Man With a (Talent) Plan

Electronic Arts makes some of the world's most popular computer games. It's Rusty Rueff's job to fill the company with some of the world's best gamers and software programmers.

Ten weeks after Electronic Arts Inc., the world's largest video games company, released The Sims, a popular title in which players create, manage, and nurture (or destroy) a cyber-family, 1 million copies had been sold — at a price of $49.95 each. The owners of those million copies scrambled to enrich the lives of a family of Sims through personal growth and social interaction. To assist gamers with their skills, EA partnered with a publisher to release an "official strategy guide" titled The Sims: Livin' Large (Prima Publishing, 2000). Half self-help tome, half management tract, the 200-page book offers ideas, hints, and tips on how to succeed in all dimensions of Sim life: conversations, friendships, careers. But the guide emphasized one point: If you want to get ahead, you've got to learn how to work with others. "Good relationships are important to a Sim's ongoing struggle to get ahead," notes the guide. "Friendship is a key state in The Sims. Job advancement is impossible without building a network of ... friends."

It's a principle that governs much more than the simulated world of The Sims. In fact, it is the bedrock of EA's strategy for winning the real-world war for talent. The company's leaders understand that the prosperity of Electronic Arts is dependent on its ability to cultivate a community of talent — great people who might or might not want a job but who enjoy staying connected to the work of EA. "Creative talent is the scarcest resource on the planet," says Rusty Rueff, 38, senior vice president of HR. "The primary limiting factor on our business is having enough creative leaders on our team. The challenge then becomes how to come into contact with the best of the best and how to establish relationships with them. If we can do that, then somewhere down the road — I might not know exactly when or where — they will work with us. If you build and nurture those relationships, you just know that it's going to happen."

It's a back-to-the-future kind of philosophy. These days, most of the action in high-tech hiring involves applying the power of the Internet to accelerate job searches, warehouse job postings, and otherwise automate what may be the most emotional set of decisions in business: Where's the next place I want to work? Who's the next person we let in the door? Rueff recognizes the impact of the Net as much as the next senior executive. But he believes that the real power is in high touch. "In today's marketplace, people don't want to be treated like a commodity," he argues. "They want to know that someone cares about their dreams."

EA needs plenty of talent. Based in Redwood City, California, it is the third-largest software company in the San Francisco Bay Area after Oracle and PeopleSoft. It employs 3,300 people — more than 1,800 of them as game developers — in 13 studios across five countries. Electronic Arts is a fierce competitor. It makes some of the most popular games — FIFA Soccer, Ultima Online, Need for Speed, Wing Commander — in a market that is overcrowded and overstimulated. It has held its own on Wall Street, despite the crash of high-tech stocks. Its shares, which were selling at around $30 last spring, after the NASDAQ meltdown, have sold for more than $50 since then — giving EA a market value of nearly $7 billion.

But EA's toughest competitive battle is for talent. "There's not enough talent to go around," says Rueff, looking out his window onto the Oracle campus. "Oracle needs them. Informix needs them. We need them. We're all trying to capture our fair share."

One major attraction for EA — what Rueff considers an enormous advantage in attracting engineers and programmers — is the company's track record with its products. Plenty of young, up-and-coming software engineers love to spend their spare time gaming, which means they're probably hooked on one or more of EA's titles. Who wouldn't prefer to work on Madden NFL Football, rather than on the next release of some obscure supply-chain-management applet? But Rueff also knows that he can't rely solely on marquee value to generate a stream of talent for EA's studios as well as for ea.com — an online-gaming channel and the exclusive provider of interactive entertainment for AOL and its affiliates. To win the battle for talent, Rueff takes a page from the strategy guide for The Sims: Build strong relationships with a pool of talented people.

"We're operating on the leading edge in terms of creating community through technology," Rueff says. "When people hear from us, I hope they think 'Wow, I thought you forgot about me. And now you're actually contacting me to tell me something has changed and that there's another opportunity?' I know this sounds really simple, but how many companies treat people like that? This stuff just doesn't happen. And, for us, it's the tip of the iceberg."

Permission Recruiting: Everybody Into the Pool!

