A conversation with Philip Rosedale, Founder and CEO of Linden Lab
- San Francisco
- Shared 3D entertainment
- # of employees
- # of JIRA users
- # of JIRA issues
- Key customisations
- Linden "Love Machine," JIRA issue ticker
Linden Lab is the inventor of an extraordinary new form of shared 3D entertainment. Through "Second Life," the company offers a truly collaborative, immersive, and open-ended entertainment experience, where together people create and inhabit a virtual world of their own design. Second Life mirrors Philip Rosedale's philosophy when it comes to doing business: invent, collaborate, and most importantly, have fun while you're doing it.
Tell us all about Second Life. What inspired you to start a company to create it?
Second Life is the answer to the question of whether we could digitally simulate the real world – enough of it so that people would really be interested in "living" there. It's a very technical project that was motivated by my desire as a kid to make things out of electronics and wood and anything else I could find. I also studied physics, and I was struck by how I could "invent" things in my head that I couldn't easily create in the real world. So, when distributed computing and the Internet came around, what seemed to be the coolest possible thing to do was to create a big distributed simulation that would look like the real world and be "manipulable" like the real world and that people could collaboratively edit. That's what Second Life is today; this great-big simulated world about the size of Boston that is entirely built by the people who are in it.
What is it about the nature of your business that makes JIRA such an important tool for the company?
We are fundamentally believers in distributed decision-making and distributed design. We think that the companies of the future, and the way people will work in the future, will look a lot like Second Life. That is to say, people are going to work in a much more ad-hoc way on a lot of smaller projects. They're going to work on things they love. They're going to be motivated by their passions, with the idea being that there are a lot of people with a lot of passions and when you get them together working synergistically they're going to cover all the bases.
So our business is based on this very organic, new way of looking at how to do work and JIRA is a great tool for electronically capturing data and reducing the transaction cost of doing work in a very different, highly distributed way. It fits extremely well for the way we do business – how we make decisions, and how we make progress. And, it also mirrors the way people tend to do things in Second Life.
Did Linden Lab originally adopt JIRA for issue tracking, and then make the leap to becoming a tool to manage people and their tasks?
No, we were looking at doing things like internal voting and very granular task tracking. Those have been pieces of our culture since our company started six years ago. Somebody here suggested we use JIRA because he felt that the feature set ideally matched our needs. Now, on your first day of work at Linden Lab you're given your login, your JIRA login, and your first task, which is to log into JIRA.
Now, on your first day of work at Linden Lab you're given your login, your JIRA login, and your first task, which is to log into JIRA.
— Philip Rosedale, Founder and CEO
How does each department use it?
We use JIRA for all task-in-progress tracking in the company – everything from ordering food in the kitchen to releasing a new feature to fixing a bug. There's only one project: Linden Lab. We don't want any kind of walls between specializations, so we're very cautious about multiple projects because we don't want people's work to overlap. That seems to be one of the very dangerous things businesses do.
In development, we use it to debate feature design a priori and collect internal support votes on specific feature ideas. Then we use it to create subtasks, to track designs, implementation processes, and workflow and then we use it for bug tracking and fixing. We don't yet have JIRA exposed correctly to our end-users so they can put bugs into it but we hope to do that soon. We want this sort of open source environment where all Second Life end users can be qualifying, linking, and processing bugs.
Marketing uses it to track all the various media projects that we're working on and to solicit support for them. We use it a lot for threaded discussions. I personally use it for all my work. If I give a keynote somewhere, there will be a JIRA task that says 'give a keynote at SDForum' and then I'll close it when I've done it.
How would you say your employees feel about using JIRA?
We present a very different way of working, which is choose your own work, make weekly progress, and be very transparent. We use JIRA to provide that transparency, and people find it intimidating in the beginning. The idea of having to tell everyone in the company exactly what you're doing (and what you couldn't get done) is pretty off-putting for most people at first. But I can say without exception that in the six years we've been around, everyone grows to love the model once they've worked this way for a while. Because they realize that they're free – they can do anything they want. They just have to show everybody else that they're continuously adding value. It's on a granular, weekly-milestones level – not at a big, annual level – so it keeps things continuously moving forward.
