What Product Managers can learn from playing StarCraft

On Perseverance, Opportunity Cost, Positioning, Customer Development & Humility

This post is part of the ‘What Product Managers can learn from …’ series.
It is also published in
Startup Edition.

StarCraft is the chess of our time.

It really is a fascinating game in itself, especially if you are looking for a fair & well balanced multiplayer experience. Easy to play, yet hard to master and with a lot of depth. But what really struck me was that a lot of startup & product people I met in San Francisco & Bay Area seem to be StarCraft fans by heart if not successful competitive players.

StarCraft, is the chess of our generation. StarCraft requires the dexterity of a pianist, the mind of a chess grandmaster, and the discipline of an Olympic trainee.
— Sean “Day[9]” Plott

If you dig a little deeper you’ll find that a lot of leading software companies like Twitter, Microsoft, Facebook, Adobe & Zynga are regularly engaging in StarCraft team battles in an after hours gaming league.

A coincidence? Apparently I’m not the only one who found it interesting that StarCraft seems especially popular among the best of the best in the software industry.

After playing for a while myself I’ve discovered some similarities between StarCraft and my day to day as Product Manager for a software company. Hooked? Okay, let’s dive right into the rabbit hole …

Keep Calm & Carry On,
even if all Hell breaks loose

ParanOid (Zerg) vs
Sage (Protoss)

StarCraft is a highly competitive and creative game. At times it can get extremely stressful and sometimes you get into situations where you feel helplessly overwhelmed & caught off guard.

Being able to keep calm is a key skill in StarCraft. In competitive leagues you can observe people winning who just 5 minutes ago appeared to be absolutely doomed.

Apparently the most likely animals to be left alive after a nuclear war are cockroaches, because they’re so hard to kill. That’s what you want to be as a startup […]
— Paul Graham, YCombinator

Especially in these moments of despair it is crucial to keep a cool head if you want to persevere. If you throw away your nerves there is no chance you’ll perform even in the same ballpark as if you were on top of your mind.

As Product Manager your decisions have implications about engineering time, design time, marketing time, focus, scope and whether you go into the right direction. Magic happens when you call the shots while you are at the top of your mind. Bad things happen if you aren’t.

It is possible to turn things around even if it appears as if all odds are stacked against you. Apple was at the brink of extinction before Steve Jobs turned it around to become the most valuable company of our time.

Here’s a post I wrote about how to keep a cool head as Product Manager even if you’re massiveley strapped for resources.

Bigger Picture vs Execution? Both

Massive Baneling connects

In StarCraft both Macro & Micro skills play a huge role in gaining the upper hand in a game.

Macro skills basically cover your ability to ramp up your economy as well as to spend your resources wisely.They help you to decide what to build, when to expand and how to be efficient. Product Management also has a lot of macro aspects. Focusing on the bigger picture and long-term vision, measuring KPIs like revenue, user engagement & retention, or understanding concepts like cycle time and work in process limits.

Micro skills on the other hand mainly cover areas of the game where you use specific abilities of units, commands & movements to gain an edge over other players. Here we can also find analogues in the Product Management world that are more closely related to craft execution skills of your product team. Software engineering, user experience design & marketing.

You need three things to create a successful startup: to start with good people, to make something customers actually want, and to spend as little money as possible. Most startups that fail do it because they fail at one of these. A startup that does all three will probably succeed.
— Paul Graham, YCombinator

Some people might be better at macro while others excel in micro. It is very useful to understand where your strengths & weaknesses are. Striving for excellence in both macro & micro aspects of your product is quite worthwhile.

How to buy Information by Delivering Early

Scouting is the Customer Development of StarCraft

Map control is a key skill of great StarCraft players. It basically means that you are able to use information about your opponent’s structures, units and movements. But map control goes beyond having visibility. It means that you are able to use the gathered intelligence to get into a dominant position in certain areas of the map.

Whether it means being able to anticipate and cancel moves of your opponent, building a certain composition of units, wisely choosing when and where to engage or to retreat, map control enables you to make the right decisions at the right time. Map control enables you to be proactive, anticipate future moves and be ready to respond to whatever is thrown at you.

In the early game you will often see players send out units that are usually used to mine minerals. They are using them to scout the terrain to figure out where the opponent is located and what he is up to. This does indeed cost precious resources that could have been gathered in the meantime but on the other hand the gained information often turns out to be essential to winning the game.

Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.
— Stephen Hawking

This is fairly similar to a product management concept called Customer Development. It is incredibly valuable to deeply understand what your customer is doing and cares about if you want to create an ideal solution for their needs. The information gathered through activities like Customer Development will help you with things like customer acquisition as well as positioning and actually delivering a great product.

Why quick Decisions are better than None

StarCraft like Product Management is a game of opportunity cost.

You have limited resources & continuously need to make decisions about what to build, where to go or whether it makes sense to engage or retreat. Often you even have to make multiple essential decisions at the same time. Worse, every time you don’t decide, a decision is made (for you).

Building a certain structure too early or ramping up your economy without having any units to defend your base might lead to a defeat caused by greed. In Product Management almost any decision about the order in which features are built as well as the scope of a feature has a certain opportunity cost. Understanding where you are in the game and what that cost is helps you to make better decisions.

Be prepared. No aspect of coaching is more important. You preplan as much as you can with the information you have in a more clinical setting. It’s easier than trying to make quick, spontaneous (decisions) in 10 or 12 seconds during the pressure and intensity of a game
— Bill Walsh, San Francisco 49ers

Try to not do too many things at the same time and learn about the opportunity cost of your options. Keeping calm is essential here.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

StarCraft analysts & live commentators: Apollo & Day[9]

While practicing your play and watching reviews of your own games is an important way to improve your execution skills there also exists a large pool of knowledge on various aspects of the game that you can study.

You can fail without learning & you can learn without failing.
— Tom Chi, Google X & Unreasonable Institute

The StarCraft community offers a vast amount of documentation and how-tos around unit compositions, tech trees, timings, maps, and build orders. On top of that there are a ton of screen casts & live shoutcasts of games where you can watch & learn from the best players out there.

The equivalents in the Product Management world are best practices like lean/agile software development, distributed version control, continuous deployment, measuring user engagement and optimizing customer acquisition & retention.

There is a ton of knowledge out there. Be curious, learn from the best, grab them for tea/coffee & get outside of your comfort zone.

Conclusion

I hope I could highlight some similarities between StarCraft and Product Management.

Both are very complex and highly competitive endeavours. Whether you watch an incredible player or a brilliant product team you will observe a certain ease in their craft, as if they were slightly bending the rules of reality. Magic happens.

Curious? You can take the free starter edition of StarCraft II for a spin.

If you found this post helpful follow me on twitter where I tweet about Software Development & Product Management ☺

Also make sure to check out Blossom an Agile/Lean Project Management Tool I’m currently working on ☺