Learn Through Play

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The Nerdery office

Mark Hurlburt on Nerd Culture

We at Ziksana Consulting, a creative consulting firm that makes work productive through the science of play, connected with Mark Hurlburt, the current President of Prime Academy and former Chief Strategy Officer of The Nerdery, to hear more about how the unique culture at The Nerdery fuels productivity.

Picture this as your office:

“The company’s cubicles and workspaces are covered in Star Wars figurines, Dungeons and Dragons paraphernalia and classic Nintendo game posters. When they’re not transforming clients’ grand ideas into ‘interactive marketing masterworks’ (that’s social media tools, mobile platform development, and e-commerce solutions—among other projects), employees play chess tournaments and wage Magic: The Gathering battles in the cafeteria. Conference rooms are plastered with wall-to-wall Marvel comic books and original Lego art; a couple rooms are even painstakingly decorated to replicate the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and the living room from The Simpsons (complete with crooked sailboat painting above the couch).  Yes, The Nerdery headquarters feels less like an office than it does an awkward adolescent’s dream clubhouse.” Read more here

The Nerdery office in Chicago

Ziksana: What is The Nerdery? What do you do and what are examples of projects you’ve done?

Mark Hurlburt: The Nerdery is a custom software design and development company based just outside Minneapolis, Minnesota. This group of digital orchestrators bring together stakeholders and specialists on digital strategy to deeply understand hard to solve business challenges of their clients and provide solutions that are designed to give results for these problems, often ones that don’t have easy solutions.

Some examples of their work include building a mobile app that opens garages to making a web app to help an HR department manage finding the right people and promoting within.

Ziksana: How would you describe the culture at The Nerdery?

Mark Hurlburt: It is a company run by nerds, for nerds. Here everyone can embrace their inner nerd: check out my former company bio photo, where I sported a Nintendo Power Glove.

One of the company’s goals: To be the best place in the world for web nerds to work.

The culture at The Nerdery is focused on embracing people’s passions. A Nerd is defined as “people who have an obsessive interest”, whether it be cool new tech, games, knitting, etc. The Nerdery is all about finding people to work there that are excited about other things in their lives. The company gives encouragement to bring those passions and talents into the workplace by granting workspace to start company clubs and organize events around what employees love. Examples include band practices culminating in a show (Rocktoberfest was a huge hit), internal development challenges like “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” that has choose your own adventure format, and events organized to give back, such as Extra Life, a 24-hour video game tournament to raise money for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

By celebrating the various interests and encouraging the sharing of passions with the people around them to build culture that way. Helping people to be excited about stuff together is a way to share in the leadership of the culture.

Ziksana: Was the culture at The Nerdery created organically or by design?

Mark Hurlburt: In between. The intentional piece to shape the culture from the top down is about staying true to core values established in the beginning. From the perspective of the management team, the executive leaders did not see themselves as creating or curating the culture but instead valuing culture as a way to shine a spotlight to bring attention to the existing passions within The Nerdery community.

The Nerdery Olympics a great example. Mark Seemann was a Nerdery developer who, after winning the first chess tournament, wondered if the title of ultimate nerd might have more facets than chess strategy. Seemann envisioned a week-long test of nerd abilities, with one event each day at lunch, culminating in the title for the best Nerd in the land.

Seemann pitched his vision, and the leaders embraced the idea fully. The Nerdery gave him a budget to lead Pentathanerd, a biannual event that includes such nerdy games as blindfolded pairs-based Rubik’s cube solving, building a toothpick structure that can be thrown off the roof and stay intact, chess, Iron Chef, video game challenges, and Pinewood Lego Monkeyball, to name a few. Even though he left the company, he has recently returned to be a guest judge for the legacy event he created. 

The key is that the design of culture at The Nerdery is more about selectively expanding what already exists more than creating new activities. Rather than a ‘blue jeans Friday’ or mandatory fun activities that try to keep the company cool, The Nerdery finds interesting existing side passions among employees to magnify and catalyze those efforts.

Ziksana: In what ways is the culture at the Nerdery playful? Experimental?

Mark Hurlburt: The culture at The Nerdery is playful because the company is so much about encouraging play at work. Dogs are welcome at work – canines populate the premises every day- giving a “working from home” vibe to build a sense of friendliness where employees can talk about feeling at home.

The culture at The Nerdery is experimental in that there is a lot of learning from successes and failures because employees are positioned to explore technological innovation to build solutions for clients built around feedback loops and iterative approaches. 

