Why Does It Seem Like So Many Developers Are Musicians?

When I was in the Air Force, whenever I told someone I was a musician 1 in 20 people would say something like, “Oh cool, I used to play trumpet in 8th grade.” Whenever I’d play guitar gigs at the Officer’s Club, not once did someone come up and ask to play or sing something. If you are in a band, you know how odd that is. Someone is always asking to sit-in. Part of this observation probably has a lot to do with the strict military social rules between officers and enlisted, I get that, but that being said it was hard to find fellow instrumentalists in the Air Force. Don’t get me wrong, good singers abound in the military. You might come across someone here and there who plays a little guitar, but in my 8 years of the Air Force I came across two people who were gigging musicians or who had ever even been in a band.

My experience in the Army was quite different. I was a trumpet player in the Army Band AND I was a lower rank, so I often met people who felt comfortable introducing themselves as musicians. Perhaps, also, it was the realization you get when you join the Army of, “Holy crap, I could be dead in 6 months so I may as well be me.” I never felt that way in the Air Force. Once in a while, YouTube would feature a band of soldiers with an ensemble of guitars, drums, bass and more, but the ones I’ve seen have all been Army. Maybe there is something about the Army that attracts musicians. I would place my money on adrenaline. A cheering crowd can bind a group of performers together the same as ruck marching through 10 miles of South Carolina sand in 100 degree heat can.

One of my goals after I left the Air Force was to learn to code so I signed up for The Iron Yard’s January 2015 Front-End Engineering class to learn JavaScript. Before the class even started, the school hosted a couple of meet-and-greets for prospective students. Within an hour, I met two classmates (out of 10 total) who had previously been touring musicians. WHAT!!! Not only that, another classmate was a classical guitarist, another played rhythm guitar and a fifth played percussion. That meant that 60% of the class was musicians! Further, a 7th classmate had a sister who was a professional opera signer, so that’s good for at least another 5% in my book.

My question was this, “why am I suddenly surrounded by musicians? Is there something about this career field that attracts them?” Granted, the class WAS IN AUSTIN, TX the live music capital of the word, but I’m not sure that entirely explains it. When I played regularly in St. Louis, the bass player who took my spot when I deployed to Germany became a JavaScript developer. In my hometown of Mt. Vernon, IL, the guitar player who hosted open mic night at Lowery’s Irish Pub was a PHP developer. He now lives in Nashville. Going back to the Iron Yard, the course director had been a stand-up comedian and she could sing as well. There is something to this musician/coder thing.

So what is it? I think its due to several parallels between the two, the first being that musicians like to make sense of the world. Music holds mystery. Playing an instrument, to study it and become proficient requires hours of practice, research and many disappointing setbacks. It requires a degree of grit. In the end, the cloak is pulled aside, you can use the skills you’ve learned and ultimately create something beautiful. This is exactly the process described by the musicians I’ve met when they talk about why they got into coding.

Musicians are used to frustration and even so, stick with it. Learning to play an instrument is hard. You know it’s supposed to make sense, but at first it doesn’t. The internal process goes something like this:

“Jimmy Page could play that lick and it sounds easy. I bet I could if I tried, then I’d be cool.”

Two hours later.

“Why won’t my fingers work? This rhythm and fingering is just way to hard. What do online teachers say about it? Hmm. Interesting.”

Next day, feeling ambitious again.

“Ok, I’m going to try again. Its ok if I start slow, I’ll get it eventually.”

Two hours later.

“Yes! I got it. I am the master! Woohoo!”

The next day.

“…but I could play it YESTERDAY?! Why can’t I play it today? Damn it.”

Two more hours of practice and a nap.

“Ok, there it is.”

And on it goes. Next thing you know, you’re joining a band and touring Europe with your doting Hollywood girlfriend tagging along. That last sentence was a bit of fantasy, but you get the idea.

The point is that this soup of curiosity, research, attempting something new, frustrating setbacks, trying again, sticking with it and creating something new are almost exactly the same in both programming and music. A coder who just figured out how to put two divs next to each other on the page has the same response as a new guitar player who keeps jamming an E-major chord around the house in their underwear. If you’re neither a programmer or a musician, maybe its difficult to understand the adrenaline rush of a button click function or a chord progression, but poll your musician and programming friends, I bet there’s a pretty close overlay.