33-year-old David Lau works for the gaming company Zynga as a lead producer. His path to getting a job in the gaming industry – which he’s loved since he was a kid playing video games in the early 80s – has not been a common or easy one.
His trajectory shows a level of determination and ingenuity that David cultivated from his parents who, born in China, were children during the WWII Japanese invasion and high school students during the Chinese Communist Revolution. As young adults, they escaped the persecution and hardship of their own country and immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-60s. Their experience has, of course, had a profound influence on David. Both generations’ stories are about perseverance and an entrepreneurial spirit.
Living in the Seattle area, it does not seem unusual that you would have a job in video games and an entrepreneurial inclination, but neither of those things came easily to you, correct?
Having grown up on Nintendo and PC games, I always wanted to work in video games. But you are correct; there was no clear, direct route to getting into the gaming industry when I was in college at the University of Washington in the late 90s. I ultimately had to find and create roles for myself in businesses outside the gaming industry to actually get into it. And much of my path was directed by multiple layoffs along the way – things that might cause other people to give up, but instead inspired me to reinvent myself.
The path wasn’t always easy, but the only way I can cope with things that happen to me is by thinking of my family and what they had to do.
Tell me about your parents’ childhood during the Japanese invasion of China during WWII.
My mother was born in Macau in 1938. Shortly after she was born, her family moved to Hong Kong. In 1941, the Japanese invaded and bombed Hong Kong. For the safety of the family, they fled to Canton, China to escape. During the flight to Mainland China, in the midst of the chaos, her family was robbed of all their possessions. With no money, no belongings and no land, they had to start over as refugees in China.
She remembers when she was three or four years old relocating from place to place, because at that point, the Japanese were rampaging through Southeast Asia. She was essentially born a war refugee. If you’re fleeing from people who are doing summary executions, you’re fleeing for your life. Her family would go from one safe house to another. They probably had relatives with whom they could hide in the villages.
My dad’s side of family was in Canton, China. My grandfather was a family physician. Their experiences of the invasion were similar to my mother’s family.
Both of my parents were affected by war and had to flee on a daily or weekly basis. They had to show grit and self-reliance during that time. That’s how they survived.
After the war, they had to pick up their lives from scratch. After a war, you don’t really have a home to go to; you have to rebuild your home.
How did your parents meet?
They met during high school. My dad then decided to go to medical school following in the footsteps of his father. My mom also went to medical school. To my parents, education was not simply a means to get a better job or lifestyle, but rather a means to survive. Consequently, many members on both sides of the family were professionals.
After the Japanese surrender in 1945, the Communist government seized control of China. In 1949, the Communists forced everyone to surrender all their possessions. This marked the second time my mother’s family was robbed of everything.
Instead of an external power coming in, this was your own people. I honestly cannot fathom what they went through. You have your own government coming in and forcing everyone to be indoctrinated under Communist rule.
They would start through indoctrination and political reform in schools and local communities. Basic military training was mandatory for high school students. Everyone had to learn Russian. It wasn’t friendly for people who were educated because the Communists wanted to eliminate the bourgeois, professionals and the academics and replace them with farmers, eventually turning them into an agrarian society.
How were they able to immigrate to the U.S.?
A Catholic priest and American missionary named Father Moore befriended and assisted my mom’s family. He wrote letters to the American Consulate for my mom and her family. He had standing with the Consulate and got her safe passage to immigrate to in the U.S. in 1964.
Dad was able to come because he was a physician. During that time, it was easy to immigrate if you had a professional degree.
There were a lot of challenges for them. English was not their first language. They did not come from means, having lost their homes and all of their possessions twice. My dad came here first with exactly $20. That’s all he had. The one thing they had was their education and a determination to start a new life.
At what point in your childhood did you understand this was your parents’ experience?
I always kind of knew something about their childhood was unlike my childhood or the childhood of my friends’ parents. I might have asked something as simple as, “Did you have a bike when you were a kid?” and it was clear that was not part of their experience. I was always curious. My friends’ parents talked about what they did as kids, but my parents never did.
I think it was because at a young age, I couldn’t have understood. They wouldn’t talk about their childhoods until I was a little bit older. It wouldn’t have made any sense. What is war? What are Communists? What is political upheaval? What is being forced to relocate against your will? What is being forced to live in a new country without knowing the language and not having any money?
What was it like for them arriving in the States?
My dad came here a few years before my mom did. He came here in the late 1950s, right in the middle of the civil rights era. This was during the time when they still had “colored” bathrooms and “colored” drinking fountains. My dad has stories about how he couldn’t really tell if he was colored or not. He didn’t understand the context. He saw there was white and colored. He clearly wasn’t white. He thought that he was colored the whole time. He would get chased from both ends of the bus and couldn’t sit anywhere in the restaurants.