The culture is also great at sharing power: systematically, leaders encourage conversations across the hierarchy to build trust and distribute leadership throughout the organization. For example, Mindmeld is a bimonthly meeting that joined virtually where the executive team demonstrates transparency by sharing numbers with staff. Just after Mindmeld is Hungry Minds, a town hall-style forum where employees can ask questions directly to upper management. Both take place in the Luke J. Bucklin “Nerditorium” Hall, a venue that also hosts a happy hour-style social event called BottleCap every Friday afternoon. During BottleCap, free beer flows from kegerators while development teams share a bit about their current projects.

Ziksana: What is the relationship between play and productivity at The Nerdery? Is there ever an imbalance?

Mark Hurlburt: The relationship between play and productivity is a dynamic dance toward balance, a moving target. There is latitude given to individuals who are treated as adults when given liberty to decide how to spend time between client time, internal projects, and administrative tasks. In any given week there are people who are working late or even overnights. There can be bonding that happens during these intense work times, but if you’re not careful you can drive people away.

The trick is focusing the people managers on the care, wellbeing, and mental sanctity of employees so that nobody is in crunch time indefinitely – so that there is always sight of the light at the end of the tunnel.

The business of consulting consists of selling time and committing to intense an obligation, which is balanced with a culture that encourages employees to blow off steam in playful ways that make sense for each individual. Fun becomes the release valve against pressure so that fun and work are two sides of the same coin.

Ziksana: How can other companies learn and use principles about the relationship between play and productivity?

Mark Hurlburt: The main thing is that the company doesn’t get to decide what play is.

As a leader, instead of mandating fun, be willing to listen to your audience and all stakeholders to build in a release valve to offset the intense workload.

Ziksana: What does your culture result in for its people, and your clients?

Mark Hurlburt: The Nerdery has this great way of making people feel found- like they discovered the secret and found a path to someplace they belong. This feeling of contentedness affects how long they stick around and how happy they are. A piece of a person’s identity forms based on how he feels about his employer that is impossible to buy, difficult to create.

We have a radically transparent culture where—we truly believe the company is great because of the people who work here, and that it’ll remain so only if we continue to listen to them.

Photos courtesy of The Nerdery

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Team member Jim

Jim Babcock

Adjunct Facilitator

Connect with Jim

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Experience

Jim had a long and rich career with The Walt Disney Company that spanned 35 years. He joined The Walt Disney Company in 1986 as a Cast Member at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California. He spent a majority of his career in development and communication roles across multiple Disney businesses, including Disney Store, Disney Consumer Products and Disney Institute. In these roles, Jim facilitated numerous skill-building and team-building programs. He has led classes ranging from coaching, customer-service, presentation techniques and behavioral styles that provide a blend of instruction, exercise, and role-play while linking the debrief back to company-specific objectives.

Jim has also been a host for an array of events. Since 1989, he has hosted hundreds of internal and external events for Disney and other companies/non-profits with audiences ranging from 15 to 2,000. The events have included award presentations, fund-raising galas, red-carpet interviews, and televised home shopping appearances.

What I Do At Ziksana

Jim is a Faciliatator with Ziksana Consulting, providing Leadership Development training to public and private sector clients in areas of communication, coaching, trust, motivation and innovation. His humorous and relatable teaching style makes him a participant favorite and often-requested facilitator.

How I Like To Play

Jim enjoys performing in improv shows and going on adventures with his niece. Since moving back to Michigan in 2021, he has started working part-time at a bakery and absolutely loves it.

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Kelby Kupersmid

ZIKSANA FACILITATOR

Connect with Kelby

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Experience

Kelby is a Global Business Leadership and Coaching specialist who brings positivity, curiosity, and intellectual rigor to all of his projects. His diverse professional background, from working at a pre-revenue startup to a multi-billion-dollar financial institution, informs his unique approach to workplace innovation and efficacy.

Kelby is also a Co-Founder of Innovation Journey, a company that organizes business trips to Israel to explore its unique innovation ecosystem. He serves as Director of Leadership Programs, designing and facilitating unforgettable learning experiences to help professionals lead innovation in their careers and organizations.

What I Do At Ziksana

As Founder and CEO of Kinetic Development, Kelby partners with local and global organizations to increase their leadership effectiveness so they can enhance business results. He draws on his multidisciplinary experience to find a targeted approach that works for each client, combining assessments, individual and team coaching, and large group facilitation.

As an Executive Leadership Coach, Kelby helps ambitious professionals refine their mindset and skillset so they can unleash their full potential. He helps clients “get out of their own way” by illuminating blind spots and challenging limiting beliefs. Through crystal-clear development goals and strategies, they accelerate leadership skills to improve performance and business outcomes.

Background

Kelby is a first-generation U.S. American born to Jewish-Argentinian immigrants. He was born and raised in Southern California, has worked and studied in Latin America, Europe, and Asia, and traveled to over 20 countries across 5 continents. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Business from San Diego State University and a Master of Science in Global Business Leadership from the University of San Diego. He also holds a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) credential from the International Coaching Federation.

