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All Dogs Go to Startups

Ellen Lee | August 6, 2013 | Story Tech World

At the Mars Bar in SoMa, the drinks were flowing earlier than usual. With Pinterest offices across the street, Adobe around the corner, and several dozen startups within a one-block radius, the decked-out watering hole always draws an excitable high-tech crowd. But on this afternoon in early June, the patrons had come to the bar not to celebrate but to commiserate. Earlier that day, Zynga had announced the layoff of 520 people, a number of them from its San Francisco headquarters. The social gaming company had also shut down its offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas in what CEO Mark Pincus called a “proactive commitment” to reinvigorate the struggling business. (A few weeks later, Pincus himself would step down.)

As it turned out, though, there was a distinctly silver lining for those who were let go. One company’s castoff is another’s treasure, particularly in San Francisco circa 2013, where competition for talent—especially for those with experience in mobile—has become a blood sport. Into this human resources battleground, Zynga’s job cuts released an atypical flood of high-caliber engineers, designers, and other personnel.

For companies on the hunt, it became, in the words of Siqi Chen, a former Zynga general manager, a “feeding frenzy.” And first at the trough was Trent Krupp. On a tip from friends at Zynga, Krupp made his way to the Mars Bar, found a seat at the counter, and opened a tab, offering to buy up to two drinks for anyone from Zynga, no company ID necessary (he wasn’t being picky). As the freshly unemployed Zyngaites nursed their free beers, Krupp encouraged them to consider Developer Auction, a new service that connects programmers with tech employers. Most developers, even junior ones, receive four to five job offers via the service, Krupp claimed, and exceptional ones have been sought by as many as 15 companies. “Zynga was on top of the world as early as a year ago,” he says. “A lot of our clients have talked to us about who we’ve got from Zynga.”

No sooner did Zynga’s news break online than rival recruiters began leaving comments on the Wall Street Journal’s All Things D, TechCrunch, and other tech news sites, inviting former Zyngaites to contact them about jobs. On Twitter, mobile gaming startup Scopely offered a chance to “win a free trip to one of the Seven Wonders of the World” to anyone who helped a Zynga developer find a job with Scopely. Brian Wong, CEO of Kiip, a mobile advertising startup in SoMa, was more pragmatic but no less determined. “Zynga refugees,” he tweeted with a link to Kiip’s jobs page, “we welcome you with open arms.”

The mad rush for Zynga’s exiles is but the latest example of how the booming tech industry has been going all out to recruit and retain talent. Prospective candidates are showered with gift baskets and provided car service to their job interview. Some companies offer unlimited vacation time, and others have gone even further, covering the vacationer’s flight, hotel, and other travel expenses. Ironically, some say that Zynga’s efforts to out-perk the competition were part of its undoing: Its eye- catching, seven-story headquarters on Eighth Street offers onsite massages, full-size basket-ball courts, poker nights, Friday happy hours, and three gourmet meals a day.

At one point, Zynga employed more than 3,000 people in more than 20 offices around the globe, many hired in the run-up to its $1 billion IPO in December 2011 or when it gobbled up smaller competitors, including the makers of Draw Something and Words with Friends. These days, though, enough workers have left Zynga (it now employs fewer than 2,400 people) to create a large and powerful alumni network. One laid-off engineer reportedly made a phone call and was instantly scooped up by a gaming startup founded by a team of fellow former Zynga developers. An alumni happy hour, dubbed “Drinks with Friends,” was held at San Francisco’s Asiento. Another, in New York City at venture capital firm Spark Capital, drew about 100 Zynga alumni, along with several startups looking to hire them. A Google spreadsheet that listed tech firms with job openings and, in many cases, their Zynga connections was circulated among Zynga expats. Within a few weeks, it had ballooned to more than 300 companies, including Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, and some just listed as “stealth startup.”

With all of this interest, where are the Zynga layoffs actually landing? Kathleen Auterio, a former senior community manager at Zynga for games such as Cafe World, hasn’t decided yet. After learning that she had been dismissed, Auterio packed her box of stuffed animals and Zynga trophies, went straight home, and unplugged. The next morning, she awoke to a flood of voicemail, LinkedIn, Facebook, and email messages, and within the first week she had interviewed at three companies. “I didn’t even have time to redo my résumé,” she says. “There are so many dream jobs out there, and so many I’m talking to, I might come to a point where it’s hard to make a decision.”

Still, at least one former Zynga engineer has been turning down inquiries. Buoyed by a generous severance package, he is planning to take some time off to travel. “I don’t know when I will have that chance again,” he says. The tech jobs, he assumes, will still be here when he returns. He might even start a new company— perhaps one to rival his old employer.

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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