June 19, 2023

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Helen Chiang of Mojang Studios (Makers of Minecraft)

Helen Chiang

Helen Chiang

In this episode, Kenning Partner Daryl Ogden speaks with Helen Chiang, head of Mojang Studios. Daryl and Helen’s relationship goes back many years, to the integration of Mojang, the Swedish creator of Minecraft, into the world of Microsoft’s Xbox. Despite the difficult reality of most acquisitions, they talk about how Helen and her team ensured continued growth and player satisfaction.  

Helen’s long career in gaming, she explains, wasn’t her original plan in college or business school. But once exposed to the business side of gaming, she was drawn into the creative process. Discussing mentorship and sponsorship, Helen describes her own trials with imposter syndrome, and explains how she works with contributors throughout Microsoft to give their career in gaming a boost.

Daryl and Helen also focus on what it means to be a people-first leader, highlighting lessons learned in how to support creative, innovative talent. In a world where remote and hybrid work is becoming the norm, Helen’s experience with working across continents has great salience. She speaks of how diversity of insight is key to Mojang’s success, and how she and her team experimented with working arrangements until they got it right.

Note:  This podcast was recorded before Mojang released Legends.



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Daryl: Hi, this is Daryl Ogden.

I’m speaking today with Helen Chang, who since 2018, has headed up the Minecraft franchise as the leader of the Mojang Studio. Helen and I have worked together since 2015 when she was part of the original Xbox team that helped incorporate Mojang into the Xbox game studio universe. Helen assumed the franchise leadership in January of 2018 and I’ve worked closely with her ever since.

Helen and I had the opportunity to speak live together in the Mojang Studios in Redmond, Washington. We covered a wide range of subjects, but one of the things that really animated our conversation was Helen’s leadership in growing Mojang into a truly global gaming franchise.

She has, with her team, navigated the challenges of incorporating a globally beloved game franchise into the Xbox game studio universe, and has done so while preserving the indie nature origin identity of Minecraft.

One of the things that I’ve been most impressed by in Helen’s leadership is the fact that she is a people first leader who cares deeply about every element of the Mojang studio and every person and individual within the Mojang studio.

What we’ve seen through Helen’s leadership is that people first, culture first orientation has translated into the unbelievable growth of the Minecraft franchise into one of the most successful and beloved gaming franchises in the world.

While most of our audience won’t necessarily lead a major integration of a Swedish gaming studio into an American tech company like Microsoft, there are so many lessons here that Helen has to share that will be valuable, I think, to every leader out there about how to cultivate healthy cultures and how to lead with a people first orientation.

And now here’s my conversation with Helen Chang. Head of Mojang Studios.

Daryl: Hi, Helen. How are you doing today?

Helen: Good, how are you?

Daryl: It’s great to be with you and great to be with you in person. We find ourselves in the beautiful Mojang Studios in Redmond, Washington. A lot of the time when we speak, we’re speaking from 3000 miles away. 

Helen: Thanks for inviting me. 

Daryl: Thank you for having us today at the studio. I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation, since we kicked off our podcast series a year ago or so, and you were on that list right from the beginning– have to get Helen into a podcast. And so we’ve known each other since the fall of 2015, and I’ll never forget when we met. I was doing a project for Matt Booty who was running the Mojang studio at the time and running the Minecraft franchise at the time.

And I met you in an interview process to help Matt in his role. And you arrived with a newborn baby. And we had a conversation very much like this one, but there was a baby carrier on the table. And so that was our first introduction, but we’ve traveled a long way since then, since 2015.

When Matt went on to become the head of Xbox Game Studios you took over the studio as Studio Head and we’ve been working closely together ever since. I’m really excited to have this opportunity to have the conversation. and I’m gonna learn some things today, I think, because I’m gonna ask you some things that I don’t think I’ve ever asked you before.

Helen: Awesome.

Daryl: You took over as studio head at Mojang in, I think in January of 2018 so you’re just past your five year anniversary. What’s your experience been like since then?

Helen: A lot has happened in those five years. When I think back to when I first took this role, and you were there for a lot of this, so I’m sure you saw this firsthand, I was feeling pretty intimidated and terrified. I think it was a great opportunity, but at the same time, I felt this overwhelming sense of responsibility not to let our community down, not to let the team down, and there were a lot of articles written in the press at the time that were focused on me being a female leader or a leader of color, which we don’t have a lot of in our industry. And I think that really played into my own feelings of imposter syndrome. You know, I didn’t wanna let a community of women down and I went through a lot of feelings of not feeling qualified enough or ready to do this. 

