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Posted on: Wednesday, 29 April 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Builders are guys who build stuff.

Software. Bridges. Cars. Roads --- Stuff.

For the early part of my engineering career this is the only kind I respected.

Then I met the other kind who are just as good at building and shipping. These individuals however, do not ship 'stuff'.

Storytellers, build, ship and spread --- stories.

Remarkable stories.

Stories built on strong honest foundations of truth.

'But Pops, you're talking about marketers' --- you say.

No I am not.

If you are working for a software development shop; look around.

Observe. 

Chances are that you will find them in all walks of software development. Some of the best story tellers I have seen have played absurd roles --- project managers, team leaders, catalysts and even evangelists. 

Honest, genuine, good story telling, done even at simple levels can make or break projects. 

Flashback time --- here is one example.

At Multiplitaxion Inc., two projects are over budget with similar variances from the initially budgeted timelines.

Fred is leading Project 'A' - a few of us in innocent fun; decide to name it Project Rocket Science.

Fred, after flexing all his management mussels, his state of art 'resource management' techniques and his proven 'processes' is not being able to keep the project from falling apart.

Weeks into the project the team has lost faith and has started shipping crap.

Months later the management looses faith and pulls the plug.

"Funding" --- we are told. We run out of funding. 

Project Rocket Science is officially dead.

Project 'B' on the other hand has similar issues of bad estimations.

The project however had more than one story tellers involved and connected with the project.

Project B's team does not embark on a project. They embark on a story which they have been told. A story built on truth with larger than life elements to it.

As the ramp up for the project is happening, every single member of Project 'B' is hand picked. They are told in clear teams that they are being picked because the project is special and that they are the best. They are told that they have been picked, to create meaning; to shape the future of an organization. To build a remarkable product that will change not just an organization but an entire industry.

It takes time, but the story is told remarkably; from one story teller to another; until it spreads through the corridors of the warfront where the development is done.  Everyone; including the story tellers themselves; believe the story.

When we slip deadlines we are told that we were making history; we could not ship crap. We're told not to lose patience. Not to panic.

Half way down the project we are convinced that there is no reason to panic.

Then as the project proceeds; something creepy happens --- the story slowly and steadily starts to turn into reality.

We start shipping stuff that was genuinely remarkable. Stuff that very slowly and steadily starts making it's slight dents in the overall industry.

Flashback over.

Ok, here's the million dollar question --- where did we go right with Project 'B'.

First thing where we went right was of-course the fact that we had amazing builders. To add to that, what we had was an amazing story. A cause. A meaning. A purpose. The project wasn't something we shipped to get our job done or to get our salaries. We connected to the project. We connected to the story around the project.

The outcome? 

No-one stopped the project.

We shipped a product which was not just profitable; but remarkable in it's own way.

True, we were as over budget just like Project Rocket Science; but if there is one thing that you can take from this story; it is this:

No-one; I repeat --- No-one cares about the budget.

Neither your team, nor your management, nor your client.

One way to look at your budget and deadlines, is to see these as commandments you absolutely must follow.

But, in the long run, that does not get you anywhere.

If that is your line of thought, you will continue to build mediocre products that can be otherwise defined as 'successful failures'.

Story tellers have a slightly different way to look at budgets and deadlines. They see them as mundane numbers; nothing but boring facts. Story tellers know that people who sign the paychecks and the clients; look at these boring numbers 'only' when they have nothing more interesting to look at.

In the case of Project 'B'; the 'story' was larger than the boring facts. It was much more interesting, exciting, evolving, fun filled and remarkable.

The outcome of the story, the product itself, was even more remarkable.

Obviously, no-one looked at the boring facts.

We shipped. We made a dent in the universe; in our very own small way.

We were successful.

Story tellers, as it turns know that a lot of their story telling depends on stuff the builders ship. This is why genuine story tellers show a lot of honest respect for builders. They use their art of story telling to get the crap out of the teams way. They use their art to glamorize projects; products and even team members who deserve to be glamorized. They use their stories as bullshit busters; and to change stuff; for the better.

Story tellers, besides respecting builders and hanging out with them connect to them; genuinely; and naturally. They stick their neck out for people who build stuff. This is because genuine story tellers know fully well that without remarkable products and remarkable stuff there can be no remarkable stories which are built on foundations of honesty.

Without amazing builders, the role of an amazing story teller does not exist.

Good story tellers know this fact and aren't ashamed to admit it. Openly.

Story telling is hard.

What is in-fact not hard, is wearing the badge of a pseudo-storyteller.

Now, that's easy.

To do this you go around building a lot of political relationships with people high up the pecking order in your organization. Then you play the nice guy with your team and when hell breaks lose or when you get pecked on by the peckers high up in the pecking order you peck on your team.

Here's another way to pseudo-storytelling.

Go to a client meeting --- when the client questions you about a feature you don't have and they are wondering if you can build it by the trade show which is going to happen next month; nod your head and say yes to everything; hoping your development team will build it by 'staying back a little late' or by 'pushing harder'.

Remarkable Story Telling as it turns out, is much harder than being a pseudo-story teller or a whiner.

Are you a manager --- Weave a remarkable story around your teams; get a few genuine builders promoted and a few whiners removed from the project. Weave a remarkable story to calm down a panic stricken client, director or vice-president.

Are you a Vice President --- Weave a story to add meaning to a product or an entire organization.

Marketer --- Get just a hundred mavens who are genuinely interested and will spread the word to sign up for an awesome service your builders have built.

Writer --- Try to get a thousand unique returning visitors per day on your blog.

Indulge and aim at either of these and you will learn first hand how hard story telling really is.

It's hard.

Really hard.

It is in fact as hard  building stuff; because when you weave a story, you are in fact, indulging in the act of 'building'; even if it is not 'stuff' that you are building.

If you are a pseudo-story-teller you are just another whiner.

If you are a genuine story teller; you are important. We need you.

Are you a story teller?

What are some examples of story tellers you have worked with dear reader?

How have storytellers improved your work-life, dear reader?

Discuss. 

Note: This article is a part of a Work In Progress Book. To Read connected articles read the Builders At Work category of this blog.