To make money, he worked odd jobs. He was a waiter at Trader Vic’s. It was a pretty big restaurant franchise back in the day where movie stars would come in. He learned about etiquette. He became one of the best waiters there.
He was able to complete his B.S. and then went on to medical school. Mom came here and worked at hospitals as a nurse. My brother was born in 1966.
They moved to Washington in 1969 and decided to open a medical practice there. They designed and built their own building. The downstairs was a medical office and the upstairs was an apartment, so they lived there until 1980 when I was born. My parents tapped their entrepreneurial spirit and developed a medical practice that is still there to this day. My brother, also a physician, joined the family business.
My parents worked hard and saved every penny they had. They had to make do. Only 20 years prior, they had to grow up with nothing and deal with calamity on two different fronts. To them there was no such thing as a tough life; there are things you just deal with.
I understand your mother had quite the entrepreneurial spirit herself.
Yes, my mom opened a restaurant in Seattle. Through observation she saw an opportunity to open a good westernized Chinese restaurant, not in Chinatown, but in North Seattle in the late 70s. She ran that restaurant in addition to her nursing job. My mom designed and built the restaurant in 1977. The building, although no longer a restaurant, still stands today.
Through working double jobs, being entrepreneurs, creating solutions and self-reliance they created two successful businesses and saved diligently.
She also designed the house that became your family home?
Yes. Somewhere along the line my mother picked up architectural design as a hobby. She would draw these sketches in her notebook. She would travel around and look at styles. She just learned that by herself. She knows about structural engineering and where things are placed.
My mother previously developed both buildings when they set up their businesses, so she had a lot of hands-on experience in building design.
She always talked about building a dream house. My parents were in their late thirties and successful. When my mom wants something, she does it herself—she literally sketched out the house by herself. They later found an architect who vetted those plans and, amazingly, didn’t have to redesign a lot. In 1977, she finally realized her dream house.
Your parents essentially claimed the American dream as their own, coming here with nothing and making a life for themselves.
They pretty much went from having $20 to two very successful business ventures on their own. They were always practiced at saving money. They’re not miserly either. They like things, but they always save up for them. That’s always been their philosophy. If you can’t afford it, don’t get it. But if you need to have it, save up for it. Everyone wants a nice car, but my parents won’t buy it until they’ve earned it.
There is a funny story there. My dad likes simple things; he is not a big fan of luxuries. But back in the early 80s my mom got him this really nice Mercedes – a 380 SLC. My dad, being the simple guy he is, never drove it. It has sat in our garage for 30 years with fewer than 20,000 miles on it.
What’s even funnier is that I was recently given the car despite my lack of interest in cars. Older cars had much more character back then. I’m not a fan of the aerodynamic look of cars today. I grew up admiring that car, despite its sitting in the garage for most of my life.
Tell me more about your own career path and how you forged it.
As I said, having grown up on Nintendo and PC games, I always wanted to work in video games. My best friend and I started a business selling retail video games while we were attending the University of Washington from 1998 to 2002.
Initially, we were collecting and trading video games for our personal collections and we thought, “Why don’t we just do it as a business?” As we were both business school students, it seemed like a great opportunity to bring in what we were learning in class and immediately apply it.
We called it Gecko Games. The name came from my mom. This is long before the Geico commercials! We specialized in importing and exporting specialty and rare video games from Asia to North America to Europe.
We knew about the games because we collected this stuff ourselves. We knew where the end points were, so once we figured out where the source was, we went to them. We saw an opportunity to optimize around these end points and make a business. For instance, we were paying $50 for something we should have been paying $10 for. UW students were our direct market and eBay was good for scale.
We liked to call ourselves CEOs, or “Chief Everything Officers,” meaning we did everything from managing sales, to packing the stuff and hauling it off to the post office – all while going to school. We each had full or double course loads. I was working on two degrees concurrently, mathematics and business. I had to do five years of school in four years and run a business. Naturally, this required us to think very hard about optimizing our time. For instance, in between classes I would map out where the mailboxes were and how many packages I could carry. Everything back then was about doing many things at once. Running a business was a daily exercise in applying what we learned.
We made every mistake you could possibly make three times over. I was 18 trying to juggle school and business, and trying hard to not fail at both. It was a great experience.
I believe that if you fail, you should fail in the beginning; you should fail when things are small. You should not fail when you have your whole life savings committed to something. This experience taught me to manage funds pretty well. I understood opportunity costs around the age of five. I understood there was a time value of money. While running a business, you realize that you can’t squander money and opportunities.
When we started the business, we had limited capital: $1,000 seed money from my cousin. We used that money to pay for the incorporation filing fees and purchase our first set of inventory. Eventually, after two years, we ended up clearing up to $200,000 in sales.