And I pivot that to how I would describe my experience today leading the studio and the main word that comes to mind is proud. You know, most people think that means I’m proud of how our business has grown the past five years, and yes, I’m obviously proud of that. But what I’m most proud of is how our studio and how our team’s leadership has grown and evolved these past five years under the landscape of some pretty tough stuff. You know, a pandemic. We finished a game, while we were pivoting to remote work, so, Minecraft Dungeons. There’s been a war in Europe. All of the societal unrest in the United States and now the financial pressures in the tech industry.

And so despite all of that, our studio has kind of risen to meet any challenge in front of us all while banding together to support each other. 

Daryl: Yeah I think it has been a remarkable transformation since 2018 just in terms of how much the studio has evolved, both in Redmond and Stockholm, and the resilience and the determination that you and the team have demonstrated through all of those challenges that you’re describing. It’s pretty remarkable, and it’s been inspiring for me, as somebody who’s close enough to this studio to know the challenges that you faced.

So, I’m curious, what have been your main learnings as a leader since 2018? how have you grown as a leader specifically beyond what you’ve already described? .

Helen: When I think about what we’ve gone through the last five years, I think most of what I’ve been working on is empathy. I think with all of the things we just talked about, having to put yourself into the shoes of our team as we were pivoting to remote work or even pivoting back into hybrid work or through some of the things that our teams have been experiencing in the world we’ve really leaned on how do we support our team through no matter what’s happening, and enabling them to come to work and be their best self, but also recognizing that there’s just been a lot happening in people’s lives outside of work. And a lot of that carries into how you bring yourself to work. And so that’s what I’ve really been trying to focus my time on, is how do I support my leaders? How do I support our team? Through some of these things that there’s no guidebook on how to lead through. We’ve been figuring it out as we go.

Daryl:  We rely so much on storytelling, I think, and coaching work and in organization development work, is there anything that stands out for you as a story that would illustrate what you’re talking about there?

Helen: I remember, kind of in the early days of the pandemic, everybody was at home, as schools were getting canceled and all of our kids were staying at home.

I had a kindergartner at the time and I just remember, in the very beginning there was this feeling that business should be kind of as usual as we were all adapting to this lifestyle that was very much not normal. I just remember, working from home from my bedroom on my computer with my daughter sitting next to me doing kindergarten on her Teams. 

I had a one-on-one with my manager, Matt Booty, and my daughter was learning how to read. And so she’s sitting at her computer right next to me and she’s reading my screen, she’s sounding it out, and she goes “Booty, Booty”. Like, bud, you know, I’m on my call with my manager this time, and I think that just brings back these memories of, when you have your children at home, when you’re trying to work, there’s all sorts of things that are unexpected that happen. And that’s a moment that we can all look back on and laugh at now. Maybe not so much then.

Daryl:  Yes, exactly. Knowing Matt as we do, Matt would have been very accommodating of that experience.

Helen: I think what he said was, you know, “Do you need a moment?Are you good ?” He was very kind.

Daryl: So I think that, when I started working with the studio leadership back in 2015 when I met you, that was shortly after, one of the most famous game acquisition deals that had ever been done in the history of gaming when Xbox purchased Mojang.

And I think that the world of high tech and probably even gaming is littered with acquisitions that fail–that just don’t work out for whatever reason, because there’s a lack of a cultural fit or there’s some kind of strategic misalignment. Many times after acquisitions, key leaders of the acquired company leave and they go off to do other things cuz they don’t want to be part of this larger entity.

But you and your team have stewarded an incredibly successful acquisition. And so I’m just curious, what are the key reasons that happened? What are the key factors of success that led to where you are today? 

Helen: I think you hit it on the nail that, I think most people don’t recognize that the majority of mergers and acquisitions fail for a lot of the reasons that you mentioned, and I think anybody looking from the outside in may think that our acquisition and integration journey has been easy, and smooth and all roses. it definitely hasn’t been you know, there’s been so many bumps along the way. 

When we first acquired Mojang, there were headlines in the press about how Microsoft was going to ruin Minecraft. And so our team here felt this deep responsibility to the players, to the community, not to ruin this special thing that Mojang had built. And I think the reason that we’ve been able to work through those challenges and bumps together is we spent a lot of time upfront focused on people, focused on culture first, and specifically learning about the aspects of the studio that made it so unique and special and what had led to all of their success. 

And so a lot of teams would have just dove straight into discussing product strategy or business strategy, or started planning for the future. And we did the opposite. the culture of a small indie studio and the culture of a large corporation like Microsoft, they’re so different.

