When I first started consulting ten years ago, there was an online, team-oriented video game called League of Legends that I used to play after work or during lunch. The game required some strategy, required implementing that strategy through tactics and also required some well-coordinated button smashing to be effective in team fights. Over the past summer, I reintegrated playing League of Legends on my lunch break into my daily routine and as I relearned how to play the game, I discovered that there were many lessons for playing the game that could easily be applied to engineering and business in general. In this post, we will examine the top five lessons that I’ve learned from playing League of Legends that I think can have the biggest impact on engineering teams if they are adhered to.
Lesson #1 – Don’t Give Up Early
An average game of League of Legends can last between 30 and 50 minutes. While not terribly long, a single game play can be a major time investment, so the game allows a team to vote partway through the game as to whether or not they want to surrender. While this can be a godsend for a game where the matchups are completely out of whack, I noticed that in a tough game there is a tendency for players to want to give up and surrender.
Through-out my career I’ve occasionally noticed that engineering teams can suffer from this same “if I’m not going to win, I want to surrender” attitude. For example, I’ve seen teams that estimate development will take a month and pour everything into that effort, but as soon as that deadline is reached, they collapse in surrender if additional time is still needed. The project is completely winnable if they continue their effort, but the deadline takes the wind out of their sails and they accept defeat even though their goal is still within reach.
What’s interesting is that in the game if every continues to play, the tides can turn, and the game can turn into an incredibly hard fought and well-earned win. Engineers need to make sure that they don’t give up early as well whether it’s due to a deadline, a bug, or some other challenge that is in their path to success.
Lesson #2 – Don’t go it Alone
League of Legends is team game, with five members on each team and in many cases where those five members don’t know each other. It’s extremely easy to just ignore the other players and go it alone. The problem with this approach though is that in order to win, you really do need a team effort and a single player can’t be in multiple places at once. In fact, going it alone often results in a player getting slaughtered, utterly defeated and wanting to surrender early!
Believe it or not, this same type of thing happens all the time to engineers. They try to go it alone, to be the hero, to develop the product themselves or solve the problem. I’ve always found that two heads are better than for. For embedded software developers, pair programming and debug sessions always seemed to go faster than when I tried to go it alone. Despite Hollywoods picture of engineering where there is a lone genius who can solve all the world’s problems, engineering is a team sport.
Lesson #3 – Communication is Critical
A team game cannot be won without good communication. In League of Legends, friends are able to communicate through voice chat, but if a match is being played with complete strangers, all communication is done via text chat. In a game where a match could be played against a well-coordinated team, communication is critical to winning.
The success for any development project hinges of good communication. The management team needs to provide the engineering team with the correct needs for the product. Engineering needs to accurately provide updates, coordinate their internal development efforts and any challenges that are surfacing. Development teams can leverage many modern communication mediums such as email, Slack, Skype, Jira and many other tools to efficiently communicate with their colleagues. Many teams have also adopted Agile techniques like daily stand-ups that help ensure the lines for communication are open and that everyone knows what everyone else in the team is working on.
Lesson #4 – Speed is Key
In any game, speed is the key to winning since everyone is in a race to level up their champion as quickly as possible. The higher the level, the easier it is to defeat lower level champion. For engineering, speed is just as critical. Businesses are often faced with many pressures such as budget and time constraints to launch a product. Working too slowly could blow a development budget and kill the product. Not moving fast enough could mean a competitor beats the company to market, winning the larger market share.
Speed is absolutely a key to success, but it also must be carefully balanced with the right amount of process to ensure that the result is a quality product. Going as fast as possible doesn’t help if you continually make wrong turns and drive in the wrong direction.
Lesson #5 – You can Win Short-Handed if you Play Smart
Every now and then, a player might either get disconnected from the game on accident or purposely disconnect, leaving their team shorthanded for the duration of the match. Obviously, if you are shorthanded five to four, winning can suddenly seem like an unlikely possibility, but it can be done if a team plays smart.
There are many situations in engineering where teams can be shorthanded compared to the competition. A small start-up may not have the marketing resources needed to compete with an Apple. A close competition could team up with another competitor or make an acquisition that challenges the team. Maybe critical team members decide to seek employment elsewhere. In these circumstances, engineering teams need to identify the critical path items, leverage their strengths and work smart in order to succeed.
While there are certainly many other lessons that could be taken from this game that apply to engineering and business such as:
- You have to start right
- It’s about having fun
- Stop whining and get to work
- Follow your processes
- Adapt to changing conditions
The five lessons that we have looked at in this post are the ones that stand out to me as being the most important for engineers to keep in the forefront of their minds. So the next time you are building a product or playing League of Legends, keep these lessons in mind and you might just find that they help you and your team succeed.