Yesterday, I found out that the Moles created a memorial for the late LL CEO Ebbe Altberg. It is located in the middle of a small, fir-covered islet in the Altberg region in Bellisseria. You can teleport directly there or, if you’re starting your journey from any of the nearby regions, you can moor your boat by the islet’s small cove and follow the stepped path to the small plateau where the memorial has been erected.
No landing point has been set, so, at the end of this post, I’m giving you a landmark that takes you to the base of the stepped path. Once there, you see a bench made from tree logs, facing a large bronze statue of Ebbe’s Second Life avatar. The statue itself is placed on a small plaza made from boulders in the shape of the Second Life logo, and more specifically where the eye would be, and has a waterfall on one side behind it. Flowers are scattered on the plinth, which is surrounded by candles.
At the bottom of the plinth, a plaque, slanted upwards, reads:
The first weekend of June wasn’t a good one for Linden Lab, Second Life, or for anyone who cares about either of them. LL’s CEO, Ebbe Altberg, passed away on Friday. His passing came as a shock to most people, although there was a certain amount of speculation, triggered the fact that he was largely absent from all sorts of social media during the past few months.
As we should expect, discussions as to who his successor should / could / will be, or – at least – what properties the new CEO should possess have already started to sprout like mushrooms on ageing trees in a damp forest. I can’t say such discussions are to my taste; for one, I think they started too soon, at a moment when others, closer to him, are still trying to deal with his passing. Furthermore, I find flaws in the more popular approaches, and the less said about the quality of discourse, the better. The popular argument says that the new CEO needs to be a long-time SL user, who has garnered a good deal of experience with the platform. The reasoning is that a CEO that is selected from the user base is somehow more likely to “get” Second Life than someone else.
I don’t agree with this point of view. The user base, much as many people like (I don’t) to call it a “community”, is actually extremely fragmented and consists of multiple subgroups, subcultures, and downright cliques, often with differing, or even conflicting, interests and goals. This, of course, means that there’s no guarantee that a user chosen from this SL subgroup will care for the other groups, or for the benefit of the company, its staff, or SL itself. Likewise, there’s absolutely no guarantee that this user will know how to run a company, how to plan and manage a single project, much less multiple concurrent ones, how to handle investors, the Press, and whatnot. Finally, there’s absolutely no guarantee that the “experienced SL user” will have any idea about how to be a leader. I, for example, don’t think I do.
Have a look at Ebbe’s tenure with LL: if anything, it demolishes the notion that extensive prior experience with SL is de riguer for someone to become a good LL CEO. Ebbe was by no means a “long-time SL user,” as he himself had admitted on several occasions. However, he was anything but oblivious to its existence and what people can do with(in) it. After all, he was a close friend of Jed Smith, former chairman of LL’s Board, he was an early beta user, and his own son had been a user of the Teen Grid.
Still, as I noted in my retrospective / tribute, his tenure, although certainly not perfect, was highly successful, and he rose to become LL’s most-respected and longest-serving CEO. In fact, many people, including yours truly, consider him as the best CEO LL ever had. But, since he wasn’t a “long-time SL user,” why was he successful? This comes down to two factors: the brief he was given, and his personal qualities. Of these, the brief is the most important – the qualities are determined and sought after the brief has been set.
But what is the brief? One needs to always keep in mind that what we, the users (i.e. the customers), may think is best for SL isn’t necessarily what the owners of the company want to do with it. Remember, a CEO is hired by the Board of Directors, answers to the Board, and can be fired by the Board. And the CEO is hired to carry out a mission – the brief. The CEO has goals to meet, and can be kicked out, with or without a golden parachute, for serious missteps: you just have to remember the unceremonious sacking of Steven K Lee by famous high-end maker of optics and photographic equipment Leica Camera AG in 2008. A similar example is how the problematic HP-Compaq merger masterminded by Carly Fiorina led to the Board ordering her to fall on her sword (she later went on to become a deplorable shill for the worst conservative moguls). So, while the CEO yields tremendous power over the company, and may reshape (or at least attempt to) the company according to his or her vision, even a CEO isn’t immune to the ire of the Board.
In previous times and in similar circumstances, we’d be expecting the new CEO, knowing pretty much that his or her mission would be to continue improving SL as best (s)he can, keep its balance books healthy, etc. But now, the Lab is no longer independent, but part of the portfolio of an investment group led by Brad Oberwager and Randy Waterfield. I’ll admit I know very little of their previous ventures and what they did with, or to, them.
I’ll be entirely open: in general, I’m very leery of investment groups and big takeovers. I’ve seen many investment groups and / or conglomerates treat their acquisitions the way a salvager treats cars. I’ve seen my investment groups and / or conglomerates come in, not knowing what they’ve acquired, what it does best, what its real strengths and weaknesses are, and, in a drive to “maximise shareholder value” (the mantra of Milton Friedman, the dismal science’s Trofim Lysenko) and do so yesterday, ruin it and drive it to bankruptcy, near-bankruptcy, or infamy and ridicule. I’ve also seen starry-eyed, enthusiast investors with supposedly deep pockets step in, but fail, due to a lack of actual knowledge on how to run the company, due to overinvestment in money-pit pet projects, and / or due to a lack of meaningful funding.
