Become a Better Product Manager by Playing Video GamesUnconventional Advice from the Trenches

I’m a Senior Product Manager at HG Data. My days are busy — bordering on hectic. Requests come in from all directions and often simultaneously. I live deep in the workflow of product development, data science, marketing, and customer support, which leaves me few opportunities to step back and gain perspective.

Of course, we all need a release from work pressures, and for me that’s playing Sid Meier’s Civilization — a turn-based video game with a huge focus on strategy.

A screenshot from the video game Civilization depicting a medieval middle eastern city with a dome with 4 towering minarets in the distance

Before I go any further: I’m not your stereotypical pajama-wearing, gamer geek sequestered away in my mom’s basement. But I’ve discovered this game makes me a better product manager, so I am willing to admit that I might have some geek tendencies!

Below are seven ways playing Civ has made me a better product manager (PM).

1. Use Whatever Works

Product management is one of those interesting careers that draws people from all walks of life. PM’s come from a wide range of disciplines from engineering to marketing to liberal arts. You can’t go to school to become a PM — there’s no specific career track. We take our lessons wherever we find them.

From strategizing, communicating and influencing people to heading off problems and building contingency plans, Civ has helped me flex my prioritization muscles and hone my PM chops.

How does Civ build PM prowess?

  • Reinforcing the lesson that every decision you make presents trade-offs and needs to be weighed for its opportunity cost.

  • Reminding you that balance is a recurring theme in everything you do. Success comes to those who balance demands and set priorities.

  • Speeding up the outcomes. I see the ramifications of my strategies and tactics in a matter of moves. Civ is like a self-analysis tool with a do-over button that enables me to test and retest my decisions.

2. Always Play to Your Strengths

In Civ, art imitates life. You can acquire wealth, flex your military might, erect buildings and much more. But what you quickly learn is that you can’t do it all at once — and trying to do so will guarantee your failure. If you want to succeed, you have to focus on what’s most important to you, establish short-term and long-term goals and find your balance.

It’s the same in product management. Although I’m ultimately responsible for overseeing all aspects of a product, I come from marketing, so I lead with that. I’m not a hard-driving PM, I’m a diplomat. I thrive on communicating what needs to be done and influencing others to my approach.

Your approach may be different, and that’s okay — because while there are no right or wrong approaches to product management, there are right or wrong solutions for every individual. We can’t pick who we are, but we can play to our strengths:

  • Be true to yourself -don’t try to be something you’re not.

  • Identify your area of greatest strength and focus on the activities where that strength is best applied.

  • Acknowledge your weaknesses and select people who can take the lead in those areas.

  • Balance your time between overseeing everything and concentrating on the areas where you can make the greatest contribution.

3. Explore Like Crazy!

When you first start a game of Civ, you know nothing of the world beyond your own little patch of land. Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes newbies make is ignoring the power of their “scouts” to go out and explore beyond their realm. But when players assume an “I’ll-find-out-whenever-I-find-out” attitude, they limit both their understanding of the world and their ability to plan a successful course of action.

The lesson here for product managers is huge. Whether you’re new to a company, an industry, a market or a product, the landscape you’re entering is huge and could also present a steep learning curve. HG Data, and big data in general, are no exceptions. This is a large, fast-growing landscape with lots of internal and external players involved.

It’s in every PM’s best interest to spend several months exploring like crazy before starting to build:

  • Get to know the players — walk the halls, attend conferences and talk to your customers.

  • Learn absolutely everything you can about the marketplace and the competition.

  • Continue to explore — most landscapes are dynamic and constantly changing.

4. Keep Your People Happy

Civilization reinforces the relationship between growth and happiness. It’s a simple rule: you can only expand as long as your citizens are happy. Aggressively expanding will lead to unhappy citizens and, in turn, internal turmoil that makes it virtually impossible to focus externally. You can buy citizens off with gifts of buildings and trade luxury goods for a while, but eventually that strategy will catch up with you.

Expansion is a good metaphor for PMs. Just as it’s exciting to conquer outlying empires, it’s also tempting to constantly add features and functionality to your product. But growth comes at a cost, and ultimately you may lose more than you gain. You risk:

  • Working employees too hard, too long and burning them out.

  • Creating technical and design debt by taking shortcuts to meet the demands of expediency that will eventually require going back and rewriting code in the future.

  • Increasing the number of internal requests for unnecessary new features in an attempt to produce ever-faster product growth.

  • Introducing bugs and making un-vetted decisions that anger customers.

The solution is not a matter of building slowly, but building deliberately. Proactively add features and functions that make your product more useful and expand your market. With experience and greater understanding of the landscape, you will begin to recognize the signs when things are growing out of control and beyond your ability to limit mistakes or support the marketplace.

In the end, you need to establish a balance that keeps management, employees and customers happy.

5. Build vs. Buy

In Civ, you can either build the features your empire needs or buy them. One takes time, the other takes money. When it comes to build vs buy decisions, the general rule is: build the things that are part of your long-term plans and buy the things that meet your short-term needs.

It’s the same in product management. In software development, for example, when you want to add new features, you need to weigh extensibility as well as identify that which is ubiquitous. If you’re adding functions that are a unique or represent your core business, you build. This is functionality that gives you greater market opportunity and position in your industry going forward.

On the other hand, if you want to add, say, a social login feature — something that’s not extensible — consider buying. It’s a commodity in the marketplace that anyone can build. Buy it and save your resources for the important stuff you can’t currently buy in the marketplace.

Civ actually takes this distinction into consideration by basing the cost of buildings on their ubiquity. The more common a building becomes among players, the less it costs.

6. Focus on a Few Things and Do Them Great

This might be the hardest lesson to learn because it seems counterintuitive at first. In Civ, you can either:

  • Build Tall: Build a few cities and focus on making them great by creating centers of excellence, or

  • Build Wide: Build and conquer to constantly expand and grow your empire.

Our natural instinct is to build wide by creating and conquering faster than the competition. It just feels right. But what you soon discover is that you quickly reach a point where it becomes difficult and expensive to maintain your empire. And that’s when your citizens, your employees and your customers become unhappy.

The fundamental strategy of market economics today is to do one thing and do it well. Define a narrow niche and become the greatest player in that niche. The market rewards the simple product that performs one discrete task. The trick is to be the best at one thing, and scale like crazy. Uber is a great example of this — it’s a simple business concept that has effectively disrupted the traditional taxi business. Within the space of six years it went from a beta test of an alternative taxi service in San Francisco in 2011 to a $60 billion company doing business in more than 200 cities worldwide today.

7. Act Before the Shit Hits the Fan

In business we call this contingency planning, and it’s a tough mental muscle to flex. Our natural tendency is to spend too much time in denial, and when we finally learn the lesson it often accompanied by tears and bad outcomes.

In Civ, you quickly see the impact of bad decisions. You can review and assess the outcome and even try a do-over to achieve a better result. The keys to contingency planning are:

  • Learning to think fluidly and adjust your plan when it doesn’t come to fruition.

  • Acting quickly before too much damage is done or time lost.

  • Recognizing the black swans will come out of nowhere to wreck your plans.

The old me might have would have sensed something isn’t working, but it usually came at a point past when I should have taken action. Now when something isn’t working, I’m able to identify and react quickly.

Civilization may not help you break into product management, but if you enjoy the adventure/strategy game genre, you may find a dynamic new way to exercise your mental muscle memory and reinforce the lessons essential in the art and science of product management.

This post was first published on the HG Data Blog and has been republished here with the author’s permission.

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Stefan is a product manager at HG Data. You can follow Stefan on Medium or on Twitter