Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

04 Sep 2018, 11:38 a.m.

Code Review Play at RubyConf, and Think Tank Fiction

Jason Owen and I will co-present "Code Review, Forwards and Back" at RubyConf in Los Angeles, November 13-15 2018. We'll update and slightly lengthen the version we performed at PyGotham last year. If you'll be at RubyConf, consider watching our one-act play:

Your team's code review practices cause ripple effects far into the future. In this play, see several ways a single code review can go, then fast-forward and rewind to see the effects -- on codebase and culture -- of different code review approaches.

The setting: an office conference room. The characters: a developer, who's written a chunk of new Ruby code, and a team lead, who's about to review it. The code is not great.

See a fast-paced montage of ways things can go. Recognize patterns from your past and present. Learn scripts for phrasing criticism constructively. And laugh.

I've been doing a lot of theater-inflected conference presentations recently. I came up with the ideas for "Code Review, Forwards and Back" and "Lessons, Myths, and Lenses: What I Wish I'd Known in 1998" and "Python Grab Bag: A Set of Short Plays" (more details on all of these on my Talks page).

In some sense this is unsurprising, as I'm a programmer and public speaker who has dabbled in the more creative performing arts my whole life. As a child I had small parts in school* and community** theater, and my sister and I wrote and performed in some number of long skits for Indian-American association get-togethers (there was a lot of No Big Deal family-based practice here, as with writing and public speaking in general). I have also been willing to sing in public really quite out of proportion to my actual singing ability for a very long time. And I got all right at stand-up comedy and at comedy auctioneering.*** So I have started to bring those skills into my conference presentations, and am interested in how spectacle, fictional narrative, and different presentation formats can make different kinds of teaching and representation possible.

Someone else thinking about the value of storytelling in conference talks is Maria Farrell, who posted at Crooked Timber about that and about "think-tank fiction" (fictional stories/scenarios, sometimes composites of real situations and sometimes future projections, reflecting on and demonstrating the effects of particular policies and trends).

I find several of Farrell's reflections resonate with me, about the "quality of atmosphere" that obtains when you start telling a story at an event where it's unusual to do so, and:

...people at all-day tech events are really, really glad to just relax and have stories told to them. News flash. And actual stories, with, hopefully, meanings heading off on different trajectories, not TED anecdotes driving to One Big Lesson...

I hope Farrell can come to !!Con or a similar event sometime, to see how it nurtures some similar experiences.

There must be a bunch of talks like this and now my cataloguing fingers are itching. As Bruce Sterling wrote in "User-Centric":

To: the Team Coordinator
From: the social anthropologist
Subject: Re: *****Private message*****

Fred, people have been telling each other stories since we were hominids around campfires in Africa. It’s a very basic human cognition thing, really.

My colleague Erik Möller did a talk like the ones Farrell mentions at Wikimania 2013, "Ghosts of Wikis Yet to Come: Three Stories of Wikimedia's Future" (video). And I think Tom Scott's scifi shorts and story-style talks, and the "Slaughterbots" video from Ban Lethal Autonomous Weapons, are worth checking out as exemplars.

I also love related "our technology will make this future possible/likely!" narratives like AT&T's 1993 "Connections" video. (The AT&T Archives page pointed me to this collection of similar concept videos I totally want to see, made by Ameritech, Motorola, Sun, NEC, etc. Natalie Jeremijenko and Chris Woebken collaborated on a 2009 montage I haven't watched yet, and there's a 2014 followup -- looking forward to diving in.)


* Not always onstage -- the first bit of project management I ever did was stage management. I fuzzily remember running a puppet show in elementary school, and officiously checking off attendance using a clipboard (oh how important I felt!) for some middle school thing.

** Perhaps most memorably: Rudy, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's nerdy little sister, in "The Night Before The Night Before Christmas" at a local YW/MCA. I actually had lines in this role! To demonstrate Rudy's bookishness, the script had her say aloud, apropos of nothing, "O is for oxygen," "N is for nitrogen," "C is for carbon", and so on. In retrospect this dialogue has more verismilitude than I would like to admit.

*** And of course this feels completely normal to me, because, you know, you only have your own one life, and your own life has a way of becoming the yardstick rather than the judged.

But a great swathe of programmers and other technologists don't think of writing or putting on or starring in a small play as No Big Deal. Many haven't ever memorized lines. And sometimes I forget that, if you've taken a storytelling workshop and served as a dramaturg for someone's one-woman show, and you're a programmer who gets to speak at conferences like PyCon and FOSDEM, you're unusual. Your intersection of skillsets is rare.

And one of the intuitions that's helped me develop my career is that I can provide unique value where the intersection of my skillsets is rare.

Comments

Maria Farrell
http://www.crookedtimber.org
04 Sep 2018, 12:41 p.m.

So much good stuff here, Sumana, and thanks for linking me! This is an unusual skillset, though mine on the tech side is much less technical than yours. !!Con is in my diary as an FYI - here's hoping. The programme sounds incredible. An actual real-life human who's written a bunch of scripts to talk to his younger self - would have saved me writing 120k WIP on a character who does this by, uh, some kind of quantum clapping macguffin. Good luck with your performance at rubycon.