1) What was your first exposure to technology and how old were you?
When I was in elementary school my family didn't have a computer so I only got to use one at my best friend's house. His dad was a software engineer. I remember he was trying to teach my friend how to code, but he wasn't having it, so one day I asked him to teach me. He showed me how to draw some boxes and circles on the screen in QBasic and I was instantly hooked. I was 8 years old.
2) How did you get into computer and video game development?
My friend's dad taught me a few basics and I took it from there. Programming was never fun for me unless I made something I could get people to use that would make them smile. As a kid who mostly played games, this was the most natural "consumer product" for me to build. Games are also a great way to stretch the limit of computers and apply your knowledge of math. I built at least 3 games a year, coding almost every day, from when I was 8 until I was about 25 years old.
3) What gave you the idea to do Mafia Wars?
How did I prepare for it in terms of storyline, characters and visuals? Bit of a backstory here... The "dot com boom" happened around the year 2000 when I was a senior in high school. I wasn't the type to drop out and start a business, and didn't know enough about internet development at the time, so I watched this pivotal moment in technology history come & go. I remember thinking that was the last major technology boom I would see in my lifetime. Funny because in the ensuing 15 years we have seen social (2006), mobile (2010), and more.
When Facebook started to take off in 2005 I became a very big believer. Peter Thiel talks about the idea of a "secret", something you know about the world that other people don't. My secret was that I knew Facebook would become a very large company. I became determined to work at FB so I flew to San Francisco where I knew exactly 1 person and took the train down to Facebook headquarters. I waited outside at around 5pm and met people as they were leaving work. I remember seeing Mark Zuckerberg rush by. As luck would have it, I met the guy who wrote the interview problems that I would have to answer to get the job. He gave me his business card and I sent my application to him directly. He never replied and rather than bumping the email like any sane person would have I gave up on getting a job there. My stock would have been worth around $400m today. Nuts!
My next best idea was to start making apps on the newly released FB platform. My friend in San Francisco taught me how, and when I saw how much money he was making, I quit my job that night. I ended up making around 20 apps over 4 months, regularly pulling all-nighters, trying to find one that would take off. I don't think I've ever worked that hard in my life. I adopted a poly-phasic sleep schedule, didn't leave my house, and probably showered once a week. Finally I tried making a game inspired by Drug Wars (a popular Palm Pilot & TI calculator game), Grand Theft Auto, and all the action movies I loved to watch growing up as a kid. I called it Dope Wars. It immediately took off and grew to around $3m a year in profit. Zynga, based in San Francisco, acquired my company and I told the CEO I wanted to make a mafia themed game. I relocated to SF and in about 8 days build the first version of Mafia Wars, inspired by features from Dope Wars as well as popular storylines from mafia movies and TV shows I had seen.
4) What inspires you the most?
Ultimately I love learning. Everything moves faster in technology and there is always something new to learn. Starting a technology company multiples that by 10-100x. It's like plugging your brain into a firehose of new information and challenges every day! It's also great to work with smart people and build a product that makes life better for thousands (or millions) or people.
5) Describe a difficult problem you had to solve and how you fixed it.
My usual solution to difficult problems is to imagine what I can do with the solution & how good I'll feel once I get there. It's like climbing a mountain and feeling an overpowering desire to reach the top. Once I do that I dig in and don't stop until I find a solution! Most recent example of this was in a racing game I just finished building a month ago. I had to figure out how to draw the objects on the screen so they didn't overlap each other incorrectly (ie if item A is in front of item B, it should be drawn in front). It took about 6 tries and I had to invent a depth-sorting algorithm that I've never heard of but I didn't give up until I made it work. 6) After 3 successful startups what’s your next plan? Technology is fun but you'll be a happier person if you have a life outside of your technology passion. It's about time I focused more on that :)
7) Any advice to kids contemplating a career in tech?
Becoming a great programmer requires a lot more than brains. You have to build A LOT of side projects that constantly stretch the bounds of your ability. When I say a lot I mean you need to spend 100 hours each on 100 projects. Some people call this "getting your 10,000 hours". If this doesn't sound interesting to you that's ok, you can still have a career in tech, but you will never be one of the best.