Imagine that whenever you needed to hire someone with a critical skill, to create a team for a new project, or to staff up an entirely new division, you could begin by dipping into a talent pool of thousands of prequalified, previously assessed candidates. Imagine that you could match your needs with the expertise and interests of those candidates. Imagine that you could communicate regularly with them, informing them of new developments or inviting them to explore new opportunities. And imagine that you could do all of that instantly, using email.

Rusty Rueff and his team don't have to imagine it — they're doing it now. In a little more than a year, EA has assembled a pool of 34,000 potential candidates using a Web-based application from Hire.com called "e-Recruiter." Those candidates, most of whom have given EA permission to communicate with them, have provided the company with information about their backgrounds and career aspirations. The system works like this: When candidates click through EA's Web site to register with EA-Recruiter — and, in essence, to search for a job — EA does not ask for a résumé. Rather, it asks for some basic information: what type of work they are looking for, what their experience is, where they live, and where they would consider living.

If those interests and capabilities match a current opening, then the system immediately notifies a hiring manager. It also notifies the candidate, with an encouragement to apply. If there's no current match, EA does not thank the candidate and send them on their way. That's a huge mistake, according to Rueff. "You can't fall into the catch-and-release, linear approach to recruiting," he says. "How can you build a pipeline of talent — the only thing that's going to help you over time — if you put out a search only when you have a position to fill, or if you talk to 20 people, find one you want, and then throw out the rest? You can't win that way." To that end, EA asks one more vital question through EA-Recruiter: Would the candidate like to receive future correspondence: strategic updates, information on new products, notification of new job openings? Of the 34,000 people currently registered with EA-Recruiter, some 20,000 have answered "yes" to that option.

That kind of ongoing connection with talented people creates a huge advantage over time, argues Kevin Hare, 32, manager of staffing and resourcing — and the main tactician behind EA-Recruiter. "We used to have a very fragmented recruiting process," Hare says. "We would get information on candidates from several different sources — and end up paying a lot for it. But we wanted to build our own talent pool and then be able to slice it and dice it to figure out who the candidates were, what they wanted, and where our mutual interests could intersect down the line. As we begin to explore these capabilities, we realize that in a lot of ways, we need to start thinking not like recruiters but like marketers."

Rueff and Hare used their marketing mind-set to confront what could have been a big "people problem." EA decided to transfer the development of its nascar game from a studio in Redwood City to a facility in Orlando, Florida. To do this, the firm needed to hire more than 40 people who'd be willing to work on the project in Orlando — and it had to hire them fast. So Hare and his team designed an email called "Get in the Game" and sent it to the 18,000 people who had agreed to receive correspondence. The email was a fun pitch with colorful graphics that outlined the various positions that EA was offering and the qualities it was looking for in candidates. It also included an enticing "sneak peak" video clip of its soon-to-be-released, highly anticipated Madden 2001, a game also developed in Orlando, and, Hare believed, a compelling selling point for why people might want to work at that studio.

The Madden preview was as slick and as riveting as a movie trailer, complete with sound effects, grunting football players, impressive real-life 3D animation, and a dramatic soundtrack: "O Fortuna," from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana — music to get anyone's blood boiling. And it must have done just that for those people who saw the video clip and then clicked on a link to get more information from EA's Florida studio. "We had close to 3,000 people jump from passive candidates to active ones by going to the Florida link," says Rueff. "The Orlando studio was blown away."

Rueff believes that the exercise was just one small example of the power of community. "My dream is that this database continues to grow to a point where the community gets so large that we can become very targeted and, more importantly, extremely personal in our approach. We're going to get to a point where I'll ping someone who registered when he was 16 and say, 'You're 18 now. Where are you? What's new in your life? Can I tell you about some things that are going on at EA?'"

He's an All-Star Player

Rusty Rueff has a voice that you want to listen to. It's the kind of voice that could, it seems, talk anyone into anything. It's also a voice that explains why, as a kid growing up in Jeffersonville, Indiana, Rueff wanted to be a disc jockey. By the time he was 18, he was the voice for WORX, a small commercial station in Madison, Indiana. Over the years, Rueff worked for WASK, WNDE, WNAP, and then WFBQ — he still rattles off the call letters in perfect syncopation.

