Just for laughs

This autumn and winter I watched quite a lot of stand up comedy shows, following the Comedy festival in Melbourne. I was inspired by many men and women and their awesome performances, so I decided to try it myself.

I realised that the IT industry is full of funny stories and jokes. We laugh all the time at our workplace, we laugh at ourselves, at our legacy codebases and especially at our work processes and decision making.

So, I sat down and started writing. For weeks I could not write even a single joke, I was staring at the blank document with the title “Stand up comedy — first try” and could not figure out how I should start it. When I tried to put all those jokes that I heard in our office on paper, I was stuck, nothing was coming out.

I thought to myself that it is not that easy as it looks on TV and I need to change my tactic. I remembered Nigel Dalton’s talk about storytelling and decided to start with a story, my story. So I started writing about my personal experience, the day I joined my company, about the team that used work in and about company’s culture six years ago. Suddenly, the whole thing started to fall into place and my story started to take shape around embarrassing meetings that I had in the office. I was not expecting it, but one thing led to another and after 2–3 hours I had 4 pages written.

After that night, I spend three more weeks editing my story, making it more funny and entertaining. Furthermore, it took almost a month of practicing. Almost every day I was presenting my story to a mirror and refining my words, my intonation and my gestures. Something that seemed funny on the paper sounded stupid when said out loud. At that moment I realised that my strategy was wrong and I should have started practicing much earlier.

When I finally managed to perform my talk in front of a mirror for two consecutive times and not fuck it up, I decided that I was ready! I was bold and next day I sent invitation to all my team members, my manager and my EM to a “meeting”. My meeting invite was very vague, I sad that I am preparing a talk and want to hear their feedback. I had no idea what their reaction would be and how many people would come to my “meeting”.

On the 4th of July, I presented my first stand up comedy in front of ten or so people. And it went well! People were laughing. Though, it took me almost ten minutes of talking before I heard the first giggle. Apparently, my talk was not that funny that I expected, but everyone still enjoyed it.

One of the questions I was asked during that talk is “What are you planning to do next? Are you going to present this talk anywhere else ?”. It was Engineering Manager who asked that question, I guess he wanted to find out would it be any tangible outcome for the company from ten people spending 45 minutes in the meeting room.

I did not have an answer to this question, because it was my first attempt at stand up comedy. But there was QA in the audience and she said that it might be a good idea to have talks like this at guilds. To back up her idea, she officially invited me to give a short talk at the QA guild.

After that I realised that I can do a separate talks on specific subjects like QA or Operations that would be more suitable to guilds rather than my “general IT humour”.

Encouraged by the invitation, I got myself invited to the the DevOps guild and delivered my first guild talk in September. A few weeks before my scheduled talk, the ops people asked me to send them official topic for my talk. I was not prepared for that, so I quickly came up with a simple one: “A story of a sleepless night”. Then I even decided to prepare a slide for my presentation. First I thought of having just a simple slide with my name on it, but then I thought of drawing a simple picture to represent my talk. And it turned out reasonably good:

I received good feedback after that presentation despite the fact that I was very nervous. It was much bigger audience and a few people who attended that guild I’d never seen before, which made me even more nervous. After I finished talking, I had only one thought in my head: “Damm. It was bad. Some of my practice runs were much better than my performance”. Luckily for me, no one in the audience was present during my practice runs, so this high bar was set only in my head.

There was no time for me to relax, I already promised our QA a presentation at the QA guild and she was very keen to schedule my talk that month. I was able to negotiate it for October, because at the point of time I had almost no specific to QAs material.

So I went back to writing. Again, I used the storytelling pattern and just wrote about my personal experience of working with QAs. This time my story shaped around people. And again I decided to accompany my talk with a picture:

Here are my favourite quotes from that presentation:

“In good old times developers were free from any responsibility to ensure the quality of solutions we were delivering. I mean, we would always take a credit for a successful feature, but if there was a problem — there were always Ops people to fix it and QAs to blame for it!”

Furthermore, I got invited to speak at Functional Programming guild, which was probably the hardest talk for me in terms of material. I ended up preparing very specific talk with majority of jokes around functional programming.

“If you don’t know what Argonaut is, you are new to Scala and you got it easy! You joined Functional Programming in the age of roses and unicorns! Because manipulating JSON documents with Argonaut library was the most painful experience in my whole career as a software engineer!”

“If one day I will be able to grasp the intricacy of free monads or at least give a definition of the monad in human language to another human — I will declare myself a guru and I will sit on top of the mountain until the rest of my career.”

To be honest, the constant pace to deliver a talk for the guild was quite intense. In order to meet my deadlines, I needed to dedicate at least two hours per day for the last five months. Every guild talk took on average 40 hours of preparation and rehearsals. Plus some time to come up with an idea for a sketch and to draw it. During those five months it was like having second job.

However, under this pressure, I generated so many new ideas for future presentations like “restructure”, “women in tech”, “motivation for developers” and many more. Having a deadline helps me to stay on track and do not wander off topic. I would like to schedule some of those talks earlier next year and start working on them during my Christmas break, I am on-call anyway!

For now, all my stand up comedy performances have been contained within my company, but I have big plans to start performing for broader IT community at meetups and conferences. I hope my DevOps talk will be accepted at Voxxeed Days conference, fingers crossed!

I want to say big thanks to all my supporters and everyone who attended my talks, I hope you had a few good laughs! Also, I hope that my humour will not result in any complains to the HR department and that I can keep doing my stand-up without censorship.