If you’re an engineer, chances are Legos were your favorite toy as a kid. The infinite combinations of those little blocks teach structural integrity, building for scale, and the limitations of your materials. It’s one of the most beloved toy brands in the world, and for good reason.
During a walk to the office the other morning, I started thinking about other games from my childhood and how they’ve prepared me for my job. One game in particular stood out as perhaps the unofficial game franchise for all product managers: SimCity.
For the uninitiated, SimCity is a game of civil engineering, urban planning, crisis management, and budgeting. Sound fun? If you don’t know the game and only have this description: probably not. Such is product management.
In SimCity, you start with an empty grid of land and some money in the bank. Your job from there is to establish a city, give it power and water, create jobs, build roads, attract residents, and provide them public services. Along the way (unless you turn them off), disasters will strike in the form of tornados, earthquakes, and alien attacks. Sounding fun yet?
SimCity is all about resource allocation and long-term planning. For example, zoning an area for industrial buildings creates jobs early on, but it also creates pollution. As your city residents become more educated—because you invested in higher education, right?—they desire better jobs, and low-end industrial parks become your technical debt. Some versions of the game include city advisors that report on issues like transit, education, and tourism—city features, essentially. If quality is anything less than 100%, these advisors will constantly nag you for additional budget. When your city coffers don’t have enough cash, you’re faced with the unenviable task of deciding which taxes to raise or program budgets to cut. There’s no such thing as a universally good decision in SimCity. Every decision impacts every other aspect of gameplay. Resource allocation, feature prioritization, budgets, and qualitative feedback interpretation? Sounds like product management.
Now let’s get one thing straight: in SimCity, you don’t actually make the buildings. In fact, all you can really build yourself is infrastructure. You literally make a roadmap. Most of your time is spent analyzing data in tables and graphs, listening to feedback from residents, and making budgetary adjustments. If you do a good job, the buildings show up. If you continue to do a good job, buildings become more valuable. There is no button in the game for “place impressive residential skyscraper.” That requires wealthy, well-educated residents, a manageable commute to a high-paying job, adequate police and fire department coverage, museums and libraries—the list goes on.
This, in essence, is product management. You have more data than you can keep track of, various stakeholder priorities to balance, limited resources, influence—but not authority—over your constituents, and no clear path to success. Do you want the city with the most people? The highest land value? The best jobs? You may set out with one set of goals in mind, but your city may take on different characteristics than you initially intended. As a mayor you have to keep an eye on your city and be prepared to alter your course. It’s an exercise in patience and frustration, but boy does it feel good when you get to sit back and watch your city hum along. This all true for product management, as well.
So, if you want to prepare for a career in product management, grab a copy of SimCity. And watch out for alien attacks.