November 29, 2021

“What’s the worst that could happen?” - Reflecting back on 15 years in Finland


‘I want to work with those guys’ was my first thought when I saw Digital Chocolate’s early mobile games. They were making very casual games that the whole family could enjoy. As a game designer, I had already worked on mobile games in my home country Brazil. I loved the challenge of creating an experience that fits on the phone and the potential of mobile gaming to reach the masses.

Arriving in Helsinki for a job interview around Independence Day 2006, all I knew to expect was that it would be cold. What surprised me was the darkness. After the interview process, I knew I loved the company, but didn’t know if I could live in Finland.

“What’s the worst that can happen?” my father asked when I consulted him for advice. As a relatively inexperienced 21 year old, I decided to take a leap. I knew the company was taking a risk in bringing me on and found it very motivating that they saw something in me.

It was a huge move for me. Not only I exchanged a +30 C summer for a -20 C winter to work in an international company, I’d never even lived on my own at that point.

The leap paid off in more ways than I could ever have anticipated. I got to work with and learn from the best, on a variety of interesting projects. Mikko Kodisoja, who eventually went on to found Supercell, was lead designer on my first project at Digital Chocolate. The tight knit Finnish gaming community was very lively, and I got to meet and share knowledge with developers from other companies.

Arriving in Finland, another surprise for me was that Finns weren't just productive people delivering great results. They also made space for other things in their lives. In Brazil, people typically worked from 8am to 6pm with a two hour lunch break and very little flexibility. In Finland, people could leave the office early when they needed to and take time off for parental leaves. I got so used to this work life balance, that I was surprised when I moved to Berlin for a job at Wooga in 2011. There seemed to be a certain honor in staying late at the office. I missed Finland and returned after a year to join the Supercell team.

Forging a career path that aligns with my personal values

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I’ve been lucky in my career to have found people who champion inclusion and value the different perspectives I bring to the table. Digital Chocolate was visionary in their approach to hiring when they brought me from Brazil. They wanted to make games for a broad audience, which was increasingly female. There were no female game designers in Finland before I arrived.

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Fast forward 15 years, the mobile games market continues to grow and audiences are more diverse than ever before. That’s why I co-founded Papukaya, a new mobile games studio aspiring to bring the joy of gaming to new audiences. Supercell, my previous employer of 8 years, has funded it. To achieve our goal, the Papukaya team is not only working hard on developing games, but also on building a diverse core team with fresh perspectives.

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A lot of people get tired of the conversation around diversity and inclusion. Some even go as far as saying that it’s about political correctness. When I was searching for a co-founder for my startup Papukaya, I got told I wouldn’t be able to find a talented game developer who also cared about inclusion “If a programmer is really good, they don’t care about the people stuff.” Luckily he was wrong and I found a partner in Johannes Ahvenniemi, a a senior coder with experience from Rovio and Seriously, and who is just as passionate about games and people as I am.

As a naturally very curious person, I’ve always seen the value in different people’s perspectives. I’m also the product of inclusion done well and have had many good experiences of people from different backgrounds working together. It’s not about pushing a political agenda or looking good. It's about reaching more customers and creating even better products. It's about identifying what needs are not being served by what’s on the market.

What would make it easier for other talented people to make the leap and move to Finland?

Papukaya joined Finnish Startup Community as a founding member to learn and give back to the community. Ultimately, though, the outcome I hope this community achieves is to help Finland do even better. I want to see some concrete changes that make it easier for people to land and stay in Finland. Faster visa processing. More support for immigrating spouses and families. More services in English, especially in education and leisure activities.

I don’t plan to leave Finland, but I’ve really struggled to learn the language. Especially working at English speaking companies. As a parent, I’ve debated whether to put my son in Finnish school. I wouldn’t be able to easily communicate with the school or help him with his homework. Are there bilingual schools? I don’t see a lot of options and finding information can be challenging.

Imagine facing this in every area of your life outside work – from finding a place to live to booking swimming lessons for your children. It can be overwhelming. Plenty of people find it too hard to do on top of demanding jobs. We need to facilitate their moves if we don’t want to lose the talent. As an early-stage startup, I already lost one great hire over fears a spouse wouldn't adapt.

“What’s in the water in Finland?”

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I sometimes get asked, “What’s in the water in Finland?”. There are so many great success stories in tech and gaming. Most people know of Finland's strong tech history, with Nokia as a common example. But what many don't realize is that the Finnish startup community is very good at working together and thinking globally.

When a small community of determined people focuses on doing the right things, cooperating, growing and learning, great things happen.

That’s why over the years you can see great things coming from Finland. Success feeds success with know-how, talent and capital that feeds back into growing the ecosystem. It’s a virtuous circle that’s propelling Finland forward.

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Let’s keep the cycle going.

Drussila HollandaCEO & Co-Founder of Papukaya