How to become a better Product Manager by playing video games

You don’t have to be a gamer geek to learn strategic principles.

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.

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.

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. Buy vs. Build
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.

How to say ‘No’ to your CEO.

Image result for i like saying no

There’s a well-known saying that Product Managers are the “mini-CEOs.” It’s mostly bogus. The CEO is the CEO. And as a product manager, learning to say “no” to the CEO is one of the most important skills you can have. It’s also one of the most common things you will do. (Or rather, should be doing.)

The key to saying no, even when doing so is difficult, is to back it up with data. Remember that your job is not to please everyone. And any PMs who try to do this will get bogged down and eventually crushed under loads of ultimately unfulfillable requests. Your job is to understand the market, the customer & the product, and to synthesize data, feedback & requests together into the optimal course of action. And all of it should be backed by qualitative and quantitative data. All of it.

So, how do you tell your CEO “no”? Easy. You are a proxy for the data. A channel. Have confidence in your decision-making. It’s not you that says no. It’s the data that says no.

A week in Havana, Cuba

My wife and I wanted to go to Cuba because the most interesting places in the world are the ones which are on the cusp of great change. And few places fit that description better than Havana.

Being in Cuba is like being stuck in a time warp. There is just no place like it. Definitely one of the coolest & most interesting places I’ve ever had the privilege of visiting.

Getting down there is really not tough at all. Even before the travel restrictions were eased again last week, Americans could always go through Mexico. We had no problems getting there (aside from having $200 stolen from us). But getting back was another story.

We stayed for a week in a private home overlooking Plaza Vieja. Airbnb had just opened up in Cuba, and we were only the third or fourth people to ever use it there.

This is the morning view from our balcony. The owner’s friend made us breakfast every morning…mix of sounds & smells coming from the plaza below – coffee, cigars, exhaust, maybe a little bit of sewage = beautiful.

Because there is essentially no development, everything is “preserved”, but not everything is well maintained. Plaza Vieja is a big exception.

In terms of how they feel about Americans, I’d say most Cubans are somewhere between receptive & curious. They haven’t seen many of them before, but with the surge of tourism lately, they are certainly starting to.

The Cuban Stock Exchange.

There are two currencies on the island: One for the locals, called “moneda nacional”, which is worth close to nothing, and another for tourists, which is seemingly fabricated out of thin air and somehow pagged 1:1 to the US dollar.
Nobody accepts US currency because they can’t do anything with it American bank/credit cards are useless, and worth nothing more than the plastic they are made from.
You need plenty of physical cash, because once you’re on the island you will be totally unable to obtain cash from any machine, bank, or anywhere else.

On the island a single can of paint costs the equivalent of about $300. Painting your car/house is one way to show off your wealth.

Signs & symbols from la revolucion are still all over the place.
A kids coloring book about the Cuban Revolution. “Hey kids – Now you can paste the knife onto the back of Batista’s traitors!”

“Wi-Fi Square” in Centro Habana. The Internet is incredibly scarce in Cuba. The gov’t has recently begun blasting WiFi from a few public squares in Havana. These are literally the only places to get online for 99% of Cubans.

The network is weak and usually overloaded. On good days you can stream YouTube, on bad days you can wait 90 mins for Facebook to open. The irony of a public square turning into a place where everyone stares into their phones is interesting.

But what’s even more interesting is that since everyone needs to come here to get online, the place has sort of become a party zone – a place to hangout even if you aren’t going/can’t get online.

Everyone wants to go to Cuba because it has so little American influence. But the real reason to go is because it has so little Internet. Really, there aren’t a lot of westernized/urbanized countries you can say that about. The former will take a while to change. The latter, not so much.

There are very, very few places in the world that look like this. No cruise ships, no ads, no billboards, no McDonald’s, no marketing allowed anywhere. (There’s actually one McDonalds on the island. In Guantanamo bay. Hooray.)

The future is here, but you wouldnt know it being in Havana. It’s stuck in time, just a world away from everything else. Forget going to a museum – the city is a museum.

This is a fort. I forget why it was important. Probably to keep the Spanish out… Yeah, let’s go with that.

The poverty is all around you. There is no escaping it. This cannot be stressed enough – the place is magical, yes. But it could also use a MAJOR injection of capital.

