Interview: Alumni working on top games at social gaming giant Wooga
Europe’s leading mobile and social games company, Wooga, has recently become a notable recruiter of MDM grads. Six alumni currently work for the Berlin-based company: Al Sinoy (Product Manager), Milim Kim (Game Artist), Sagar Datta (Game Designer), Robin Pan (iOS Developer), David Janer (Game Artist) and Ryan Wong (Product Manager) - a trend that reflects Wooga’s strong interest in hiring top international talent.
When it launched in 2009, Wooga had the ambitious vision to become a successful developer of social network games with a global audience. It then set upon integrating employees with different cultural perspectives into every aspect of the development process. Wooga's team has since grown from a few to a few hundred, with over 250 employees from 35 countries; more than 50% of the employees are from outside Germany. This readiness to accommodate international newcomers has been a big incentive for MDM grads and others to work there.
Wooga has also expanded its game portfolio, which has over 50 million monthly active users. Last year it introduced mobile versions of popular games such as Diamond Dash and Bubble Island for iPhone and iPad. Following this shift to mobile, MDM alumnus Al Sinoy joined Wooga as Product Manager for the iOS version of Diamond Dash.
Originally from Vienna, Austria, Sinoy graduated from the MDM Program in 2011.
We recently caught up with him in Berlin via Skype.
As a Product Manager at Wooga, what exactly do you do?
As the Product Manager for Diamond Dash development on iOS, I’m in charge of managing the scope and scheduling of releases for [application] updates. Diamond Dash started out in Flash, and attracted a lot of users. [Wooga later] decided to port [its games] over to iPhones and iPads. When I came on in May 2012, my involvement was to ensure the updates were on par with the Flash version, and [get it] to a state where it’s practically the same experience on Flash, Facebook, and mobile devices.
I couldn’t have even imagined that I’d be put on [Diamond Dash] which I loved. I’d been playing it non-stop. Now I’m here actually managing the product to be updated for millions of users, so it’s kind of a dream [come true]. I’m very passionate to keep this product rolling, and the team I’m working with is really cool. I want to keep working on it as long as it’s fun.
Wooga has taken off in the last three plus years to produce some enormously popular social games like Diamond Dash. What are some of the successes you’ve been a part of since you started there?
One of the most exciting updates I was involved in was preparing Diamond Dash for the iPhone 5. There was a lot of work put into it so that Diamond Dash iOS was submitted to Apple and released in time for the launch of the iPhone5. We were very happy to see that app worked so well with the extended UI on the day that the device became available without even having tested it before while we worked on it.
Has your experience at MDM helped develop your skills as a Product Manager?
I would say exposure to team building and to how industry practices [use] agile management definitely set me up well for Wooga. [MDM provided] a good foundation for working with people more experienced [than myself] in the industry. It helped ramp up my experience in the development of a product. The working environment here is very similar to MDM in the way they communicate and in the way they deliver [on] deadlines.
I would urge current students to take risks while the environment is safe. If it’s creative risks, or development risks, those are the areas where you learn the most. Despite the fact that it might affect your grade, if you really believe in a product and a direction, use your time and energy [in the program] to make it happen. I’ve seen in other workplaces – not so much at Wooga – where you don’t have that much freedom to take as many risks, and you won’t learn as much. It’s better to learn from the hard-hitting lessons.
How would you describe the company culture at Wooga? Is it comparable to what you found with MDM student project teams?
Yeah, one similarity is that Wooga tries to keep the teams small – five to six people. So you know [the team] is close-knit and people get things done using an “agile” mindset. Keeping things small and having clear communications between [team members at Wooga] is very similar to the program. [By] “agile” [I mean] a management style that is flexible towards delivering results.
What was your original reason for going into the MDM program?
I came to MDM hoping that it was a pathway to work at DreamWorks or Pixar or EA – big names. Back then I had no idea what that entailed. I was thinking it was [going to be] very technical. But through the MDM, you learn the whole package of [what it takes to be] a leader in digital media: communication styles; ways to manage expectations; as well as [some] technical skills [picked up] along the way.
[During the program,] we got used to trying to adapt to the challenges and the changing technology and having the mindset that it’s OK to fail but it will get better in the end. It’s a healthy outlook in [this field] because the expectations are so high. Keep iterating – that’s what I tell interns and my team. Iterating and building on top of each other’s ideas is more healthy than trying to deliver something that takes too long and may not work.
You started at Wooga about one year after graduating from the MDM program. How did you find out about this opportunity?
[MDM alumna Milim Kim], who is my classmate, came [to Wooga] first as a Game Artist. She'd been at the company for ten months by then. She heard about the opportunity that I could fill, told me about it, and I went for it - and here I am! It’s a good environment [at Wooga]. It’s good to be here. I’m surrounded by very talented people – people who really care about the subject matter, which is very inspiring.
Along with you and Milim, four other MDM students have joined Wooga, which is pretty remarkable. Why do you think Wooga is the kind of place suitable for MDM grads or students?
For MDM grads, I think Wooga brings the working experience in digital media to another level. MDM creates a good foundation for it, but [Wooga transforms] all of the experience and lessons learned into real hard industry practices, where people actually download and invest their time and money in the product. MDM offers a very safe environment to learn firsthand from the wins and the downfalls. At Wooga, you’re involved in products that are out in the market with millions of users.
[The MDM] is a great transition for getting used to working in the digital environment where everything [is changing] so quickly. [MDM’s] agile management system or method is sought after in almost every kind of entrepreneurial business. If you want experience in building something that people would not have thought of before, [the MDM program] is a good place for that. And you’re surrounded by very talented mentors and students, and industry representatives [that will] give you the right direction.
Would you consider returning to Vancouver to live and work?
I miss [Vancouver] a lot. It feels like I left part of my heart there because I had such a great experience with the people and the [MDM] program. Down the road, I do see myself coming back.