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Development — Software, Personal, or Otherwise

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Storytelling and the Developer's Need to Communicate

The Things We Tell Each Other Are as Important as the Things We Tell Ourselves.

During the APICraft Conference in Detroit Kin Lane, the API Evangelist, had a special session to discuss storytelling in software. At first blush this may be somewhat non-nonsensical; what do "Goodnight Moon" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin" have to do with being a more productive programmer? As the discussion fragmented to include a wider number of voices it became apparent that, actually, there is quite a bit going on.

"The universe is made of stories, not atoms." - Muriel Rukeyser

Kin stated that he wanted to carve out time during the unconference to discuss the power of storytelling. On twitter he had gotten into arguments with others that dismiss its importance. These people are adamant that being a good developer means "I just write code". But we have to tell internal stories. We have to explain things to bosses. We have to justify what is going on. Not everyone needs to be a blogger. But we all have to communicate.

"It's not who is smarter, it's who can communicate better." - on twitter

And it is not just a matter of sharing quips or antidotes for the sake of water cooler aplomb. Research has demonstrated that storytelling as a vastly different effect on the brain than staid bullet points. Those lists engage the brain's language processing area and little else. Telling a story, however, engages a greater portion of the listener's mind. They are more likely to remember what you're saying and why it was important. Why? A story engages the parts of the brain that would experience the event if put in the same situation:

"If someone tells us about how delicious certain foods were, our sensory cortex lights up. If it's about motion, our motor cortex gets active."

In 2014 there was a tremendous debate within the API development community on the merits of hypermedia. Many, like myself, have grown frustrated that we're still debating pros and cons at clinical, even theoretical, levels of rhetoric. Kin related the current hypermedia discussion to the early days of RESTful interfaces. There had been a point where the simple utility we enjoy today almost veered into over-specification; a mistake made by semantic web movement. Sharing pragmatic implementation stories helped REST API creators avoid common architectural pitfalls and led to today's flourishing ecosystem.

What's said about hypermedia needs to move beyond computer science bullet points. We need the war stories, good and bad, from those in the trenches making these systems a reality. We need software developers to see, hear, and feel themselves solving their own problems in a way similar to the stories being told. It is only at **that** point that any broad adoption begin.

Update 2015-04-15: Thoughtworks has a piece up on their site — Speech is Influence: Why Technologists Should Embrace Rhetoric.