But one day, Rueff was greeted by a new program director and by the shock that everyone but he and another person at the station had been fired. "I immediately wondered why I hadn't been fired," says Rueff. "And I remember the program director telling me, 'It's simple. I like your voice.' " Then Rueff remembered something that his father, a TV news anchor and radio disc jockey in Louisville, Kentucky, had told him. "My dad told me that at some point in my career, I would get to a place where I'd realize that the organization viewed me as a disposable asset, and that I would have to decide if I wanted to be a part of that organization anymore."

Soon after, Rueff jumped into his Volkswagen Beetle, drove 52 miles to Lafayette, Indiana, and, at age 22, had a "What am I going to do with the rest of my life" talk with one of his mentors, who was then the dean of Purdue University, where Rueff had attended college. The dean told Rueff that he'd flourish in Purdue's counseling program. "Then she walked me over to admissions, waived the admissions tests, and I entered graduate school that day."

A few years later, Rueff found himself in Binghamton, New York. It was the first day of the rest of his professional life. He was the HR manager for a Frito-Lay plant. The factory — a hotbed for union activity — had 450 manufacturing employees, more than 100 distribution workers, and 20 frontline managers. The plant was in turmoil. Rueff's job, his boss explained to him, was twofold. First, Rueff needed to make the drivers happy and keep them union-free. Second, he had to reduce the embarrassingly high turnover rate (up to 50% per year) among frontline managers.

Rueff's response? Forget feedback forms and off-sites. He turned his house into a hangout for the 20 young managers. They became a tight-knit group in no time. "We would do everything together," says Rueff. "It's the only way we knew how to survive." That year, the turnover rate among managers at the Binghamton plant was zero — and the drivers never joined the union.

Rueff remained at PepsiCo for 10 more years, honing his skills in various positions at Frito-Lay, at Pizza Hut, and finally, in 1997, at the parent company — as vice president of international HR. It was only in that position that he began to reckon explicitly with the importance of creating a community of talent. "We were looking for people with great international experience — which is one talent pool that always seems too small. But we had no way of tracking who we had seen around the world, who was good, or who we'd contacted in the past," says Rueff. "Basically, we had no clue."

So Rueff and his team set out to identify the 25 best general managers in Asia, Europe, India, and Latin America — whether or not they'd ever worked for PepsiCo — and then tried to strike up relationships with them. He used recruiters to source and prequalify some of those people, but he insisted that the first contact be made either by him or by someone from his team. He believed that the job of selling his company should never be left in the hands of a headhunter. "I would tell people that all we wanted to do was have a cup of coffee with them," says Rueff. "We knew they were good. We just wanted to tell them the things that we were doing at Pepsi. I knew that anyone would take that call. I'm a busy guy too. But if I get a call from a business leader in another industry who says, 'For nothing else, let's just get to know each other,' I'm going to take that call. Who wouldn't? It's built-in networking; it's the stuff that makes the world go around. And it works every time."

Rueff's networking initiative improved the global talent pool available to Pepsi — and led directly to some high-profile hires. For example, it's how he found the man who became the president of Pepsi in China. Rueff asked Pepsi's CEO of HR for Asia to meet with the man. The Pepsi executive had already heard of him and thought he was outstanding. At that point, Rueff, acting like a true matchmaker, alerted Roger Enrico, the CEO of PepsiCo, to the potential hire. Rueff stressed that the next time Enrico was in China, he should meet with this man, even though Pepsi didn't have a specific job to fill. After their meeting — a one-hour breakfast that turned into an extended conversation — Enrico told Rueff that Pepsi needed to hire this guy. "I told Enrico that we didn't have a job open. He told me that we'd just have to make one. So we created the president of China position," says Rueff. "The point is to maintain relationships with people so even if the time's not right, when someone finally is motivated to make a change, we're just a phone call away."

The "Top 40" Talent List

The China hiring is a powerful example of how Rusty Rueff approaches the battle for senior-level talent. It's one thing (and quite valuable) to create a pool of thousands of in-the-trenches programmers from around the world. It's another thing to have direct access to the most-senior executives, the most-gifted directors, and the most-talented marketers. To that end, EA has created a "top 40" list — a hit list of the most-talented people throughout the world who, EA hopes, will someday work with the company. And as EA's executives, directors, and producers travel, they make a point of meeting with people from that list. Those high-level encounters have become a normal part of the itinerary for traveling EA executives. "The challenge for companies now is not identifying talented people but persuading those people to join your company," says Jose Martin, 31, head of HR for EA's 13 studios.

