Opinion: in consideration of Ebbe and the Lab’s next CEO

Source: Google

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?

Ebbe Altberg: perhaps linden Lab’s most successful CEO. Souce: Linden Lab

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.

Ebbe Linden, aka Ebbe Altberg.  Credit; Strawberry Singh

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.

Linden Lab’s Chief of Staff, Cammy Bergren (centre left) and Board member / Executive Chairman, Brad Oberwager (centre right) and their respective avatars. Both appear to have been very much at the helm of Linden Lab since Mr. Oberwager and his fellow investors acquired the company at the end of 2020.

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”.

4 thoughts on “Opinion: in consideration of Ebbe and the Lab’s next CEO

  1. re. Second Life specifically, what is required is a steady hand on the tiller, keeping a wary eye for sholes and headwinds, and a cautious lookout for change opportunities.
    Linden Labs have broader responsibilities, maintaining the economic and social health of Second Life while being receptive to new ideas that will expand the companies’ portfolio.
    Challenging shoes to fill!

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  2. The executive chair of Linden Lab is named Brad Oberwager. His Linden name is Oberwolf Linden. So you may want to fix that in your article.

    Yes, I have sent him wolf snacks inworld.

    Typically private companies are not required to publicize facts about usage and decision making, and typically their board, on which their investors sit, decide whom to hire as CEO, not the customers of that company. Yet LL has a history of being more transparent than most, and more ethical than most, and more oriented to customer collaboration than most. The last chair of the board (as distinct from the CEO) I remember interacting with the residents was Mitch Kapor, who was disappointed when SL didn’t yield that Better Worlding device which he got out of Electronic Frontier Foundation and other ventures, and basically called us the Island of Misfit Toys, or something similar. The purchase of LL enabled him to have a “liquidity event” as it is known (or did he sell his stake or secondary stock before that? Not sure) and he’s gone. Like every country gets the leader they deserve, every software customer gets the users they deserve, so here we are, get used to us.

    The new investors have much to recommend them, in that they run real businesses in the real world and are not part of software cults as far as we can tell, although not a lot is known about them and their interest in SL other than that they were friends with Ebbe, which is a good recommendation. I like the fact that Oberwager’s business has been in car parts and snacks because that’s all about delivery and customer service and not “Better World” and software cults. But in fact we don’t know what his vision is or his concept of where SL fits in the Metaverse and real world because all we know is that he has told the customer-facing staff that the customer must come first, “everything for the residents”. Naturally, we are skeptical, when the focus of the actual programmers is on “blue moons, backwards rainbows, and infinitely distant stars,” as I have called it, rather than group chat or search, which are broken. Of course, ‘the customer is always right” is an ancient adage in American retail since the days of Johnny Wanamaker, and it’s a mantra that forums geeks in particular are quick to deride and dismantle, because they think the job of software companies is to focus on their ethereal product directly and sell ethereal concepts like “rendering” or “experience,” and see any issue as PICNIC (problem in chair, not in computer, i.e. the user is at fault, not the programmer).

    In the days when residents had fierce fights over whether SL was a platform or a world, whether platformistas in the form of Linden geeks and their special friends among computer programmers and designers should rule, with orientation towards business, government, education as users of this 3D scene generator for their purposes, or worlders, in the form of a wide variety of residents, from social and casual users to role-play communities creating a coherent inworld-world, each constituency fought fiercely for the soul of the organization and the priorities of the leadership, and many voted with their feet.

    Eric Rice (Spin Martin) once said famously, “We are customers of a software company. The end.” He said that so users didn’t have any romantic ideas that they collaborated with the Lindens in making a coherent world, an actual “second life”, or there was any nonsense like “Your World, Your Imagination” (an old slogan) when that world was all in grey squares and the inventory was lost.

    The Lindens would be crazy to draw from the user base or promote from the staff for the CEO position. That’s not how real-life works, and LL is a real-life company, not a virtual dressmaker for avatars. That means hiring a figure like Ebbe who worked for large companies like Microsoft and Yahoo in middle-management positions where he led hundreds of people in complex “manager of manager” work as you indicate. People outside of big corporations sometimes think these people are superfluous or don’t do real work or are easily replaced, and yet they persist because in fact they are needed, and you can’t run Google by taking the most radical and woke 100 geeks and have them rule the product and relationships — and run the company into the ground and lose value for shareholders.

