Are you Zerg or Protoss?

May 6, 2020

That first response was my CTO. It’s almost impossible to out-nerd my CTO. He too is a millennial and definitely does not live under a rock. Because Starcraft was the game that made e-sports a thing: a multi-billion dollar industry complete with pro-gamers, live streaming, and a re-conceptualisation of what gaming really can mean as an industry.

There are 3 races in Starcraft: Zerg, Terran (humans), and Protoss. You can choose which race you want to play as, and the race that suits you very much depends upon your play style. To me, your play style reflects upon your management style.

Zerg are the quick and dirty. They’re low quality worms/bugs that erupt out of a fountain of slime, and works like a hive-mind. You get about 3-4 times more units to deal with than any other race, but they’re relatively low quality. Imagine a thousand cockroaches headed your way–that’s the Zerg. Individually, you can’t expect them to carry a game, but as a hoard, its death by a thousand cuts. They spawn quickly, and die quickly. To excel, Zergs require some serious micromanagement.

Zerglings are scary
(GIF image copyright Blizzard)

In contrast, Protoss are super efficient, intelligent species. Where you might need only 3 Protoss, you might need 12 or 16 Zerglings to do the job. Protoss take a lot more resources (money) to train and develop, but if you build both races out fully, the Protoss would always come out with the strongest individual units. So instead of managing 100 Zerg, you may only manage 20 Protoss.

The Protoss
(Images copyright Blizzard)

Chinese companies remind me of Zerglings. They do things quickly, launch things that break easily just to get it to market sooner, and hire hundreds of people. In a conversation with a friend, I discovered that while Apple had 9 team members for one department, another very prominent Chinese tech company hired 200.

The other very prominent Chinese company grew extremely fast, conquered the markets, and they feel like the Zerg even in their product design, thoughtless overwhelming UI with endless buttons (not very thoughtfully placed), and ad-hoc navigation that seemed to be designed by a child intent on sticking links all over the place.

Competitors are no real match for Zerg companies. The minute you’ve launched any product they deem worthy of their time, they’ve shamelessly copied you down to your brand colors and fonts. Granted, everything might be somewhat broken, but they took their product to market faster than you did, and their quick and dirty inaccurate marketing and PR has just overtaken yours.

(Then congratulations, they’ve literally “Sarah Kerrigan”-ed you.)

Sarah Kerrigan – overtaken by the Swarm.
(Image copyright Blizzard)

The “executive teams” of these Zerg companies are also quite interesting. One of my friends described it as a “high school excursion”, of a troop of super young Chinese executives (all in their 20s) that managed to build a product to conquer the Chinese market.

Granted, there are loads of inefficiencies with Zerg companies. If things aren’t managed properly, you move very fast in the wrong direction. Take Ofo, the bike-sharing company that gave their Zerglings KPIs that ended up tunnelling them deeper down into failure. Ofo set the performance metrics at total number of trips, not average number of trips per bike. It became easier and less hassle for country managers to buy more and more bikes to hit the sheer number of trips expected, instead of taking the trouble to fixing their inefficiencies by repairing broken bikes. Each Ofo bike cost nearly US$100 and were meant to last 2 years. Instead, many lasted only one or two months, either breaking or going missing. At the end, it’s estimated that only half of the bikes in circulation were actually useable. Ofo was valued at US$3 billion, and now it’s gone.

Because there are so many people involved, members of Zerg companies say they are quite burned out because of the sheer number of meetings that are needed in order to align. They have no choice but to align after office hours, and hold their meetings at night, so they can still complete and work on their objectives during the day.

Many people have expressed to me that working with Zerg companies as external consultants are quite stressful as well, because Zerglings tend to say yes to everything and charge ahead without much thought, only to backpedal later and change their minds when they encounter problems that could have been avoided if a bit more thought was put into it. But third party consultants take deep breaths, grit their teeth, and keep going until the contract is over either because these companies are massive and it helps consultant reputations to work with them, or because the contracts are of significant enough sizes to have to put up with unprofessional and stressful behaviour.

Despite the dangers of Zerg companies, their speed of growth is something that I admire. My natural preference is Protoss, and that’s evident by my lean but mean team. But in order to conquer the global market, we have to start incorporating Zerg-like elements into our operations, and build a swarm in certain departments–hire greater numbers of less-experienced but motivated workers, and create a structure enough for them to charge forward at lightning speed!

Perhaps that’s why Zerglings have been stuck on my mind. Excuse me my dear team, while I figure out how to build a ‘Toss-driven, Zergling-conquering combination. They are natural enemies, but I believe I can bring them together to create something undefeatable. #Lemi6poolrush

Meanwhile, I leave you with this. Thanks Matt.

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