And for the first year after the acquisition, we didn’t really focus on goals or our product roadmaps. We focused on getting to know each other. And building the foundation for a long-term working relationship. It was really important for those of us on the Microsoft side to recognize that, for the folks that were in the small indie studio, this was a somewhat traumatic event for them.

And they needed some time to adjust to their new normal. And I think we also had to prove that we did have the best intentions for Minecraft in mind. And so all of that takes time. This is not to say that we did everything perfectly, we were learning as we went, and there wasn’t already a proven model for what we were trying to do together.

Daryl: What you described sounds so familiar to me because I was part of many of the joint convenings between Redmond and Stockholm and many of the development sessions and so on, the planning ideation sessions. You’re absolutely right. They were so focused on culture and people and getting to know one another and building trust in the relationships.

I wonder if there is a particular meeting or interaction or experience that you had that stands out as either a turning point or a crystallizing moment that really captures that experience for you?

Helen: I remember the first time that the Stockholm team came over to Redmond and they worked with our team.

But then we also met with a lot of Microsoft teams. And I remember there was this one moment where we were talking about goals and finances and there was a team that kind of made a suggestion that we needed to have a backup plan for our finance team just in case something had happened there that went a little off kilter.

And I remember, several of us stood up and said, no, we trust these individuals, we don’t need a backup plan. And I think that was a big moment for the Stockholm team to look at us and say, wait, they’re on our side. They’re here to help us. So I remember that moment very distinctly. 

As you mentioned, we did a lot of traveling back and forth to build this foundation, and these relationships and every single time that we would go over and do an all team meeting, so we call those all hands, the all team meeting over in Stockholm, inevitably there would always be somebody who would ask the question, “are you here to shut down our studio?” You know, so you go through the first year, you go over a couple times, they ask the question, you go over in year two, year three, they’re still asking this question. And I think it wasn’t until year five or six when we went over one time we had this all team meeting with the studio over in Stockholm and we left without somebody asking that question.

I think that was a very pivotal moment and this talks about the time that it takes to build trust and relationships. As we felt like we had finally proven that we’re not here to do all the evil things that had been written about in the press. I just remember, the Microsoft team looking at each other and saying, wow, that is a big win and it’s taken a long time. We were persistent, but we got there.

Daryl: In this case, this was something that didn’t happen, that stands out. What a wonderful observation of this absence that actually meant everything in a sense about the team coming together. I love that.

I know that you have also experienced some real challenges inevitably over the last five years, as you’ve headed the studio. I wonder if you would be willing to share one or two that stood out and then also how you and the team work through them.

Helen: One of the biggest challenges we face is collaborating across a globally distributed team. So I find it interesting that one of the aspects that makes us the strongest–so being a multinational team, I think is one of our biggest strengths–is also one of our biggest challenges. There’s not that many overlapping work hours between Stockholm and the West Coast.

So that just makes collaborating across our teams really challenging. And every year we try to make some tweaks and evolve how and where our work gets done over time to reduce the amount of dependencies across our team and make it easier for everybody to do their best work. But even though we’ve made progress, I’d still say there’s still so much more room for us to continue to improve there.

We tried a co-development model at one point between our teams where we had a gameplay team in Stockholm and one in Redmond. And what we found over a two year period is it really just wasn’t sustainable. Um, the Stockholm team was working too many late nights. The Redmond team was working really early morning shifts, and everybody just ended up working around the clock and nobody was happy.

So, when I took the role to lead the studio, one of the things I did was I undid the co-development model and created specific areas of focus for each of the studio locations. And so today all of our gameplay work is done in Stockholm, where it all began and where our games creative leadership lives and our Redmond team is focused on our creator marketplace, our education vertical, and our entertainment and licensing businesses. And what we’ve done to bring everybody together is we’ve invested a lot in things like a common purpose, vision and values, so that we feel like one team and everything that we do, but, trying to think holistically about what benefits the whole of our team first and then localizing where it makes sense.

Daryl: You make it sound so linear and coherent and easy, but it was such hard work to arrive at that and there was a lot of experimentation. I wonder if you could talk to some of the experiments that got conducted along the way there.

Helen: We definitely experimented with having gameplay work done in each of the two locations. I think, you know, a two year effort is a really good experiment. It’s not easy to unwind things like that because these are people’s roles and where work gets done but ultimately trying to think about how is the work done most sustainably for the long term. Cuz that’s how we can have the most impact for our community. That’s how we can bring the most, great experiences out to players. That is one experiment that, I will say we both learned from, probably failed in some aspects, but then has helped us inform how we want to work long term.

Daryl: And since you have moved to this, more specific roles for the different parts of the franchise for Redmond and Stockholm. As you’ve done that, have you noticed a positive impact from that, both culturally and also in terms of your product development or your game development work?