In order to persuade people to change their jobs and their lives — especially those people who are happy where they are — EA needs to have a deep understanding of who those folks are and what they care about. So Martin and his team created detailed profiles of the people on their top-40 list. Maintaining relationships with those people makes it easier to understand the trigger points that might persuade them to make a change and sign on with EA.

That said, no amount of knowledge can take the place of dogged persistence, argues Martin, who worked at National Semiconductor as well as at Adobe before joining EA a year ago. Such persistence paid off with a recent talent win — which pulled one more name off the top-40 list and put it onto the roster of EA employees. EA had its sights on Jay Riddle, a visual-effects guru in Hollywood who had worked on such films as Terminator 2, Starship Troopers, and several of the Star Trek movies. "I'll come up and meet with your team, but there's no way in hell I'm moving to the Bay Area," Riddle told Martin and John Riccitiello, EA's 40-year-old president and COO, in Los Angeles early last year.

Martin returned to Redwood City even more determined to hire Riddle and began to strategize with three of EA's top animators. "We realized that it was going to take a while to get Riddle. But we created a detailed plan and asked three highly respected people in the business to go to him, to check in with him, and to talk to him about the EA story," says Martin. After several more conversations, Riddle, still emphasizing that he would never permanently move north, agreed to meet with the EA team. "And that was it," says Martin. "He got so hooked on where we're going that a few weeks later he and his wife closed on a house in the Bay Area."

The power of EA's talent strategy lies in its simplicity. EA turns an ordinary act of building networks and relationships into an extraordinary method of fueling its own talent pipeline. And the real power of that method kicks in as EA's approach becomes more and more ingrained in every employee. "Ultimately, if we're going to be successful as a company," says Martin, "all of the producers, art directors, animators, and software engineers need to own this process. And they all need to strengthen their networks continually."

For just that reason, EA keeps its staffing department small — only 7 people. When he worked at National Semiconductor, Martin says, he had 19 people working for him in domestic staffing alone. "It was a machine," he says. "And when I look ahead, I see technological advances that will undoubtedly promise even more automation of the process. But companies that will win the talent war are not those that can create fine-tuned recruiting machines in fortified HR departments, but those that can create a systematic process of relationship building throughout an entire organization — a process that maintains a high-touch, personal feel to it."

Rusty Rueff agrees. "Just tell me who the best people are," he says. "My team will get out there. We'll sit with them. We'll talk with them. Even if someone dumps me along the way, I'll still be satisfied. Because I know that person will tell other people about Electronic Arts. And my phone will ring. And I'll just keep doing it over and over and over again."

Anna Muoio (amuoio@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer.Contact Rusty Rueff by email (rrueff@ea.com).

Sidebar: Welcome to the Gauntlet

Rusty Rueff wants to hire great people fast. But there's one point where he slows down. Each potential hire must go through "the gauntlet" — interviews with as many as 15 people. The gauntlet is a time-consuming process, one that creates opportunities for competitors to pry people away. But that's a risk he's willing to run. "It gives us a head start when someone does join," he says. "It's hurry up, slow down, hurry up. But that slowdown is crucial. Sometimes slower is faster. When I started my job, it felt like I already had 15 people in my corner."

The gauntlet is what persuaded Eric Metens, pictured above, to leave France to join EA. Metens, 31, came to EA via the EA-Recruiter. First, he answered questions online. Shortly thereafter, he had five technical phone interviews with engineers. Only then did EA fly him to Redwood City to start the gauntlet. These would be the first formal interviews that Metens had ever had. "In France, the gaming business is very small. Everybody knows everyone, and there's no need for interviews," Metens explains. "I spoke with four engineers per day for three days. Two days after I got back to France, I had an offer."

Metens also had an offer from another gaming company in Redwood City. But that offer was based solely on his résumé and on a 10-minute phone interview. "They needed a lot of people, but they didn't really care about who they hired," says Metens. "And I had no idea which team I would work with." Because of the gauntlet process, Metens had met every member of the EA team he would be working with. "In the end, that's what mattered."

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