Interview

Zynga senior director of product Heather Houston on 'treating your career as a product'

Zynga senior director of product Heather Houston on 'treating your career as a product'

The games industry plays host to an excellent cast of colourful and diverse individuals, from artists and coders to narrative designers and studio heads.

The skills to pull off these roles, however, are complex and differing. With each position requiring mastery in its field. As such, seeing a game come together is a beautiful thing akin to a puzzle as an overall picture becomes whole.

To highlight some of the brilliant work that goes on behind the screen, and help others who may be keen to dive in, PocketGamer.biz has decided to reach out to the individuals who make up the games industry with our Jobs in Games series.

This time we spoke with Zynga senior director of product on Words with Friends Heather Houston.

PocketGamer.biz: Can you tell us about your current role?

Heather Houston: I’m the senior director of product on the Words with Friends team at Zynga. In this role, I’m dedicated to the ongoing health of the game, which is one of our flagship ‘forever franchises.’

In leading the product team, I help determine the product strategy and roadmap for the game as we add new features, events, and other content to the player experience. Most recently, to celebrate player’s journey in the game, we’ve been working on a mechanism that shows how their word skills are progressing in the game, so we created and just released ‘Achievements’ feature.

You couldn’t log on to Facebook without getting invites to play the game - celebrities were even talking about FarmVille on The Tonight Show.
Heather Houston

A points-based feature, Achievements shows players where they rank among their friends. Is their biggest competitor at level two while they’re sitting at level four? It creates friendly competition and reminds players that no matter what level they’re at, the only place they have to go is up!

How did you first get into games and how did you progress into the role?

Zynga was one of my first forays into the gaming space. My very first role at the company was as a product manager on the original FarmVille, a game that just celebrated its 10-year anniversary.

I’m incredibly proud and humbled to have been part of the first viral mobile game. You couldn’t log on to Facebook without getting invites to play the game - celebrities were even talking about FarmVille on The Tonight Show.

As I have built out my career, I had the opportunity to work on a number of games in Zynga’s portfolio, including FarmVille’s spin-off game FarmVille: Tropic Escape, Wonka’s World of Candy, and now Words with Friends.

Is it something you ever imagined yourself doing?

While I was earning my MBA, I had the opportunity to listen to Mark Pincus give a talk. His passion for the gaming space was infectious. The vision he shared with the audience about connecting the world through games made me rethink my career path as a consumer-facing product manager.

Houston's first role at Zynga was as product manager on the original Farmville

Though I didn’t consider myself a gamer, I appreciated that he developed a product that brought people joy and had a significant reach and social impact. It wasn’t long after that I started playing FarmVille and inviting friends and family on Facebook to join in on the fun.

What did you study (if anything) to get your role? What courses would you advise for aspiring professionals in the area?

I took coursework in marketing, strategy and communications while earning my MBA at the Berkeley Haas School of Business. While I have used what I learned during my time in business school during my day-to-day, getting an MBA is not a prerequisite to my career path. You just need to be curious and ready to roll up your sleeves.

What part of your role do you find most fulfilling?

FarmVille and Words with Friends are mobile gaming zeitgeists. Millions of people have played these games. Our players have shared touching stories with us about how our games have reconnected them with loved ones, introduced them to new friends and gotten them through some tough times.

Knowing that I’m part of the team that works on these products is incredibly gratifying. We just hosted a married couple who met playing the game. They’re welcoming their first child in October.

Do you think there are any misconceptions, public or professional, surrounding your area of expertise?

There are a few misconceptions about the gaming space. Some you can definitely laugh off, like my family assuming I’m just playing games all day, but others are a little more tough to ignore, and should definitely be addressed, just to clear things up.

The truth of it is, product managers get a bum rap. Most people think that all product managers do is compare numbers to make quotas, completely removing the human element of the product. If you don’t empathise with your customers, or in our case, our player base, your product will suffer. Numbers only tell one part of the story.

You need to look at the full picture before making any executive decisions. What are our players saying on social? What are their favourite moves in the game? Why did X amount of players stop making moves? As a product manager, you need to be able to balance your logical and emotional decisions, if you can’t the product suffers.

As a female professional in the gaming space, people often tell me how tough the industry is for women. But again as a female professional in the industry, at least during my time at Zynga, the teams I have been part of have largely been comprised of women.

Our company wants our games to represent our players, so our teams are comprised of individuals who better identify with our base. I’m also a proud member of Women at Zynga, an organisation that amplifies women’s voices and provides training seminars and mentorship opportunities for women in the company.

If you don’t empathise with your customers, or in our case, our player base, your product will suffer.
Heather Houston

Is there anything about the job/industry you wish you would have known when first joining?

The best advice I have received and that I still adhere to is to treat my career as a product. As the product manager, I can utilise KPIs, benchmarking and goal setting to achieve the standards I have set for myself.

It’s also important to remember that product management and the gaming industry at large are incredibly dynamic. Both are in a constant state of flux and you need to be ready to move to the beat. Understanding the evolving nature of technology and consumer trends and being able to utilize your findings only gives you more power to amplify your product’s message.

What other advice do you have for someone looking for a job in this profession?

The first this you need to ask yourself is: What positive change can I contribute as a product manager? Understanding your own flow, thought process and motives will help you ascertain what type of market you would work best in.

Product management isn’t a one-size-fits-all position; a product manager’s list of responsibilities is unique to the company. Once you know what your career drivers are, you’ll be able to make that next decision.

Zynga was most recently awarded the number one position for PocketGamer.biz's Top 50 Mobile Game Makers after the company managed to turn itself around and enter a phase of growth. 

Staff Writer

Matthew Forde is a freelance writer from Yorkshire, who's work has been published for Tech Radar, Nintendo Life, Kotaku UK and more. He regularly attends Smash Bros. tournaments, while trying to keep up-to-date on everything pop culture related - particularly superheroes. You can find him on Twitter @Forde999.

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