Friday brought the sad news that Ebbe Altberg, the CEO of Linden Research Inc., had passed away. And while it is perhaps too soon to be thinking about things as people are still coming to terms with the news, polls, comments and opinions have nevertheless already started circulating as to the kind of CEO the company should now look towards.
Chief among the opinions being expressed is that it should be “someone who has been in Second Life for a good amount of time and has plenty of experience.” But is this accurate?
As I noted in my own tribute to Ebbe, while he did come to Linden Lab with a good degree of foreknowledge – his son Aleks had been very successful with the Teen Grid before transitioning to the Main grid, and Ebbe himself was a close friend of Jed Smith, the former chairman of the Lab’s board; as he readily admitted himself, he was not in any way either a long-term user of the platform or who had “plenty of experience” with it prior to joining the company.
And yet, as we’ve all noted over the pass several days since the news broke, Ebbe has been without a doubt, the most popular of CEOs at the Lab among users. His tenure was by no means perfect, but overall his presence strengthened both company and principal product enormously – up to and including spinning-off a revenue-generating subsidiary that in time might help both, in the form of Tilia Pay.
Thus, I would suggest that the qualities needs for CEO are not so much any deep / long-term exposure to or involvement in Second Life, but rather the qualities and skills needed to manage and lead a company and leverage the strengths inherent in its management team and staff. In this, I would say that long-time friend and commentator R.( R. Dismantled) has summed up the requirements of any incoming CEO the best:
Not a celebrity, but a manager of managers, making the good and difficult decisions. And not just talk and hype and making Second Life something it isn’t, but making it better…
… I hope that the next person entrusted to manage the managers of our weird little social soap bubble will be cut from the same cloth.
– R. (R. Dismantled) commenting on this blog
From the outset, Ebbe was “a manager of managers”. He trusted those reporting into him to run their departments in a manner that would best support the company, its core product and its users. At the same time, he was prepared to make the necessary hard choices to swing the company back onto a more solid course of product development – shutting down the Creatorverse, dio and Versu projects almost immediately (and later allowing the creators of Versu to spin it off into its own platform), winding down work on Patterns and selling Desura, whilst allowing Blocksworld to serve its community through until mid-2020. And – while it may not have entirely worked out as hoped – he set the company on paths that might seen the development of additional revenue-generating opportunities, through both the aforementioned Tilia Pay and through the development of Sansar.
There’s also the fact that the CEO’s brief is a broad one, encompassing skills and abilities far beyond general team leadership and product understanding.
While such skills can be acquired from within organisation, they do make promotion from within potentially more difficult even when – from an outside perspective, at least – there may appear to be “obvious” candidates, simply because they do take time to acquire and effectively wield.
As such, the “hire from without / promote from within” is a difficult path to tread – with the latter aspect further compounded by the fact that even if there are potential candidates within the organisation that could transition and acquire the skills of a CEO over time – they may not actually want to do so, simply because it means they must relinquish aspects of their work they actually enjoy the most.
In the specific case of Linden Research, things are perhaps further compounded by the fact that Ebbe Altberg was somewhat unique in his background. This spanned running large and small corporate entities, presenting him with the broadest base of skillsets, and was coupled with his own “left-brain / right brain” balance of technical and creative skills and knowledge that – even without a long-standing involvement in Second life – provided him with a solid foundation for quickly understanding the complexities of the platform and its communities of users with their needs once he was at his desk at the Lab.
There is also another factor to consider here: does the Lab actually need someone to take over directly as CEO?
Since the acquisition process closed-off at the end of 2020, incoming investor Brad Oberwager has been conspicuous in the degree to which he has been hands-on in his role as Executive Chair within the management team, as reported by the likes of Grumipty, Brett and Patch Linden at various in-world events. Mr. Oberwagerf has also brought long-term business partner/colleague Cammy Bergren into the LL fold as the company’s Chief of Staff.
Between them, they have considerable experience in running corporate entities, and as such are well-placed to steer Linden Lab through the next several months without the need for any immediate appointment from without or within, giving staff more time to deal with the loss of Ebbe whilst ensuring both the company and Second Life adjust and move forward under a broader management umbrella (I exclude Tilia Pay here as that entity appears to be almost entirely self-managing).
So, with all that being said, right now it is far too early to be considering “what ifs” and “who mights” in terms of the role of CEO at the Lab. Ebbe’s legacy is huge and something that we should all spend more time reflecting upon – and we should allow Linden Lab space to reflect on the loss of a man they knew better than the rest of us, rather than speculating on “who should be next”.