Five years into my career as a software developer I started doing Improv Comedy. At the time, I didn’t know a lot about it, except that a few of my favourite comedians (Thomas Middleditch, Amy Poehler) had gotten their start from improv.
When I started classes, it seemed like a fun outlet for my more zany side which had otherwise been limited to the walls of my apartment. To my surprise, the skills that I was developing had a direct effect on my work as a developer. Here are some of them:
Thinking on the fly
Improv comedy is an art form where improvisers perform scenes that are made up on the spot in front of a live audience. Becoming more comfortable with this helps immensely when you are put on the spot in the office.
Have you ever been cornered about the progress of a project, or asked at late notice to speak at a showcase? Having been put into countless scenarios on stage, I now take these opportunities calmly, almost embracing the rush of the unknown. Afterwards, people would comment on how calm I seemed when presenting. This, in turn, brought a confidence to the team that reduced delivery pressure.
Listening to the details
On stage, listening to what the other performers are saying is essential to presenting a great scene. If two people are just waiting to say what they already want to say, the scene will be terrible. Likewise, in the office, if I am just waiting to give my update or opinion, I’ll probably miss key details.
Improv taught me what it feels like to really listen and be present: hearing not just the words, but the intent behind them. This is particularly important in a technical project where a small update could reveal an assumption or a risk that needs to be noticed.
Good improv requires the performers to be open to new ideas. A scene won’t progress far if one performer shares an idea, and others shut it down. The same is true for your dev huddles. I used to challenge suggestions made by other devs in the guise of being Devil’s Advocate. What I realised was that this doesn’t always help the situation, and can leave others feeling discouraged.
When someone suggests something now, I say yes in the spirit of improv. I agree that it's a valid idea and listen for more. Then we can assess the ideas together at a later stage and discover what won’t work. It’s better to deal with the overhead of listening to everyone’s ideas than to have team members become timid and not share.
Making connections through humour
Of course, learning improv means I’m funnier! Although in improv, humour is more about being truthful than it is about crafting jokes. People who see themselves in you will laugh with you. Making someone laugh isn’t just about that sweet dopamine hit you get, it’s about human connection.
I’m going to let you in on a secret: comedy isn't just about being funny. A wise improv teacher I had in Chicago once said that ‘improvising makes for a better conversationalist.’
A great conversationalist is a great improviser because great conversations lead to great connections. Improv has perpetually taken me out of my comfort zone, which has strengthened my ability to start and maintain conversations.
The more you can connect with people in your team and beyond, the better. Openness allows more knowledge to be shared, which will always result in better designs.
Enjoying your development team
A good improv team will often be made up of great performers, but ultimately the best teams are the ones whose members work well together. Similarly, I’ve seen high output when my delivery team really gels.
I’ve come to realise improv isn’t just about performing a great show. It’s also about getting up on stage and enjoying the fun with other team members - and this always results in an entertaining performance. I think it’s the same for delivery teams - the ones that can work hard and enjoy each other, won’t just be happier at work, but will ultimately create great output.