Hard at home work

Written by Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat September 26, 2012 03:00 pm

Mel Kirk has a pretty ideal commute to work. It’s just down the hall.

The 29-year-old Mi-Wuk Village resident works full time as the vice president of marketing and public relations for Zen Studios, a video game company based in Budapest, Hungary. But thanks to modern technologies, he works out of his home office only a short walk from where he grew up.

“To me, the world feels like a small place,” Kirk said last week. “I feel very connected. It’s amazing what you can do over Facebook and Twitter.”

Zen Studios produces games on multiple platforms, including systems like Playstation, XBox and Wii, as well as computer systems, smart phones and tablets. The company largely focuses on developing games for the casual gaming market, with recent big releases including a pinball game based on “The Avengers” comic book series and movie.

Kirk started in the position about two years ago, with some of his main duties including marketing, press and promotion. He said he handles much of the company’s business dealings out of Mi-Wuk Village, and it’s not uncommon for him to close a big deal while at a local burger joint.

Kirk received his college degree in business from California State University, Stanislaus in Turlock and says he kind of fell into the video game industry. He got a taste for the big, corporate environment right out of college when he worked for the Kraft food company. But Kirk said finds himself more comfortable in a smaller environment in a dynamic industry.

“This industry changes so quickly,” Kirk said. “You’ve got to stay on top of what’s changing. I had played a lot of video games (before working in the industry) but what really got me excited about it what how fast things were moving.”

Zen’s business structure is one that Kirk says is becoming more common for smaller, tech-based companies. 

The corporate office in Budapest houses about 55 people, most of whom handle the coding, art and design for the games themselves. There are about five more employees like Kirk who live and work remotely in Northern California.

“All of the business is driven out of the west,” Kirk said.

He said the model works well because it allows the company to maintain a presence in the tech-heavy, California marketplace. But they don’t have to cover the overhead required to open an office in a city like San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles or Palo Alto.

The setup works well for the Lode resident as well, he said. He travels regularly to the Bay Area and internationally, but email, phone and video conferencing allows him to do more and more work without leaving the home office. A lot of Bay Area business people visit the central Sierra Nevada region for vacation and recreation, so it’s not uncommon to hold in-person meetings right in the area, he said.

“I think they all like having someone they know up here. It’s kind of an advantage,” he said.

Improvements in local technology have helped a lot, he said. Before much of the county saw upgrades in local high-speed internet, Kirk was using a less-than-ideal satellite connection. He said he would often have to go outside and knock off snow after a winter storm to get signals. 

There are still challenges, Kirk said. Working from home is a bit more isolating than being in an office environment. It also blurs the separation between home life and office life, and busy times can make work life all-consuming.

But Kirk said he’s put a system together to make it work. He makes extra effort to get regular face time with clients and others in the industry. And he gives himself little breaks and distractions, similar to water cooler talk or a lunch break at an office.

Of course, a pancake breakfast or some midday time with his young daughters Scarlette and Stella on a Monday or Friday trumps water cooler talk every time.

“To me, this is living the dream,” Kirk said.