“When I arrived at the company, I started teaching people how to relax.” Interview with Yana Khoroshavina, Lead Project Manager at Elephant Games

Yana Khoroshavina’s career path began with a job at a children’s camp in Yoshkar-Ola, but she now manages teams at the game development studio Elephant Games. Her story is the best motivation for people who are afraid of trying or don’t know how to get into IT.

The Inlingo team chatted to Yana and discovered how a love for management can help you find work in game development, what triggers employee burnout, and why company culture is pretty much the most important factor in major successes.

“To get into IT, you don’t have to be an egghead”

– You’ve been managing teams for almost five years, first at a studio developing mobile apps for business, and now at Elephant Games. How did you discover that you like helping people to organize their work?

– It’s been a long journey. I’d look back not just at the last five years, but over an even longer period. To be honest, all I’ve been doing my whole life is managing people. It all began in my hometown, Yoshkar-Ola. I worked at a children’s camp, and in due course I reached the position of assistant director. I had around 70 people under me: animators, cleaners, cooks, and supervisors. Basically, I was responsible for the life of the camp year-round.

In 2016, I hit a ceiling and realized that I wanted to follow a different path. I was drawn to the field of IT. The people there are completely different, more open and involved in creating revolutionary projects that change the world. I just went on Google, did a search for “IT companies Yoshkar-Ola,” and chose the ones that seemed interesting. At that time, I didn’t know of the existence of HeadHunter, so I wrote to the directors of the companies on VK.

I got a response from the guys from Omega R, a mobile development company. I passed the interview, they showed me the office, gave me a test task, and hired me as a PR assistant. I worked in their team for around a year and realized that PR wasn’t quite for me. I want to influence people, to manage and create a product, not to write text about conferences. When you lead a team, set up processes, work with great people, and see how their eyes light up—there’s nothing that compares with that feeling.

– So you started looking for another job?

– I considered staying at the same company, but they didn’t have the right vacancy open. So I went on HeadHunter and started responding to ads. One of them was a management role at White Tiger Soft, another mobile developer. But the guys looked at my resume and didn’t answer. To be honest, that upset me. I looked on social media and found the guy who was checking the ads, and I DMed him: “Anton, I responded to the vacancy, but you didn’t answer. I have a lot of management experience, I’ve already worked in IT, and I’ve taken courses. Maybe you could take a look at my resume?” He answered that he’d made my resume a high priority, and he’d write soon.

When I came to the interview, Anton admitted that he didn’t know how to assess a manager. I didn’t understand either. It wasn’t like we were starting a revolution, was it? In the end, they hired me. I think my persistence played a role in that. After my DM, he didn’t have any other options. Anton taught me a lot. White Tiger Soft was where all the principles of management that I have were established. I also raised my game a lot on the technical side, which turned out to be particularly difficult. By education, I’m a teacher, psychologist, and director. Now I had to study things that I’d never heard of before.

Interview. One of the parties at White Tiger Soft
One of the parties at White Tiger Soft

After around three years, I hit a ceiling again and started looking for how I could move forward. That’s how I came across a vacancy for a PR assistant at Elephant Games. I’d applied to join their team before as a manager more than once, but I didn’t have enough experience, so they rejected me immediately. This time, I decided to grab at any vacancy, and once I got settled in, to prove myself and try again to get some management role.

I was really lucky at the interview — the HR director turned out to be great and immediately understood that the vacancy wasn’t for me. He said, “We’re making a mistake here. You’re definitely not a PR assistant, it’s management that fires you. Give me some time and I’ll see what I can do.” A month later, they called me and offered me two jobs, one in a technical role and the other in management. Of course, I took the second one.

I think that when people read this story, they’ll think, “That’s real assertiveness.” And in fact, they’re right. To get into IT, you don’t have to be an egghead or have a technical way of thinking. I just really wanted to work in this field, and everything came together.

– You’ve worked in companies in different areas — in mobile business apps and games. How is working with game developers different from the rest of IT?

– Mobile development is more about business, and games are about art and creativity. There’s a lot more soul in game dev. For example, we’ve been putting out the Grim Tales project for more than 10 years. It’s a family story that’s always developing. People come to work for us who’ve grown up on our games, which is just crazy and really motivates me.

One time, I got an offer to be a character in one of our projects for Halloween. They took my picture and photobashed it—they retouched it and created a guard with my face. Another example: we have a game coming out soon with cats, so as references we sent in our pets. The process of creating these games really inspires me.

– When it comes to people who manage teams, you can get the impression that they’re some kind of control freak. How much truth is there in that?

– It depends on the company culture. A good manager doesn’t sit with a machine gun watching everyone, they set up processes that can work without them. In fact, it’s even better if they do work without them. If you can’t do that, then you can’t scale up your business and organize even a small team of 10 people.

