Veronica Spencer
Engineer, Designer, and Maker


What World of Warcraft Taught Me About Project Management.

I’ve never really been secretive about my nerdy tendencies, but somehow, when I explain my skill sets and proficiencies through the lens of dorkiness, people are shocked. I’m not sure why. (As of writing this, I am surrounded by my action figure collection and at least half of my sketching reference books are related to comic books or tabletop gaming.) Today felt like an excellent day to write down one of the conversations I’ve had with my students most recently.

From the ages of about 12 to about 17, my main three activities were going to school, playing video games, and going to TKD practice - with school falling out of the equation during summer breaks. My game of choice was World of Warcraft - an MMORPG which has recently launched its 7th expansion. Being identified now (at age 26) as someone who used to be super into World of Warcraft (or WoW for short) is a very uncomfortable, cringe-worthy situation; largely because I fell directly in line with the WoW addict stereotype that you are probably thinking of RIGHT NOW.

This was basically me - with the notable exception that instead of gaining weight, I was losing it because I was working out and forgetting to eat. Credit: South Park, 2006

This was basically me - with the notable exception that instead of gaining weight, I was losing it because I was working out and forgetting to eat. Credit: South Park, 2006

I was all in on this game. I started playing just a few months before the launch of the Burning Crusade Expansion, and I spent a truly mind-boggling amount of time staring at my computer screen and watching my characters transform through the quests, incredible lore, and immersive experience. I got pretty good at it too. For a brief period of time, I was the top healer on my server - and my main, a Human Paladin named Lightwraith - was an esteemed part of one of the top raiding guilds right when we were attempting Burning Crusade end-game content.

And wouldn’t you know it? It turns out that being an in-demand healer taught me a bunch of transferable skills that I find myself using today as a well-respected (albeit slightly less magical) leader in the design and fabrication community at Georgia Tech (and to a smaller extent, the Greater Atlanta Area). Here’s the top 3 transferable skills I got from my years playing WoW:

Improvisation & Flexibility

It’s all fun and games until your tank gets killed by a dungeon boss. In one of my more memorable experiences with the raiding guild, our tank (in a 5 person heroic dungeon) was completely flattened by an intense (and unexpected) barrage. For those of you who have never played a game like WoW, if your tank (whose entire job is to take damage) dies - you are about to party wipe. If you party wipe, members of your party who don’t know you very well decide that it isn’t worthwhile give up and disconnect, basically preventing you from completing the dungeon at all.

I had a reputation of being able to keep pretty much anybody alive in a dungeon. With the tank dead, I called the shots. I coordinated party efforts to keep everyone alive, relatively happy, and functional until we managed to slowly kill the boss. This wasn’t the first time that I had something like that happen, and my ability to keep cool under exceptionally poor or exceptionally fortunate conditions has helped me outside of the virtual world.

My most recent use of improvisational leadership helped coordinate an entire floor of excited freshmen to do an incredible amount of physical labor to help get the Invention Studio setup in its newly renovated space. More importantly, that leadership kept them from hating us and our organization afterwards, and we recruited a lot of them to become Prototyping Instructors.

HR & Assembling Good Teams

It is critical to understand the skills, motivations, and dynamics of the people on your team. For a lot of people, I’ve been told that identifying and assembling a good team is a difficult-to-learn skill. Luckily, WoW trained me on the importance of working with a diverse and multi-talented team way before I needed to use that skill.

The most exciting HR team building exercise you can do! Screenshot from CiyrosisShow on Youtube, 2013.

The most exciting HR team building exercise you can do! Screenshot from CiyrosisShow on Youtube, 2013.

The typical dungeon party in World of Warcraft consists of 5 people - a tank, a healer, and three damage dealers. The tank has heavy armor and a lot of health. His whole job is to take the heat, so that everyone else in the party can concentrate and take down the baddies. The healer keeps the tank and the rest of the party alive, but they’re usually vulnerable and easily killed. The damage dealers incapacitate minor threats, and they focus on ending the fight as quickly as possible. The truly wonderful thing about parties is that there are many ways to fill each type of role; classes can specialize and occupy different roles in the party. For example, the Paladin class I was fond of could be a tank, a healer, or do damage. Regardless of class, as long as you maintained the expectations of your role in the group, you contributed to a successful party.

In every project that I lead or team that I pick, I try to create a team that can work effectively towards a common goal. I choose members that take each other seriously and compensate for each others weaknesses. I choose people who are confident in their own capabilities and who are able to effectively communicate their status (and whether or not they need help). That’s right! Qualities that your average HR manager is looking for are exactly the ones that I became accustomed to in-game.

Inventory & Preparatory Work

Items are critical in World of Warcraft. Items keep your characters alive, they help advance the plot, and they keep you wealthy enough to improve your statistics. If you aren’t able to preemptively manage your resources, your quest items, and your armor, you are essentially useless to your party. As a healer, one of my biggest concerns was mana management. Mana, for the uninitiated, is a renewable resource that all magic using characters generate over time. You need mana to cast spells, which means that you need mana to keep your team alive. All magic users have some amount of natural mana regeneration that occurs passively over time, but it is generally not powerful enough to assist during fights - instead, mana regeneration helps you recover after fights. Essentially the only in-combat alternative for keeping your mana up (and therefore, being able to cast more spells) is to use potions - which is something that you can either buy or make. Healers who don’t budget for enough potions for their quests and instances (which you can’t pause to buy more resources) are guaranteeing a tougher time for their party, if not outright failure.

Man, talk about extra baggage. Image courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. WoW, 2013.

Man, talk about extra baggage. Image courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. WoW, 2013.

Failure to adequately prepare for the scope of work ahead makes you look incompetent and causes others to lose faith in you and your abilities. Much like in the real world. Fortunately, also like in the real world, these issues can be circumvented with appropriate preparations and planning. Ordering materials ahead of time, creating and adhering to a strong budget, and maintaining an accurate inventory are critical in the product development sphere.

As much heat as I’ve taken for my involvement with WoW over the years, and, as obsessed as I was with it for a very smelly and unwashed two years, I don’t regret my experiences playing, making new friends, and learning new skills. As I grow as a person and as a leader, it’s important - not to mention REALLY COOL - that I can look back at an activity that many perceive as useless and develop new and interesting managerial techniques that are applicable across industries and professions. Keep growing, and keep learning from your past experiences - regardless of how nerdy they are.

For the Alliance.

BusinessVeronica Spencer