Once upon a time, about 3 years ago, I was a musical theatre actress. Yes, believe it or not, I haven’t always been a Developer Evangelist. While social media may make you believe that I’ve always spent my days coding, giving talks around the world, creating content, and organizing meet-ups… the truth is, if you met me 3 years ago, I spent most of my days auditioning, doing song & dance numbers on stage, taking lots of production photos, and organizing my 13+ hour days of a day job & rehearsal so I didn’t die of exhaustion. 💀
The world of theatre and the world of tech are vastly different. For one, you actually get paid a competitive wage for the amount of work you put into your technical roles (okay, open source is another story, but you know what I mean). Also, there are far more women in the theatre world (especially musical theatre world) than men… a stark contrast to what we see in most engineering organizations/tech companies in general. Also, people tend to dance and break into song much less frequently, but I digress…
There were many reasons why I decided to make the transition from theatre to engineering (you can read more about that in the links at the end of this article, if you’re interested). I had been doing theatre for over 20 years, and going from singing/dancing/acting/auditioning 24/7 was quite a change when I switched to coding/white boarding/learning new technologies 24/7. For a long time, I felt intense frustration and regret over my time as a performer. I’d meet engineers who had been coding since elementary school or even high schoolers taking programming classes and think “Wow- I’m so behind”. Comparing myself to these people would give me intense imposter syndrome, and made me question why on EARTH I had spent my youth, high school, and college experience dedicated to a craft that taught me how to “play pretend” on stage 😐. Little did I know, my theatre degree would soon become my secret weapon in the tech world…
Frequently, I get asked “do you ever use your theatre skills as an evangelist?”. The answer: Every single day (if not every single hour). In everything from my communication tactics, thought processes, community building skills, event planning, content creation, mindset, and even in the way I make decisions with the code I write (Catherine Meyers does an incredible talk on music+coding that you can watch here). My theatre and performance skills have become a tool I reach for often while navigating the world of engineering.
So, ladies and gentlemen, please silence your cellphones, unwrap those noisy candies, and note the nearest exits in the back of the theatre: I’m going to present some key skills from my previous life as a musical theatre performer and how I apply them to the world of tech!
If my life as an actress prepared me for anything, it was learning how to take harsh criticism and receive feedback. Of course, in the acting world, the type of feedback you’re receiving from your agent, directors, casting companies, etc. is typically a little more personal than that of the world of tech. Here is a sampling of the reasons/justifications/feedback I was given as an actress for why I wasn’t given a part:
- You’re too short
- You’re not the right “type”
- You’re not ethnic-looking enough
- You’re too skinny
- You’re not skinny enough
- You didn’t have good chemistry on stage [with a male actor]
- You’re “too vanilla”
- You’re not “hipster enough”
- And, my personal favorite: “You’re blonde”
Huh, as I write these out, all of these would be an HR violation/lawsuit in the tech world… 🤔 Yikes. Looks like theatre could benefit from some sensitivity training.
This is all to say, I’ve gotten some incredibly harsh feedback as an actress. Everything from being “typed out” of roles because of my appearance, to directors yelling to me from the back of the theatre “CHLOE- MOVE MORE STAGE LEFT, THAT LIGHTING MAKES YOU LOOK TERRIBLE”. Being a good performer, means you’re able to take and apply feedback that is given to you. And if you don’t… well, you’re probably not going to get cast… or hired again.
As an actress, I saw many junior performers fight with their directors when given the simplest of notes (ex: “Well, I know you told me to walk more stage left, but I think my character would go stage right because… blahblahblah”). The truth is, a director (much like a manager) sees you from the outside. What you may think looks good on stage, may look completely different to an audience member. If you have a good director, they will give you direction and feedback that will put you in your best light (literally, and figuratively 🔦), so that come opening night you’ll get glowing reviews. If you have a good manager, they will give you direction and feedback that will put you in your best light when it’s time for your yearly review. Being able to take, absorb, and apply feedback is key to being a good actress and successful contributor to a technical team.
The “10 Block Rule”
The “10 Block Rule” was taught to me by my theatre professors Karen Pollard and Rick Gott when I attended Natomas Charter Performing and Fine Arts Academy. It’s the idea of not talking about the performance you saw until you’re at least 10 blocks away from the venue. Why? Because you never know who is in the lobby/bathroom/audience. Now that I live in San Francisco, I call this the “Not Until We’re Home” rule- why? Because I’ve been on BART trains and in Ubers where co-riders have discussed me/the show I was in while not noticing I’m there (amazing how wigs can make you unrecognizable? 😅).
I’ve seen people in the tech world be forced into many an awkward situation by not observing the “10 Block Rule” (or, as we should perhaps call it in tech, the “Not Until We’re DMing on an Encrypted Messenging App Rule”). Here’s a couple of my favs:
- People discussing a thought leader or community member when co-workers/managers/good friends of the person are present
- Conference attendees discussing how much they disliked a talk on the conference floor in front of the booth of the speaker’s company
- Interviewees mentioning their disdain for a technology that is created/maintained by the company they are interviewing for
- And, my personal favorite: the dude outside a presentation room who said “This topic seems boring, but nothing else on the agenda looked good” to me… I was the person giving the talk. 😐
A good rule of thumb is to assume everyone knows everyone, and remember that the engineering world (much like that of the theatre world) is very small. You never know who is in the room, in your Uber, or even listening nearby while on a laptop at a coffee shop. Be nice to everyone, and don’t gossip: exercise the 10 Block Rule.
