CIO interview: Rovio Entertainment's Kalle Alppi believes IT staff should be embedded in business

The CIO at the company behind Angry Birds talks about running global IT with only five permanent staff

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW Nordics: CW Nordics – August 2015 Edition

Running global IT with a team of five is not for everyone, but Kalle Alppi, the first IT director at Finnish games developer and Angry Birds creator Rovio Entertainment, believes small teams and strong partnerships are the future – and his views have been put to the test. 

When Alppi started working at Rovio in 2011, the company had around 100 employees and was on a strong growth curve. Almost 30 employees were coming in every month, putting pressure on the work environment and systems, which, at the time, meant a few games development systems and one IT person.

Growth management was by far the biggest challenge at that point, although we didn’t really have IT systems in place either. Everything was built from scratch and it was very much building while running,” says Alppi.

Rovio now employs 700 people across nine offices and has three business units – games, media and consumer products – supported by a core financial system and business-specific resource planning systems.

Building an agile IT organisation

So how is it possible to manage IT for so many with so few?

“The only thing we still do ourselves in Espoo [Rovio headquarters] is customer service and near-support. That takes more than half of our manpower, leaving two guys to do sub-contractor co-ordination and business communications. 

“We often make the life of IT very difficult to make the life of business easy”

Kalle Alppi, Rovio Entertainment

“It is an exceptionally lean approach to IT, but it is also extremely flexible in growth and changing situations,” says Alppi.

The core IT team also gets some outside help. While not part of Alppi’s five specialists, Rovio has 20 to 30 employees (excluding games developers) with IT-related job descriptions. Instead of having IT as a separate bastion, they work for different units in the company.

“Most of our business IT people work inside business units and are our major internal stakeholders. It allows them to be very hands-on with what is happening there.

“Typically, anyone with even the slightest association to IT is put into the IT department and then you assign an IT manager to every business unit, but in our model those in charge of business IT also work in business,” says Alppi. 

He emphasises this kind of lean model relies heavily on finding the right sub-contractors. Rovio itself has a network of around 20 core partners and 30 smaller partners.

“We have global infrastructure partners who we use because we don’t have our own datacentres. The main ones are Amazon and Google. The back end of our games is mostly in Amazon. From Google we use cloud platform services and Google Apps [office applications],” he says.

But Alppi also toots the horn of smaller service providers. Rovio mainly works with local and international companies with 100 or fewer employees for whom the gaming company is a significant customer.

“This way we get much better service and the business relationship works for both of us. I don’t 100% agree with the traditional negotiation approach, where the focus is on finding the best possible terms and price for the customer. 

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“Of course a deal needs to be profitable, but we aim to ensure the service providers have an interest in working with us long term,” he says.

Alppi’s approach is to build partnerships where both parties win, whether it is through a financial incentive, reference case or something else.

For Alppi one of the main benefits of building a partner network instead of a big in-house team is its flexibility as needs evolve – something he believes many large IT organisations agonise over.

“Competence needs change, not only with ‘hype cycles’, but because what companies did in-house beforehand they will no longer need to do in the future. 

“Let’s take traditional storage systems, for example. Even though we have animation production and part of that process requires fast and local material capacity, more and more storage is taken into the cloud. And in that situation if you have top-level storage and backup experts, what are you going to do with them? It’s a tough situation,” Alppi says.

Business value from experimentation

If the first few years Alppi was running to keep up with Rovio’s growth. As it has stabilised – over-expansion saw the company lay off 110 people in 2014 – the focus has shifted to what he describes as more “traditional IT”.

Currently, this means concentrating on eliminating inefficiencies, improving partner collaboration systems and increasing automation before an Angry Birds movie is released in 2016 and pre-occupies the whole company.

But while the focus areas are conventional, the methods are not.

“We often make the life of IT very difficult to make the life of business easy,” Alppi says. 

“First of all, we listen to [business users’] wishes and suggestions. We have systems that have been deployed entirely from the initiative of a business unit. IT can’t make decisions from its ivory tower and roll out systems,” he adds.

He believes the consumer-oriented ideology that a “system is good only when people intuitively want to use it” should also be applied to IT. After all, the Angry Birds game would not have been downloaded around three billion times if people were told to do so.

“Of course, you can’t please everyone. There are security issues and operative responsibilities to consider, but we try to give people leeway to experiment with their own technologies. If these really help their business we are prepared to do tons of work to integrate that system into our infrastructure,” Alppi says.

“Often it means plenty of IT headaches if a system hasn’t previously been implemented in this scale. But if it’s worth it to the business side, it’s part of our and our sub-contractors’ expertise to solve those problems,” he adds.

As an example, he brings up a case from three years ago when a few product developers wanted to try Atlassian products, Jira and Confluence, in task and issue management.

“We decided to give it a try and we used a company credit card to purchase 10 licences. Then we bought a few more and a few more and suddenly we had 450 users. Today, the whole company uses those systems and they include hundreds of sub-contractors,” he says.

Furthermore, the IT team is working on replacing Rovio’s existing intranet with Confluence, which is already used more actively.

“It was entirely a business user-led initiative, which has ended up replacing two to three other systems because it is better.

“We are not building a system that suddenly earns the company billions, we are not the business. Even if we [IT] are a vital link in its success, we are a service,” says Alppi. 

Are IT departments still needed?

While Alppi encourages everyone to look past existing software and conventional practices, he also acknowledges a larger change in the role of IT. 

“Suddenly, it’s social skills and commercial understanding of agreements that are needed. In many projects, our in-house lawyers are our most important resource as they check our service provider agreements. 

The Angry Birds movie is due to be released in 2016

“Five years ago, having a lawyer in an IT project would have sounded more like a punishment,” says Alppi.

“The discussion on whether IT departments are still needed is well justified. I think there will always be the need for an entity which takes responsibility and co-ordinates the big picture, but in a production-sense, IT is not needed any more. It has changed,” he says.

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