Royal Opera House

In a previous article about the career path to becoming a Chief Information Officer, executive recruiters Alan Mumby and Caroline Sands shared their observation that many CIOs have some kind of musical experience in their backgrounds. Curious about why this may be, I decided to interview two people who could further explain the link between music and IT.

Government advisor and CIO UK columnist Jerry Fishenden started his career with a BSc in music. Recognising very early that he could make a much better living at IT, he went into IT and worked his way up to CIO. Fishenden still composes music as hobby and naturally understands the link between music and IT.

Andrew Hugill is a musician, composer, and founder of the 'Centre for Creative Computing' at Bath Spa University. Among dozens of other accomplishments, Andrew recently invented a program language that encourages creativity. Having experimented since the 1970s with using computers to compose music, Andrew says that now about 80% of his output involves making music digitally.

Do you think there's a link between music and IT?
Jerry Fishenden: Yes, I think so. I don't have hard numbers. But the number of people I meet in IT who turn out to be frustrated musicians always surprises me. Some are still playing in bands in their private lives; others sing in a choir.

Andrew Hugill: I think it's definitely true that people who work in IT frequently have some kind of a background in music. It's an observable phenomenon.

What are the reasons for the commonality between music and IT?
Jerry Fishenden: Computer programming and music are both about creativity and problem solving. In the first case, it's about defining objects and methods and putting them together in a program; and in the second case, it's about notes - sequencing the notes and orchestrating them with different instruments.

Maybe when you're coding mission-critical stuff, you don't have as much room for creativity. That's going to require the rigour of heavy-duty software engineering. But when you're writing a user interface, you do have to be creative. Writing a user interface is very much an art, because you never know how the users are going to react to the way you display things to them and the way you let them respond to the interface with input.

A composer might write an absolutely brilliant piece of music, and nobody else likes it. It's the same with software. You might write a technically brilliant piece of software, and it doesn't work for the user.

It's also true that a lot of musicians tend to be good at maths. This is not so surprising, because music is based on physics, ratios, and counting meter. What's more, a lot of music is now computer based, so composers have to be computer savvy.

You can possibly take the parallels even further. Improvisation in music is like Agile for software development. A classical piece of music would be like the waterfall approach.

Musicians have to work on multiple ideas in their heads simultaneously. Programmers do the same thing. In both disciplines you do several things in parallel, rather than doing them sequentially. I find that my musical training enables me to deal with a lot of complex ideas in parallel; whereas, a lot of other people prefer to handle them in sequence. When you work on ideas in parallel, somehow you work over the different ideas unconsciously - and more creatively.

Andrew Hugill: I think there are two reasons so many people in IT are also involved in music. One is that if you're a musician you already understand flow. When you're embodied in a piece of music, you really do understand how the music flows. This continuous movement through time is why we call classical works "movements".

This understanding of flow gives you an advantage if you're working in technology. People tend to regard technology as steady-state stuff. Networks are organised in a kind of grid, like a road network. But it's the flow that is the real technology. Having an ability to instinctively grasp that is important; and flow is not easy for non-musicians to grasp.

The second thing - and it complements the idea of flow - is the ability to understand cause and effect through time. If you're a musician, you understand the idea that if I do this thing, this other thing will be the consequence. And of course, this is the basis of all computing. Computing requires an algorithmic mind-set. Most music is also algorithmic in some way or another. You have some sort of constraint. You're playing in a key, or with a particular rhythm, or whatever it may be.

You're used to the idea that the consequence of this will be that. That's relatively hard to teach outside of music. Music has the unique combination of having mathematical precision, while at the same time being an artistic expression. There are few other disciplines require these two elements.

What people skills are common to music and the role of a CIO?
Jerry Fishenden: You have the obvious skills, such as being a team player and listening to other people - or knowing when to contribute your ideas, and when to keep your mouth shut. You need those skills to play in a band; and you need them to be part of an IT team.

Andrew Hugill: The idea of collaboration is important to both music and the CIO role. The act of making music involves collaborating with others. Even if you're making music in your room, you're going to have somebody else listen to it, and they're going to give you feedback. So you're engaged in a dialogue. There's always a social transaction in music.

Most people you play in bands with are very committed to the idea of collaboration, and they understand the challenges with that. In a band situation you can often work through some of the issues that will come up in a company. You try to accommodate people and their different points of view, and try to recognise what people could contribute to the ensemble.