July-August 2009

Coolest Companies

Four companies where hard work mixes with creativity and fun.

Is your job a drag? Then you probably don’t work for one of these four companies, where hard work mixes with creativity and fun.

Hirshorn Zuckerman Design Group

When Karen Hirshorn Zuckerman started her Rockville company, Hirshorn Zuckerman Design Group, 22 years ago, her goal was to build a culture that rewarded hard work, creativity and teamwork, and an atmosphere that inspired fun and loyalty.

“You can’t have good morale or a good atmosphere…if you don’t treat people right. I didn’t want it to be just another crappy place to work,” says Zuckerman, 45, president and executive creative director at HZDG. Zuckerman, who started the company with husband and CEO Jerry Zuckerman, prides herself on giving employees a lot of responsibility and creative freedom. She even trusted them to decorate HZDG’s offices—an exercise in creative thinking and, more importantly, in teamwork and camaraderie, Zuckerman says.

HZDG founder Karen Zuckerman (far right) discusses ideas with the staff. HZDG took up residence in new offices last year, and when the architect Zuckerman hired to redo the interior failed to get the job done, she fired him and challenged her staff to design the space.

“HZDG Design Challenge: Color Wars” was launched in October with a banner over the firm’s open-plan work space that read: “10 Teams, 10 Weeks, 1 Goal: Make it Cool.” Each team of eight to 10 employees was given a portion of the office area to redo on a budget. Over 10 weeks, the teams worked during the day and after hours to devise and execute design ideas. They also were assigned weekly design tasks, such as creating branded baby snap suits and HZDG’s annual holiday gift for clients.

“It’s not about designing the space; it’s about everything else,” Zuckerman, a Potomac resident, says, explaining that the real challenge was to get creative types to work closely with financial types and to coax shy individuals into taking on leadership roles. The contest was about instilling a sense of pride of ownership and accomplishment in HZDG’s 100 Rockville-based, 10 New York-based and 10 remote-working employees, Zuckerman says. On each Friday of the competition, the groups—sporting their official, self-designed team T-shirts—gathered at lunchtime to present their ideas. The New York and remote teams participated via telephone in the weekly gatherings, visiting the offices when necessary to help assemble their areas. Each week, a winning team was selected by a judging panel that included Zuckerman and three senior-level HZDG executives.

The big prize of a four-day cruise for each of the winning team’s members came at the end of the competition, when the office redo was completed and the four judges evaluated results. The judges considered the concept, creativity, execution, teamwork, budget, presentations and how well the space was incorporated into the overall office area.

HZDG’s offices now feature a “color bar” for reviewing color swatches with clients and colleagues. The space centers on a vintage bar (painted white) that looks like it was salvaged from an old tavern. There’s a comfy “living room” where staffers can hang out on couches and brainstorm; a “boot camp” area for yoga mats and exercise equipment; a Wii area for blowing off steam; and a bathroom/shower room where the walls sport sayings like, “It’s not our ideas that stink” and “Clean Body Dirty Mind.” A playroom, dubbed The Velvet Lounge, features big pillows to sit on and a chalkboard wall for jotting down ideas.

Account executive Lauren Dosik, 24, of Bethesda says the experience made her feel part of something bigger than just her everyday job. “I feel like everybody here has a vested interest,” Dosik says. “It’s a good feeling.… Our space says a lot about who we are and how we work. It allows for inspiration and a comfortable work environment.”

Chief Operating Officer Glenn Watts, who joined the company nearly 13 years ago, says he has been inspired continuously by the “entrepreneurial spirit” that prevails at HZDG. “All employees are encouraged to bring their ideas to the table, and, if there is a place for them, they will be acted upon,” says Watts, a 36-year-old Rockville native who lives in Gaithersburg. “This goes not just for client projects, but also for the vision of the company.”