How I Like To Play

Kelby is a lifelong musician, having played guitar and rapped in award winning jazz, orchestra, and rock bands. He is currently on a 6-month road trip across the US in an RV.

Team member Chris W

Chris Watz

ZIKSANA FACILITATOR

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Experience

Chris has influenced senior leaders to achieve greater impact in rapid growth organizations for over 15 years. He has experience leading a variety of change initiatives including leadership development, culture change, and end-to-end business process improvement. For 10 years, Chris managed continuous improvement efforts at World Vision International. He led projects to enhance collaboration, develop leadership bench strength, and streamline resource and information flow across 90 countries. In partnership with McKinsey, Accenture and Booz Allen Hamilton, Chris’s leadership and evaluation expertise helped two industry pioneering projects make critical adjustments to achieve greater return on investment. As a result, World Vision began operating more effectively at a global scale, during a time of rapid organizational growth.

Chris received his M.A. from Claremont Graduate University in Organizational Behavior Psychology and Program Evaluation. He also holds certificates in Project Management, Lean /Six Sigma (Green Belt), and Structured Behavioral Interviewing. Chris also founded Watz Productivity, a Consulting Company that uses data-driven solutions and coaching to support Executive Teams undergoing rapid growth.

What I Do At Ziksana

Chris is a Facilitator, Consultant, and Executive Coach with Ziksana Consulting.

How I Like To Play

Chris has worked and travelled in 44 countries, and loves rock climbing and photography while visiting new places. He is passionate about helping people find fulfilling careers that help them do the things they love most in and out of work.

Team member Kane

Kane Luong

GRAPHIC DESIGNER & WEBSITE DEVELOPER

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Experience

Born and raised in San Diego, California, Kane received his B.A in Graphic Design from San Diego State University. He began his career with San Diego State University and then started his own design studio. He has worked with many local clients which include, Goal Success, Pho Ca Dao, Zeroline Golf, Solarflexion and Therapies For Success. He has a passion for solving complex business problems through design thinking, and consistently strives for the betterment of his work.

What I Do At Ziksana

Kane is Ziksana’s graphic designer and web developer. He designs participant workbooks, presentations, and supports website development.

How I Like To Play

One of Kane’s favorite activities is playing badminton. He also enjoys trying out new food, exploring places around San Diego and finding new trails to hike. Kane loves to travel internationally, and wants to explore more of Canada!

Team member Courtney

Courtney Hale

EXPERIENCE DESIGNER & PLAY PRODUCER

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Experience

Courtney is a graduate of The Edward R. Murrow School of Communication and began her career in Broadcast News as a producer at Washington State University. From there, she moved to Los Angeles, California where for over 10 years, she produced, wrote, and developed television programs for The Weather Channel, SyFy Network, Fox Sports, Sony Pictures Television, ABC Disney, NBC and CBS. In addition, she oversaw all aspects of production and prepared daily production plans for operations and filming. She relied heavily on her communications and client relations background as a liaison between cast, crew, agents, managers, publicists, the studio and the network.

Courtney also worked for The Found Animals Foundation; a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the use of euthanasia in the United States. She was brought on as the program manager responsible for developing, managing and launching their National Microchip Program and free Microchip Registry, partnering with shelters, clinics, rescue groups and veterinarians. Her other responsibilities included developing and producing the foundation’s corporate videos that were shown at trade shows and conferences. In addition to that, she spearheaded the Found Animals Foundation Awards where she was responsible for all event logistics, promotions, and marketing.

What I Do At Ziksana

Courtney is the “producer of play” and likes to wear many hats. Some of her daily activities include designing innovative and impactful experiences for clients, helping lead internal culture initiatives, and producing company events & videos.

How I Like To Play

Courtney feels lucky to be a part of the San Diego Improv community where she gets to perform regularly. Courtney also enjoys exploring lesser-known festivals (avocado/margarita festival, anyone?), discovering new vacation spots with her family, trying out new dinner recipes, and writing Hallmark Holiday movie scripts just for the fun of it.

Team member Chris P

Chris Pizarro

PLAYFUL PROJECT MANAGER

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Experience

With three years of experience in the field of event and project management, Chris excels in filling a critical gap in the field of Leadership Development. He was hired by the Center for Creative Leadership in 2012 as a Program Coordinator, delivering programs throughout the United States and in Latin America for non-profit and Fortune 500 clients. In this role, Chris was responsible for all program logistics, serving as the primary point of contact for the delivery team and participants. He was later promoted to a Sr. Program Coordinator role, overseeing the San Diego campus’ Open Enrollment product line. Chris also spent 3 years as an Assistant Store Director for Sprouts Farmers Market, managing around 100 employees from entry level to first time managers.