You Never Know Who is In the Audience
My dad (a director, theatre professor, and playwright) would always reiterate to his students: “You never know who’s in the audience”. Meaning that no matter how small the venue may be, how awful the show you’re performing may be, how tired and exhausted you are, and even if you know no one in the audience: give the best performance of your life each time. You never know who may be watching you. My favorite example of this is how Harrison Ford won the role of Han Solo while reading lines for other actors at an audition. His cold reads with auditioners were so great, he ended up landing the role of the sarcastic pilot we all know and love.
Having this mentality has helped me in many ways in the tech world. For one, when I have given talks at meet-ups with only 5–10 attendees, I’ve had people offer me jobs/speaking opportunities/etc. after seeing me give 110% on a talk. Letting your frustrations, lack of enthusiasm, or general “checked-out”ness affect your performance could keep you from meeting that magical hiring manager from [insert amazing company here] you’ve been dying to work at. When we’re at a meet-up, conference, or networking event, we’re “on stage” so to speak. Your actions and performance (pun intended) will dictate what opportunities may come from it. You just never know who is out there.
Every Audition is Good Practice
Okay, I’m a weirdo… I love auditioning. Something about the competitiveness of earning a role through a grueling process of hoop-jumping, singing, and being the last one standing used to give me such a thrill. Interviewing as an engineer is a lot like auditioning… except it sucks a lot more. Like, really really sucks, and I hate the entire process. That being said- much like auditioning, with each engineering interview you do, you learn more about what you need to work on and how to improve.
I used to audition constantly, which is possibly why I learned to love it so much. I hope I never get to a point where I fall in love with interviewing as an engineer (that would be alarming), but I think the same theory applies here: each audition (or interview) is good practice for the next one. When I was a junior engineer fresh out of Hackbright, I found myself becoming a stronger interviewer with each one I completed. If things didn’t go so great (lol, so… every interview?), I’d take a step back, figure out what I needed to improve, and do a better job at the next one. If you don’t land the role (or job) in your first audition (or grueling whiteboarding session), don’t worry- it’s great practice for the future! It’s great practice.
…and simularly, don’t have your first audition be a Broadway audition… or your first whiteboarding interview be one at Google. Get in your practice, first!
Have no idea what an “audition” is? Here’s a hilarious clip from the film Waiting for Guffman (a mockumentary about community theatre) that may give you an idea. Here we see Eugene Levy’s character “nailing it” in his audition for “Red, White, and Blaine”:
There Are No Small Roles (just small actors)
See that photo above? Yeah, I’m not the girl in the pink… and no, I’m not the front of the cow. Yes, I am the cow’s butt. I’ll give you a moment to search for my right foot. Yup- that’s me!
Konstantin Sergeievich Stanislavski (a seminal Russian theatre practitioner, and creator of the Stanislavski System), famously remarked that “there are no small parts, only small actors.” Meaning that, no matter the size of the role, you can have a large impact. I have seen this myself in plays and musicals where a performer who was on stage for 5 minutes stole the show. Or, as Micheal Hickerson notes:
In Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins needed only 16 minutes (out of a 2-hour-long movie) to win Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance. With the right actor, in the right role, a few minutes, a handful of words, are all that’s needed for magic to happen.
This is all to say- you don’t need to be the CEO, CTO, Team Lead, or Senior Engineer to make a large impact on a product/at an organization/in the tech industry. Every contributor to a project, no matter how small, is a piece of the larger success of it. Much like my cameo as a cow-butt in Gypsy, sometimes it’s the minor characters that contribute the most (laughs) to a scene. Never underestimate the power of making a small/easy contribution to an open source project; you may not think your “small role” is significant, but trust me: it is.
Honestly, the list goes on and on. From learning what projects to say yes/no to, organizing fun/entertaining/engaging events and meet-ups (video from my DevXCon 2018 talk coming soon!), networking skills (it truly is all about who you know in any industry), to juggling multiple things at once (job + school + rehearsals + performances = 🤯): my theatre degree has made me the Developer Evangelist I am today. I’m proud to say that my frustration from having a 4-year theatre degree has now turned into complete gratitude: how else would I be able to create theatrical content like this at Sentry.io?
If you have any more interest in learning about using a theatre background in tech, I encourage you to check out the following podcasts/videos/etc.:
- My episode of Yuri Cataldo’s podcast Advance Your Art podcast, as well as my friend Shannon Kendall’s episode (she’s a badass NY actor/dancer who is now an engineer)
- The Theatre Geeks Unite episode of Arrested DevOps hosted by Trevor Hess ft. myself, Nell Shamrell, and Nathen Harvey
- Sarah Mei’s talk “How We Make Software: A new theory of teams” (she starts talking about theatre at 35:43, but the entire talk is great!)
- Catherine Meyers’ talk “Mozart Could’ve Been an Engineer — Music + Code” (as mentioned earlier in this article)
- If you want to see any old show videos of me, you can check out YouTube- I’m slowly but surely adding more every couple months. Like this one. Or this one. And trust me, a Google search of my name will show you all sorts of treasures from my past. Like this gem! ✨🦄🌈