This is why I didn’t share the widespread, quasi-obligatory enthusiasm (sincere or feigned) about LL’s acquisition by the aforementioned investors. Instead, I chose to hold out until I see what they’ll actually do, and I still stand by my decision and position, basking in my “party pooper” reputation.
Now, what Oberwager and Waterfield have added in their portfolio is a reasonably healthy, profitable, well-focused (after the axing of Creatorverse, dio, and Versu, the phasing out of Blocksworld and Patterns, and the sale of Desura and Sansar), company, with an admittedly small, but very dedicated and diverse, user base for its core product. Also, – thanks to Ebbe’s sharp business acumen, the Lab has an additional stream of revenue in the form of Tilia Pay. Ebbe’s tenure has also seen several crucial (many of them overdue) updates in SL’s technology and its infrastructure that make it look, work, and perform better and more reliably than before.
However, it’s a company that faces serious challenges. For starters, it needs to keep investing in several aspects of SL’s codebase (especially its 3D engine) as heavily as “AAA” game studios. Despite its relatively small workforce, it’s a high-maintenance company, because it needs very highly-skilled people. Here lies one of the most crucial questions: do Oberwager and Waterfield have the wherewithal to hire the necessary people and fund the necessary updates and upgrades? Do they have the willingness to fund them? Or are they going to be like Peter Livanos and the Papanicolaou brothers from Aston Martin’s Victor Gauntlett era?
And what do they want to do with SL? Will they tell the new CEO to build upon Ebbe’s considerable legacy and take SL further, or will they tell him / her to merely cut expenses, make the company look profitable, and then prepare it to be sold off to some other group of investors or, even worse, to some huge, creeptastic, company hell-bent on pleasing the rabid conservative nutjobs like Verizon or Facebook? I believe these are the questions that really matter, not whether it’ll be best to hire one of us, the users, or someone outside the company.
A few hours ago, Patch Linden announced the sad news of the passing of Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Linden Research, Inc.; sad news for all of us who care about Second Life, as he had earned the title of the best CEO Linden Lab has ever had, and this is no exaggeration. When he arrived in February 2014, he found the company and its flagship product in disarray.
His predecessor, Rod Humble (an Electronic Arts alumnus), had burnt many bridges of communication and collaboration with Third-Party Viewer developers. Although some PR stunts (such as an appearance on Draxtor Despres’ show) were employed to make him seem approachable and user-friendly, his tenure was marked by a deterioration of the relationship between the users and the company; his handling of the (in retrospect, mostly sensible) 2013 ToS changes was a massive PR fiasco, both internally, as many content creators became enraged, not entirely rightly) and externally, as it led to hostile announcements and (really quite abusive, if not borderline illegal) bans by CGTextures (now Textures.com), Renderosity, and Turbosquid.
Under Humble, the ToS change was preceded by the acquisition of Desura, which did nothing to help LL or SL. Patterns and Blocksworld didn’t fare particularly well. They were, in essence, pet projects that stretched the company’s resources thin. Employee morale was eroded. Furthermore, just like Rosedale and Kingdon before him, Humble didn’t bother to handle the chronic problem of how the ToS and Community Standards were interpreted, applied, and enforced – for many years, this was patchy, sketchy, and often arbitrary and riddled with suspicions of favouritism; there were groups of trolls that harassed and abused other people for years with complete impunity and immunity.
Ebbe was exactly the kind of person LL needed. First of all, he had nothing to do with the AAA game studios. He was, as he referred to himself, a “left-brain / right brain kind of person” who had graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, US with a degree in Fine Arts and concentration in Computer Applications. While everyone in the IT industry knows what Second Life is, not everyone is enthusiastic about it. Ebbe was. He saw potential in it. He liked what its users did and do with(in) it. And he set out to enable them rather than manipulate them and “whale” them.
From the very beginning, he brought a fresh breath of openness and honesty in corporate communications, speaking in a normal, non-condescending, non-patronising, manner. He often came in-world to discuss with people, either at major events, both internal and external (like the annual VWBPE conferences) or casually. He set up a series of town hall-style meetings, “Meet the Lindens” events, in which he actively encouraged the team to get in touch with the user base, etc. He embraced the annual SL Birthday events and made sure he was there, and the Lab Chat sessions (which later evolved into the Lab Gab) became a bit of an institution in LL’s communications.
His openness, though, did cause some unrest once: at a Third-Party Viewer meeting in 2014 (video below; skip to 1:39:00), he mentioned in passing that the Lab were indeed working on a new virtual world (Sansar). This was picked up and blown out of proportion, causing many people, including popular and highly-regarded bloggers, to speculate that this would be the end for SL. As things evolved, SL is still around, and Sansar has been sold off – a rather hard decision, I must say.
