Things I Learned About Software From Things Tina Fey Learned About Producing From Lorne Michaels
Posted by Charlie Recksieck
Part 1: Creativity Overrated thru It's Showtime
As a lifelong Saturday Night Live fan, Tina Fey sharing her observations on show businesses from SNL creator and showrunner Lorne Michaels was not one of the New Yorker articles I would quit after hitting the 5000-word mark. (Yes, this Tina Fey article is itself under 5,000 words.)
I highly encourage you to read it ASAP as a piece of entertainment and funny writing.
Additionally, this New Yorker article has built-in, great advice as managerial instruction. Here’s the numbered list of things Tina Fey learned from Lorne Michaels ...
1) Producing is about discouraging creativity.
2) Figure out if there is something you're asking the actor to do that's making him or her uncomfortable.
3) The show doesn't go on because it's ready; it goes on because it's 11:30.
4) When hiring, mix Harvard Nerds with Chicago Improvisers and stir.
5) Television is a visual medium.
6) Don't make any big decisions right after the season ends.
7) Never cut to a closed door.
8) Don't hire anyone you wouldn't want to run into in the hallway at three in the morning.
9) Never tell a crazy person he's crazy.
With the piece in question as a foundation, what I'm offering below is for me to take those 9 sentences of advice and describe what they mean in a software design environment. I've been in this field for 25 years now, with hundreds of case studies of computing projects varying from career highlights to a couple unmitigated disasters. So here we go. Hope you like it.
1 - Producing is about discouraging creativity.
The word "producing" in film & tv is probably most analogous in software development as "project management". When you're managing resources on a project, each person is generally 100% responsible for their own little fiefdom of the files/code.
Somebody working on GUIs (forms, the look of an app, etc.) is often the only one working on it. The person coding the password and authentication system is probably alone. Each area is their own little "black box", which kinda means that from the outside we don't see the workings inside. The box is very "modular", meaning it's been planned or agreed to on the project what values go in & what values go out.
Making these black boxes can get boring. Lots of times, programmers love to try to work with new technologies. Almost all of us got into or became good with development because we thought the way some code works was "neat". But the new, novel, more interesting or creative idea for the project is not usually the faster, cheapest or smoothest.
Whenever somebody comes to me with "What if we did ..." then I can probably call time out right there and guess that we are not going with this idea. 4 times out of 5, we don't need to reinvent the wheel. As a manager, the important part things here are to: 1) Hear the idea out, maybe it really would be smart in this case, and 2) If and when you say "No", say it in a way that doesn't discourage future ideas or creativity.
2 - Figure out if there is something you're asking the actor to do that's making him or her uncomfortable
In software development, we aren't asking programmers to do a nude scene. Or at least I really hope your office isn't asking that.
But there is a tendency for management to want to allot only X amount of hours because management thinks that's enough. When the developer disagrees and has a good reason, one of the main reasons that projects run behind schedule and over budget is that the manager is making unreasonable demands on programmers.
3 - The show doesn't go on because it's ready; it goes on because it's 11:30.
At some point, the finished product needs to get out the door. That doesn't mean that you should intentionally release seriously flawed apps purely to hit your deadlines. But ...
You can't make a perfect software product. They really don't exist.
You can't afford to let "great be the enemy of good." There's a balance between making sure you don't cut corners and don't sweat the small stuff. If it's a good idea for code to record a historical log of every event that happens in a database, but if it's too time consuming (or memory-consuming) to actually do so, then let's drop that feature.
As John Guare says in his phenomenal play "Six Degrees Of Separation", sometimes the key to making a brilliant painting is the teacher knowing when to take the paintings away from the student.
Like everybody, I was shocked last Sunday to hear of Kobe Bryant's death - and that of his daughter and 7 others in a helicopter crash in Calabasas. The initial news about Kobe himself was tragic enough but hearing about Gigi and the others was worse. (Of course, this article is going to focus on Kobe and not the others which is itself a little troublesome how we focus on fame even though every human life has the same value.)
I happened to be in Los Angeles that weekend and the night before just happened to be discussing Kobe Bryant with a close friend of mine. We were talking about how Lakers fans are, in large part, a Kobe-centric fan base, sometimes to the exclusion of even Lebron James who's currently on the roster.
I mentioned that I think Kobe in the prime of his career seemed like he would be a tough person to be a teammate with. Though in his last few years in the league he definitely mellowed and post-retirement took his role as a mentor to younger players throughout the NBA very seriously.
Why I'm writing about Kobe Bryant in a business-related blog is that his passion in life was winning & he was incredibly thoughtful and reflective about how one puts oneself in a position to win.
A Moment About Kobe's Work Ethic
Here while we discuss what it takes to win and Kobe Bryant, the area of interest (and what interested Kobe) was how he motivates his teammates. As for his personal preparation and work ethic, Kobe was unrivaled.
Even the greatest baskeball players fall short in comparison to Michael Jordan when it comes to being the best ever - and thought Kobe gave it a great run (perhaps the best of all of the "next Jordan"s), his body of work doesn't quite get to MJ's level; which leaves Kobe somewhere around the 5th to 12th best basketball player of all time. He got there with what's often described as an "insane" drive and work ethic in how Bryant worked on his game. Jordan himself said "Kobe's the only one to have done the work" just as he had.
Bryant's work ethic is described here, appropriately with 24 (his jersey number) points.
Kobe's (Unfair?) Ball Hog Reputation
We all understand that hard work pays off in any field. But the more philosophically interesting aspect of Kobe Bryant's obsession with winning was has approach towards how to get his teammates to help him win.
Throughout a lot of his career, Kobe did have a widespread reputation for being a "ball-stopper" (meaning the ball stopped getting passed when it got to him) and a proponent of "hero ball" (going 1-on-1 instead of running through a team offense). The 2008 Celtics beat Kobe's Lakers in the NBA Finals largely by counting on Kobe's tendency to force it, even against 2 or 3 defenders.
Upon Kobe's retirement announcement in 2016, Seth Meyers had this joke in his monologue: "Tomorrow night will be Kobe Bryant’s last NBA game. He says he’s looking forward to retirement and his teammates are looking forward to finding out what the ball feels like."
Trying To Motivate Teammates
Some teammates thrived with Kobe in the Lakers' early 2000s heyday. Shaquille O'Neal had a complicated relationship with Kobe and certainly wasn't going to be pushed around. But O'Neal and Bryant were never as good separately as they were with each other. Players like Robert Horry, Rick Fox and Derek Fisher earned Kobe's trust and respect.
But some players didn't love Kobe's 2000's leadership style. All-Star center Dwight Howard's perennial underachiever reputation didn't sit well with the Mamba and eventually blew up what could have been the last relevant championship-worthy Lakers seasons. Calling out a teammate publicly was a tool in Kobe's motivational toolbox, as exemplified here towards All-Star Laker Pau Gasol.
Deeper Look Into Kobe's Motivational Philosophy
But if you really want to understand Kobe's explanations of what he was doing with teammates, read this great 2012 article from Bill Simmons on the subject and listen to this terrific podcast from Simmons just a few days ago.
Kobe definitely cared more about winning than being liked. He could be charming and fun when he wanted to. But he deliberately just wanted to do whatever he could to win; if that meant being tough on teammates, fine - or if he had to wear a funny hat and speak French to get his teammates to win, then I'm sure he would have done that.