Swedish online gaming company, Ongame, not only hosts poker games for the masses, it holds regular tournaments for its staff, making sure their skills at Texas Hold ‘Em are up to scratch. This is just one example of Ongame's culture of instilling loyalty and enthusiasm into its 220 staff. It takes the same approach to its IT.
"We invest a heck of a lot in technology as a whole," says David Flynn, VP and director of Ongame Networks. "We believe this is what sets us apart from the rest of the industry. We have more technologists than any of our competitors."
Having optimised its games to run on any client device, Flynn claims Ongame is two years ahead of the market. But it is the thinking behind achieving this that really marks Ongame out. To ensure both internal and customer-facing technology is developed and delivered as fast as possible, Flynn introduced the ‘lean' development methodology to Ongame when he joined the company in 2003.
Lean software development, an offshoot of the ‘agile' methodology, uses techniques developed in modern manufacturing processes and applies them to programming and project management. Instead of a ‘waterfall'-style process, which only produces results at the end of a long project, lean development encourages short, iterative working patterns with concurrent review and feedback, with new, usable software released regularly throughout. To eliminate waste, it also emphasises face-to-face collaboration over documentation.
"It was a lot of work to change the processes while we were still growing," says Flynn. "But I can't emphasise strongly enough that all companies should move to lean. The product management team sits side by side with programmers so they can see what is needed as they go along. It makes sure that when we deliver, we deliver exactly what's required, so we're cutting out the waste."
Making a team of 150 programmers accountable is not easy, so Ongame reviews projects on a monthly basis. "This way you make sure the delivery estimates from programmers are right."
Daily five-minute morning meetings review yesterday's achievements and the day's plans. "It adds peer pressure so the manager doesn't have to do that and helps eliminate issues straight away." Project management tools allow everyone in the company to see progress, set requirements and see test cases.
The development team benefits from more reasonable working conditions than are usually associated with this kind of company. "I went to the Game Developers Conference and in every corner were people saying they were working 24 hours a day. I thought, something must be wrong with their project management or they lack staff. If people work 18 hours a day, they won't stay. It has to be a good motivational environment."
But speedy application development is no excuse for insecure code, says Flynn. "It's important that our players trust our brands. This is not something that we're going to outsource – it's almost like giving your baby away." With $20 million passing through the system every day, "we have to make sure that all our systems are tight and every single cent is accounted for." But rather than compare its precautions to other online gaming companies, Ongame benchmarks itself against the banking industry as the nearest comparison in terms of transactions, scalability and potential security threats.
With plans afoot for a stock market flotation in 2006 and in a rapidly consolidating market, getting buy-in from everyone in the company is essential. "At the moment we have around 7% market share but I'd love to reach 10% by the end of the year. And I think if you phoned up anybody in the company you'd hear the same argument." That is, as long as no games of poker are interrupted.