What Pokémon GO Can Tell You About IT Management’s Three Major Challenges

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Three challenges are driving all IT departments: 1.)Users expect you to deliver more complex applications, 2.) to do it in less time, and (while doing that) 3.) to provide higher levels of transparency. Pokémon GO demonstrates how those challenges are tied together and what the solution is to the inevitable problems those challenges create.

There’s no doubt that Pokémon GO has been a great success for its stakeholders, Niantic (the developer/publisher) and Nintendo (who owns 30% of Niantic and originated the concept). In fact, in July of 2016, Nintendo’s market valuation exceeded Sony’s. and may account for an additional three billion (that’s with a “B”) in sales for Apple whose smartphone is one of the game’s platforms. In the midst of the financial and social success of Pokémon GO, it’s easy to forget that, in the end, Pokémon GO is a software product — the output of some IT team dealing with the challenges that all IT departments face. It’s also easy to forget one of the other stakeholders: The game’s players.

Niantic faced several problems after releasing Pokémon GO, none of which were completely unforeseeable and all of which stem from the three common management issues identified by Peter Sheahan in his book “Flip: How to Turn Everything You Know on Its Head—and Succeed Beyond Your Wildest Imaginings” (and discussed in Learning Tree’s course Management Skills for an IT Environment). Sheahan’s three management challenges, common to all IT departments, are increasing demands around:

  • Application complexity and expectations
  • Compression of time and space
  • Transparency and accountability

What’s interesting about these challenges is that the third one, transparency, helps address issues around the first two.

The First Two Challenges

When IT departments first started to form, the first project most large companies undertook was to “computerize” payroll. Back then, batch processing everybody’s work hours in order to print the resulting cheques in the data center really was considered a hard problem to solve. Now, on the other hand, Pokemon GO processes simultaneous inputs from millions of people all over the world and is considered…well, just “more of the same.” You can see that in articles on Pokémon GO which focus on the brilliance of the concept rather than on the difficulty of the execution — that complexity is taken for granted. You undoubtedly have applications in your organization that you know are complex and hard to maintain, but that your users are equally blasé about using (or making additional demands on).

It would be wonderful if these incredibly complex applications could be implemented without bugs…though that doesn’t seem likely. Furthermore, even if an application is “bug free,” it’s unlikely that users will be happy with it. Users’ expectations change as soon as they have an application to work with. What users thought was “good enough” before the application reaches them is different from what they think is “good enough” after they get it. That change in expectations is true not only of the applications we deliver, but also of the way we deliver those applications. As we say in Learning Tree’s course: “The faster we get, the faster we need to be.”

Critical Data Problems in Pokémon GO

Niantic ran into several problems shortly after the game was released but, to understand those problems, you have to understand how the game works.

The primary object in Pokémon GO is to travel to some place in the real world and capture Pokémon characters. To achieve that objective, players use a GPS driven map to find game-designated locations. Some of those locations are places where Pokémon characters can be found (other types of locations include places where players can acquire equipment or have their Pokémon characters do battle). Once a user arrives at one of those locations, the game inserts Pokémon characters into the view provided by the user’s camera — sort of an augmented reality photobomb. Players can capture the Pokémon characters shown on their phone’s screen…provided users have picked up the right equipment at some of those other game-designated locations.

Obviously, location-based information is important to the game and two of the early problems in the game were driven by location information.  One problem was created by Niantic itself: they released a new version of the game that misreported the location of Pokémon characters. This problem wasn’t fatal but it made the game more difficult to play.

The second problem wasn’t, on its face, a problem: Various third party providers popped up providing users with consolidated information about critical locations in the Pokémon world (one of the providers became the second most popular app on the Apple store…right after the Pokémon GO game itself). However, Niantic hadn’t provided a streamlined way for these third-party providers to acquire location information. So, to gather information, these third party sites repeatedly queried the game site to download pages which they could parse for location data (a process known as “screen scraping”). These repeated requests by third party sites were overwhelming Niantic’s servers.

These problems reflect those three challenges that all IT departments face. First, of course the complexity of applications and the difficulty of providing completely “bug free” upgrades but, along with it, the changes in expectations: once those third party location providers appeared they became an expected part of the game’s eco-system. In hindsight, the growth of the third party providers was foreseeable…but it’s hard to blame Niantic for not recognizing that in advance. Niantic should, however, have foreseen that subsequent releases would almost certainly include changes that would affect game play, even if Niantic couldn’t predict the specific bugs that would occur.

Niantic’s responses to these problem demonstrates the impact of the third challenge: transparency.

Dealing with the Challenges

Niantic’s initial response to the location bug was…silence. This is always a mistake.

In the face of that silence, the second challenge that IT departments face, compression of time and space then kicked in. In our increasingly “social” world, players could communicate with each other faster and over any distance. Faced with Niantic’s initial silence, players’ complaints proliferated, echoed around the “Twitterverse” to feed on each other, and escalated. Only after the games’ players — those “other” stakeholders — had become increasingly angry about the bug, did Niantic’s CEO, John Hanke, address the complaints with a promise of a fix. A more timely announcement — even one that just acknowledged the existence of the problem — would have reduced the escalation in players’ anger.

Niantic handled the problem with the third party providers slightly better…but only slightly better. First, Niantic made changes to their servers to reject those requests, effectively shutting those providers down. Unfortunately, Niantic made this change before informing players. As a result, from the players’ point of view, an important part of their game’s ecosystem, one that the players now took for granted, suddenly disappeared. Since the third party providers did not appear to be a problem, this move by Niantic came across as petty and mean spirited.

Niantic did recover from this self-inflicted wound by explaining, after the fact, the rationale for shutting down those providers. Pokemon graphNiantic claimed that shutting down those providers dramatically reduced the demand on their servers, allowing Niantic to provide better service to “real” players. To make their point, Niantic provided a rough graphic showing the change in demand on their servers as a result of this change. That graphic was actually sort of brilliant. From a technical point of view, the graphic leaves a lot to be desired — there are no real units of measurement on it, for example. As a demonstration of the size of the problem and the benefits that resulted, however, it’s almost perfect: The graph makes it obvious that shutting down those provider had an enormous (and immediate) impact. In addition, showing the change with what appears to be a hand-drawn line also helped suggest that this was a personal communication from Niantic to the game’s players.

In addition, Niantic also claimed that, while providing that location-based information, those providers were often the basis for various forms of cheating in the game which had been the source of other player complaints. As a result of these announcements, Niantic’s customers reconciled themselves to the change. Had Niantic made this announcement before (or even with) the change, they could have avoided reigniting their customers’ anger.

As Niantic’s issues with Pokémon GO demonstrate, the solution to the inevitable problems of the first two challenges that IT departments face is the third challenge: transparency. This is equally true of your department. In an increasingly “social” world of instant and world-wide communication, your ability to communicate with your stakeholders about your actions is as important as what you do…and forgetting a stakeholder (as Niantic did with its players) is always a mistake. As we discuss in the course, establishing a plan now for how you will communicate with your stakeholders in the future will prevent any number of self-inflicted problems.

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