Austin Pocus

Software engineer, cryptography enthusiast. Happily hacking away @hackernoon!

Hackers and Musicians

I was blessed to be born into a musical upbringing. My dad had played the guitar for 30+ years when I was born, and continued to play with his friends well into my adolescence. He would noodle endlessly, on the same Fender Jazzmaster and Roland amp for years. Although this tapered off, it left me with a hunger for more. What was this musical magic, and how could I wield it?
That’s the thing about the hacker mentality -- it can apply to anything, including music. I approached music the same way I approached tech early on: scattershot, with a short attention span and a hunger to get hands-on experience. So I picked up a guitar and started picking away. My dad taught me the basic scales, a few chords, but I was more interested in playing by ear. It’s still how I play today. Even though I learned music theory in high school, getting a more rigorous education on what makes certain notes feel a certain way, and how to evoke those sounds in a mathematical context, but it just never stuck the way that touching an instrument and plucking out the notes myself did. I play by ear, and it works.

What’s been the effect of this musical context in my life? The first is that I listen to a wide variety of music: hip-hop, jazz, metal, punk, industrial, various electronic subgenres...pretty much anything except pop, and its similar-sounding subgenres. That’s not to say I block out pop when I hear that it’s pop -- I just don’t see the appeal in the same 3 chords in different arrangements (unless it’s punk, but those are different chords). I can like a pop song, even. It’s just rare that those same 3 chords are going to evoke anything meaningful for me.

This has led to the first positive effect of music on my tech career: I keep an open mind when I’m hearing new approaches to problems, or new programming paradigms. It still takes time to wrap my head around new concepts, but I rarely dismiss a concept out of hand.

Music was the first hacking I really did. Rather than follow the “instruction manual” of a formal education, I opted instead to pluck out the notes and hear the differences myself, discover the emotions invoked for myself. This has had an immeasurable influence on my coding, one I’m only beginning to realize as I write this.

For example, rather than refer to a programming manual and find the API call I want to use, and check the options for, say, a “gzip” option, I might just add the damn thing and see if it works. There’s rarely any harm in doing so, and when it works, boy does it save time. Not only that, it keeps me in the zone. It keeps me from focusing on the wrong things, like API details that don’t matter in the moment.
Another aspect of musical ability relates directly to programming: the degradation of skill over time. I’ve found that a skill “rots”, as I’m sure many, many other software engineers have, as well as musicians. If you don’t practice, you get rusty, right? Same applies to programming. I’ve also found that a baseline skill level applies, and the more practice you’ve put in over time, the higher that bottom bar is. So if you’ve put 10,000 hours into Perl, you’re much less likely to forget it a few years later than someone who’s put 100 hours in.

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