Developers can learn from Willie Nelson's career

8 ways developers should be more like Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson music collection
Image credits : 

Photo by Rikki Endsley

I cringe when I see job listings searching for "rock star developers." What does that even mean? Developers who take all the credit, while the band, agent, road crew, and sound engineers do the heavy lifting?

My friend Jacob Kaplan-Moss got me thinking about this concept of the "rock star" developer when I watched his PyCon 2015 keynote. In his talk (which I highly recommend you watch if you haven't seen it yet), he explains that tech doesn't need rock star developers. Instead, we need more average developers, a category in which he includes himself. On one hand, I agree with him. But in the other hand, I'd like to hold tickets to see Willie Nelson in concert, because that's what we need. We need more Willie Nelsons.

Willie Nelson is no rock star, but he did make number 88 on Rolling Stone's list of 100 Greatest Singers. The article quotes Wynton Marsalis, who says that Willie's "... phrasing is very unpredictable, but it comes out poetic and very logical... ."

Unpredictable, poetic, and very logical also could describe innovative code, don't you think?

And on that musical-yet-code-related note, I've taken the initiative to round up a list of eight ways developers can be more like Willie Nelson:

  1. Help others succeed: Willie didn't start his career with a hit record. Among other jobs he's had, Willie was a disc jockey, playing and promoting music other people wrote and recorded. He played bass for Ray Price. And he has written huge hits that other artists, including Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline, recorded and made famous. Crazy, right?

  2. Pick up new skills: Willie is known as being a great country singer and songwriter, but when it comes to knowledge and experiences, Willie has range. He's acted in a variety of movie and television roles, written books, is a fifth degree black belt, and has dabbled in different musical genres, including reggae. Yes, reggae.

    And Willie offers a great reminder that we're never too old or experienced to learn and share new tricks.

  3. Be accessible: I've seen Willie play from the comfort of a cushioned seat in a small, spendy theater; standing on the floor in front of a stage in a historic theater with mid-range ticket prices; and from a folding chair at a county fair. Each event attracted a different group of fans, but they all had one thing in common: They wanted to see and hear Willie. And in each case, attendees were treated to a great experience, regardless of their backgrounds and budgets. In open source, instead of rock star developers who are admired—yet inaccessible—to most of their community, we can all benefit from Willie Nelsons. We need developers willing to share their skills and experience at the pricey for-profit technical events, as well as at the affordable, community-organized non-profit conferences.
  4. Recognize and acknowledge influences: Willie says that Django Rheinhart, Johnny Gimble, Bob Wills, Ray Charles, and Louis Armstrong are among his biggest influences. He continues to be influenced by peers as well as new and young musicians. For example, Willie often covers songs other people wrote, so I was delighted when he spoke highly of Billy Joe Shaver at a concert I attended and then dove into one of Billy Joe's songs. Billy Joe hasn't had the commercial success or the level of attention Willie has received over the years, but he's a highly respected singer and songwriter who deserves the acknowledgment. Willie has played songs by many other musicians, including Bob Dylan, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam.

    In open source, developers publicly recognizing their influences, especially lesser-known people and projects, is like having a "you might also like" button on a shopping site. They are saying, "If you like what I'm doing, be sure to check out this other person/project I like."

    Willie even makes a Coldplay song sound good, which makes me wonder whether I've been too hard on them. I mean, if a developer you admire says she likes VisualBasic, you'd give it another look, wouldn't you?

  5. Use the best tool for the job: In Willie's case, that tool is Trigger, a $50 Martin classical guitar he's played since 1969. "I think this guitar has the best sound of any guitar I've ever played," he says.

    But you don't have to use the tool as it was intended. The giant hole in Trigger tells the story of a classical guitar that's been played with a pick instead of fingers.

  6. Surround yourself with a diverse mix of people: In 1972, not long after getting Trigger, Willie "retired" and moved back to Texas. "The Austin scene always was a little bit different. It always was an eclectic mix," Jerry Jeff Walker says, explaining the Austin music scene, which was full of musicians who were outside of the norm. "And that's what Willie was tapping into," he says. Mixing with a diverse group of people worked. Willie's style evolved, and success followed.

  7. Collaborate: I love Willie's solo albums, but his collaborations are brilliant, too. In fact, his first top 10 hit was a duet with Shirley Collie. You've probably heard some of his popular duets, including songs with Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Charles, and Merle Haggard. But have you heard his work with Asleep at the Wheel?

    Or with Snoop Dogg?

  8. Go ahead and be average, or even "not that bad": In the one hand, I hold concert tickets and a tale of why I think the world needs more Willie Nelson developers. But on that other hand, I do agree with Jacob Kaplan-Moss, who was right in his PyCon keynote when he said that we need more average developers. Willie didn't get famous over night, and his premature retirement in the 1970s didn't last. He kept playing, learning, picking on Trigger, and collaborating with a range of people and groups. Now he's got a giant body of work, full of hits, misses, average, and not that bad songs to show for it.

    If you're not a rock star developer, good for you. Shoot for being average, or try to be more like Willie, who said, "I never gave up on country music because I knew what I was doing was not that bad."

12 Comments

Don Watkins

Wow, you sure know a lot about Willie Nelson. I like your analogies. Most of the time we're too interested in "swinging for the fences" when in fact it's the base hits that win games. Helping other people to succeed is one of the lodestars of my life. I also think that's the ethos of open source culture.

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OpenSourceToday

I think the best part about Willie is that even if you aren't a fan of his music, you can still appreciate how unique and awesome of a person he is. Thanks for the great story, I had a feeling you wrote this before I even clicked on it.

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Rikki Endsley

I pretty much love him. I still haven't met him in person, but one of these days...
And I agree that even if you aren't a fan of country music, you can still admire what a cool human Willie is.

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Ken Doman

Great article. I always thought that rock-star developers were the ones who trashed their comp-ed hotel room at conferences. Great examples of what we should strive for as developers.

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Eudris Cabrera

Great article and very helpful advices.

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pouar

Don't really like Willy Nelson. I prefer performers like Lucas Mann, Ian Bearer, Phil Bozeman, Travis Ryan, CJ McMahon, etc

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Linda Banks

Thanks so much for the article.

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dboth

Fun article. You are correct in that the best developers are the ones that appear on the surface to be average. But I think those do the best work inthe long run.

Thanks!

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DL

Far better would be a JS Bach developer: someone whose voluminous output and unrivaled ingenuity would inspire developers for centuries to come.

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Zeugma

The other thing about Willie Nelson, is that he doesn't sound like anyone else. When you hear a song by him that you haven't heard before you know immediately who it is. In other words, Wille doesn't try to be or sound like anyone else. To stick with your analogy, don't just do what other people tell you is the 'great new thing'. Do what you do, do the best that you can on any given day, and keep an eye out for anything new that you need to learn along the way. So what if Wille Nelson doesn't sound like Pavarati. I strongly suspect that Willie has made quite a bit more impact on the music world than Pavarati has, despite the latter's undeniablly better technical singing abilities.

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Rikki Endsley

Great addition! I totally agree. He gets inspiration from all kinds of people, places, and things, and then he gives it his own spin.

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SteveO

Great advice for developers, and for humans in general.

I'd add one thing to #8: go ahead and be average, but the key is to "be." Keep working, keep on keeping on.

As Chuck Close put it, "Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art idea.’ And the belief that process, in a sense, is liberating and that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. Today, you know what you’ll do, you could be doing what you were doing yesterday, and tomorrow you are gonna do what you did today, and at least for a certain period of time you can just work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere."

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