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Zynga Takes Cloud And Customer Service In New Directions

Zynga, the No. 3 company in the InformationWeek 500, puts IT and customer service side by side.

Keep The Players Happy

Zynga has also learned a thing or two about how to integrate IT with "the business." Customer service--helping online game players with problems, learning what they think, building player assessments and preferences into the next phase of the business--is just another IT function.

Ramon Icasiano, VP of customer service inside GFS, says Zynga uses player feedback garnered from Facebook, phone calls and emails, player forums and communities, and game blogs to serve as "the player advocate" inside Zynga. At other places, gathering intelligence from customer sources eventually leads to changes, but they have to be studied, approved by various business groups, then translated into code that might take months to find its way into a legacy production system.

At Zynga, game-changing code is pushed twice a week, and as a member of GFS, Icasiano can stay tight with programmer groups capable of fixing a problem. He joined the company as CityVille was launched in 2010 and was amazed at the proportions of the customer service problem. CityVille achieved 20 million users in about five weeks. He moved into the IT department to be closer to problem solvers; eventually, the rest of the customer service staff moved in with him. (FarmVille has 40 million active users today; as a whole, Zynga hosts 292 million active users a month.)

Zynga uses automated systems to collect feedback from its listening posts, which now include Twitter. Customer service reps start receiving alerts if designated words associated with trouble start appearing too frequently. This system can issue false alarms, but it has warned Zynga several times of an impending problem that the company was able to attend to before it developed into something serious. "It's a really twitchy mechanism," Icasiano says approvingly.

In most companies, a stray user complaint, such as "My cow is missing," wouldn't elicit a big response. At Zynga, customer service reps are aware of how attached some FarmVille players are to their livestock. It's an opportunity for a connection to the customer "at an emotional level," CIO Chrapaty says. "It's only a virtual cow, but involvement with that virtual object is part of the overall design of our games."

InformationWeek 500 Top 5: Zynga - CIO Chrapaty, with Millie
CIO Chrapaty, with Millie

Anyone in IT can take time out to watch and interact with players. In fact, they're required to. That makes it easier when the customer service rep is looking for IT help to find a missing bovine. Oftentimes the developer or operations manager has had a close encounter with customers and has an inkling as to their needs.

It's All About The Games

A maturing Zynga realizes that attracting players is one thing; keeping them is another. It has many small, quasi-independent studios around the world churning out new games and more features for existing games. It's important that the new features be based on as much of the existing underlying game logic as possible, and that new game logic serve more than one game.

That effort is coordinated through GFS, which includes the zCloud production environment, security, internal IT, and customer service. One of the things the zCloud unit has built is the zOps tool, which lets developers see how well the games they're working on run in the production environment. If there's a slowdown, it often occurs after a code push, and developers need to know when their new code is causing problems.

Another automation tool is the homegrown Beagle framework for the automated life cycle management of game code systems, capturing information about them during development, deployment, modification, and, finally, retirement. The zCloud unit also recently published a catalog of zCloud services, available to internal and external game developers.

From Beagle to bulldog, Zynga's Chrapaty is running not just an IT organization aligned with business priorities, but one in a position to lead the business with its close customer relationships. She also wants to create "a collaborative environment that's fun for my people." Part of that is the ability to bring your dog to work. When your dog touches noses with another across the room or down the hall, it can be a real conversation starter.

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