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PEOPLE

From Warships to Wargaming

From Warships to Wargaming

 

How did a nuclear engineer in the US navy end up as Chief Human Resources Officer at Wargaming, one of the world’s most successful international game developers and publishers? Jerry Prochazka achieved this in part by not being afraid to speak his mind and by encouraging creativity and collaboration in all the teams he has led. In this exclusive GOLD interview, he recounts his 25-year journey from Norfolk, Virginia to Nicosia, Cyprus and explains how he gradually succeeded in combining his HR expertise with his lifelong passion for gaming.

 

By John Vickers

 

 

On the day that Jerry Prochazka spoke to GOLD, he was not in the familiar surroundings of his office in Wargaming’s stunning Nicosia headquarters but in an admittedly bright and pristine but ultimately nondescript space in a building that could hardly be more different from the company’s imposing glass tower. This was unexpected but perfectly in keeping with Prochazka’s style and philosophy: he wanted to spend time with the team of people who were housed there and although he is no stranger to fancy offices, he clearly knows what his priorities are: people and their creativity.

Until the beginning of February, Jerry Prochazka was Chief Human Resources Officer at Wargaming, in charge of 4,500 people in 19 offices around the world. People who end up in HR often tend to get there via a somewhat circuitous route but Prochazka is unique in so many ways, not least because he started out as a nuclear engineer working for the US navy.

“Back in 1988, going to college was an expensive endeavour for me and my family - – both my parents were immigrants, my mother from Germany and my father from what was then Czechoslovakia and we lived very modestly – and, at the time, the US navy was building aircraft carriers that needed engineers to run the nuclear power plants,” he explains. “It was rather attractive and it meant doing something that was inherently intellectually super-interesting – all about nuclear energy – so I took the opportunity. It meant spending eight hours a day on an intense 18-month course but it was an awesome experience and, academically, everything after that was simple!”

Prochazka then switched to psychology and social sciences before working in Human Resources. Did his nine years in a military environment help or hinder his progress in the private sector?

“I think it helped,” he says. “The navy does a lot of positive things, especially around understanding the value of teamwork, goals and missions and being very results-focused. All those things helped a lot but I had reached the stage where I thought that if I carried on for another eight years, I would probably never leave. That didn't seem right. To this day I still have an infinite amount of curiosity about the world and learning is such a core part of my DNA so off I went to do something different.”

He was advised against studying for a PhD by a professor who told him that he would be bored and was destined for much greater things. He was recommended to the global management consulting and professional services company Accenture.

“I found myself sitting across from someone who said to me, ‘I have a problem. For every dollar we spend on learning, I need to figure out the return on that investment',” he recalls. “He then handed me a book and said, 'I want you to read this book and let me know what you think of it. I'll pay you to do it.'” A week later, Prochazka went back and delivered his verdict, describing the book as ‘horrible’ and its author as ‘approaching the subject in a completely wrong way’. When he explained his reasoning, he was told, 'Good, you can start tomorrow.' He smiles at the memory and says, “We worked together for 10 years! It resulted in a book called Return on Learning: Training for High Performance at Accenture and that was what transitioned me into HR and developing people.”

He later joined MediaTec, which wanted someone to create a benchmarking programme that explained how to evaluate learning and development but eventually his passion for gaming got the better of him. “I realised that there was a really hungry audience of fans who were passionate about competitive gaming, so I started an organisation called vVv Gaming, which focused on developing future e-sports athletes around certain console games. It started with a single game (Gears of War) and, by the time I finished there, we had 14 different titles, so it was an awesome evolution.” That was how Riot Games came to notice Jerry Prochazka as someone with HR experience who was also a hardcore gamer. He was invited to Los Angeles, where, in his own words, he “spent the whole day, most of it fighting – or at least arguing – with people”. As a man who has always believed in speaking his mind, he was brutally honest with his potential employers and, in the end, it paid off. “I was lucky to be in a place that really admired that honesty,” he recalls. When he joined the company, it employed 642 people; by the time he left, when Tencent was about to acquire it, the number exceeded 2,200. After such a huge scaling exercise, Prochazka decided that he needed to take break for the first time in his life and so plans were put in place for his succession. But news of his impending retirement travelled fast and it was not long before his old boss contacted him to say, “My friend at Wargaming has a problem and you're the only guy on the planet who can solve it”.

Jerry Prochazka knows an exaggerated description when he hears it but, he says, “the lifelong learner in me made me see that it was a unique opportunity.” After meeting with CEO Viktor Kislyi, he decided to seize it but, having spent his entire life in the US, did he not hesitate before joining a company headquartered in a tiny place like Cyprus?

