spot to identify what they are “CEO” of. In a company moving as quickly as Zynga they really need people who just get on with stuff, take ownership and make things happen. As McCreary says, “We’re looking for do-ers, not people looking for job titles,” and “It’s like you’re running your own small business within Zynga”.

The full list of Zynga values:

  • Build games you and your friends love to play
  • Zynga innovates on best of breed mechanics
  • Be CEO: Own outcomes
  • Move at Zynga speed
  • Zynga first: Decisions for the greater good
  • Meritocracy: it’s up to you

(Recruiters look at each candidate and identify which of these 2 is that person strongest in, and which one may give the most cause for concern).

Here are some in depth notes on the Zynga recruiting process:

Recruiting process

Initially instead of using commission based recruiters Zynga used in-house contractors. These were experienced recruiters, who were instead paid a monthly rate for their services. Now they have 100% internal recruiting. (This is a common thread of all companies who place people at the certain of their business, they rarely outsource recruitment.)

Finding people

One of the best places to start is referrals from existing employees, but just because your employee is smart and hard-working do not assume their friends are, so you still need to go through the screening. Similarly, don’t get star-struck by someone’s CV, and assume that just because they worked at Google (or some other top tier company) that they’re great at their job.

Mining personal networks through LinkedIn and even Facebook is essential. Reaching out to experts in a field is another great way to find people you might never have come across. Hiring straight from University is good, but then you are hiring purely on the person’s talent, rather than experience.

Go to where the talent is

Because Zynga is growing so quickly, they are very flexible in terms of location of employees. Teams are very distributed, but this forces people to work differently together and Skype video call has become the default communications medium. That means interviewing often happens by Skype video call too. Although this is fine for many positions, “if it’s a customer facing role then you really want to meet them in person” says McCreary.


To save time the initial screening is done by the recruitment team, this is to keep to the absolute minimum the time spent away from the business function by the person hiring.  Zynga helps this along by including some initial hurdles which are sent out in response to receiving a CV. For example, asking 4 or 5 follow-up questions by email. e.g. “Spend time playing one of our games on Facebook and write about what you think of it.” This weeds out perhaps 70% of people.

Once Zynga’s profile became huge then they had a massive increase in applications, and this has been a challenge for McCreary and her team, “we wanted to make sure people were coming to us for the right reasons.”


After initial screening, you really need to delve deep; What did you really do? – What were you motivations? – Who do you go to when you have questions?

The Iceberg

You only see a small portion of what someone is really like during the interview process, and the stuff you can easily see, like technical ability is not the stuff that really matters long-term. “The problems always come from the stuff under the water”. All the time you should be trying to get “Behind The Resume” and to what that person is really like.

“We only want to hire leaders that are humble”

Zynga wants people with the right balance of talent and ego. If these are out of sync with each other this spells trouble. Behaviour is really important, and like Zappos they use all data-points they can, so if a person is rude to the PA arranging the interview appointment that’s going to strongly influence the decision.

On boarding

Zynga are rigorous about helping new employees fit in, but sadly this point wasn’t elaborated on further.

Spend 20% of time on your people

John Doerr, legendary venture capitalist and investor in Zynga advises businesses to dedicate 20% of your time on people. McCreary explains this includes growing and nurturing them.

Closing the loop

When Zynga is growing so fast it’s hard to maintain quality so when someone leaves they want to understand why. They’ll also look back at the original interview notes, and give feedback to the original recruiter. The recruiting team also are reviewed every 6 months on the people they hired, and how well they are doing in the business.

More info?

Read the Teamly blog to find out Zynga uses priority setting to manage their people. The Zynga website also has more about life at Zynga.

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For more blogs about managing a high-growth business I really recommend the blog of Cameron Herold, business coach, and former COO of Canada’s 1-800-GOT-JUNK?