Esteem and Work

I’m a little unusual in the software development profession in that I have a “serious” side hobby. I play an instrument in what you’d probably call a semi-professional capacity. On a good year I probably play 20-30 gigs, play on a record or two, and make a couple thousand bucks (then squander all of it on instruments).

I’m not in it for the money; I’d starve to death if I was. I got a huge thrill out of playing in front of audiences in the beginning, and still do when they’re gracious. Playing in clubs is usually a pain in the ass though, so the joy in playing now comes from being able to impress people I respect with my playing and having them call me back for gigs.

There are two wins for me when this happens. First, it is very exciting to play with musicians who are really good. If the chemistry is right you will hear this incredible sounding music and it will be hard to believe you are partly responsible for it. The other win is that my self-esteem is boosted each time one of these calls happens, since it is a validation of the work that I have been doing.

Music and Software have a couple of similarities, most obviously that there is a lot of room for creativity. Both have rules, but those rules depend on context and there is a playful disregard for them among musicians.

The other similarity is that individuals and very small teams can win enormous amounts of attention while doing music or software. The knowledge that it is possible to hit it big as a programmer can lead to weird situations in a workplace where there are a large number of achievers for whom their work is the primary source of esteem.

I think that people who aren’t involved in the music business really believe in the idea of rock stardom, whether they are fans or outright wannabees:

  • Get an instrument
  • Learn the instrument
  • Join a band
  • Make an album
  • Get famous

It almost never actually works that way. Everybody knows this trope (hell people have written songs about it) because the only musicians they know are stars, and that’s the story of a star. Unless you’re a musician yourself, you probably don’t know about the millions of people who want to make a career out of music but never get anywhere close to stardom.

For every famous guitar player in the world, for example, I could find you a hundred guys who have the same, or often way more, talent and discipline. Most will have recorded 4 or 5 albums that you’ve never heard, play 2-10 gigs per week with people you’ve never heard of (and a few you have), and are getting by if not prospering. They teach all day at least one or two days per week, to boot.

For these people, taking as many gigs as they can get is not a means of increasing their esteem in the music community, its simply that unless you play your ass off, you can’t make a living. Very often there is real risk in terms of the personal resources that must be wagered when pursuing an opportunity.

When they show up to play these gigs, things are different than people outside the business expect. Even though a music director or bandleader may hire a musician on the basis of their enormous talent and improvisational creativity, many gigs have very formal requirements to play a certain way at a certain time, to endure outrageously long rehearsals, and to get fined for being a minute late. If you can play by the rules, yet be powerfully creative when called upon to do so, you can make a living at it.

I see lots of problems with the idea of passionate creativity in the software business, and mostly they are the same problems that strong willed people run into in the music business.

If you’re an entrepeneur you get the choose the rules, but the caveat is that only certain kinds of people are cut out for entrepeneurial life; they’re like the bandleaders of the music world. If you can handle being a one-man-show, fantastic. If you can attract talent and run a team, then you’re really cooking.

If you’re a working stiff, a gun for hire, you are typically not getting paid to be creative, you’re getting paid to do work, to put on the show. The performance may require enormous talent, and you may take a couple of solos in the spotlight, but the show is

The bulk of professional musicians are not simply playing gigs; a career player might be arranging written music, producing recorded music, directing performances, in addition to the teaching and performing that is required. This is work. It’s music, but the tasks are very clearly defined, they require a lot of skill, and have real value.

When musicians show up to play these gigs, there are a lot of brown M&Ms. Although a music director or bandleader may hire a musician on the basis of improvisational creativity, many gigs include very formal requirements that one should play a certain way at a certain time, endure outrageously long rehearsals, and to risk getting fined for being a minute late. If you can play by the rules, yet be powerfully creative when called upon to do so, you can make a living at it.

Outsiders, I think, see performers on stage and work out a naive equation in which releasing and performing records leads to fame (i.e. esteem) and in turn to crowds of adoring fans. Gaining esteem this way is akin to becoming rich by playing the stock market. There’s skill involved, but also in many cases a lot of luck. It is not a very sound strategy with which to pursue a career.

I find the process of building a bridge or an aircraft carrier way more mind-blowing than writing one web-app or recording an album, but it would be difficult to look at a giant engineering problem and find a small number of people who deserved glory for it. This happens all the time in Software though; a programmer writes a piece of software that becomes wildly popular, and before you know it, that person is a household-name among nerds. Hero worship happens way more in the software development field than any science or technology field I’ve seen. The pursuit of stardom in the field has become embarrassingly obvious, and it comes with problems.

A good example of this is an article I read several weeks ago which treats with a somewhat condescending tone (I believe it was unintentional, but illustrates the principle I am getting at) toward the segment of programmers who work in languages other than the latest hotness and don’t blog about it or give talks at conferences. This article, and gobs of others on Hacker News and its ilk, are built on a tacit understanding that to be somebody in this business requires a certain avant-garde approach. It would not do, for example, to be caught programming in Java or, god forbid, PHP.

There’s also a strong sense in this crowd that it represents today’s creative class, the leading edge of intellectual enlightenment. There’s a dearth of blogging, with elegant eastern design sensibilities and expensive-looking fonts. A lot of self-written bios in the third person, replete with professional looking photos of the author on-stage at a conference, hands folded Merkel-style delivering a serious looking talk to a rapt audience while wearing one of those almost (but not quite) invisible head-mounted wireless microphones. It is positively mortifying.

I see lots of problems with software engineers identifying so strongly with passionate creativity, mostly the same problems that strong-willed people run into in the music business.

If you’re an entrepreneur you can decide on your own rules and do whatever the hell you want, however, only certain kinds of people are cut out for entrepreneurial life. They’re like the bandleaders of the music world. If you can book gigs as a one-man-show, fantastic. If you can attract talent and run a team, then you’re really cooking.

If you’re a working stiff, a gun for hire, you are typically not getting paid to be creative, you’re getting paid to do work. You are playing other people’s gigs. The bulk of professional musicians are not simply playing gigs; a career player might be arranging written music, producing recorded music, directing performances, in addition to the teaching and performing that is required. That is work. It’s music, but the tasks are very clearly defined, they require a lot of skill, and have real value.

The main thing here is that these people are able to make a living because they get the calls. They get the call because they have a track record of showing up and doing the right thing, regardless of whether it is “their thing”. A pro might play Top 40 Friday night, a Wedding on Saturday, and a country dance hall Sunday. This life may not appear to contain glory, but there’s something to be said for having one’s esteem delivered in bite-sized portions over a lengthy career rather than dropped from the cargo bay from altitude.

The real problem at the ground level is that these esteem-oriented programmers are preoccupied with attention in the same way Kim Kardashian is, or the way a cocaine enthusiast is always working on a score. It is a compulsion, a mildly pathological delusion in which they imagine the eyes of the community upon them. Worse yet, it is distraction from their work which, curiously, could be a source of esteem if they chose to accept it as such.

To coin a phrase from Steinbeck, many of these programmers see ordinary software work not as a source of wealth and satisfaction, but as a temporary embarassment on their path to acclaim. They just need to find the new langyage for that project in that will get them there.