Story telling for techies

The first time I saw bottled water being sold at the TRIVANDRUM Central railway station, I remember it being a big joke in my family . We continued taking water from home when we travelled for a couple more years, constantly making fun of those “Bisleri” vendors, and the idiot travelers who could have just brought water with them like we did . And then, my family too made the switch to bottled water and no one reminded us that the joke was on us now 🙂

A similar story is going on in companies too – there are now official titles of “Chief Story Teller” in many places. The first time I met a story teller in flesh and blood – she knew in a second that I didn’t take her role seriously. She didn’t defend her role or anything – instead she started humming “Do you believe in magic” and we both burst out laughing.

Pretty soon I became a believer – I started seeing the effectiveness of story telling in sales scenarios . When dry PowerPoint presentations were replaced or augmented with good crisp stories – we started winning more business. I became a big fan in quick time – and also realized that the only way to scale this is if all of us became good story tellers – instead of relying on one story teller for the whole team for everything .

Once they see something that helps them sell – the people with sales quotas don’t need any more motivation to take it up. But engineers don’t work that way and I should have known . I started hearing things like “I am a DBA – what fluffy story do you want me to tell?” . For a little while I could get away with “Well, I am an engineer too and if it works for me it works for you too”. Pretty soon – and of course quite expectedly – my defenses were met with “Yeah, but you are not much of a real engineer anymore”.

So is there any good reason for techies to gain some experience in story telling ?

To answer that, we don’t really need to dig very deep. The biggest frustrations of technologists is usually that people who need to make important decisions that affect us – like approving budgets, resource allocations, Infrastructure purchases , hiring … those folks are usually not techies and never seem to understand the gravity of what we tell them . It’s almost as if we don’t even speak the same language 🙂

The frustration is quite real. The very first time I had any alcohol was when my boss came to my apartment with two bottles of wine to get over our grief about the client PM not agreeing to upgrade the test server we were working on, despite we taking turns to walk him through twenty pages of performance statistics . I also got introduced to some of the most colorful German phrases that evening 🙂

Good stories are well engineered and have great structure and flow. All the more reason that engineers should find it easy to tell great stories.

All stories have a simple design pattern –

1. There is an intro, to set the context

Engineers are finding it hard to get approvals for essential stuff like more cloud capacity, better brands of beer in the fridge etc .

2. There is a conflict, since there are choices to make

An alarming number of engineers are ordering cheap wine online and getting it delivered to office, and coming up with rude names for the project managers and the CFO. Monthly outages have been replaced by weekly outages even though everyone is working weekends. Customers are saying things are not working as advertised . And yet everything magically looks fine on the CFO spreadsheets and the board deck !

3. There is a resolution or revelation

Engineering VP shares his cheap wine with John in marketing who tells him they have surplus CMO budget for the quarter. They convince the CFO to use it for buying more cloud capacity . CFO buys expensive wine to celebrate problem resolution . They live happily ever after !

That’s pretty much it ! Give it a try – After all, we are people who made the switch from waterfall to agile and lived to tell the tale . Story telling should be an absolute piece of cake for us.

(Cross-posted @ Vijay's thoughts on all things big and small)

LinkedIn Twitter
General Manager of AI,Analytics,IOT and Watson Health for North America in IBM GBS . Proud Alum of University of Kerala . Geek, Engineer , Blogger and dog lover . Previously senior executive at SAP and MongoDB.

Leave a Reply