Professional Development

Whose line (of code) is it anyway? Lessons from improv for your tech career

Dan Stabb, a tech educator and improv performer, explains how the skills developed on the stage can help you be a better technologist and teammate.

Dan Stabb performing with Fearless Improv.

(Photo by Joe del Tufo)

When Dan Stabb attended his first improv show almost 20 years ago, he was recently out of college and looking for something different — although he was unsure what that something would be. During the performance in Philadelphia, his friend nudged him and said, “You should try this.”

“Since then, I also have been able to teach improv for both performance and from a professional development standpoint,” he recounted during an AMA on Technical.ly’s public Slack on Aug. 30. “I’ve been fortunate to both perform with and direct numerous incredibly talented troupes. And as of two weeks ago, my next improv journey began, as I became creative director for Fearless Improv, a troupe in Wilmington with whom I’ve been performing since 2019.”

When he’s not performing with his group, Stabb is the manager of admissions and professional development at the Delaware nonprofit Zip Code Wilmington, which runs a 12-week coding bootcamp that aims to help students become software developers or data engineers. Although he is not a coder himself, Stabb came from a background in higher education prior to joining the Zip Code team in 2018, and as his role evolved, he found himself drawing from his improv experiences to shape the professional development components of the program.

“The core skills of improv can genuinely benefit any role, profession, etc. Knowing how to work with people, active listening, supporting each other, being adaptable — these skills can positively impact just about any field you can think of,” he said. At Zip Code Wilmington, “we dedicate an entire professional development session on improv (sometimes two). We’ve even done improv workshops in the lobbies of Fortune 500 companies to help the students get in the right frame of mind entering an interview.”

Throughout his AMA, Stabb offered tips on navigating a career in tech using skills strengthened by improv. Here are some of his top takeaways, with direct quotes in italics.

Active listening

“Improv teaches you to listen with the intent to listen as opposed to just respond. This can positively impact just about anything you can think of: interviews, meetings, agile sessions. Dare I say — life?

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Active listening means that you are fully invested in what the other person is saying. I see it as an opportunity to mute the inner voice in my head that wants to judge, respond defensively, etc. Because if someone is talking to me and I’m already pre-planning my response before they’re finished their thought, there’s a pretty good chance I’m not listening. In turn, this means that my response will likely be inauthentic, because I’m responding based on incomplete information.

In a professional setting, it can help in so many ways:

  • Brainstorming: To me, one of the most effective ways to brainstorm is a ‘no bad ideas’ approach. So for 10 minutes, everyone shares their ideas, and every idea is written on a whiteboard. No time to judge, critique, find holes, etc. Just allow a free flow of information.
  • Meetings: In any meeting, the ability to listen to and support each other’s ideas will allow for greater collaboration and higher morale.
  • Interviewing: As I mentioned, active listening will allow you to fully understand the nuance of the question so you can provide the most authentic response you can.”

The team

“You succeed when your team succeeds. Your team succeeds when you succeed. Nobody has to carry the  burden on their own, and we all have strengths that we can bring that complement our teammates.”

Additionally, if you trust in your team, then you don’t have to worry as much about what you’re doing by yourself, and can focus more on how it fits in with the group’s direction.

A common improv phrase is “commit to the bit,” and that also means committing to your role in the bit. Sometimes you’ll be the ham, sometimes the straight man, sometimes a waiter with one line, sometimes a cat or a tree. Whatever your role is in that specific moment, commit to it and do it the best you can.

The same is true in professional settings — sometimes you’re a project lead and sometimes you’re support, but the important thing is to commit to what the moment (and the team) needs.

Dan Stabb. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

Adaptability

“Improv allows you to adapt to almost any given situation, especially given the curveballs we all experience from time to time.

Generally speaking, improv completely influences how I teach, because you can’t really take a one-size-fits-all approach when teaching something like professional development. Whether I teach at Zip Code, outside workshops or even general improv classes for performances, I have a game plan going in — that I probably deviate from in the moment every single time I teach. It has taught me to assess and understand where my students are at any given point, and I adapt/adjust to make sure I’m providing what they need in that moment (or in those moments).”

Even though you’re improvising on the spot, you can still have a plan and a goal, and adapting/adjusting in the moment can help you execute that plan and achieve that goal better. It’s not just walking in cold and completely winging it (and in fact that’s the easiest way to bomb or lose momentum).

Some people refer to improv as performing without a net, but it can be helpful to think that the improv IS the net. You can rely on improv skills to catch you if you start to fall — and hopefully help you land on your feet.

Feedback driving improvement

“Our audiences are our best barometer of where we’re succeeding and where we can grow. Listening to those audiences with the intention of making improvements will facilitate growth.

[In both improv and tech,] you rely on your team to deliver to your audience. In an improv show, you work with your troupe to bring the best performance you possibly can, knowing that you may hit some stumbling blocks along the way. In the tech world, you work with your team to deliver your product … knowing that you’ll hit some stumbling blocks along the way.

And in both worlds, the audience will tell you exactly how they feel about the performance/product being provided … and this feedback often happens while the work is taking place. If you’re working in concert with your team, you’re taking that feedback together and making constant improvements until you create something that your audience loves/wants.

And even then — there’s still always room for improvement.

I think the most important lesson I learned is that the audience is on your side. They actively want you to succeed. Whether it’s an improv performance, an interview, public speaking … the audience is invested in your success just by being there. Once you realize that the audience isn’t there to see you fail, it can relieve the burden of being ‘perfect.’”

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As for those interested in dipping their toes into improv (to help their tech career or just for fun), Stabb’s advice is to relax as much as possible, stick with it and try to focus on actively listening:

“So many times, someone will say, ‘I can never do improv because I’m not witty, I’m not funny, I’m not quick on my feet, etc.’

My response is always: ‘Can you listen?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then you can do improv.’”

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