As with your parents, external forces had an impact on your life and in this case, on your business.
Yes. We had to shut down the business in 2001 right after 9/11. We started in 1998. It ended on September 13, 2001.
One of the things I knew is that you have to have an exit strategy. I knew all our assets were tied up in inventory and the realities of bootstrapping. As college students, we had no cash flow. The exit strategy was: any time we can’t move our inventory within ten days, we have to quit. We have to sell everything, and we have to be disciplined about it. We can’t be emotional about it. We can’t afford to hold on to inventory because we have to liquidate and pay our creditors.
When the September 11th attacks occurred, everyone’s shipping and retail internationally had to freeze. We liquidated our entire inventory. We sold everything. We paid off creditors. I repaid my cousin and gave him a 10x payout of $10,000.
We made a significant net profit of about $50,000 each, enough money to pay for college. So we accomplished what we intended to do. And the whole point was to learn from it. We came out ahead – certainly with more than the $1,000 I started with.
That was my first foray into dealing with things that were beyond my control. You can’t panic about it. You know what you have to do. There is no other choice.
What has your career path been since college?
I graduated with double bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and business. It was likely expected of me to go into business research, consulting or financial services. After our games business closed, I did not give much thought about forging my own path. It was common for UW business school students to go into consulting. Unfortunately, around the time I graduated, the Enron financial accounting scandal rocked the industry I was about to go into and the jobs dried up.
With conformity no longer an option, I went back to the games industry. Instead of retailing games, however, I wanted to make them.
Because I grew up on Nintendo, I started applying for jobs there, but I needed more experience. So I went to Microsoft. There, I found out I needed to have a computer science and technical background. Another setback.
Without a job, I spent the next six months teaching myself how to program and eventually found a job as a database analyst and tester for a legal services company in 2003. I worked very hard at learning my technical craft, and eventually I went back to Microsoft Games Studios in 2005 and reapplied as a software engineer. Finally, through this unconventional path from a small business owner to tester, I was able to start my games development career. In the next four years, I had the opportunity to home in on my craft and learn from awesome mentors at Microsoft.
Unfortunately, in 2009, I was laid off. I was dismayed. I had difficulty finding another role as a tester. Thankfully, the time I invested in working with my mentors paid off, and I returned to Microsoft as a contractor – not as a test developer, but as an associate producer. A year later, I took on a contracting role as a game designer and business analyst.
In 2011, an opportunity came up at Zynga for a senior designer role. I had the opportunity to work on a game title that was instrumental in Zynga’s IPO. I relocated to San Francisco and moved into product management under my mentor and general manager. The following year, I joined him and relocated to Austin as his executive producer. Last year, however, Zynga’s difficulties affected most of the remote studios, and I was laid off again.
Through the support of my mentors and former colleagues, I was offered to join Zynga back in my hometown in Seattle as a lead producer. Although my title is a producer, I’m actually a CEO again: Chief Everything Officer.
In my current role, I have been able to bring my experiences from various roles into this one: business manager, analyst, tester, developer, producer, product manager and game designer. In a funny way, none of this would have been possible had I not been driven to change from facing multiple layoffs.
The path wasn’t always easy, but the only way I can cope with things that happen to me is by thinking of my family and what they had to do.
When I think of their struggles, it’s easy to see that I don’t have to deal with real crises; I just deal with first-world ones. I lost my job. So what do I have to do? I have to find another one. If you don’t have the skill set, then make one. My career has seen so many setbacks, but these challenges are opportunities to do new things and discover additional strengths.
The three things my parents told me were: persevere, be self-reliant and always have passion for what you do. It will not guarantee success, but it makes the process better.
You mentioned you also have found an active way of dealing with the pressures of life, your career and other difficulties.
Yes, I have been a martial arts practitioner for more than 20 years. I started taekwondo in middle school mostly because I was terrible at every sport, and martial arts looked pretty cool.
Since then, it has given me a great outlet to deal with my day-to-day frustrations and to learn much about myself. It has taught me to temper my emotions and, in conjunction with learning from my parent’s experiences, it gives me a way to manage stress that comes from work and life.
For the last six years, I have been practicing Iaido—classical Japanese swordsmanship—with the Musokai dojo in Bellevue. Rather than focusing on self-defense or combat, Iaido is about developing strength of character to defeat your opponent without violence. Moreover, it’s remarkably hard to cut with a sword while being distracted, tense, impatient or even emotional. Iaido gives me a way to discover my strengths while letting my problems go.
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Article by Stacey Sanner, photographer and writer. She published her first book of interviews and photographs, "Keeping a Blue Light On: a Citizen's Tribute to the Seattle Police Department," in 2010. You can learn more at www.keepingabluelighton.com.
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