Interview

Zynga lead product manager Vikrant Agarwal talks challenges, mentors, and visas

"The more diversity you have, the richer the conversations, experiences and the work environment will be"

Zynga lead product manager Vikrant Agarwal talks challenges, mentors, and visas

At PocketGamer.biz, we want to profile the many incredible people of colour critical to the success of the mobile games industry.

In our POC in Mobile series, we discuss finding a place in the games industry, the various challenges faced by people of colour, and what needs to be done to make games more diverse.

This week, we spoke with Zynga lead product manager Vikrant (Vik) Agarwal about the challenges immigrants and people of colour face in the games industry, and wider industries as a whole.

Can you tell us about your role in mobile games and what it entails?

I am currently the lead product manager for cross promotion at Zynga. I help Zynga players discover other new and exciting Zynga games.

It’s a really fun role as I get to work with every game studio across our portfolio and learn something new and different from each title.

Why did you want to work in the mobile games industry?

I grew up as a PC gamer and it was my dream to work on a big PC title one day. When I got my first iPhone, I was fascinated by the App Store. I was able to play games anywhere and anytime! I still remember the first few games I played. One was a puzzle game called Labyrinth in which you tilted the phone to take the ball through the maze and the other was Shift by Armor games, which had this neat concept of flipping the room, so that you switched from playing in the white space to the dark space.

Since then, I’ve found the perfect blend of game design, live operations, analytics, and interacting with people working as a product manager in the mobile games industry.

I’ve been a games product manager for more than eight years now and I try to play five new mobile games every week. That keeps me abreast with all the latest changes and also keeps me inspired by all the innovations in the space.

How would you recommend people get started in games? Any tools or literature you would advise?

My advice is to start with a role that you’re good at and then work your way to the role you want. For example, since I worked on a product in the banking industry and managed a team, I thought I could be a product manager. It turns out that it's not that straightforward. You really need to know the industry well from a business perspective to be a product manager.

So, I started off by leveraging my analytical skills as an analyst for a game title and then worked my way up to being a product manager after I understood all the ins and outs of the industry.

As for resources, as a mobile game product manager I recommend Deconstructor of Fun and Gamemakers. I use them very frequently and they always help me know the latest and greatest in the industry.

What did you study for your role? Are there any courses out there that you would advise for aspiring professionals?

I have my Bachelor's in Information Technology from Pune, India and a Master’s in Information Security Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, USA. What helped most was understanding how to break down problems, how to work in teams, and being able to synthesise a large amount of data into tangible information.

Start with a role that you’re good at and then work your way to the role you want.
Vikrant Agarwal

If you’re just out of school, you must practice the elevator pitch. How do you condense your entire resume into a 15-second pitch that you can share with someone in an elevator ride?

Professionally, you apply the same concept in a different way. How do you synopsize a 25-page slide deck into one summary slide with three bullets and two slides with high level information? And then be able to present it in the right amount of detail to two very different audiences, let's say the VP of product versus the engineering team that you work with day to day.

In today's day and age, data is plentiful and there are a lot of experts out there who can analyse it very well. But it doesn't end there. Being able to translate that analysed information and communicate it in the right amount of detail to different audiences is paramount.

What do you think should be done to improve diversity, not only across the games industry, but across all industries?

When I started out, games were seen as this niche nerdy thing for those who were willing to ride out the crunches due to their passion.

The games industry has transformed over the last decade, beginning to shed the crunch mantra and opening up to analytics-based design. Instead of designing purely based on gut instinct, we let the players tell us what they want. That is what I think makes a great game since testing early and often shows us data about actual player choices and preferences, which lets us work that into the game from the get go.

This means that you no longer have to have a games background to join the games industry as it is now also open to anyone who is an expert in these new technical crafts. The more the industry is open to people without traditional games backgrounds, the more people we find and the more diversity we have.

What I've realised over the years is this: you join for the passion, but you stay for the people.

What are the biggest challenges you have encountered since joining the industry?

I think the three biggest challenges I have faced over my career so far are instability, visas, and mentors that you can look up to.

The games industry is part of the larger entertainment industry, so it can sometimes be hit-based. This means that if you’re at a smaller studio and the game doesn’t do well, you may need to trim the team back down to 10-20 people and then start all over again, with a new game concept, from scratch. If that happens, you may not be back to a full production staff for many years. This results in a lot of job and role volatility. This is especially not easy for someone on a visa.

One of the lesser-known challenges most immigrants face is that it can take many years to get a work visa and decades more if you decide to stay here long-term. Hence, we find that a lot of talented people wind up leaving the games industry because of that.

But a lot of other folks persist, because they simply love what they do. Creating something that entertains people and provides them joy - there's simply no better feeling out there!

Lastly, the broader entertainment industry has widely discussed how having diversity in actors helps inspire the younger generation and makes them believe that they can do it too.

It’s hard to find mentorship and people you can connect with, because there just aren’t many of you out there.
Vikrant Agarwal

If you narrow it down to just the games industry, then apply the product manager role filter to it, and then apply a specific diversity filter to it, you’ll be left with just a handful of people. So, it’s hard to find mentorship and people you can connect with, because there just aren’t many of you out there.

I’ve been fortunate to have worked with several experienced product managers and leaders in the industry and I hope everyone is able to find a mentor they can connect with. It makes a big difference to your career when you're able to get advice from someone who has already walked the walk before you and can guide you on how to avoid the pitfalls while still achieving all the goals you want to achieve!

What do you think can be done to help encourage more people of colour to get into games?

It’s a very simple idea, just go ahead and share your story with as many people as you can - that’s the key! The more people you reach, the more people you can help.

I personally like to give talks about product management and analytics in the games industry. Why? Because I spent two years looking at thousands of the wrong types of jobs, and because I didn’t know the exact difference between a product, project, and a program manager; and why a product manager needs to have industry specific experience.

So, if sharing my story and helping answer questions about these roles can convince just one more person that yes, they can do it, then that makes all the difference in the world.

Is there anything that recruiters should be doing differently to address the lack of diversity across not only games development but all industries?

That’s a really interesting question. I think recruiters have a hard enough job as it is in finding the right candidate for each role, since roles are so niche and specific in the games industry.

I think the change comes from the company itself, top down. The more diverse people you hire, the more diverse people will want to join. The more diversity you have, the richer the conversations, experiences, and the work environment will be.

With more attention drawn to the Black Lives Matter campaign, what changes (if any) have you seen from across the industry to address the issue?

I think the biggest impact Black Lives Matter has had is that diversity is now a larger conversation than ever before. A lot of folks talked about diversity before that too, but the nuances were not known to a lot of people, including me.

Now even something simple as respecting pronouns and what someone wants to be called, can be really powerful for a person on the receiving end. It’s all about feeling accepted and part of one community and these discussions have helped drive that significantly further than ever before.

The more diverse people you hire, the more diverse people will want to join
Vikrant Agarwal

What advice do you have for other people of colour that are looking at getting into games?

Just do it. Hit that 'Apply' button on the job website. Click that 'Connect' button on LinkedIn. The industry is very small, and people are really passionate about their work; most would love to help people trying to get in.

But we can’t help if you don’t reach out. I’ve personally mentored more than 15 people to find jobs in games and tech over the last decade. And I know many friends and colleagues who do the same.

So, reach out to us. It’s the first step that’s the hardest. After that, there are many helping hands out there!

Agarwal previously shared details on his journey and learnings in a talk titled "Product Management and Analytics in the Gaming Industry" at Pocket Gamer Connect in July 2021. You can watch the talk here.

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