Helen: I think with our gameplay work, we have seen that the team is able to iterate and to make progress faster, but they’ve also been able to minimize the amount of cross ocean kind of work that has to happen, which is what leads to these long hours and people working around the clock.

I won’t say that it was a very popular decision in Redmond, because there’s a team here that wanted to do gameplay work. So it was a pretty difficult decision to unwind but I think for the long-term health of our teams and the long-term health of our franchise, it absolutely was the right thing to do.

Daryl: So being a leader means that you have to make hard decisions. And so how did you do it? How did you arrive at it and then how did you deliver the news?

Helen: There’s so many unpopular decisions you get to make as a leader and I think my approach has always been to take the feedback of the teams of what’s working and what’s not working, and to always think about where we need to be long term.

It’s often hard when you’re sitting in a problem day to day, and you’re very close and emotionally attached to your role and attached to your team and what you’re doing to be able to suggest that something could work better in a different way that maybe means that, a particular role or team needs to change.

So I’ve always tried to take an eye as to how do we want to make sure our franchise is healthy and our teams are healthy for the long term, and that we’re developing in a sustainable model so that Minecraft can be here for generations to come.

Daryl: What I have observed of you as a leader is that you do take these hard decisions, but you really work them through and socialize them and explore them. They’re not single unilateral decisions, they’re part of an overall exploration, and it takes a while to get there but once you get there, the team is ready to move. 

And I think that’s one of the things that I most admire about you as a leader is your willingness to do that. Where some leaders might be much more unilateral and definitive, I think that you take a standpoint, you take a position, and then you work the position and develop consensus over time.

And I think that’s really one of the hallmarks of what makes you stand out as a leader. I know that, especially game studio folks out there and gaming leaders are just always keen to hear how different leaders got into gaming or got into their career path. I don’t know that when you went away to college that you were imagining that you were going to have a career in gaming, but you’ve had this illustrious career in gaming now. And so how did it happen? What led you here?

Helen: Well, I’ve worked in games for 16 years now, so I think most people assume that I have always known that I wanted to work in games, but that can’t be farther from the truth.

I played a lot of games growing up with my brother and unlike today where kids can study game development or so many different aspects of gaming to have a career in games, I think I never put two and two together that you could actually work in games. I studied computer science and engineering in college and went back to business school to learn more about business. So I had come to Microsoft after business school, and my plan was to be at Microsoft for three years.

And then I’m not sure where I thought I would go after here but I clearly failed in the execution of that. But when I left school, there were three things that I wrote down that were really important to any place that I worked. The first is I wanted to find a job in a career where it didn’t feel like work.

So my mantra has always been that I work to live, I don’t live to work. So what better industry to end up in than video games? The second is I wanted to be in an environment where I felt challenged and that prioritized lifelong learning. And then the last one is I wanted to use my skills and my experiences to make a positive difference in the world.

And I can honestly say that 18 years into being here at Microsoft, all of those things still hold true for me today, which is why I’m still here. Um, and I feel lucky everyday to get to work on an IP that is so meaningful to so many people. And I’m surrounded by the best team that challenges me to be my best self and also supports me when the going gets rough.

And so there’s no shortage of opportunities to learn here. And you would think even five years into the role that I would be really good at what I do. But no, I’m still learning things every day in my job here too.

Daryl: So was there a moment when you said, oh, I’m going to go into gaming, or did it unfold differently from that.

Helen: It kind of just happened into it here at Microsoft. So I have always loved the consumer side of businesses and I started on a mapping CD ROM project when I first came here at Microsoft . And I loved it because it was such a small business to Microsoft that I pretty much was allowed to run it autonomously. 

But after that I wanted to go work on something at scale and what better consumer business within Microsoft than Xbox. And so I made my way over to Xbox and have never left ever since and have absolutely enjoyed being on the game side.

Daryl: It’s amazing how many people have CD ROM experience and gaming in their background. There was that moment, that two year period where CD ROMs were everything.

When you went into gaming, you were more on the business side of gaming, right? talk about that. What was it like to be on the business side as opposed to say the development side, even though you have a background in computer science. Of course you went to business school as well. How did being in business then enable you to have the role you have today?

Helen: So when I was first trying to get a role in games, this was back in a time where the industry really prioritized having gaming experience before coming into a role.

And I always find that really interesting. How could you get your first role if you didn’t have experience? And yet all of the roles are looking for experience for you to come into your first role. And so I tried really hard to think about what could I bring to this industry, because clearly it wasn’t games working experience.

