Producers, players, and software

Chris McMahon (who has an extensive music background) recently gave a wonderful presentation at SoftwareGR where he stated:

The work of a performing artist is exactly the same as a functioning agile team.

He goes on to explain that it isn’t a metaphor – it’s exactly the same thing. And I believe him.

Later in the talk he discussed the role (including stories you have to hear) of the Producer in music and pondered why we don’t have more of these folks in software engineering

Where are the Producers in software development? Where are the people that can turn a (software) flop into a hit? (paraphrased – sorry Chris)

I listened to the talk last week, made a mental note to send some sort of thank you to Chris and went on about my life.

This weekend, I spent a bunch of time organizing the “music room” in my house. Several months ago, I “acquired” a room in my house for my stuff, but due to travel and family issues, I’ve only recently got the room sort of in shape. I celebrated by reacquainting myself with the “stuff” I’ve acquired over the years. I’m horribly out of practice, but I was surprised how much came back quickly.

Anyway – I was sitting on the couch thinking about how every bit of equipment – each of my saxophones, my flute, clarinet, harmonica, microphones, drums, guitars (and even my ukulele!) have a story…then I started thinking more about what Chris had said and reflected on my own musical background.

When I was playing music more, I was much more of a generalist than an expert – and I could read (music) and learn faster than most of my peers. I was also good at breaking down difficult problems (why does this sound like shit) to smaller solvable pieces. This was my ticket – I got gigs because I was versatile. I played both vibraphone and saxophone in one of the best collegiate jazz bands in the country, and both timpani and clarinet in the university orchestra (none of these, btw, at the same time. I played in rock bands because I could play both saxophone and guitar – and sing (the latter two, only good enough for rock and roll). I knew when to help, when to blend, and knew when to lead. I was never the best soloist, and was rarely the best musician on stage or in the studio, I certainly made my share of mistakes, but I still found a way to make my groups better and have more fun – and people recognized that. My peers also knew if there was something I couldn’t do, that I would be able to figure it out. I wasn’t always the first call for a session or to fill in, but my name always came up.

That part of my life seems so far away, but I realized that it’s exactly what I do today, and it’s probably why I’m so happy with what I do (even though I work for “the man” now). I never know the most about automation or tools or test techniques or leadership, but I know a “little about a lot” and definitely enough to be helpful and to make teams better. I’m still the “big picture” guy who figures out why shit sucks and finds the best way to improve without damaging egos and “the creative process”. I like being the session player / consultant, and I have no problem letting the better soloists step up to the mic when it’s their turn.

Maybe someday I’ll be a (software) producer – but at the very least, I hope I get a good chance to work with a great one.


  1. Very interesting question about the producers, those that bring the best out of the team on record, that can spot what is missing, and can put it in a package that appeals to many.
    Sounds to me a lot like product management that picks on details, which isn’t very popular in the software industry.

    So maybe the reason is that software usually is so complex that it’s too difficult to know all important about the whole picture and the details, at the same time.
    Skilled system testers tend to have this knowledge though, but it’s not so popular that they give directions at a bigger level…

    Also, there must be an over-representation of musicians in the software testing industry?

  2. It is widely recognised within the games industry that testers make the best producers and designers. I feel that this is because testers have to know everything about a project and speak to developers, artists, marketing, everyone. So, when it comes to managing a project, you, the former tester, know where to go to help you complete your project.


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