But anyone who thinks this place is going to look like America anytime soon is wrong: It’s going to take a loooong time. Cubans are on the up & up when it comes to preservation.

I’m fairly confident that even with the embargo coming down, Cubans will prevent their island from looking like every other goddamn place in the world.

Something is coming. It seems like they are waiting for what happens next. But the fact is it’s already happening. Everyone can feel it. It smells like freedom. It’s a good thing.

Anthony Bourdain

One of my favorite car shots. That’s the old Palace in the background, now the Museum of the Revolution.

Twelve thousand Cuban Pesos. For a couch. Average Cuban earns 500/month, so this is like two years’ salary. Now that’s some scarcity.
Music is such a huge part of the culture. Everywhere you go people are singing and dancing. Except in this picture of course. That’s just a bass.
Bottom floor of the palace right when you walk in. “Corner of the cretins.” Caricatures of anti-revolutionists.
Doesn’t Che Guevara look a little like Josh Hartnett?
He’s doing exactly what you think he’s doing.

Havana Club Máximo Extra Añejo Rum. Aged 50 years. The best rum in Cuba, and therefore the best rum anywhere

Everyone wants to go to Cuba because there’s no American influence. But I’m telling you – the real reason to go is because there’s no Internet. I swear to god, one of the things I loved most was how there was no Internet.

You go to restaurants and everyone is actually looking at each other and talking and singing and dancing instead of staring into their phones… It’s just mind-boggling, because it wasn’t that long ago, but I already forgot what that was like.

Aside from the “Wi-Fi squares”, the only other places to get solid Internet are outside of hotels. They’ll kick you out if you’re not staying there, so people crowd around the entrances to steal as much as they can.

Floridita’s: The birthplace of the daquiri.

Rural Cuba is so simple. No corporations, no KFC, no bed bath & whatever the fuck, no sprawl, just countryside. And poverty. Lots of that, too.

Before Hershey decided to make the world’s most disgusting chocolate, he had a sugar plantation outside Havana. It’s now a pretty cool nature preserve.

In terms of access, Cuban healthcare is among the best in the world. Hospitals & nurses everywhere. And of course it’s free.

Getting home was an absolute disaster. Cubana Air is like if the DMV ran an airline. Pilots show up whenever they want, flights are routinely delayed for no reason at all. It’s gotten to the point where travel insurance providers won’t even cover you if you fly with them.

At the end of the day, I’m cautiously optimistic on Cuba. Don’t get me wrong – Americans/US corporations investing in Cuba will be a good thing. In fact, it will be a really good thing. But will they lose their free education & healthcare? Will they lose their identity? Will they lose what it means to be Cuban? I dont know if its gonna come soon or take a while, but it will be really interesting to watch unfold.

Get down there while you can. I can’t wait to get back there, explore some more & see what’s changed.

TiVo was a great product that failed due to poor marketing

Product managers often think product-market fit is all that matters. That’s not quite accurate.
TiVo is still around, but far less successful than they could have/should have been.

TiVo had a fantastic, innovative product, plenty of funding, and a huge first-mover advantage. As one of the first companies to record digitized video on a hard disk, TiVo upped their own game by predicting what programs a user would be interested in recording, and added tons of other cool functionality as well. By all logic TiVo should be the undisputed king of the digital recording market.

However, by 2011 it was clear that any stranglehold TiVo had on a market they essentially created was gone. The giant cable companies may have come to the party late, but they busted the door wide open when they arrived. By bundling in DVR service as part of cable subscription packages, behemoths such as Comcast and Verizon essentially reduced TiVo to an “also ran” in the quickly growing market.

As of January 2012 TiVo had only ~2.3 million subscribers in the US. This is down from 4.36 million six years earlier. There is a fantastic TED talk that touches upon the reasons why this happened, and lays the blame on TiVo’s entire market approach. I don’t agree with all of it, but he makes some interesting points, and it is certainly worth a watch.

An ode to the Sam Adams curved pint glass.

It’s not just the looks. This glass was designed to create the optimal beer drinking experience.

Take a look at these practical design elements.

First, laser etchings on the bottom of the glass create a stream of bubbles, which mean constant aroma release. I haven’t done an A/B test to see if these etchings create more bubbles, but with the millions in R&D Sammy put into making this glass, I’ll take their word for it.