And I found a role that was on an engineering team, and this was to be their business manager. So I was their one and only business person to help them think about how much they were spending on everything and how much they should be spending on everything. And this was a team of PM developers, testers at the time, and really just, thinking about how I could take what I learned and what I knew and make it useful to them.

And so that was how I got my first role into the gaming industry. And then as I spent time, I found that what I really enjoyed is learning about how games are made, cuz there’s no gaming industry without games. And I think that is the more fun side of the industry is to get to work very closely with all of the creative people that make the amazing experiences that we have.

So I took an opportunity a couple years into the industry to come learn on the content side. I moved over to a role to be Phil Spencer’s chief of staff. At the time he was running Xbox Game Studios, which is the role that Matt’s in today. And Phil today runs all of gaming as gaming ceo. And that just gave me an opportunity to get to meet a lot of new people, to learn about how games are made, to learn about how the cost structure of games work. And then when I came back after that role, I landed in a game studio.

Daryl: And we’ve talked about your chief of staff role many times, but I don’t know that I’ve ever asked what one or two of your key learnings was or key experience was as chief of staff to Phil that advanced your love, your passion for games and your, wish to stay in the industry and to grow in the industry.

Helen: I think there are two things that happened during my time in the role that I didn’t really have any exposure to before then. The first was getting to meet a lot of the leaders that lead our game studio. So that was my opportunity to get to know Matt, to get to know Shannon, and a lot of these people that I had spent a lot of time learning from, but not really getting to interact with.

I think the second is I got to go visit game studios as part of that role, which I hadn’t done before. I got to go over to the UK and tour all of our studios there to go visit the places where all of these amazing experiences are built. So we went over to Rare, we went to visit Lionhead and at the time also the Soho studio all in the UK.

I got to see firsthand what the culture of different studios are like. Got to meet the people in lots of different disciplines and just learn. I got to soak up a lot of things that, you know, you read about, but it’s just very different when you step into the doors of a game studio. 

Daryl: And do you find yourself almost unconsciously, drawing on those experiences at times in your current role? 

Helen: There are many times, when I’m sitting in a hard problem where I’ll say, what would this person do or what would that person do? And just try to think about it from a lot of different angles and perspectives to try to then triangulate back, what do I think? And it’s not that there’s one right step in a lot of these problems. It’s, what is the right step for us at this time?

Daryl: I love the, “what would this person do” prompt for anybody. These role models or mentors can be so important to people in their professional path. And so I’m curious if you could talk to the importance of mentorship for you, you know, who’s mentored you and what those experiences have been like and what they’ve enabled for you.

Helen: Yeah. I think I’ve been really lucky to have worked for some amazing managers who are now still mentors to me today. You know, I think most of my managers would probably say that I have not always been the easiest person to manage. But there isn’t a manager that I haven’t learned something from, and that’s what I’ve always focused on, in any of those relationships. And so there’s two that really stand out for me:

One, I had a manager who I thought absolutely hated me, they would give me the toughest, most challenging, sometimes I thought impossible assignments. And no matter how hard I worked, they would always have super critical feedback on how my work could be better. and there were times when I would come out of a one-on-one with this manager and then go sit under my desk and cry and, you know, in my private cubicle.

And when they left the company, I got to build a relationship with them outside of them being my manager. And, found out, you know, I was asking why were you always so hard on me? Because it feels like you’re harder on me than anyone else. And I thought what they said was really interesting for me.

And they said, you know, because they knew that I would rise to any challenge that they put in front of me. And just looking back now, I can say that I grew a lot under this manager’s leadership because it put me into really tough, uncomfortable situations where I had to learn and figure things out on my own.

So that is somebody who I still look at as a mentor today, who I bounce ideas off of from a career perspective and who’s just generally, you know, there to support me no matter what. 

Daryl:  And still in the gaming industry?

Helen: They’re no longer in the gaming industry, but, I think you don’t have to be in the same industry to be able to offer great advice.

 I think sometimes even having a step out and to be able to look in with a different perspective is so incredibly valuable. because we’re so deep into the industry from a day-to-day perspective. 

The second person I’m gonna talk about is my current manager. and there’s a reason that I’ve stayed working for him for as long as I have. And I don’t talk about this a lot, but you know that I didn’t take this role immediately when he asked me to. I had just had my second kid and I wasn’t sure that I knew how to balance being a good parent with, you know, the craziness of a job like this. I also knew that our leadership styles were very, very different.

And I wasn’t sure how he would feel about that but I remember him, talking to me and just letting me know that it was okay to be a different kind of leader and that if I was willing to give it a chance that we would figure it out together. He believed in me and supported me to take on something that I didn’t even know that I was capable of doing and for that, I will be forever grateful.