A manager always has something to optimize, but if you’re always thinking about that, you can get buried in it and burn out. It’s important to have self-control. Sometimes I realize that I need to put the brakes on and work on something else. You can’t just work on one skill all the time, you have to have several.

– You make a huge number of games — for PC, for mobile, and for consoles. How many people work on all of that? 

– Specifically on premium hidden object projects, around 120-150 people. And in total the company has roughly 180 employees. We have a separate group for porting—they bring PC games to other platforms. Plus there are several games that are under development, and there’s a separate team that works on them

– If it’s not a secret, what projects are you actively working on right now?

– We have two new projects in development that should be coming out soon. One is the new detective series It Happened Here and the other is Knight Cats, the game with cats as the main heroes. Part 23 of Grim Tales is also coming soon.

“Creativity is organized madness” 

– What criteria determine the effectiveness of a team? 

– Effectiveness strongly depends on the manager. If, for example, the manager regularly turns up late, then how can they ask the team to have due respect for deadlines? There’s an expression, “The pack copies the leader.” That’s the basis of everything: a manager should be an example that people try to live up to. And if we’re talking about the team, then it’s vital to monitor the individual time management of each employee. It’s a long process. When I arrived at the company, I started teaching people how to relax. They were surprised: “What’s this about? A manager should be working 24/7.” But in time they managed to get rid of that prejudice.

To make sure the team is focused, we use a system of sprint work. People have to understand where they’re going and why. And transparency in all processes is also important. When you’re driving in fog, you drive slowly because you can’t see anything. It’s important to turn on your fog lights, and we do that through calls with plans for the year ahead. The team has to understand what’s going on in the company to move forward with confidence.

And, of course, we put a lot of emphasis on the value aspect — what kind of team we are and what things are important to us. In the end, that also influences the effectiveness of employees. 

– In any team, there are times when something goes wrong — a suddenly shortened deadline, for example. How do you cope with stressful situations like that, ensuring the team remains motivated and delivers great results? 

– It’s very important to focus on the cause of the problem: how did that situation with the seriously shortened deadline come about? Most probably, somewhere else something wasn’t completed properly, or on the contrary, was worked on for too long, and now there’s not enough time. It’s important to motivate the team to overcome the difficulty, but also in the aftermath to get to the bottom of causes and correct the deficiencies. Shortened deadlines should be the exception, not the rule. A spring can be squashed for a long time, but one day it’s going to pop. 

With colleagues from Elephant Games

As a rule, team motivation is needed at the moment when deadlines are discussed. At the start of the Knight Cats project, we had only two artists. The rest were hired in the process. I motivated the team with the idea that two people make a big army. We can try and show everyone that doing the task with this team in that time is absolutely possible. During calls, we set the goal of not falling behind other teams. We may be house cats, but in our hearts we’re real lions and winners. 

It was a difficult task, but those two artists achieved great results and demonstrated amazing speed. Furthermore, they managed to relax and be energized by their success. Our goal was to show that everything is possible and it’s up to us. In time, we hired additional artists, and when they came into such a motivated environment, they immediately engaged with the work to the full and produced awesome results. 

– What time-management methods do you use with your teams at Elephant Games? 

– We advise people to keep track of their time themselves. Managers don’t get on your back and monitor how much you’re working. The only thing we have is that in ClickUp [a service for teamwork—Ed.] there’s a time tracker—when someone accepts a task, they put the timer on. This isn’t needed for recordkeeping, it’s so that we ourselves can see how much time is spent on any stage of work. If it’s too much, then we can adjust the processes. 

Sometimes, we call up managers and ask them our favorite question: “So, how’s it going?” And if someone’s working more than necessary, that means there’s a problem. We try to reconfigure these issues together, and the extra hours worked are compensated in the schedule. For example, we move the start of the work day from 09:00 to 10:00. Sometimes, somebody doesn’t know our pipeline. They don’t have enough experience or even the desire to work on a specific task. There’s always a trigger for missed deadlines.

– How do you set up interactions in a team in a way that means employees’ creativity doesn’t interfere with keeping deadlines?

– Establish a framework. Creativity is organized madness. People have to understand that they have deadlines. The most important is to get the main part of the tasks done, and if everything’s OK with timing, then you can look at additional stuff. When we were doing King Cats, we came up against the problem of excessive creativity. It was a new game and, of course, everyone loves cats. The guys kept wanting to improve something or redraw it, but on the stream we could see that there was no need for more polishing—only the artists themselves would notice it. We’d be spending extra time, but the players wouldn’t appreciate it. 

If we have doubts about further work, we always discuss it with the leads. They’ve been working in the company for a long time, and they know whether it’s worth spending so much time on a specific issue. And, if the attack of excessive creativity happens with the lead, then the PM will stop them, for example by reminding them that deadlines are impending. 