Next, the glass at the bottom is thicker than average, and the glass in the middle is thinner than average. Body heat from the hands negatively affects the beer’s temperature, and people tend to hold the glass at or near the bottom. Thicker glass at the bottom means it takes longer for body heat to transfer to and alter the temperature of the liquid inside. The thinner walls in the middle help maintain proper beer temperature as long as possible.

The rounded shape in the middle of the glass helps collect aromas, and makes it more difficult for the glass to slip out of your hands and drop on the floor.Smell is nearly as important as the taste.

Narrowing the glass near the top sustains the beer’s head, and more importantly concentrates & retains the hop aroma. When tipped in to the mouth, the outward-turned lip at the top delivers beer to the front of the tongue, where the sweet receptors are located. This allows the drinker to pick up on sweet, malty notes they would normally have not tasted.

Finally, the bead inside the rim creates “turbulence” as the beer enters the mouth. This turbulence causes the beer to spread over a larger area of the tongue and mouth, and thus causes the drinker to experience more flavor per sip.

The glass is priced at around $15 – $20; a bit steep, but worth the money if you are a serious alcoholi-errr, beer drinker. If you go on the Samuel Adams Brewery Tour in Boston, you’ll get one free.

This glass truly is a thing of beauty. Just don’t even think of using it to drink Natty Ice, brah.

Living in Boston is like wearing a badge of honor.

I grew up in Boston, and lived there for 23 years. It’s a wonderful, walkable, well-loved city for good reason.

But it was ultimately not a tough place to leave. Even as a kid I knew it didn’t fit my personality, and I left as soon as I finished college.

I have an affinity for the city that will last a lifetime. And I truly feel that living in Boston is like wearing a badge of honor.

Why? Because when you live there, you deal with bullshit on at least 12 different levels.

  • The weather is consistently depressing. More rain & snow than nearly every other large US city; including Seattle. On a nice day the city is gorgeous. Too bad there are exactly 17 of these each year.
  • Traffic is a nightmare. Roads are in shambles, while bridges are old, crumbling, and always painted a disgusting green for some reason. One wrong turn anywhere and you’re 25 minutes late.
  • This is why drivers are terrible. The cost of making a mistake is so high that people will swerve across 3 lanes to catch an exit. You need to make your turn at all costs.
  • The T is like a kid’s toy train set. Orange and Red lines are okay, but the Green line is horrendously slow. (The lines have colors for christ’s sake!)
  • The housing stock is old as dirt. The “beautiful” victorian I grew up in was built in 1896, and it might as well have been pre-civil war. The place was impossible to keep cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Everything creaked. Both the attic and basement were haunted. Doors and windows would suddenly open or shut by themselves. Because of the weather, “New England old” is older than “normal old.”
  • Cost of living is preposterous for what you get. It’s one of the country’s most expensive cities, without being one of the most exciting. The worst of both worlds.
  • Much of the city has an unmistakeable run-down feel to it. The nice parts are fantastic, but the bad parts are like an expensive Scranton with slightly better food.
  • Racism and especially homophobia is a big deal. In fact, those who are different are rarely treated well. Expressing individuality is a feat for the bold. They’ll laugh at you if you play by your own rules. Now don’t get me wrong – if they like you, they’ll laugh with you. But rest assured they’re laughing either way.
  • People are generally skeptical of new ideas. There’s a reason Silicon Valley happened on the west coast and not the 128 corridor.
  • If you bring up these points to people in Boston, someone who has never lived outside of New England will tell you Boston is the best city in the world, and want to fight you about it. Even when I moved to CA, the reaction I got was, “What, you think you’re bettah than us? What because you’re going to California or something??” Classy stuff.
  • The one exception to this rule is Florida. For whatever reason Bostonians are absolutely in love with Florida. If you move to Florida, live in Florida or even just visit, the envy level goes up 500%. Don’t bother trying to explain there are lots of other pleasant, warm places in the world. On a long enough timeline, every Masshole becomes Florida Man.
  • The “Masshole” stereotype is completely earned. People are often assholes to each other. A lot of it is kidding around, a lot of it is small talk, a lot of it is general frustration. People are at least a little miserable, and sort of take it out on each other.

…And then you go to a bar to drink, watch the game, and complain about it all to whoever will listen. And everyone’s your friend. Life is tough, but we all suffer together. That’s Boston. Once you live there, everywhere else is easier & better by comparison.