Photo: Teamwork, innovation and grit: Jazz bands and startup teams have a few qualities in common.(Photo credit: Uptown Waterloo Jazz Festival)

I was sitting in the middle of a rain shower with a few hundred strangers this past weekend. I was cold, wet and blissfully happy listening and dancing to Pres Hall Brass — the New Orleans’ Preservation Hall brass band.

As I looked around I realized that the several hundred other attendees of the 22nd Sunlife Financial Uptown Waterloo Jazz festival felt the same way, like tech-loving diehards lined up for days before a product release.

We were banding together to experience a moment that couldn’t be replicated.

It occurred to me that there are other similarities between jazz and today’s startup tech scene. The music is wild. It comes from different genres. And it is rooted in the United States.

A defining note of the jazz sound, regardless of your favoured type, is the focus on improvisation and exploration. Jazz ignores boundaries and rules.

So, I had to figure out if today’s coders and developers leading the startup scene share similarities with the  boundary-stretching jazz musicians of 100 years ago. I sat down with Terry Pender, an avid jazz fan and The Waterloo Region Record’s tech reporter, to find out whether he, too, had noticed similarities between jazz musicians and startups.

Q –  Let’s talk work ethic. Do you see similarities between the tech scene and jazz musicians?

A – One of the first things that jumped out at me is the work ethic. Jazz musicians that I’ve got to know in New York will do three gigs a night. And they do that six nights a week so they can pay the rent. And then they get up early the next morning to practice. They don’t stop. They do it because they love it.

They absolutely love it. They don’t want to do anything else. Just like developers, who’ll code throughout the night on a project and then be at their day job, still coding.

And the other thing is numeracy. To be a good jazz musician you don’t have to be a mathematician, but you have to be good at numbers, and rhythm and figuring out the syncopation and the rhythm and timing of instruments.

I used to think, before I started covering tech, that you have to be really good at math to be a good developer. And now I’ve met several developers who say, ‘No, I was terrible at math in high school.’ You don’t have to be really good at math to be a good developer. And I didn’t know that.

You don’t have to be good at math to be a good musician, but there’s a certain level of numeracy that you do need. And I think there’s a parallel.

Q – Ok, let’s talk about improvisation. That’s a huge defining feature of jazz.

A – Jazz musicians, they improvise on their solos. And you guys call it innovation. To me, it’s the exact same thing.

You have the jazz scales, the majors, the minors, the blues scale and –  in western music – that’s universal and codified.

That’s the same with computer languages. It’s what developers are doing with them that distinguishes them from everybody else.

Q – What about how the languages or genres develop? There’s lots of different sub-genres in jazz.

A – Charlie Parker, he was a jazz musician styled after Louis Armstrong. And the thing about Charlie Parker is that he was so fast. Very, very fast. Everything he did was so fast, and he invented a whole new type of music called bebop and it just went around the world.

That’s the way I see these techies I talk to, where the fast part comes in. They are pursuing a line, and build a proof of concept and build a minimal viable product, and then if the feedback comes back saying, ‘This won’t work.’ Then they pivot and they are off on another direction.

And I love that. It’s super-sensitive to your marketplace and it’s super-smart. Established industries don’t get that.

Q –  You are talking a lot about writing code. Did you know that many developers say that you can look at someone’s code and normally tell who wrote it? It’s like when you listen to a musician improvise, they have their own unique sound.

A – That’s something I’ve heard a lot of. I didn’t realize it, but there are so many different ways of writing the code within standard form, that there’s this rivalry almost. Some developers say about each other: ‘He just can’t write code. His code is sloppy. His code is just brute force. It’s not elegant and simple.’

If you hear a really good jazz solo, no matter how fast and furious it is, if you break it down bar by bar there is an elegance and simplicity to it which is really neat.

Good code and good jazz are elegant.

Q –  How is the tech sector influencing culture like we saw jazz musicians do?

A –  You see it here. They like to be urban, close to home in downtown Kitchener. All those industrial spaces that are being changed over to offices, that’s a huge shift. And it’s really neat.

And that’s the same as the jazz guys. They needed an audience, an urban audience who would come to the clubs easily, stay late and get home. It was all about the urban environment.

Q –  What else have you noticed that captures this similarity?

A – I had this great interview with (the founders of bitHound) on when they sold Tiny Hippos to BlackBerry and how they celebrated that.

But they couldn’t leave [entrepreneurship] alone. It was a compulsion. It’s like being an artist. It chooses you. You don’t choose it.

So they went and had their good times. But even when they were in that transition period, they would meet regularly and have what they called company idea parties. I’d say it was a jam session. They came together to throw out ideas on what they were going to do next. And then they did it. They came back together. They’re starting all over again, and working really, really hard. And it’s a lot like a jazz musician: Have success, take a break and now they are on to the next album.

When I got thinking about it, the parallels were huge.


If you’re looking to dance to your own beat this weekend, and take a break from coding…. I see and hear that bitHound is hosting a casual meetup on their new front porch on College Street. Join them at 4:30 p.m. July 24 for a cold drink and a hot discussion about JavaScript…. Looking to feed your stomach instead of your brain? Head to Uptown Waterloo on Saturday July 26 for the Waterloo Region Food Truck Fare in support of Independent Living Centre Waterloo Region. About a dozen vendors will be on hand near Willis Way…. After eating uptown, you should head to Duke Street between Queen Street and Fredrick Street in Kitchener for the Downtown Night Market – Alternative Arts Edition. The night promises comic book illustrators, furniture makers and other local artisans.

Have suggestions about events I should be checking out? Drop me a line or tweet me @write_girl.