Even amidst all the rumours about how “SL 2.0” (Sansar) would “kill off” SL, he fully supported Oz Linden’s team and their continued efforts to improve and further develop the ageing virtual world platform with major technical updates, and never hesitated to step up to the plate and stand up for his employees in the face of angry users.
When communicating SL and Sansar to the Press, he showed genuine enthusiasm and confidence in his company’s products and in the users that give them life and richness. He promoted SL and Sansar, without the ridiculous overhyping and overpromising Philip Rosedale became known for. His sharp business acumen shone as he leveraged the Lab’s years of know-how in handling micro-payments, micro-transactions, and virtual tokens to create Tilia Pay, a subsidiary that provides additional revenue for the Lab. He also guided the company very carefully through its acquisition process.
Finally, he had the strength and determination to swiftly gut the various troll gangs with targeted disciplinary actions. So, he forced them out of SL and its web presences, discouraged the troll gang leaders’ followers, and marginalised them to the point where some of the most notorious abusers have fallen silent, while others have lost their power, connections, and legitimisation – hopefully for good.
In all, Ebbe reversed many bad (and very deeply-rooted) policies of the past, rebuilt trust between SL’s users and the company, brought about many significant technical improvements (project Bento, the move of SL’s infrastructure into the cloud, animesh, and EEP), and created an environment that encourages collaboration rather than suspicion. Very few leaders in any industry are capable of doing that.
Prior to joining the Lab, he had already enjoyed a long, successful career with Microsoft (as Product Unit Manager), Ingenio (as Chief Product Officer), Yahoo! (VP Head of Audience, EMEA and SVP Media Engineering), and BranchOut (COO) (source: Ebbe Altberg’s LinkedIn profile).
In recent months, he has been patently absent from social media, which has caused quite a stir and worry. The last time I remember him appearing in public was when Oz Linden retired earlier this year. Despite his illness, his dedication and determination weren’t diminished at all. LL and SL are in a better position now, thanks to his enthusiasm, dedication, diligence, nous, and hard work. He will be sorely missed, and his successor has a lot to live up to.
I’d like to close this sad piece by extending my deepest condolences and sympathies to his family, his friends, and his colleagues. All of us who care about SL owe him a lot and we’ll miss him even more.
Second Life found new highs in 2020 between a worldwide pandemic taking grip, through the times of a tumultuous leadership change in the United States, and during movements of civil changes that will forever live in history books. Second Life provides many with the comfort of a normal that continues to exist for all of us, where many use it to escape real life pressures, stressors and day to day challenges. In Second Life we can be our ideal, our best, celebrate all that is good across the world together. Sadly we have also seen some people go, and they will never be forgotten as they touched us, gave us their best from their hearts, minds and souls – this thing called real life sometimes knocks on our door and makes a call.
This is one of those calls.
Ebbe Altberg started with Linden Lab as our CEO on February 5th, 2014. He took the helm of the company and immediately went to work on reinvigorating our spirit and culture. Ebbe brought a profound openness, and transparency in his operation which was key and that had many effects on all of us internally, and externally. Lindens were encouraged to be part of the vibrant community in Second Life, to participate in and to cherish it as part of our daily duties. Ebbe also worked internally on embracing all aspects of Second Life, learning about its many nuances to understand impacts of decisions we make; while being sensitive to those and utilizing all of our resources, which firstly included you, the community, and many of us who are deeply embedded in Second Life. Ebbe’s goals for Second Life included promoting Second Life as the world’s best virtual world, community and platform. He also sought new adventures in building next generation products.
As I am here before you today, it is with profound sadness that I share with you Ebbe passed away yesterday evening restfully and surrounded by the love of his family.
I commit to all of you to carry forward with our mission of making Second Life the biggest, best, most vibrant virtual world that there ever can be. Together, myself, Grumpity, and Brett, along with Oberwolf at the helm and the entire team, our mission is clear. To grow Second Life and to ensure the Residents in Second Life continue to be respected and happy.
Rest in peace Ebbe, our fearless, kind, loving, gentle leader, and friend.
Patch Linden and The Linden Lab Team
These are indeed very sad news; Ebbe was, at least to my eyes, the best CEO Linden Lab ever had. He was methodical, hard-working, understood Second Life much better than most, and he also made it his priority to allow users to feel safe and welcome within this virtual world. He will be sorely missed. All I can say is that I’m truly shocked at his untimely death. Even from this little soapbox, I extend my sincerest condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.
Yesterday, at VWBPE’s Second Life auditorium, Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg (Ebbe Linden in-world) gave the opening keynote. The auditorium was packed – at various points, there were up to 170 people in-world with their avatars. Mal Burns recorded the speech and uploaded it to his YouTube channel so that it can be watched even by those who were unable to attend. As had happened last year, Gentle Heron was hard at work transcribing Mr. Altberg’s speech, and there was an interesting Q&A afterwards, with people from the audience having a chance to ask questions directly; I must give Mr. Altberg kudos for handling this task with great aplomb, and for his relaxed, approachable attitude towards the users who came to the venue to listen to him and ask about things they were interested in, w.r.t. Second Life and the next-generation virtual world platform that Linden Lab is developing.