“On one lunch break, I watched Comedy Club for 40 minutes”

– What does your average working day look like?

– I’ve been working remotely for the last eighteen months. My day starts with coffee and a croissant, then I sit down to work. We have a flexible schedule, but for me the most convenient time is between 09:00 and 18:00. The first thing I do is conduct interviews and mentor all the leads and project managers. Then come the dailies—we go over the tasks and see what’s already done and where there have been problems. Then I tune into other managers’ calls and make notes on what they need to adjust in their working communication. For example, I write feedback if someone has expressed doubt and they haven’t noticed. Then we discuss those issues. 

After that, I turn to my free-to-play project, and we assign tasks. That’s quite fast because I’ve set a different working model from the one we use for our premium HO games. Also, I have one-to-one meetings with leads and project managers, as well as calls about new functionality. As we’re currently transferring to Unity, I take a look at how development is going and whether or not everything’s working on the management side. 

When the team’s work is all set, I turn to business thinking. I think about what else can be improved and how to increase productivity. Furthermore, a team is a living organism that sometimes experiences problems—somebody needs help, someone else needs support. It’s an endless process. 

– Now, due to the pandemic and the high number of relocations, remote work is at its peak. Do you have any advice for remote employees on how to organize their work?

– For me, remote work is the absolute best format. The main thing is not to take on too much. I don’t work more than eight hours a day, and I always take a lunch break. I can use the time to take a walk and change my surroundings. Sometimes, I don’t fill up the fridge on purpose, so I have another reason to go out for lunch. In any case, I don’t cook at home, because I don’t know how to. I spend the time I free up on my education. Right now, as well as working, I’m getting my MBA. 

Also at lunch, I may watch a film or read a book to distract myself from work. Sometimes that’s just essential. One time I had a difficult call with a programmer, who turned out to be utterly disappointed in life—everything was miserable and depressing. I managed to give the guy some support and get him in the mood to work, but after the call I needed some time to get myself back up again. On that lunch break, I watched Comedy Club for 40 minutes. At times like that, you realize that an hour for lunch is just essential. 

After six, I stop working and I turn off notifications. If someone writes to me, then I only answer them the following morning. Nothing bad has ever happened in those hours. When there’s an important release, I can work later, but then I’ll start working at noon on the following day. I like that the company’s schedule is flexible. It helps to conserve resources.

– For many people, working from home is a major stress that can lead to burnout. How do you deal with that?

– When I say that I work from home and that it’s awesome, lots of people are surprised I haven’t burned out yet. But I think burnout has a few causes. The first is when somebody is in the wrong place and feels pressure because of it. The second is unclear goals. The employee just doesn’t know what they’re working towards. I sometimes discuss this subject with friends. They tell me they often don’t understand why they’re completing a task and what benefit it brings to the company. They don’t see the result and they think their boss is wasting time. That’s how doubts appear that lead to burnout. 

And, of course, your schedule is also very important. If I worked non-stop, then I’d definitely start going out of my mind. That’s simple physiology—your body gets tired, and it needs rest. If you work too much, even in a job that you love, then sooner or later it’ll get harder to do even the simplest tasks. You can’t keep going in that state for long. 

– A team’s results depend on the condition of every member. How do you make sure that nobody’s experiencing burnout and everybody’s ready to keep giving their all to their work? 

– It’s important to pay attention to body language and microexpressions, which is why in our company everyone has to have their camera on for calls. That’s a part of the culture that began with me. I did student comedy competitions for seven years, so humor is an integral part of my communication style. When I arrived at the company and I tried to make jokes on calls, I didn’t feel any reaction because I couldn’t see people. So I said, “I don’t understand if my jokes are funny right now or not. Maybe you could turn on your cameras?” Gradually the guys all started doing it. 

If someone’s getting behind in their tasks, doesn’t turn on their camera, and isn’t talking, then you start to suspect something’s wrong. Right now, I’m writing a small set of instructions called PM Sense, where I explain how you can calculate everything in advance. For example, in a one-to-one that takes place once a month, the manager should always ask, “How are you doing?” The question isn’t just about work, it’s about your life too. When you do that, you can’t help but notice any doubts or worries that might be there. 

In the Elephant Games meeting room

If we can sense that someone is burning out, we immediately give them a call and find out what’s up. If they need a break, we give it to them. And there are times when it’s necessary to change their field or their team. We had a girl who worked faultlessly and always had the biggest smile, but one day we found out that she adored drawing. In games, we normally use photobashing, but she wanted to create something from scratch. So, for one of our projects, we created a video that was entirely drawn by hand. That really influenced her efficacy in the future—she enjoyed herself and got inspiration. And for us, it’s really nice to know that in one of our games there’s a cool video like that. 

