Beyond the Scrum: 3 Lessons in Ad Tech I Learned from Playing Rugby

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As a former rugby player, I never imagined the sport’s terminology would follow me into my professional career. Rugby enthusiasts are all too familiar with the concept of a scrum, which is used to restart a game after a disruption by a minor infringement. Eight players of different calibers come together to either protect the ball or contest it from the other team.

I was amazed that the product development world had a similar structure. In tech, a scrum is described as a cross-functional team with varied skills which needs to work together to achieve a goal. The structure of rugby speaks to how ad tech companies need to tap into each side of the business when appropriate: product, data, sales and beyond.

The similarities between rugby and ad tech are closer than one would think, and it goes beyond jargon. The lessons I learned and skills I built while playing rugby helped me transition into a leading product role in ad tech.

1. There Really Is No ‘I’ in Team

The teamwork mentality has been ingrained in most our minds since the days of elementary school gym class. It’s quite obvious how this united state-of-mind comes to play in sports, particularly rugby: no one player can win alone. No matter how good a player is, a team is only successful because of its overall performance and the cohesion of its very diverse teammates. One lower-tier player’s accomplishments may not make the highlight reel on TV, but will certainly put the team in a better position to ultimately win the game.

In ad tech, every department and staff member directly affect the company’s performance and reputation in the marketplace. While the C-suite may get more public recognition, all team members truly matter. Rugby has a proverb echoing this: “the forwards win the game and the backs just determine by how much.” Without teams, such as engineering, ensuring our ultimate product offerings are operating smoothly, it doesn’t matter how well-versed executives are or how much the sales team has wooed prospective clients. We cannot operate successfully without that technological foundation. Engineering teams may not be the external spokespeople, but they certainly are the ones optimizing offerings and providing unique products for the sales team to confidently approach prospects with a full-proof solution. Similarly, rugby props may not always get their playing time on the field, but their team would not be able to hold a scrum without them.

2. Adaptability is Essential

No matter the industry, all product leads know the ability to adapt will help their career tremendously. No day is the same – particularly in ad tech – and any waking moment an urgent client need could arise. From playing rugby, I’ve learned that I constantly have to be on my toes and not get too comfortable in one position. Sometimes you have to play defense and sometimes you have to play offense. In the ad tech world, sometimes we have to adapt to our situations, fix issues, develop a new functionality for a major client or tackle a tough deadline. We have to adapt to meet these needs; without the flexibility to adapt, we fail. There is nothing worse than someone saying, “that’s not my job” or “that’s not why I’m here.”

Part of adapting to a particularly difficult environment such as a rugby scrum or product department comes with discipline. Without the proper preparation and training, the scrum in rugby will always fail. Funneling frustration and anger into one’s teammates will only trigger penalties against the team. Similarly, if product leads in ad tech are not properly prepared, projects will fail or not be as nearly effective as desired; and arguing with one another over the mishaps will only result in a team-wide negative performance. Learning how to effectively communicate with one another will improve team performance dramatically.

3. Learn from the Chaos

No one ever said rugby was easy. It’s a full-on contact sport, with enough intricacies and necessary coordination to exhaust the fittest player. Product leads similarly know this position is not for the weak-minded. We’re in a constant battle, tinkering with different technologies and features to ensure we’re delivering best-in-class solutions up against our main competitors. Both environments can be extremely stressful, but you cannot let the chaos impede your performance. Having played in countless scrums in rugby, I’ve learned the need to stay focused in the moment and not fixated on every waking second of the game. Rugby taught me how to prioritize, which is an extremely useful skillset in the ad tech world.

I would have never thought the worlds of rugby and ad tech could collide. But every day I’m leveraging my sports experience to become a better product lead and ensure our scrum is effective. The ad tech community is strongest when all units, departments and members work hard and play hard, together.

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