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Seven technology leadership lessons from TV show writing

What if software engineers behaved more like writers than actual engineers? What leadership lessons could we take from the TV writing world?

Daniel Jarjoura

Have you ever noticed how many words used in software engineering come from, well, engineering? For any software project, you have architects, developers, project managers and designers, dealing with infrastructure, hardware, programs and frameworks. Listening to a project conversation without context could fool you into thinking that they’re talking about building houses, not software. But what if, as pointed out by executive coach Joe Dunn, you were managing a team of writers, not engineers?

When you think about it, it makes sense, right? First of all, software engineers write code. Like writers, their activities can be summarised in three main creative phases: impregnation, structuration and writing/rewriting. Sometimes what they have to write is very straightforward, like the 100th episode of a legal drama TV show. Sometimes it is very creative with a lot of unknowns, like a screenplay. Finally, both groups have to abide by deadlines and business imperatives.

If software engineers are like writers, wouldn’t there be some lessons to learn from the writing world? With over 200 TV shows produced per year, the TV business could be the closest equivalent to the technology world (obviously not counting the show Silicon Valley which is about tech startups 😅). TV shows raise multi-million dollar budgets, they have to release episodes (features) under tight deadlines, they pay close attention to viewers ratings (analytics), and they’re, of course, trying to generate outsized returns for their investors.

Christopher Patey - The Hollywood Reporter

In television, the equivalent of a technology leader would be the executive producer. Also called showrunners, executive producers are responsible for making a budget for the season and episodes, liaising with the studio and, most importantly, managing the writers. And like most engineering and product leaders, they usually have an individual contributor background, being writers themselves. So, how do showrunners manage their team?

1. They know their show and tell everyone what it is

In his Eleven laws of showrunning, television screenwriter and producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach writes that “not knowing - or not telling - what the show is, is a common showrunner dysfunction.” Instead, a showrunner’s job is mainly to communicate information to other people so that they can execute it within their field of expertise. Some showrunners write down a show “bible” beforehand so that writers won’t ask the showrunner the same questions over and over.

Ideas for technology leaders:

  • Have your team spend more time discussing product requirements, user stories, architecture or implementation strategies before rushing to the keyboard and code
  • Define and share a clear technology vision

2. They create a safe space

According to GQ correspondent Brett Martin, the author of Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, “to be a writer in these rooms is to be rejected constantly. It’s brutal. So the ability to inspire people despite rejecting them is really important.” Great showrunners understand that creation is iterative and it takes a lot of no(s) to get a great idea. They make writers feel comfortable with rejection and small failures.

Ideas for technology leaders:

  • Raise your standards by creating a culture where everyone is challenging others and is OK to be challenged (on ideas, features, implementation…)

3. They make writers pitch

According to an insider’s comment on Reddit, “once the overall arc of the season is settled, [writers] will pitch ideas for episodes. Lots and lots and lots of ideas for episodes. most will be rejected either by the room, the showrunner, the network etc. Ideas that aren’t rejected will end up on a big board in the room. From there they will be broken down into story points, usually by the room.” Usually, the writer whose pitch is selected gets to write the episode or the script concept. This process creates an environment where writers have to pay as much attention to the story, as to how they pitch it.

Ideas for technology leaders:

  • Make product owners and developers pitch their ideas or solutions, and select only the best pitches. Poorly pitched ideas might get another go during a future session

4. They give everyone a chance to talk

Started in 1975, Saturday Night Live is one of the longest-running, most successful shows on American television. Lorne Michaels, the show’s executive producer, says the reason why SNL has succeeded is because he’s always followed the following two rules: he gives everyone a voice, and he forces people to listen to each other. Michaels will often keep a sheet of paper during a meeting, making a note each time someone speaks, and won’t end the meeting until he forces everyone to talk a roughly equal number of times.

Ideas for technology leaders:

  • Force everyone to talk an equal amount of time during stand-ups and meetings

5. They combine creative thinking and passion

Sternberg and Lubart, the authors of Defying the Crowd: Cultivating Creativity in a Culture of Conformity, say that great showrunners show practical intelligence, a “feel for which ideas are likely to contribute to the business”. When pitching a show idea to studio executives, they pull back and project what the executive needs onto their idea to make the story whole.

Ideas for technology leaders:

  • Make product owners and developers pitch their ideas or solutions with the end-user in mind

6. They rotate writers and make them work collaboratively

While individual episodes may be assigned to writers early on, it’s common for showrunners to rotate writers or have certain script concepts assigned to different writers for the same episode. And even when there is just one writer on an episode, the other writers are still involved. They will challenge each other in the writers’ room, or give a hand on a few scenes and storylines.

Ideas for technology leaders:

  • Give an “expiry date” to feature teams so team members can work on another feature or system
  • Hire mainly full-stack engineers who can work on multiple projects

7. They write and rewrite quickly

For Javier Grillo-Marxuach, “a week to a week and a half is considered ample time to write the first draft of a script from a solid story break and outline.” When done, writers will “take that script apart, re-think it, throw most of it out and start all over again” as shared by showrunner Manny Coto. Because script writing is an iterative process and TV shows are under tight deadlines, showrunners establish a quick writing pace and help writers dissociate themselves from their ideas.

Ideas for technology leaders:

  • Organise shorter sprints with a focus on making each iteration visible
  • Have the team challenge a newly built feature and consider rebuilding it if it’s not up to your standards

Summary

  • Software engineers share a lot of characteristics with writers, especially TV show writers
  • Technology leaders can manage their teams the same way showrunners manage their writers' room
  • Mixing creativity with business imperatives is possible if team members work collaboratively, discuss a lot beforehand and don't get attached to ideas

Reading List

[ESSAY] The eleven laws of showrunning - Javier Grillo-Marxuach

[BOOK] Leadership lessons from creative industries: the case of producers, directors and executives in film and television - Susan Elaine Murphy

[ARTICLE] How to Pitch a Brilliant Idea - Kimberly D. Elsbach

People ManagementProject Management