“We try to ask about things you won’t read on a resume”  

– I have the feeling that teams work better when they communicate about more than just work. Is that really true, and what activities can help bring people together?

– In our case, nobody chats at the office, because we simply don’t have one—everyone works remotely. Eighteen months ago, I got the sense that the guys were missing out on everyday communication, so I came up with Chat About Life calls. At the time, that didn’t exist anywhere else. We just got together and discussed everything except work. In the beginning, we had them once a week, but then we realized that we’d already told each other a lot, so we started to have them once every two weeks or once a month. It turned out to be a great idea: the team members can chat with each other freely, and we get to know them better.

In interviews, people sometimes claim to be introverts, then in Chat About Life, they’ll talk for 30 minutes without a break. The guys share some really personal stuff. For example, one girl has a terrible memory and was worried about forgetting her wedding anniversary. She disguised the notification on her calendar so her husband wouldn’t understand, and then she forgot what it meant. It was a classic story, and it made the whole team laugh. 

Sometimes we play our competitors’ games together. As a rule, we alternate that event with Chat About Life calls to keep a balance. And, in addition to that, the company organizes mass online games. It’s one thing when you’re in the circle of your small team, and quite another when the whole company is taking part in an activity and you can get to know everyone. Sometimes, people from different teams visit each other’s streams. Sometimes I invite the guys from one team onto planning calls with another team, so they can share experience and get motivated. 

– When a team is already working well, it can be difficult for new members to fit in quickly. What’s the most painless way of onboarding new people to a well-functioning machine? 

– We don’t have any problems with new people. We set up team processes to ensure that everybody understands that new people bring us expertise from outside. This is a little chick you can rear, and when they become a bird, they will do something cool for you. If a team has the right focus and values, there won’t be any problem with new people.

We promote that culture in the company and hire new people that fit it. Also, in interviews, we look at how open the person is—how they communicate, what their life values are, how they react to feedback, and how they built relationships in their previous work.

– What else do you look at when you’re interviewing potential team members?

– We have a whole checklist for how to conduct calls and which questions to ask. We try to ask what hobbies they have, so they’ll tell us about things you won’t read on a resume. Openness and communicative competence are important. They’re qualities that help someone fit comfortably into a team. We always check whether or not the candidate shares our goals and values. If the whole team loves and plays our games, and the new member just wants to complete their tasks and rejects everything else, there will be a conflict of interest, and it will affect the work. 

A positive outlook on life, initiative, and the ability to take on responsibility for your actions are all important. It’s also really valuable when someone knows how to be grateful. People often tell me that I’m an ambassador for that skill. When the guys give us feedback, we say, “Thank you for your work.” I actively implement that culture because gratitude has a major effect on people. The HR director and I compare metrics, and we see positive feedback from employees who have something to compare it to. This is a huge area of work that we’ve only dealt with 20-30% of. 

– What are the things that trip somebody up at interview and put you off them?

– I’m put off when somebody only talks about money. I agree that salary is a serious issue, but getting pleasure from what you do is no less important. If somebody is only thinking about raising their pay grade in six months, then another company can offer them more money at any moment, and they’ll leave. It’s important for values to be built not just on finances. We have a lot of employees who have been working at Elephant Games since it was founded, and a similar number who quit the company but then came back again. Apart from the financial aspect, we have a load of advantages that other companies can’t offer.

– How has the company changed since you’ve been working there?

– When I arrived, Elephant Games had a different working model. There were five offices — in Yoshkar-Ola, Cheboksary, Kazan, Samara, and Penza. Everyone went to the office and often worked long hours. When we were offline, you could go up to any employee and ask them a question. Discussion in the kitchen or the smoking room played the role that Chat About Life does now. And in the evenings, the guys went to play PlayStation together. Obviously, when the pandemic started, the previous working model proved ineffective. The employees dispersed to their homes, and all our processes had to be set up again. 

I turned out to be the first manager who was hired from outside. A little later, we got a great Head of PM. We took to each other like two beads that ought to be on the same necklace and we started to implement a new working model. We introduced calls, changed the planning process, and promoted an individual approach to each employee. We’ve achieved a lot, and there’s still a lot to do. 

Of course, not everyone is capable of adapting, and then we have to say goodbye to them. Nonetheless, it’s important that an employee should never be dismissed unexpectedly. The basis of our culture is openness. We discuss difficulties, try to solve them, and only in extreme situations do we talk about leaving. If somebody has potential and they want to be part of the team, then everything will be fine. 

Furthermore, the owners of the company often communicate with their employees. The guys can see that they’re real people who care about what’s happening. The managers and leads work individually with each person. It’s an approach that you don’t often find in other companies. It’s a culture that can’t help but be attractive.