Category Archives: Project Management

Working With China: Partners

Not only is it a good idea to have a local partner when doing business in China, in many cases, it’s necessary.  Legally, foreign entities cannot own companies in China, so depending on the scale of business that you’re looking to do, you’re going to need someone on the ground to help you do it.

Things to look for in a partner:

  • Language skills.  A surprising number of Chinese students opt to learn English, but unless you are a fluent speaker of Mandarin or one of the local dialects, your partner needs to be your interface with the feet on the ground.  This means not only knowing English (or whatever your primary language of business is) fluently, but also being a strong and effective communicator in the local language.  This can be difficult to test for, but if you’re going to be doing important work with folks in China, you’re going to want to have one or more fluent Mandarin speakers on your end, so they can help assess your potential partner’s skills.
  • Willingness to work odd hours.  There are very few natural crossover points in the workday between China and the US (more in Europe), so either you or your partner needs to be willing and able to work around the time difference, preferably both.  With Skype and other voice/video chat tools, it’s easy to connect with people halfway around the world, but much better if they’re willing to interrupt dinner and deal with a crisis, or jump on at 3AM local time when the server goes down.
  • Willingness to travel.  One of the most important things about any relationship is spending time together.  In order to do this effectively with partners in China, your senior people (including you, most likely) will need to spend a lot of time in China – not a day or two, but weeks and months.  It also helps to have your Chinese partners come and live with you for a while, particularly at the start of a project, so that they are part of the process of defining needs, standards, etc.  In general, most of the people I worked with in China loved this and saw it as a great opportunity, but make sure you get on this early as visas to/from China still involve a fair amount of red tape.
  • Empathy.  This may seem like a strange one, but what you need out of your partner in China is the ability to understand and effectively represent your needs.  Empathy is a key skill and not one that is commonly foregrounded in business.  A partner who empathizes with you will be a much more effective advocate for you in the long run.
  • Experience working with foreigners.  This isn’t strictly necessary, but it’s definitely a benefit.  There are a lot of cultural differences between Chinese and American culture, from obvious things like the importance of hierarchy to subtle things like how critiques are communicated.  This is going to put a strain on both sides, but if your partner has been able to make this work before, the chances are better that they’re going to be able to make it work with you.  By the way, don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re going to be immune to cultural differences.  You will make mistakes.  Lots of them.  Without knowing it.
  • Willingness to speak truth to power.  Again, this is a tough one to test for, but there are going to be things that you need to be told that are going to be uncomfortable to tell you.  Whether it’s personnel issues or scheduling changes, conflicts with national holidays or bureaucratic requirements, cost overruns or missed deliverables, something’s going to go wrong, and when it starts to go wrong is when you want to hear about it, not when it’s too late to do anything about it.  In Chinese culture, especially, it is traditionally looked upon as disrespectful and rude to disrupt those above you on the totem pole; younger Chinese can be more flexible about this, but you need to look for this trait and then positively reinforce it whenever possible.

This is hardly an exclusive list.  Working with China is a long and complex topic, certainly too much to cover in any one blog post, but hopefully this will help you get started.

Hybridizing Agile & Traditional Scheduling

Converts to agile tend to disparage traditional (“waterfall”) scheduling as an outmoded way of doing business, anti-productive process, and in all other ways evil.  However, the reality is that very few organizations can (or should) function on a purely agile basis.  I’ve personally done over a dozen due diligence evaluations of studios, worked with a dozen more, and with all of the teams that I have personally seen use agile, all of them have used a hybrid of agile and traditional scheduling, consciously or not.  Part of this certainly comes from the milestone-based contracts that external developers have to work with when dealing with traditional publishers; even internal teams often fall into the same structure due to organizational inertia.  But, in my opinion, the larger part of this is experienced production managers understand that agile and traditional scheduling are both toolsets; while each has their strengths, they also each have their weaknesses, and by leveraging the strengths of one against the weaknesses of the other, a stronger process can be built.

On a very basic level, traditional scheduling can be very valuable for those aspects of games that cross over from production into other functions: QA, marketing, and operations.  While everyone can recognize that the incessant re-writing of detailed schedules is an endless, Sisyphean task and usually wasteful of time and energy, a rough map of deliverables (call them milestones, or a release plan, or target dates for key features) is essential for the non-development areas of an organization.  QA, for example, needs to know, preferably ahead of time, what features are in the pipeline, what their scope/effect is intended to be, and when they are going to be testable.  You can lose as much time and energy writing and re-writing test plans based on daily stand-ups as you do managing a typical Gantt chart.  Similarly, marketing people need lead time to prepare materials, line up PR, and in the case of retail (still a significant source of revenue, even if it is not the hot medium right now) preparing channel strategies and distribution.  If you’re only marketing what you have after it’s live, you’re not getting the most you can out of your work.  And again, operations needs to know what’s changing, when, and how to prepare not only the underlying infrastructure but also all the player-facing resources: customer service, technical support, and community management.

At a slightly less intuitive level, traditional scheduling can play an important role in the administration of a studio and its teams.  Hiring a new team member takes a minimum of two months in all but the most exceptional of cases.  The staffing (or resource) plan needs to be forward-looking, identifying key needs well ahead of this two month window.  Even if you’re working in a large studio, where resources are easily transferred from one project to another, someone is still going to need to be able to justify the resources, plan for their transfer, and handle all of the associated details (workspace, equipment, etc.).  And as much as we would like to believe that every game developer is so insanely smart and talented that they can do their work effectively in any context, it’s going to take time to ramp up a new team member on project specifics, especially all of the places where their work is going to interface with existing work and other team members.  Again, this is time you will be well-served to anticipate, and that’s going to be a lot easier if you have a framework schedule that you’re working to.

At an even more abstract level, it is important to have significant review points.  While the speed of development and deployment these days means that a lot of people are looking at daily data, it can be easy to lose the forest for the trees.  Yes, if your retention/monetization numbers are going up every day, the trend line is obviously going to be upwards, but few projects generate that kind of dynamic.  Whether you’re reviewing performance internally, preparing for a quarterly corporate review, or presenting to your investors, it’s important to set larger-scale goals, then measure progress concretely against those goals.

If there’s a theme here, it’s that traditional scheduling offers valuable ways of doing forward-looking planning on larger, macro time scales.  Agile is great at keeping things humming on the day-to-day and week-to-week levels, but it has very few functions that apply to quarterly or yearly performance.  Those frames are ignored at your own risk.  While the in-the-trenches developer or scrum master doesn’t need to concern themselves with these larger problems, someone in the organization needs to be keeping an eye on the horizon and measuring velocity on a scale larger than an 8-12 person team.  The advantages of using agile methodologies (not just Scrum, but also things like Kanban and Lean) to manage the micro level of execution and implementation are fairly well-established, but a seasoned producer knows how to balance those processes against longer-term goals, and traditional methodologies can be an effective way to meet that need.