    The purpose of American companies is to create and maintain value for shareholders. That doesn’t mean they must be rapacious and evil capitalists killing off their customers (the techno-communist WeWork geek collectivizing office space is actually better at that sort of thing in fact). It means that they take into account *customer requirements* and the market in general and see where their fit is and where they can advance the product. We aren’t the product in SL as we are in Facebook, but we aren’t shareholders, either, merely because we pay tier. I don’t imagine I own a share in Grand Central Station if I pay a locker fee. Still, LL and SL are small and special and do something no big platform of social media or service does: create opportunities for customers to make a profit and make a living. This is an amazing phenomenon that never gets proper attention from the jaded tech press and of course companies like FB and Instagram have no interest in cutting their product-customers into some of their loot. Linden Lab has done that for the 18 years of its existence. It is indeed the future of the Internet — *that*, that ability to have an inworld economy and make a living — not the thing people imagine is the future, which is fancy graphics or high speed car races across seamless sims. The existing VPs with seasoned inworld experience should be supported and every effort made to help their do their jobs in their sectors as all of them have brought profit for LL, especially with things like the Marketplace and Bellissaria.

    It’s important to remember what some of the chief mistakes of past CEOs were in order to find the new CEO and have him avoid these types of loss-making maneuvers:

    1. Philip Rosedale– open-sourcing the viewer, ushering in griefers, the years of an anarcho-communist approach to governance (ad farms), indifference or even dislike of arbitrage (killing of telehubs), feting an inner core of geeks and designers.
    2. Mark Kingdon – promoting content as king and focusing on feting content creators; focusing solely on fine art as the form of creativity that SL residents take (making a club or group or outfit are all forms of creativity as well); unable to manage staff who loathed and undermined him.
    3. Rodney Humble — barred staff from going inworld or talking to residents (crazy) yet joined a major griefer group posing as My Little Pony fans and promoted that image as his bear; interested in games, particularly wonky indy designer games, which SL is not; allowed actual seasoned professionals put in charge of the Marketplace to be massacred by the user base.
    4. Ebbe Linden — While killing off the failures of Patterns, etc. went lurching off to start Sansar, losing orginal customer base support and taking years to right it; permitting Oz Linden to remove democracy/voting from the JIRA; making the introduction of mesh into a class warfare and driving sculpty and prim creators from the world. To his credit, as the CEO with the longest tenure in LL, he righted these wrongs.

    Of all these CEOS, Philip was arguably the most brilliant and creative in not only conceiving and executing SL, but having the practical wisdom to allow land sales to become the engine for the Lab’s prosperity as well as residents. And arguably Ebbe was the most skillful and sophisticated in moving the company through changes, reducing the cost of land and adding prims, putting SL into the cloud.

    So any CEO has to have some artistic bent; has to have some knowledge of how the Internet and SL works specifically (but need not be a hard-core engineer) and be able to manage both the cultists and extremists on the staff as well as the residents inworld to maximize value for shareholders and to promote the product, a sophisticated and complex one that enables people to fall in love, make friends, cover costs, earn a living, learn and grow — all real-world accomplishments even if done virtually.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “The executive chair of Linden Lab is named Brad Oberwager. His Linden name is Oberwolf Linden. So you may want to fix that in your article.”

      Mae Culpa! I originally had “Brad Oberwager (Oberwolf Linden in SL)” and then revised, intending to remove the linden element, but had something of a brain fart. Stupid of me not to sport in reading back. Particularly as the image has his name given correctly!

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  3. Thanks Inara for a great article.

    Here is my 2-cents.

    To be a successful lead of a large team, your people must love you and you must love them. They must be willing to go that extra mile when it is needed. There must be transparency for when unpleasant things have to be done.

    You have to listen to your team and make final decisions, whilst acknowledging that not everyone will agree with them, but through loyalty to you, you trust them to do their duty.

    Those who rule with a big stick, or micro-manage, may well get the job done, but when it comes to looking for extra help above and beyond the call of duty, they will find themselves with few, keen selfless volunteers.

    You must inspire your people and cherish them. You must let them shine and give them credit for what they do and not count it as a person triumph.

    If you have real people skills and you are willing to go “back to the floor”, with them, then you have what it takes to be a good leader.

    -Torric

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