“What I loved about the Wargaming story was how, in the modern age, a couple of brothers and a friend in Minsk were able to build a multi-million-dollar organisation,” he explains, adding that, “It was obvious that Cyprus has a lot of advantages that are attractive to talented people.” With parents from Europe and having gone to Europe as a child, 'foreign places' were not foreign to him, he says, before confessing, “When I arrived in Cyprus, I almost instantly fell in love with the place. Not only are all the basics wonderful – education, lifestyle, food, weather and all the things it's famous for – but it connected with me in a way that felt good. From an opportunity perspective, the more I learned about Cyprus and the more I looked at the region, it seemed like a very interesting location. In addition, I discovered a humility around the Cypriots that I liked a lot. Two years on, I would be hard-pressed to imagine myself leaving.”

In his capacity as Chief Human Resources Officer, does Prochazka look for a particular type of individual when it comes to finding the right personnel for the company? Must they be fanatical gamers, for example?

“It helps!” he says, noting that at Riot Games it was, indeed, a requirement. “But the real trick,” tells GOLD, “is about connecting passion to what you do. So do you need to be a hard core gamer to work here? No, but you do need to be really passionate about something – it could be skydiving, rock climbing, surfing or reading science fiction – and be able to use that passion. That is what fuels our ability to make great games so you need some of it.”

Jerry Prochazka is now focusing on his new role as Head of Wargaming Alliance (3PP) – the mysterious part in brackets means ‘Third Party Publishing’ – and he is very excited about it.

“When a video gaming company makes a game, it need to distribute it, hold events to engage players, etc. so it learns to publish as well. But when you're creating and operating a live game, it’s difficult to spin off new games – there’s a lot of trial and error involved – so companies have started to create partnerships and to work with other game makers. For example, instead of using our own development and publishing, we can use their development and our publishing. That's what I'm going to be dealing with and Wargaming Alliance (3PP) is the brand that we use for this.”

On February 22, Jerry Prochazka will be speaking about “The Changing Workplace” in the Life Changing Ideas series of talks at the University of Nicosia. Is this all about things like teleworking, flexible hours, etc. or have more fundamental and substantial changes been taking place in workplaces around the world?

“Something that shouldn't be underestimated,” he says, “is the fact that creativity is more important than knowledge in the workplace. A lot of people come out of school believing that what they know is really important but, unfortunately, the democratisation of information that Google and other search engines provide us, in combination with how young people are very quick to get information if they need it, means that the model of ‘sit at your desk, work hard for 8 hours and go home’ is not relevant anymore. In my business, young people want to be engineers, they want to create and design, to make great products. It would be pointless trying to sell them the idea that they should sit in a room crunching numbers all day, the guys all wearing a suit and tie. It is a business's obligation to create the work environment that will bring the best out of these people. We can ask the people we work with how they want to work. What makes them excited to come to work. Why they are doing what they are doing. I have never known any company with a sustainable advantage that doesn't rest on the quality of its people. So do we want people who all work until exactly 5 o'clock and admire the one who always stays until 9 o’clock or should we focus on the result and create conditions in which they can delight in exceeding our expectations? For some organisations it's going to be a scary time but I suspect that, in the gaming industry, it wouldn't work any other way. We need to create an environment in which people can collaborate and challenge themselves and they want to create something awesome for other videogame players. That doesn't mean working or dressing a certain way. Just give them the space and tell them what the challenges are.”

Prochazka’s talk will also touch on what he calls “the impending reality of machine learning” which is already transforming the legal function and financial services. “Machines make very few errors and so our ability to gain insights and data analysis will be coming from machines,” he says, before asking, “Who could have known a decade ago what a smartphone would be doing and how much of our time is consumed by it?”

Every change has its pros and cons, he says, expressing the view that the way young people spend their time – perhaps less on being social and more on being online – will have both a negative and positive influence. He tries to be realistic, recalling how, “in the ‘50s and ‘60s rock and roll music was said to be leading to the moral degradation of mankind, while in the ‘80s, if you played Dungeons and Dragons you were going to be devil worshippers. In the end, things didn't quite work out that way!”

There has been a lot of recent press suggesting that young people are less happy, more lonely and isolated and social media is made to appear like a universal bad. “This is true, but, alternatively, people of 18 or 15 or even 13 are probably becoming more and more desensitised to marketing, for example and maybe that will lead to something better. We don't know yet. Social media may have unintended consequences but it may also motivate a lot of people to try and do something remarkable.”

Finally, I ask Prochazka if he thinks his liberated and, some might say, laid-back attitude to workplace freedom, has developed as a reaction to the strictures of the navy and his first career?

“I don’t think so,” he replies. “When you're in the navy, you spend a lot of time disliking things but as you grow older and more mature, you appreciate some of them. It’s a bit like what happens with our parents. So, no, I am not reacting against something I didn’t like when I was 20. But when I look at the tech sector and what is inspiring the people to create the products that are making us billions and billions of dollars, I know that it's not taught at Oxford or Cambridge or the LSE. So I want to empower the young generation to be creative. I want them to make mistakes and get angry with the fact that previous generations, including mine, couldn't solve so many of the world’s problems. I would say I have a very optimistic but forceful style and it comes from a variety of perspectives. I'm very anti-'one size fits all'. That's me!”

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