Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Software Development Project Management, I Learned from World of Warcraft

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App Dev Manager TJ Lindroos reflects on the union of People, Process, and Products to enable continuous delivery of value and what it means for an aspiring Project Manager.


I want to preface this article with a caveat that I have never personally played World of Warcraft, however I have worked with many people who live a second life as a Night Elf, Dwarf or Gnome. There is a complete culture that surrounds this game and people take it very seriously. It is, to some, a way of life. Enter Rodney.

Rodney was a brilliant software engineer that worked on my team before I joined Microsoft. His code was elegant and he also had a firm grasp on creating a wonderful user experience. I trusted him with a lot of our new and cutting-edge development because he had a real passion for staying current and trying new and exciting things. Since I had leaned heavily on him for software engineering expertise, I was surprised to hear him want to throw his hat into the ring for a Project Manager position that I had opening on our team. I called him into my office and let him know that I was a little surprised that he was interested and told him that I was really looking for a Senior Project Manager with some solid software development project management experience. While I would be more than happy to start getting him the training and mentoring that he would need to start moving down that career path, I hadn’t seen anything on his resume that reflected the experience I was seeking for this position. His response floored me.

“My experience isn’t on my resume. Everything I ever needed to know about project management I’ve learned by managing my World of Warcraft guild.”

I’ll be honest. It took a good amount of restraint to not laugh at first, but I could tell he was dead serious, and I didn’t want to offend him. So, I asked him to go deeper and explain what he meant.

He proceeded to tell me about a massive mission that his guild of 65 team members was about to undertake. The scope of this quest was to rid the world of Azeroth of a treacherous monster who was threatening the safety of many stakeholders in the land. It was his responsibility to ensure success on this mission, and to do so required weeks, even months of planning and preparation.

With his team, he performed a risk assessment, and determined that there were some critical potential risk areas that needed a mitigation strategy. Some of his team members lacked certain weapons, armor or skills that would be required for the arduous task. So, he set a plan in motion to rectify that. He broke his teams down into smaller teams and put leads in each of those areas to oversee smaller missions that would help build up people’s experience and gain treasure and tools to progress their overall mission. He then regrouped with those leads on a routine cadence to ensure things were on track. This very closely resembled a software team performing SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) and conducting a scrum of scrums with his team leads. Things seemed to be progressing well and his team members were gaining knowledge and experience and prepping for the big battle that could be equivalent to a major product launch in the software development world.

Throughout this endeavor, it seemed that he had a good grasp on some of the key concepts of Project Management. He had already discussed Scope and shared a charter with his team of what success looked like and what would need to happen to achieve it. He had talked about resources and budget requirements that would help to ensure a successful delivery. He assessed the risks to try to reduce potential issues that may arise. He had set a schedule for the team to follow and was adjusting as needed with his team leads as they neared their final date of attack. He was monitoring throughout the process to try to ensure quality while grooming his team, and he was having routine communications with everyone to ensure they were all on the same page.

All of this sounded great and well thought out. I could see that he had given much thought to the parallels of software development project management and planning for a major quest in Azeroth. But it turns out, there was one key area that was missing. It was soft skills and his attention to his stakeholders what would be his ultimate downfall. He was only focused on defeating his enemy and doing whatever it took to reach his goals. Along the way, he was forcing his team to put in far more hours than they wanted to, and was unyielding when they pushed back and said they needed more time to prepare. He refused to consider the fact that some of these people on his team needed to find a good work/life/World-of-Warcraft balance, and his demands were destroying their morale. A week before the epic battle was supposed to occur, over 50% of his team left his guild and started their own. Still determined to meet his goal, he went on a recruiting frenzy and pulled in additional warriors to fill the gaps, but when the day came for the battle, it ended up being a bloodbath and utter failure.

When I heard of the defeat, I was relieved that I had selected a more experienced Software Development Project Manager to lead my dev teams, but I also saw that it was a great learning opportunity. Although it would take some work, he could adopt a growth mindset and start to accept constructive feedback on what soft skills he would need to work on in the future. We were able to create a learning path to help him fill the gaps, and I am happy to say that today, he is a highly successful team lead that has conquered many business challenges and World of Warcraft missions with solid leadership and project management principles.

As more companies are pursuing their DevOps journey and looking at the union of People, Process, and Products to enable continuous delivery of value to end users, it is important to realize that there is a reason People come first in that list. The greatest tools and a rock-solid process mean nothing without the people to execute. A perfect plan will never get implemented without the team to deliver. Teams are ultimately made up of people and that’s a special dynamic.  People can thrive under good leadership, but even the best teams can fall apart when everything just becomes a resource or a metric.  Successful Project Management centers around communication, and the most effective communication begins with the ability to listen. Listen to your team, consider their feedback, and adjust as needed. Your team will appreciate you more, they will feel more valued, and they will know that they have a leader they can trust to lead them into battle.

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