Daryl: I can’t name your first mentor, but I will name your second one because I’ve worked with him so closely for years now, and that’s Matt Booty. And. I remember being on the other side of conversations with Matt about you succeeding him and how just the belief and the confidence and the commitment that he had to you and your success.

I know that he felt so strongly that if I can just get Helen to agree to do this, Mojang is gonna take off far beyond what I ever led it to do. I know that he sleeps easier at night knowing that you’re, uh, the head of Mojang. It’s fun to have those triangulated relationships.

Something that I realized I hadn’t necessarily anticipated asking, but I want to, is how do you think about mentoring people? So you’ve had, I think many probably great mentors you talked about too. How do you think about mentorship and mentoring people?

Helen: I think it is so important and there’s both mentorship and sponsorship today  involved in both programs that I’m involved with at Microsoft.

Daryl: You just mentioned, Mentorship and sponsorship, and I think a lot of people in our audience will probably be wondering about the distinction.

Helen: So with mentorship, you know, I think that there’s a lot of mentorship programs that match you up with a peer mentor or can be mentors of different levels. And in that, I think it’s just, you know, how do you get good career advice? Usually that person isn’t in a position to actually do anything, but is there to offer advice.

I contrast that with sponsorship and I’ve been part of the sponsorship pilot in Microsoft for the last year and a half, and you’re now being in a role within gaming where I can advocate on the behalf of somebody to move them into a different role or to make inroads as they’re getting to know a new manager as their organization is getting reorganized.

Those are different aspects that I hadn’t been able to play as a mentor before, but I’m learning how to do as a sponsor now. and I think that’s been incredibly rewarding.

 I like to participate in things like the Career Jams, just to get to know folks in all different levels across our organization. Career Jam is for earlier career folks and they get to sign up to have a one-on-one with the leaders that also sign up to participate in their career jams. And I think it’s just a great way to get to know people, to learn about different parts of the organization.

A lot of people who sign up wanna learn about our studio, wanna learn about what it’s like to be on the content side of games.

I tend to focus on the ones that are for Xbox and, really getting to know, particularly women and underrepresented minorities that are early in their careers in helping them to find their way as they’re looking at their next roles. And as they’re trying to learn about other parts of the industry.

I think about all the folks that took the time to help me understand the different aspects of the games business and I find it to be equally as rewarding as I hope they do. cuz I get to learn about so many different aspects of the businesses that they’re working on.

Daryl: What were surprises that you’ve had from the conversations?

Helen: I think some of the surprises are things that you pick up along the way that I think you just think that everybody knows, you know, like how our reward system works, how our performance management works. How to have a great connect with your manager, some of these things that, when you have a lot of experience just doing those things, it’s not easy to capture those in the trainings or in the videos that a lot of our earlier career folks are given to watch. And so this is how you write a connect. There’s a lot of best practices and tips that aren’t shared. And so I think this is a great time to just get to share what little wisdom that I do have.

Daryl: The things that aren’t in the training videos.

Helen: The things that aren’t in the training videos. Absolutely.

Daryl: This is a good segue to talking about, and you’ve already mentioned this about, historically gaming has been an industry that has, and this is less and less true with each day and each year that goes by, but it formerly was an industry dominated by men.

There weren’t that many women leaders and women developers, et cetera. it had so much to do with just being given opportunity and then having an environment that would cultivate women’s engagement in gaming. You obviously are, at the top of the industry in a sense, leading one of the most successful game franchises in the world.

So what’s your council to women when you meet with them who are maybe early in career and wondering, oh, could I do this as my career? You know, is this a path for me to go on?

Helen: Even though the industry of today doesn’t feel quite like the industry I started in, we still have so much more work to do. And so my council is that if you are at all interested in getting into games, just do it. We want this to be an industry that represents the whole community of gamers, and there are so many women who play games. So we need more female representation to help tell the stories that can only be told from the vantage point of, you know, having different perspectives.

We need more representation so we can continue to evolve our working conditions, and norms to support modern, flexible ways of working that are great for all employees, but especially helpful for single parents or for women who often are responsible for the majority of caregiving activities.

And we need more representation because when there’s more of us, it becomes easier to call out behaviors that aren’t as inclusive so that no woman has to experience that in the workplace. And so we need you, if you are interested in coming to join the industry, please,say yes and come join us.

Daryl: That’s exciting to hear that message. you’ve probably just increased the applicant pool at Xbox significantly with that message, which I think Phil and Matt will be particularly excited about.

So Helen, you mentioned, previously in this conversation having had the experience of imposter syndrome, which is so prevalent in tech, it’s a topic that comes up quite a lot, certainly in my conversations. I wonder if you could speak to your experience of imposter syndrome and what that meant for you.

