Pathfinding: Applying Marine Corps discipline to Xbox Game Studios data processes
Eric Richardson, Program Manager on the Xbox Studios Services team, tells us how the Microsoft Software and Systems Academy helped him transition from the Marines to data and analytics.
In 2013 Microsoft launched the Military Affairs organization to help the veteran and military community find meaningful opportunities in today’s digital economy. I recently spoke with Eric Richardson, a Program Manager on the Xbox Studios Services team, about how he transferred skills from the Marine Corps to a job analyzing game data and driving long term strategies for Xbox Game Studios.
I heard you came to Microsoft through the veteran’s program. Can you tell me more about that?
I was in the Marine Corps for five years as a member of the Direct Air Support Center. I was co-located with ground troops or doing exercises where we were doing coordinated fires, which means I was in a truck outside helping aircraft get to a certain location. Right before I was exiting the military mid-2017, I discovered that Microsoft offered a program called Microsoft Software and Systems Academy. My mom worked in the technology field before it really existed, so I grew up around technology and decided during my transition out of the service to apply for the Server and Cloud Administration learning path.
After completing the program, I joined a Windows telemetry team, which was scary because I didn’t have any background in data. At the time, the team was working on privacy projects and that helped give me a clear area of focus. I could immediately jump in and help track down data, learn about privacy, and understand what we needed to do to be compliant. I worked across teams and product groups and it gave me a great introduction to the company and a high-level perspective of how much data we have and how important it is to protect everyone’s privacy. That perspective helped me when I transferred to a role in Xbox.
What can you tell our readers about your current job?
I am a Program Manager (PM) on the Xbox Studios Services team, which is a central team that supports all of Xbox Game Studios. I use my previous experience to give teams guidance on what KPIs to measure to improve their business. I take that broad telemetry experience and apply it to something more specific to help people solve problems, which is very exciting.
I started out on the team when it was just me, my manager, and a data scientist. We recently added two data engineers to the team, which has allowed us to focus more on our specific areas. My job is to have conversations with the Xbox Game Studios teams, learn what their needs are, and work with the engineers to develop solutions to help them better understand their users. Privacy is still an important topic, so part of my focus is to educate studios about what it means to be compliant and deliver a compliant game, and make sure they really understand what data they need in game and how the data needs to be handled.
And what work do you do on the data analytics side?
I provide data insights that help studios understand their business better, like how they are doing compared to other titles on monetization and benchmarks, how they’re performing on Steam and Game Pass, etc. As I’m having these conversations, I get feedback on the services my team provides and what we could do better. I take that information, iterate with engineering on improvements, operationalize them, and give the improved data back to studios. We’re constantly refining what we do, and it makes the whole ecosystem better.
There’s also a lot of long-term strategy. It can be challenging with all the acquisitions – we need to think about what that means for our data and plan long term to prepare for changes in expectations. We must consider future business needs and come up with a plan to match our business analytics to those needs. It’s challenging, but it’s a great job, it’s fun.
How did the Marines Corps prepare you for working at Microsoft?
Even though I didn’t have a background in software, the Marine Corps helped me appreciate structure and process, which are important in the Program Manager role.
What’s different about working at Microsoft compared to the Marine Corps?
It’s funny, I remember showing up my first morning at work in a suit at 6 AM because that’s what I was used to. I quickly realized the dress was casual, and people worked a variety of hours, usually with a later start. I slowly adapted to Microsoft. At first, I was trying to keep up with everything – reading all my email as it came in every day, again not realizing that some email doesn’t immediately pertain to me and I can file it away for later. I have a better categorization system now.
How was it coming to work in Xbox?
Coming to Xbox felt like coming into a family. While the larger Xbox team is thousands of people, my immediate team is only a handful of people and I like working in that smaller environment. Plus the management team is awesome, so I feel like even at the top I can speak to whoever I need to and ask questions.
You’ve mentioned feeling like you needed to keep up with everything. What advice would you give someone on how to manage that?
Yeah, imposter syndrome doesn’t go away, especially at a place like Xbox where people are so talented.
One area that stands out for me is college education – I don’t have a degree, my background is in the Marine Corps, so when people are talking about what schools they went to I can’t really participate in those conversations. After working here for five years I realized that college and higher-level education is amazing, it’s a great thing, but it’s not everything.
My first day at work another person also joined the team from MIT. That immediately made me question if I was in the right place, but what I discovered was my expectation of what someone that went to MIT would be like vs. what people were actually like was very different. And I think that’s Microsoft in a nutshell, everything is way more real once you get here, and it’s different from how you imagined. That person from MIT was a great colleague and didn’t treat me differently because of my background. I still struggle with imposter syndrome sometimes, but then I remember that there is diversity in the views I bring to the table because of my different experiences.
The key is learn, learn, learn. No matter what your background is, you still need to educate yourself on the fly, on the job, and you must develop and learn new skills. Then just do it – whatever that new thing is – mistakes will be made, measure and learn from them. Gaming can really provide you with a different path in life.
And now I’m deviating a bit…
…but financial education is something I think we need to talk about more in diversity discussions. When I was growing up I didn’t get a financial education, and I think there is a big disparity in how much people know about finances which can be influenced by their race, culture, and family experiences. As someone that grew up without a lot of money, now that I am earning a regular salary, I realized I need to pay attention to what I’m spending my money on, and why I’m spending it or saving it a certain way.
I like hearing from my friends, some of whom were raised in different cultures, they often have good ideas and push me to expand how I think about my finances. I realized there must be other people like me at Microsoft. Just because we’re working here doesn’t mean we’re doing well financially if we didn’t get the right education about how to manage our money.
I agree there is a lot to learn – I’m in a Women’s Personal Finance community. Are you in any of the Microsoft financial communities?
Yes. Right before this meeting I was at a lunch series that covers finance as part of the Blacks at Microsoft group. There is also a Financial Knowledge SharePoint where experts share a lot of information including links to other groups and videos. I’ve learned about personal finance, real estate, and crypto currency recently. These are things I wouldn’t have learned even if I went to school because no one was teaching those life skills topics.
There are so many people that think if they can get a degree and a huge salary then everything will be fine, but that’s not always true, is it?
Right. I recently discovered a book called “The Psychology of Money” – it is phenomenal. It’s about understanding how a lot of decisions our finances are based on aren’t rational or financially sound. There are a lot of influences – family that depend on us, expectations around being the first to graduate college and fulfill a higher purpose, etc. And our family patterns can really impact how we learn about money and how we spend it.
Nothing is perfect, but if we can find balance and learn more about what really makes us happy then we will be happier. We make games which should be fun – but if you’re not financially, mentally, and physically healthy that is going to influence your ability to do great work and make great games.
What is your favorite game – overall or currently?
Growing up I liked fighting games. Jet Grind Radio and Terminator 2 were a couple of my favorites. As an adult playing games is different. I don’t have as much time to play, so these days I really only play Call of Duty. I like it because I can jump in and play for a bit without investing a whole weekend. My cousins play a lot so when I can I play to spend time with them, and every once in a while, I actually beat them.