What I Do At Ziksana

Since joining the team in 2018, Chris has been providing operational, communications, and business process support to Ziksana Consulting. He is the master of Project Management and enables Ziksana to deliver exceptional services to multiple clients.

How I Like To Play

Chris enjoys living locally in his hometown of San Diego, CA. He takes pride in his city and enjoys attending and supporting local sporting events. On his time off, Chris enjoys spending quality time with his wife, daughter, and two lovable dogs. His passion for barbecuing is unparalleled.

Team member Laura

Laura Fleig

ZIKSANA FACILIATOR

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Experience

Laura is a New-York native with a degree in Criminal Justice & Psychology from the University of Albany. She moved to San Diego in 2014 and began working as a residential counselor for youth in the foster-care system. During this time, Laura became deeply interested in how to create a therapeutic group environment where people could heal and grow.

In 2018, Laura began working in the field of Learning and Development as a group facilitator at The University of California, San Diego. Using a high-ropes course as an experiential learning tool, Laura has facilitated over 50 leadership and team development programs for children, young adults, and professionals. Additionally, Laura has been guiding and facilitating transformational outdoor adventures since 2018. Using lessons from the outdoors, she facilitates impactful experiences that help people grow both personally and professionally.

What I Do At Ziksana

Laura is a Designer, Facilitator, and Coach at Ziksana. She also runs Ziksana’s social media accounts.

How I Like To Play

Laura enjoys taking on challenging sports and activities that push her physical and mental limits. She can be found skateboarding down Mission Boardwalk, catching waves at Ocean Beach, and sport-climbing throughout the Western United States.

Ziksana Founder Akshay Sateesh

Akshay Sateesh

FOUNDER & PRESIDENT

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Experience

Akshay started his career as a Business Development & Project Leader at DuPont’s BioMedical, where he led product development teams to launch medical device implants for surgeries. During his career at DuPont, he led two product development teams and developed collaborative partnerships to take the medical devices to market. His passion for leading others jump started his innovative approach to leadership development.

In 2008, Akshay combined his love for improvisational theatre and leadership by founding Ziksana Consulting. He began delivering playful workshops to biomedical companies, and quickly expanded to other industries based on Ziksana’s initial succees. Akshay has a M.A. in Leadership Studies and Group Dynamics, and is a Certified Stakeholder Centered Coach. He has facilitated programs in leadership development, innovation, and team dynamics for adults and children in the U.S., Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, India, and South Africa.

Akshay served as an Adjunct Faculty member for the Center for Creative Leadership in San Diego for over 5 years, as well as a Consultant for the Centre for Organization Effectiveness.

What I Do At Ziksana

Akshay is the founder of Ziksana Consulting, and serves as a Workshop Facilitor, Executive Coach, Experience Designer, and Keynote Speaker.

How I Like To Play

Akshay enjoys spending time with his young family and is known for his play versatility (he can play almost any sport and give you a run for your money). Apart from dancing in the car, playing a clown at his kids’ schools, and playing with strangers on his Nintendo Switch, Akshay loves photography, surfing, playing tennis, and diving with his wife, Brooke. He would like to spend more time developing his ukelele and magic skills.

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Akshay Sateesh

FOUNDER & PRESIDENT

Connect with Akshay

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Experience

Akshay started his career as a Business Development & Project Leader at DuPont’s BioMedical, where he led product development teams to launch medical device implants for surgeries. During his career at DuPont, he led two product development teams and developed collaborative partnerships to take the medical devices to market. His passion for leading others jump started his innovative approach to leadership development.

In 2008, Akshay combined his love for improvisational theatre and leadership by founding Ziksana Consulting. He began delivering playful workshops to biomedical companies, and quickly expanded to other industries based on Ziksana’s initial succees. Akshay has a M.A. in Leadership Studies and Group Dynamics, and is a Certified Stakeholder Centered Coach. He has facilitated programs in leadership development, innovation, and team dynamics for adults and children in the U.S., Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, India, and South Africa.

Akshay served as an Adjunct Faculty member for the Center for Creative Leadership in San Diego for over 5 years, as well as a Consultant for the Centre for Organization Effectiveness.

What I Do At Ziksana

Akshay is the founder of Ziksana Consulting, and serves as a Workshop Facilitor, Executive Coach, Experience Designer, and Keynote Speaker.

How I Like To Play

Akshay enjoys spending time with his young family and is known for his play versatility (he can play almost any sport and give you a run for your money). Apart from dancing in the car, playing a clown at his kids’ schools, and playing with strangers on his Nintendo Switch, Akshay loves photography, surfing, playing tennis, and diving with his wife, Brooke. He would like to spend more time developing his ukelele and magic skills.