Helen: I think for me, as I’ve taken new roles, you know, you have the feeling in yourself that you know what your capabilities are, but then there’s sometimes these comments that people make that, even if they’re not intended to cut you down, they poke at your confidence in yourself.

And so I just remember, you know, as I was taking this role, somebody made a comment and said, well, you only got that job because you’re a woman. You only got that job because you helped to fill this diversity slate that the company is looking for. And so,even if I don’t believe they’re true, those moments are just seeds that just sit in your mind that every time that you have a moment where you feel like you’ve taken a step back, you kind of remember things that people have said, even if it wasn’t intended in a malicious way.

Daryl: I’m curious, what do you do to get those seeds out of your mind to weed them out of your mind because they are pernicious, aren’t they?

Helen: I don’t know that I’ve figured out a way to get them out of my mind. It’s just how do I quiet them down and not take over the other part of, the things that I do believe are true, the things that I do know about myself, the things that I do know about people on my team.

I read an article that it takes 10 positive comments to negate a negative comment. I’m not a person who generally sits around you like saying positive comments to myself. But in those moments, you kind of have to remind yourself of why you do the things you do, what your purpose is, and that they are for good intent. Because, otherwise a lot of these negative comments can just weigh you down.

Daryl: This probably also relates to your mentorship of early in career people and probably especially women: How do you try to help them with their potential imposter syndrome?

Helen: With my mentorship, I really try to focus on the positive and I’m really careful about offering feedback and how I offer the feedback. I like to say it’s this feedback sandwich. And so if you’re gonna give constructive feedback, you sandwich it with really positive comments on both sides, not to lose the effect of the constructive feedback, but also to make sure that it isn’t the only thing that you offer.

But I also focus a lot on trying to be the cheerleader for other people because I know that sometimes what you need is you need somebody to point out all of the great things that maybe you do know about yourself, but that somebody isn’t saying. And that it’s easier to hear all of the negative comments that somebody might have to.

Daryl: One of the experiences I’ve certainly had in working with Mojang is just how wonderful the people are. In our conversations, you are always praising your team and are just so impressed with the inventions that they come up with and the ideas that they have, and the execution and the collaboration.

So I wonder if you could describe a little bit more what it takes to be a successful Mojang leader. What are the qualities that you’re looking for and what do you see succeeding in the studio?

Helen: One of the best parts of my job is the people I get to work with. And so my philosophy has always been to surround myself with leaders that are smarter than me, and I feel very lucky to get to work with such a smart, talented, and creative set of leaders. We have a pretty diverse team, and so besides being a multinational team, we’ve always aimed to build a team that represents the diverse community of our players.

So our leadership approach at Mojang is one that values diversity of perspectives and creates a culture of inclusion. And so it’s important that every single team member feels that sense of belonging and connection and community at our studio, and also feels like they have opportunities to learn.

And so I think a successful leader at Mojang not only inspires their team to build all of the amazing, great experiences that delight the millions of Minecraft players and fans, but they do that in a way while role-modeling our values of respect, integrity, accountability, and creating that environment where the whole team feels supported, where they feel included and where they feel like they belong.

Daryl: I wonder if there’s an example, an illustration, a story that you could share where a leader on your team, either in Stockholm or Redmond, did something that was extraordinary in terms of representing a suite of your values. Something where you’d say, “Gosh, that was Mojang at its best.”

Helen: In our monthly studio “All Hands”, we sometimes get really tough questions in our Q and A. And I just remember, we have always had questions about our consumer products, and how that relates to sustainability. This moment really sticks out in my mind: There was this one all hands where there’s a really negative, kind of question that came in our Q and A, asking and kind of poking at like why we do some of the partnerships and collaborations and products that we build. 

And I remember the leader who took that question as Kaylene, came up not only just to defend the work that her team did, but also to try to change the culture of how we all need to support each other and the work and that there’s not like good and bad parts of our business and our franchise, but we’re all working together to advance our mission.

And that when we’re asking questions like that to cut each other down, like that’s just not productive. That was a really powerful moment in that “All Hands” that I think turn the conversation, and the perspective. And I think that’s what it means to be a great leader, is not just during the easy and good times.

It’s when those hard things come up and when we have to have those hard, difficult conversations, whether that’s one-on-one or whether that’s in an All Hands, that’s when I think, true leadership shows up.

Daryl: It takes a lot of courage to do that in an All Hands situation, doesn’t it? And Kaylene is a courageous leader, there’s no question.

