Zynga executives were especially concerned with not creating a "Google chef" scenario.
That reference relates to Google's 2004 IPO when one of the company's chefs, who was hired in the firm's early days, walked away with $20 million worth of stock after the shares went public.
This really bothers me. It presumes that a chef cannot be a significant contributor to the success of a company. As someone who was there in Google's early days I can tell you from firsthand experience that this is not true. If someone at Zynga actually did say this on the record, they owe Charlie Ayers an apology.
Working at a startup is hard. The hours are long, the stress can be brutal, and there is no guarantee of success. In fact, the odds for a raw startup (which is what Google was when Charlie joined) are very much against you. I have no idea what Google's deal with Charlie was, but typically you take a pay cut for a shot at the brass ring. Charlie didn't make $20M for cooking, he made $20M for taking the risk that the company he was joining would fail and that he could end up five years older, unemployed, and with nothing to show for his trouble.
But it is not Zynga's failure to grasp this basic fact of startup economics that bothers me, it is their singling out of Charlie in particular because he's a chef. As someone who was there in the early days I can tell you that Charlie Ayers contributed more to Google's success that I did, and I was a senior software engineer.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that people get hungry, and when they do their productivity drops. As a company you have three options: make your employees deal with it themselves (bring sack lunches or go out), provide some basic but uninspiring food (stock the break room with snacks, have the odd pizza delivered), or you can, as Google did, provide them with really good food.
The latter option costs more, but it pays dividends. When the best restaurant in town is the company cafeteria it liberates your employees from having to worry about where their next meal is coming from (literally) and lets them focus on their work. For software engineering in particular, where getting into an uninterrupted mental "flow" is crucial to productivity, free quality food is a huge lever.
Providing quality food to an ever-growing roster of hungry engineers is not an easy task. Charlie and his staff worked harder on a light day than I ever did (or probably ever will). If you doubt me, take a job in a restaurant kitchen some time. Not only that, but the stakes are higher than most people realize. Feeding a few hundred people in a professional setting is not just taking the process of preparing a home-cooked meal and multiplying. If a software engineer screws up, the site goes down. But if a chef screws up, people get sick. In extreme cases, they die.
If I were to point out that no one ever got sick from eating Charlie's food most people would consider than to be damning with faint praise, but that is just a testament to how well Charlie did his job. Not only did he keep us well feed and free from salmonella, he inspired us. When I said that the best restaurant in town was Google's cafeteria that was no exaggeration. Charlies food was outstanding, day in and day out. (It still is. If you're in the Bay Area, do yourself a favor and have a meal at his restaurant.)
But Charlie's contribution to Google's early success went even well beyond that. Charlie was a friend and a cheerleader. Everyone at Google got to know him because everyone went through the lunch line, and Charlie was always there making sure everything was ship-shape. And Charlie got to know us, got to know our individual tastes and preferences, and bent over backwards to accommodate them, but never at the cost of compromising on his principles of making his offerings healthy and sustainable, principles he still adheres to. Being fed by Charlie was a privilege. It was inspiring. It was cool. It kept us going.
Don't tell me Charlie deserved his payday any less than the rest of us.
[UPDATE:] Found a link to the WSJ article that isn't behind a paywall. Just to be clear, I am not taking a position on Zynga's policy. I think renegotiating the compensation of underperforming employees could be a defensible practice (albeit fraught with all manner of peril). What I take issue with is citing Charlie in defense of such a policy. Here's the relevant passage:
Built into that arrangement [stock options] is the chance that ... some very early employees will end up with bigger windfalls than latecomers who contribute more to the company. Many in Silicon Valley cite an early-hired Google Inc. cook whose stock was worth $20 million after the firm's 2004 IPO.
Zynga attempted to avoid such pitfalls. In meetings last year, Zynga executives said they didn't want a "Google chef" situation, said a person with knowledge of the discussions.
So apparently it's not just Zynga casting Charlie as the poster child for the early employee who got more than he deserved. I do not doubt that some early employees end up not pulling their weight. But Charlie Ayers was not one of them.