How playing FIFA helps me become a better Program Manager at Microsoft


Besides my day job as a Program Manager Evangelist at Microsoft for the Southeast region of the U.S, I enjoy various hobbies. I volunteer a good portion of my time to causes close to my heart: Teaching Middle Schoolers critical thinking skills with Citizen Schools, helping raise funds to help families adopt through Gift of Adoption and running a non-profit which gives away free laptops to incoming coming students – all this coupled with the constant pursuit of education (currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Management and Leadership).

I live a busy life and I enjoy every bit of it. In efforts to be “well balanced” and in pursuit of “work-life” balance, I spend my downtime reading, watching movies and playing video games. I enjoy a variety of video games from first person shooter games (which I’m horrible at) to sport games – which I am good at. At some point, I was ranked Top 5% of Madden players online. I couldn’t get higher than 5% because I barely the time to play it. A game I also enjoy is FIFA from Electronic Arts – possibly because I’m a soccer player and a student of the game.

I recently played a friend online and after winning the series  (3 straight games) without conceding a goal, my friend said, “it was tough playing you because you used different formations and strategies at different times  and you exposed my defense”. His statement was an accurate assessment of my playing style – understand the game & my opponentbe nimble and agiledeploy different strategies at appropriate times, figure out what works (learning), stick with it for sometime and then find ways to innovate increase the chance of success. Interestingly enough, this is how I work and approach my job. I immediately picked up a pen and paper and wrote down what I do in FIFA and how it correlates to my job.

I would like to focus on these 3 areas (Growth Mindset, Adjustments, Talent Recruitment & Management)

  1. Growth Mindset

The concept of a growth mindset was developed by psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,” writes Dweck. Students who embrace growth mindsets—the belief that they can learn more or become smarter if they work hard and persevere—may learn more, learn it more quickly, and view challenges and failures as opportunities to improve their learning and skills.”

In FIFA, I approach the game with a “growth mindset”. I’m not just playing the game to win, I’m also playing the game to learn and become better than my previous self – with this approach, I will always remain competitive and will always have a chance to win against anyone. I learn from my failures and I actually implement changes to ensure I don’t fail again. A perfect example: I was playing a series with a friend last night and he took the first 2 wins. It was my first time playing him in FIFA so his style of play was foreign to me. I failed the first 2 games and his style of play was a challenge to me; but I viewed the failure and challenge as opportunities to get better and learn. After the first 2 games, I made adjustments based on his playing style and I dominated! The same philosophy of learning and growing applies in my current role. I look for opportunities to develop at all times. An aspect of the growth mindset is listening. I listen to my MVPs & Regional Directors, Open Source Communities and internal stakeholders like the Tech Evangelists I work with. I tend to look for areas I could improve – “fail fast & learn faster”. I love strategizing and implementing strategies – I love to build things from the bottom up and watch things grow and succeed, hence, I look for ways to continue to help my MVPs where I may have previously failed and I look for ways to add value to the technical communities through my strategies.

       2. Adjustments  

Agile, flexibility, nimbleness are keys to success at anything in life including a Program Management role – simply because you wear a lot of hats. Just like FIFA, there are lot of moving pieces to any management role pertaining to any business. As a leader, you should be able to analyze opportunities and be decisive in making adjustments to help maximize your potential which will lead to constant growth and success. When making changes, one should not only consider the opportunities at hand, but the resources and support available at their disposal. In FIFA, I look at my overall squad of players, look at the strengths and weaknesses of my roster and play to my strengths. When managing a team like Barcelona, I take advantage of their formidable strikers and ensure Lionel Messi is the focus of my attack due to his ball handling skills – he can make things happen. If Messi is seriously marked in the middle of the field, I move him out-wide and attack from the outside since he is pretty much unstoppable.  As a FIFA player, I support my players by being able to adjust and placing them in the right positions to succeed. In my role as a PM, I want to be able to assist my MVPs & RDs and Open Source “influncers” by supporting them and giving them opportunities to continue to make the impact in their respective technical communities.

Another point to consider is that, I don’t just make changes just to make them. I look at the vision & mission and I align my adjustments to them. In FIFA and in sports, the goal is to win – not only win, but play the best possible game, maximize your potential & resources, grow & develop. So I make these changes to reflect that in the game. In my role, I make changes and adjustments to ensure that I’m being obsessed with my customers (MVPs, RDs & Open Source Community) and enabling them to “do more and achieve more”. The MVPs have said they want to continue to do more for their communities, so I do whatever I can, make any necessary changes by being agile, flexible and nimble to ensure that they are being placed in great positions to succeed. I obsess over their success.

       3. Talent Recruitment & Management 

In FIFA, I enjoy playing in Manager Mode. In this mode, I get to manage a team from the bottom up. I implement strategies for my team which includes formations and tactics as a coach. I also manage the finances and more importantly talent management and recruitment. The game simulates some of the critical roles a real life coach like Jose Mourinho and Alex Ferguson will face. My strategy in this mode is simply to maximize profits for the organization and place the organization in a better position to win Championships yea-over-year. I need to bring in the world best talents (quality over quantity), manage their playing time & development, develop and manage a pipeline while developing younger players through the youth/academy program via the help of scouting. I want a diverse team of skill sets as much as possible – this is the only way I can succeed as a manager.

I follow the same approach in my role as a Program Manager. I want to bring in the right “influencers” to my program on a consistent basis; hence, I “scout”. I pay attention. I watch more, listen more and speak less. I study my communities and pay close attention to what is going on. Just like a manager/leader in the sports world, I support my community (MVPs, RDs and Open Source influencers) & just like scouts in real life, I travel to various events in my region to learn more and also meet potential MVPs. I also take the time to develop a healthy pipeline while building a healthy relationship with our student partners to ensure I am supporting them as well and helping them develop into future community “influencers”. Building business relationships is one of my strengths, which happens to be essential in Program Management. I build relationships because I value them. I value being able to be of assistance and I love to watch people succeed.

At the end of it all, my I take pride in what I do at Microsoft. I love it and love the opportunity to be at the forefront of the company’s strategy and helping drive value. My development is all wrapped up in one thing – growth. It’s important for me to always learn, develop and grow to ensure continuous success and surprisingly, FIFA has taught me a thing or two.

Joe Darko

Instagram: @joe_darko
Twitter: @joe_darko
Facebook: Joe ForChrist Darko

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