Thursday, June 9, 2016

Developer Skills: Drawing

You aren't a good developer if you can't draw.

Fortunately, if you're a human, you can.  Drawing isn't an inborn talent, it's a technical skill that can be learned.  Write the previous sentence on a piece of paper to prove it to yourself.

There.  You just drew a whole bunch of letters quickly and (hopefully) legibly.  Words are a complex set of shapes that need to be drawn in a particular sequence to have meaning.  It's the same basic skill you use when drawing non-character shapes.

Drawing isn't a binary skill that you either have or do not have.  It's a continuum, and even at the shallow end (people with barely-legible handwriting), you have enough of it to communicate ideas visually.

So that changes the top line of this post to:

You aren't a good developer if you don't draw.

Visual communication is much more powerful than text.  (This study found 65% retention over 3 days for images vs text.)  We also absorb visual information much faster than text.  (This link goes nowhere.  Do your own research you lazy bastard.)

Communication is a key software development skill.  Consider how often you need to talk to people, and how badly things have gone wrong when you don't.  Design sessions, customer collaboration sessions, backlog grooming, story estimation, etc, etc, etc.

And yet, how often do we get up an draw a picture in an estimation session?  How often do we do it when talking about design?

Some years (decades, actually) ago, I started drawing simple box & line diagrams whenever talking about design.  Now I don't even bother to have a design conversation without that.  Even a simple nested box with a few labels in it will speed things up considerably.  It gives us something to point to and summarizes basic assumptions.

So, do you want to supercharge your development skills?  Don't bother with Angular 2.0, typescript, SpringBoot or DropWizard.  Practice drawing!

Why don't you?  What excuses have I heard?
  • I don't have any talent.
  • I'd look like a five-year-old.
  • I have gone paperless.
All of these really mean, "I'm embarrassed that my simple boxes and lines aren't as good as what a professional sketch artist can do."

They certainly don't need to be.  The easiest way to get better (in fact, the only way) is to just do it. For yourself if you must, but preferably to show others.  Their drawing skills are probably just as bad, so what have you got to lose?

Still too embarrassed?  Fine, here are a few simple ways to improve:
  • Switch back from digital notes to a paper notebook (I like the Levenger Circa system, but Staples' Arc is just as good) and doodle in it for a while.  (You can still capture photos of your notes to stick in Evernote, OneNote, Keep or whatever.)
  • Google the word "doodle" (or whatever else interests you) and copy whatever appeals to you onto paper.
  • Google "learn to draw" and choose from websites and YouTube videos.
  • Buy a book and work through it.  I liked "Learn to Draw in 30 days", but there are loads of others to choose from.

Bonus: Get others to draw!

I find this is much more powerful if you can get other people to draw on a whiteboard with you.  It clarifies what they are saying, and forces them to give you something concrete to point to.  

This is particularly useful in determining if A) someone is trying to convey and important concept that you don't understand, or if B) they're a clueless idiot blowing smoke.

Give it a try.  At the very least it will give you something to do in boring meetings, while making you look engaged.