Software Is About Storytelling

Software engineering is more a practice in archeology than it is in building. As an industry, we undervalue storytelling and focus too much on artifacts and tools and deliverables. How many times have you been left scratching your head while looking at a piece of code, system, or process? It’s the story, the legacy left behind by that artifact, that is just as important—if not more—than the artifact itself.

And I don’t mean what’s in the version control history—that’s often useless. I mean the real, human story behind something. Artifacts, whether that’s code or tools or something else entirely, are not just snapshots in time. They’re the result of a series of decisions, discussions, mistakes, corrections, problems, constraints, and so on.  They’re the product of the engineering process, but the problem is they usually don’t capture that process in its entirety. They rarely capture it at all. They commonly end up being nothing but a snapshot in time.

It’s often the sign of an inexperienced engineer when someone looks at something and says, “this is stupid” or “why are they using X instead of Y?” They’re ignoring the context, the fact that circumstances may have been different. There is a story that led up to that point, a reason for why things are the way they are. If you’re lucky, the people involved are still around. Unfortunately, this is not typically the case. And so it’s not necessarily the poor engineer’s fault for wondering these things. Their predecessors haven’t done enough to make that story discoverable and share that context.

I worked at a company that built a homegrown container PaaS on ECS. Doing that today would be insane with the plethora of container solutions available now. “Why aren’t you using Kubernetes?” Well, four years ago when we started, Kubernetes didn’t exist. Even Docker was just in its infancy. And it’s not exactly a flick of a switch to move multiple production environments to a new container runtime, not to mention the politicking with leadership to convince them it’s worth it to not ship any new code for the next quarter as we rearchitect our entire platform. Oh, and now the people behind the original solution are no longer with the company. Good luck! And this is on the timescale of about five years. That’s maybe like one generation of engineers at the company at most—nothing compared to the decades or more software usually lives (an interesting observation is that timescale, I think, is proportional to the size of an organization). Don’t underestimate momentum, but also don’t underestimate changing circumstances, even on a small time horizon.

The point is, stop looking at technology in a vacuum. There are many facets to consider. Likewise, decisions are not made in a vacuum. Part of this is just being an empathetic engineer. The corollary to this is you don’t need to adopt every bleeding-edge tech that comes out to be successful, but the bigger point is software is about storytelling. The question you should be asking is how does your organization tell those stories? Are you deliberate or is it left to tribal knowledge and hearsay? Is it something you truly value and prioritize or simply a byproduct?

Documentation is good, but the trouble with documentation is it’s usually haphazard and stagnant. It’s also usually documentation of how and not why. Documenting intent can go a long way, and understanding the why is a good way to develop empathy. Code survives us. There’s a fantastic talk by Bryan Cantrill on oral tradition in software engineering where he talks about this. People care about intent. Specifically, when you write software, people care what you think. As Bryan puts it, future generations of programmers want to understand your intent so they can abide by it, so we need to tell them what our intent was. We need to broadcast it. Good code comments are an example of this. They give you a narrative of not only what’s going on, but why. When we write software, we write it for future generations, and that’s the most underestimated thing in all of software. Documenting intent also allows you to document your values, and that allows the people who come after you to continue to uphold them.

Storytelling in software is important. Without it, software archeology is simply the study of puzzles created by time and neglect. When an organization doesn’t record its history, it’s bound to repeat the same mistakes. A company’s memory is comprised of its people, but the fact is people churn. Knowing how you got here often helps you with getting to where you want to be. Storytelling is how we transcend generational gaps and the inevitable changing of the old guard to the new guard in a maturing engineering organization. The same is true when we expand that to the entire industry. We’re too memoryless—shipping code and not looking back, discovering everything old that is new again, and simply not appreciating our lineage.

3 Replies to “Software Is About Storytelling”

  1. Steven Johnston in his book Emergence writes about knowledge being contained within structure. His example was the knowledge contained in cities. Individuals in those cities may come and go but a type of knowledge remains as artifacts of it’s history – the good pubs, the artistic district, the dangerous areas, etc.

    In a way this knowledge is culture and it’s created and contained in structures (or the communication patterns / relationships between things). This is well known in organisational theory and the closest software people get to it is Conway’s Law.

    Reading your post about storytelling reminded me of the knowledge contained in the structure of a code base, the relationships between objects, the culture, and the history.

    It is understood that organisational culture is shared through the stories of the organisation; the rags to riches story of the CEO who we all aspire to be – if only we worked hard.

    The storytelling you mention is the sharing of the knowledge contained in the code base structure, it’s the history, it’s the culture of the code.

    Great post Brave New Geek.

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