You customized JIRA with the Linden "Love Machine." Tell us about that.
We think the Love Machine is one of the most interesting cultural things that we've done, and I know that many other companies are going to adopt it. I eagerly tell people about it whenever I can. The Love Machine is built around the idea of generating a token of appreciation for any other person in the company. It is a horizontal, decentralized way for employees to give each other mini peer reviews, which in turn they can use when they go to do their own quarterly performance reviews. So, anyone in Linden Lab can send a little 80-character piece of email that says, for example, "Thanks for a great job this week," which makes both the receiver and the sender feel good. If the right people are thanking you for your help, you know you're doing the right things.
It's a fun system to use, and it gives us a way of rewarding and encouraging collaborative behavior, which is important as you move toward a decentralized, distributed model where there's a risk that people will become really competitive with each other. Linden Love is something that counters that tendency by providing a positive motive for everything. It's an important part of the way we work. We also pay a small bonus for each piece of Love, so everyone gets a little envelope every quarter. It's not enough to really modify behavior, but it's enough to buy your friends a round of drinks!
We've seen tickers running the latest stock market news, but this is a first: you have a ticker on the walls of your offices showing updates in JIRA. What's that about?
Yes, we have a ticker that is driven by an RSS feed that shows changes to JIRA issues in real time. So as people enter things in the system that they have accomplished or things they want to get votes on or get done, you'll literally see them ticking across the screen. Everybody finds it very interesting and exciting. You know how they say 'news is entertainment' because otherwise nobody would watch it. There's no compelling reason to watch it if it doesn't entertain you in some way. I think companies need to think about that internally. If you have a fun way of getting information about things that are happening in the company that you wouldn't otherwise know about, people will communicate more.
So now that you've been using JIRA for over a year, what would you say the company has learned or gained from it?
I think we've confirmed our suspicion that allowing people to vote internally on issues is a good way of establishing the validity and priority of how things should be done. JIRA has helped us prove that this kind of democracy actually works in an operating environment with thousands and thousands of tasks under consideration and tens of thousands of votes.
It's also allowed us to work at a very granular level even as we've grown. When we first started the company, we had this notion of As & Os (achievements and objectives) that you did on a weekly basis in email. That's very easy when you've got 20 people, but when you have 80, it becomes an exponential explosion and it's very hard to keep up with that many emails. JIRA has helped us, although we're not all the way there yet, in transitioning our granular weekly task tracking to scale to a larger company.
...our productivity and our information exchange on a per-person basis is actually increasing as we get larger, which is kind of the holy grail of business productivity.— Philip Rosedale, Founder and CEO
You have 80 employees, 1 project, how many issues?
We've created 17,000 issues and closed 12,500 of them, so about 60 percent. I have a graph that measures how the JIRA updates per person per week have tracked over time – essentially a per-capita analysis of use. What's really cool is that over the last 6 months or so it's been going up. That shows that our productivity and our information exchange on a per-person basis is actually increasing as we get larger, which is kind of the holy grail of business productivity. You want a situation where it becomes more fun to work at a company the bigger it gets. I don't know of any companies that have actually achieved this, and I think maybe we'll be the first. It's a really interesting aspect of JIRA and an indication that we're going in the right direction.
Finally, we have to ask: Do people play Second Life at work?
A bit, but we really should be eating more of our own dog food. We believe people should have the same priorities around having a good time at work as they do in their free time. We should all be inside Second Life all the time on a secondary computer so that we can collaborate and talk to each other in different offices. I think we're going to start doing that. We're very collaborative. It's interesting; businesses that have a lot of people who work at home are often followers rather than leaders. People who work together are innovators. We're a leader because we're trying to innovate and design the features of this new way of working.