I’m curious. these qualities of leadership that you’re talking about at Mojang, what do you and your team and the studio do to cultivate that and to grow those qualities? You know, some of it probably has to do with the intake that is this, that you’re recruiting probably for those qualities. Looking for those qualities in your interview process and your selection process. But once people are here, what happens?

Helen: Well, I think creating that culture has to be a top priority for everybody in the studio, not just the leaders. It’s a responsibility of every manager and every team member. So you ask, what does it look like day to day?

I think it means that leaders are creating space and meetings where anybody can voice their opinion, especially when they disagree. And I think, the pandemic and remote work has helped us out a lot here, because now you’re not just limited with how many people can be in the room and where are they sitting?

Are they sitting at the table or are they sitting in the chairs around the corner of the room? but everybody in a Teams meeting can raise their hand and it feels like that has leveled the playing field in terms of just making sure that more voices can be included. It means supporting our managers to learn how to grow employees of different backgrounds.

That doesn’t look like a one size fits all solution for everybody. It means that we’re willing to say something when somebody isn’t using inclusive behaviors so that we can all have a learning moment, even if that’s uncomfortable instead of just brushing that off to the side and pretending that it didn’t happen.

And so these are some of the things of how it looks like every single day. what it means to be an inclusive leader and what it means to prioritize the culture of your team.

Daryl: One of the great privileges of my career has been the opportunity to work so closely with you and other Mojang leaders in the Mojang team in general and to have had the opportunity to spend so much time in Stockholm and Redmond. It’s been just an incredible pleasure, but I wonder if you could speak to how you think about learning and development work and coaching and what role that has played for you and the studio in terms of the development of Mojang.

Helen: Well, I also appreciate the journey that we’ve been on together. I feel like you have seen us through so many different leadership growth phases. The good, the bad, the ugly. Um, and there’s so many great things that we’ve gained from our partnership, you have continually helped us improve our leadership team dynamics and effectiveness particularly around communication. 

When we first started working together, our teams didn’t know how to talk to each other and it always felt like we were talking different languages. And I don’t even mean, you know, translating between Swedish and English, but I think you have always been able to see the perspectives objectively from all different angles and to help one part of the team understand and appreciate the vantage point of another part of the team.

So that’s one. You’ve done a lot of one-on-one coaching for our leaders and team members. And the 360 feedbacks in particular I think have been helpful for leaders to understand their blind spots and how that can affect the overall dynamics within a team. So that’s helped us a lot in terms of individual leader growth and areas where we needed more support in specific leadership development.

And then lastly, I will also add, since you and I have worked together for a long time now, I really appreciate you being a safe place to bounce ideas off of or to just listen to with no judgment. One of the things that nobody tells you about these kinds of jobs is that they can be incredibly lonely because there’s so much information that you have to hold to yourself and that you can’t share with others.

And so having that safe haven to talk about things, I know won’t go anywhere and that I know that you won’t judge, has been incredibly helpful for me.

Daryl: What you’re describing, the reciprocity is there and it means so much to me that you have that kind of place to go. And if I can serve that role and have served that role for you, that just really, it’s delightful to hear that and very satisfying to hear that. And I hope that you’ll continue to take advantage of it. I will look forward to those conversations going forward. So what’s next?

You have done so much over the last five years, you and the team, so much has been done, so much has been accomplished. What’s ahead? Where’s this going?

Helen: It’s funny to think that even with all in how we’ve evolved and grown, I feel like we’ve only really scratched the surface for the opportunities in the Minecraft franchise.

We have some really fun things in store that I obviously can’t talk about right now Um, but I’m really excited for Minecraft Legends, which is launching in a few weeks. That’s our next new game in our games portfolio, and that’s a game that started during the pandemic, and so we just can’t wait to get it in the hands of players.

We often hear from our community that they want more Minecraft, so it’s just more and more, more. We’re doing our best with trying to experiment with some new things while continuing to grow and add to what our community already knows and loves. And so that’s what’s in store.

Daryl: One of the things that I think is just so characteristic of Mojang and anytime that I come and plug in with the leadership team or see what’s up, is that the scale of your ambitions are, you know, extraordinary, you’re never complacent.

It’s always grasping for the next thing and just thinking. constantly about how to delight the Minecraft community. And that’s really what animates everything. It’s all about the Minecraft community. And I think that’s one of the things that just stands out so vividly as an outsider who comes in and gets an inside view of things is that this is focused on the Minecraft player.

And so that’s really, just so inspiring to see. Helen. Thank you so much for the time that you’ve given us today. I know that everybody within the Minecraft community and at Xbox is gonna just, really appreciate this conversation. So thank you for the time.

 Helen: Thanks, Daryl.