“The work space definitely adds to the ‘coolness’ factor here at HZDG. With cubicles that look like something out of a Jetsons movie and meeting space with chalkboard walls, it’s difficult to work here without having fun,” says Levi Wardell, 31, an interactive marketing and user interface architect who lives in Mt. Airy, Md., and who has been at HZDG for about five months. “The space is cool, but without question the best thing about HZDG is the teamwork. I’ve never worked in an environment where everyone wants to help out with anything they can. This goes for staying late to help meet a deadline, to something trivial like going to pick up lunch for you if you’re stuck in a meeting.”

HZDG’s client roster is pretty hip as well. Included are Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, the Washington Capitals, the National Football League and Volkswagen, as well as local businesses Jerry’s Subs & Pizza and California Tortilla.

Bethesda Softworks

Bethesda Softworks in Rockville is not your average workplace. The staff at the video game developer and publisher is young and casually dressed, looking more like a crowd hanging around a mall’s video arcade or a local skateboard park than a group of highly skilled and specialized professionals.

Bethesda Softworks executive producer Todd Howard (left) and vice president Pete Hines. The offices, situated in a large space within a nondescript professional complex, are dark. The area is lit mostly by the glow of large computer screens, as artists and developers create new games, and quality assessors play the games to catch glitches, inconsistencies and other problems before the product is released to market.

Some staff members have lava lamps on their desks; others have put up curtains to fully enclose their cubicles. Almost all desks feature pop-culture tchotchkes of some sort. The vibe at Bethesda Softworks is geeky, youthful and fun.

The company was started in Bethesda in 1986 by Christopher Weaver, who sold it in 1999 to ZeniMax Media. Based in Rockville since 1990, Bethesda Softworks created the first physics-based football game, Gridiron!, as well as The Terminator, Wayne Gretzky Hockey and the award winning The Elder Scrolls role-playing series. More recently, Bethesda Softworks created Fallout 3, an award-winning, post-nuclear bomb-blast simulation game.

Bethesda Softworks is somewhat unusual among video game developers and publishers because it is located on the East Coast, rather than in California’s Silicon Valley, but it still attracts talent from all over the country.

For the people who work there, Bethesda Softworks represents a promised land of sorts. These 20-and 30-somethings can show up for work in jeans, T-shirts and sneakers to develop, illustrate and play video games all day.

“I’ve always been a gamer,” 39-year-old Pete Hines says, proudly reporting that as a preteen he played video games off the cassette tape drive of his Commodore VIC-20 computer and subscribed to RUN, a 1980s computer magazine. After graduating with a business degree from Wake Forest University, Hines wrote for the gaming Web site The Adrenaline Vault while earning an MBA from George Mason University and eventually landing his dream job as Bethesda Softworks’ vice president of public relations and marketing in October of 1999.

“It’s a geek culture of comic books and video games,” says Hines, an Annandale, Md., resident. “We embrace it.”

In addition to being able to hang around with their own kind, the video game geeks get treated pretty well on the job. The office features an eat-in kitchen with a chef who whips up gourmet breakfast and lunch entrees and stocks the fridge with sandwiches and snacks for late-night deadlines (employees pay a nominal fee for the meals out of their pay checks, but they’re mostly subsidized by the company). The offices have an entertainment space that includes a theater for game playing, movie viewing and team meetings, as well as a lounge with a pool table, Wii system and other video games.

“I feel like I never go to work. When you not only love what you do but the environment you do it in, you never have to feel like it’s work,” says 35-year-old Rockville resident Jeff Gardiner, a senior producer who has worked for Bethesda Softworks for more than three years. Jangjoon Cha, a 24-year-old character artist, agrees. “We just made Fallout 3. That is freaking radtastic if you ask me,” the Rockville resident says. “I feel that we receive enough freedom when assigned a task to make us feel a sense of ownership in that piece of art.”

Designer Jeff Browne, 27, of Gaithersburg says the passion among his colleagues inspires him. “It makes for a very competitive and rewarding work environment,” Browne says.