The saxophone is my favorite instrument. I love to hear players with great tones [a]. The piano is great as well. I love it when people play cool chords in succession:

But for me, it’s the saxophone anyday.

While I wrote about how programming is not like playing music; I do acknowledge that there is some substance to the sentiment that musicians make for good programmers. Last November 2017, I attended the Audio Developer Conference (ADC). I met some good people and listened to interesting talks. Many of the attendees were active programmers and virtually everyone I spoke to had an active interest in music. I met a freelance software engineer that played the trumpet and performed in a small jazz combo group … An independent developer who humbly dabbles on the piano … And yet another who led his own band.

I thought it would be interesting to explore individuals who programmed and played music at some point in their lives. In this case, we’ll be exploring those who played the best instrument … the saxophone!

[Matt Mullenweg]

Matt Mullenweg is the CEO and founder of Automattic, the company behind and a major contributor to the wordpress opensource project, which he started along with Mike Little [1].

Mullenweg attended the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) and studied the saxophone while there[2]. Fellow notable alumni include Beyoncé Knowles & Robert Glasper amongst many others[3].

[Gary Scavone]

Gary Scavone is a professor at McGill University specializing in the scientific research of musical acoustics[4]. He wrote the The Synthesis ToolKit in C++ (STK) along with Perry Cook, which has been integrated into various audio synthesis languages and tools [5]. Along with his technical pursuits, Scavone plays saxophone in various concert and chamber music settings.

[George Tzanetakis]

George Tzanetakis is professor of computer science at the University of Victoria with cross appointments in the electrical engineering and music departments[6]. His research

“… is inherently interdisciplinary and has the common unifying thread of using state-of-the-art signal processing, machine learning and visualization techniques to extract and analyze information from audio signals with specific emphasis on music.” [7]

Tzanetakis plays the saxophone and has studied and performed in a variety of settings including classical, jazz, experimental, and folk[8].

[Kyle Coughlin]

Jackie Mclean said that jazz is America’s classical music and I agree[c]. Considering this interesting dichotomy, Dr. Kyle Coughlin is formidable in both traditional western classical and jazz music. He received his PhD in clarinet performance and has released two jazz recordings[9]. Coughlin is a professor at Howard Community College.

In addition to being deeply rooted in music, Coughlin is a self-taught programmer and has created various websites, tools and applications[d].

[Nick Caldwell]

Nick Caldwell works in Silicon Valley as the Vice President of Engineering for Reddit. He previously held a high level position as a General Manager at Microsoft [11]. Growing up, Caldwell had a variety of interests, including academics, video games, BBSs, basketball … and yes, the saxophone[11][12].

[Chad Fowler]

As an author, conference founder, software developer, amongst many things, Fowler has truly made his mark on the development community.

What is notable about Fowler, is that he was formally trained as a musician, not a programmer.

Here are his words on the subject of being great (regardless of the field): In his words[13]:

I was a musician before becoming a computer programmer. I went to college to study music. Since musicians don’t benefit much from college degrees, I chose to avoid any class that didn’t help me be a better musician. This means I left the university with more credits than required for any degree but still a few years worth of actual class time before I could graduate. In that way, I’m unqualified to be a professional software developer—at least if you look at the typical requirements for a software engineering position on the job market.

But, though I’m unqualified to be a typical software developer, my background as a musician gave me one key insight that ultimately allowed me to skip the step of being a typical software developer (who wants to be typical, anyway?). Nobody becomes a musician be- cause they want to get a job and lead a stable and comfortable life. The music industry is too cruel an environment for this to be a feasible plan. People who become professional musicians all want to be great. At least when starting out, greatness is binary in the music world. A musician wants to either be great (and famous for it!) or not do it at all.

And back to the subject of musicians making good programmers:

I’m often asked why it is that there are so many good musicians who are also good software developers. That’s the reason. It’s not because the brain functions are the same or that they’re both detail-oriented or both require creativity. It’s because a person who wants to be great is far more likely to become great than someone who just wants to do their job. And even if we can’t all be Martin Fowler, Linus Torvalds, or the Pragmatic Programmers, setting a high target makes it likely that we’ll at least land somewhere far above average.[13]

Maybe he is on to something …


[a] I’ve really been enjoying listening to the videos of Chad Lefkowitz-Brown. His tone is beautiful and his musical vocabulary is very tasteful.

[b] Other notable Fowlers (of no relation) in the community include Martin Fowler & Susan Fowler.

[c] In a very interesting documentary, “Jackie Mclean on Mars”, Mclean expresses that jazz is an American classical music:

“The student in the university will avail himself to many other facets of music that I didn’t even consider when I was playing. For instance, playing different instruments, learning how to read in a manner that would enable him to play in a classical situation, western classical situation and a Afro American classical situation. And we have to get into these terms now; you notice, I’m using these terms because these were the terms that were thrown at me when I arrived on the academic scene. Legitmate music … serious music … making an inference that music that wasn’t western classical music wasn’t serious or wasn’t legimate. So I have used that term what they call jazz, I call that a classical music. It’s an American classical music.[14]

[d] Thinking back on it, I am pretty sure I used Coughlin’s site for my final undergraduate research project, long before I met him.


[1] Wikipedia contributors. “WordPress.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 Jan. 2018. Accessed. 14 Jan. 2018.

[2] Mullenweg, Matt. “Introducing” Blog. Unlucky in Cards. 31 Decemner 2011. Accessed. 18 January 2018.

[3] Wikipedia contributors. “High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 27 Dec. 2017. Accessed. 18 Jan. 2018.

[4] Scavone, Gary. “Gary Scavone @ McGill”, McGill University. 01 March 2017. Access Date. 18 January 2018.

[5] Wikipedia contributors. “Synthesis Toolkit.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 Dec. 2017. Accessed. 11 Jan. 2018.

[6] Tzanetakis, George. “George Tzanetakis”, University of Victoria. 07 November 2015. Accessed 18 January 2018.

[7] Tzanetakis, George. “Tzanetakis, George Curriculum Vitae”, University of Victoria. Spetember 2014. Accessed 18 January 2018.

[8] Tzanetakis, George. “Music”, University of Victoria. 07 November 2015. Accessed 19 January 2018.

[9] Coughlin, Kyle. “Kyle Coughlin - Musician, Composer, Author, Educator”. Copyright 2008-2015. Accessed 21 January 2018.

[11] Caldwell, Nick. “From “Hello World” to VP Eng: My Career Journey, Part 1” Blog. The Compiler. 10 April 2017. Accessed. 14 January 2018.

[11] Caldwell, Nick. “Nick Caldwell, VP Engineering at Reddit.” Interview by Unknown. Our Origins. 23 June 2017. Accessed 17 January 2018.

[12] Caldwell, Nick. “From “Hello World” to VP Eng My Career Journey, Part 1” Blog. The Compiler. 10 April 2017. Web. 18 January 2018

[13] Introduction from The Passionate Programmer: Creating a Remarkable Career in Software Development by Chad Fowler

[14] Jackie McLean on Mars. Directed by Kenneth Levis. Performance by Jackie Mclean. 1980. Vimeo. Segment 7:34 - 8:27.