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
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
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
- 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
in terms of the personal resources that must be wagered when pursuing
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
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
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.