Rock and roll IT
- 04 October, 2008 22:00
Managing IT often seems like managing the affairs of a rock band, with its curious mix of creative talent, volatile personalities, and lots of gear.
— Chad Dickerson, CTO, Etsy
Tim Occleshaw says he has always been interested in music. “Most of my life I have played some sort of musical instrument,” says the chief information officer of the Ministry of Social Development.
He recalls when just five, he used to go to a friend’s house to play the piano or guitar. His parents decided he had “some sort of musical ability” and bought a piano.
Occleshaw, who was named CIO of the Year in the 2008 Computerworld Excellence Awards, took lessons and exams that resulted in him securing qualifications to teach piano. This entailed “learning all those things kids hate to learn like scales. But that was a good process, learning the basics that became very, very important”. At 14, he started playing the guitar and joined a band one year later. More than 30 years on Occleshaw is still playing in a band, as lead guitarist and occasional keyboards for the four-member Livewire.
Colin MacDonald’s CV details his more than 25 years in general management, and his “unique combination of IT knowledge and business acumen”.
Prior to securing the executive post at Land Information New Zealand midway through this year, MacDonald was deputy business commissioner business development and systems at Inland Revenue Department, where his responsibilities included information technology. He has also held IT director roles in the UK.
The “additional information” section of his CV states; “I enjoy singing, playing guitar and socialising.” What isn’t stated is that MacDonald is a semi-professional musician as the lead singer and rhythm guitarist of Livewire.
Previously Occleshaw had been playing in Sugar Daddies, while MacDonald belonged to the band Out to Lunch. When some members of both bands departed, the remaining musicians formed Livewire in 2007. Three of the band members work in IT with Con Curtin, who works for Gen-i, the other member connected to the sector. The fourth band member is Frits Stigter, who is a property valuer.
Occleshaw and MacDonald had worked together at ANZ Bank, where MacDonald was head of operations and technology/chief operating officer. Occleshaw was head of information technology, moving to New Zealand from the ANZ office in Melbourne.
Livewire rehearse once or twice a week with gigs about twice a month, mostly on weekends. They mainly perform at corporate and private functions around Wellington. The group has traveled to the South Island several times and has performed at Taupo and Rotorua.
Occleshaw and MacDonald, however, point to an overseas gig as their most memorable performance.
At the time they were working together at ANZ Bank and were playing in a band composed of other bank staff. The occasion was the ANZ Bank’s End of Year 2000 Project party. “That was our first international gig,” says Occleshaw. The group was flown to Melbourne where they played before 1500 bank executives and staff members involved in the Y2K project. “It was pretty stunning, to have an audience of that size,” MacDonald says.
Occleshaw observes there are a lot of musicians working in IT. He cites the Ministry of Social Development, which formed a band from internal staff based in Wellington to perform at its Christmas function a couple of years ago. “Even though IT is only about a quarter of this national office, three quarters of the band members came from IT.”
Chad Dickerson, whose quote from one of his columns at InfoWorld leads this article, agrees that there seems to be a lot of people who are involved in music — as performers, composers, or simply interested in playing a musical instrument — throughout the IT
“Almost any IT team I have managed has had a disproportionate number of musicians within it,” says Dickerson, who was head of the Brickhouse special projects at Yahoo before joining the e-commerce site Etsy.
“I think there are lots of similarities between music and IT. In both, you have to understand patterns to be able to understand specialised instruction sets [source code in IT, music notation in music], and make many disparate pieces work together to create a harmonious experience.”
Aaron Kumove, managing director, Horizon Consulting, is not surprised at the preponderance of people with a music background in the industry. “I have met a number of people in IT in general, some of them are CIOs, a whole bunch of others who aren’t, who have a background in music or play a musical instrument,” he says.
Kumove, a former CIO of New Zealand Post, holds dual degrees — in music and computer science. He sees a lot of similarities between the two disciplines. “At the highest level, it is probably that both disciplines require creativity,” he says. “If you look at what’s done in IT, it is designing things and building things and you do this within defined frameworks; but there is a lot of creative work that goes on in IT.
“If you look at music, it is quite similar. Musicians work within defined frameworks of a particular style of music and particular rules of how music is put together.
“In many ways when you look at someone who writes a program, it is not dissimilar to composing a piece of music. Both are acts of composition.”
So how does Occleshaw balance his work as CIO of a national government agency, the tenth largest IT organisation in the country in MIS100? “It is always difficult to balance everything,” he admits. “The job [at MSD] is quite demanding and the other band members have day jobs.”
“I try to spend as much time as I can with family,” he says. And while music didn’t run in his family when he was growing up, it does now. “My wife plays piano and my eight-year-old son plays piano and drums.”
Occleshaw says of his music, “I am lucky because it is the hobby that I love and the hobby pays for itself”.
For him, it is “playing music that the audience is really going to enjoy. That is how I get my enjoyment from it. It is the audience response, it is the audience having a great time”.
His favourite songs are those that challenge him as lead guitarist and they include Life in The Fast Lane by the Eagles, Black Magic Woman by Santana, and White Room by Cream. He likes classic rock, the kind of music you hear on Radio Hauraki, he says.
Like Occleshaw, MacDonald has had a lifelong interest in music. “My first memory of singing in any organised way was at secondary school in Scotland when I was 12,” he says. That was when he started playing the guitar and became interested in rock music, starting with bands like Led Zeppelin, Yes and Black Sabbath in the early 70s.
MacDonald does not consider himself a formally trained musician, although he says he had some formal singing lessons and training at school for which he took a national examination for voice. “I am definitely somebody who does it by ear intuitively, rather than in a very structured way.”
As for balancing his playing in a rock band with his executive roles, MacDonald says it is made easier that he has been doing this for a long time, and makes a conscious effort to really find time for his music. “I immigrated to New Zealand 14 years ago and at that point one of the things I wanted to do was to spend more time playing music. So since then I have made a point of putting time and effort into my music over the years. I guess, you build up the repertoire and the ability to actually learn new songs quite quickly.”
It helps that he has been playing with the same group for many years.
“To actually get ready for a gig and perform in a gig it doesn’t really take us a lot of time now,” says MacDonald.
“If I look back over the years we are playing live every three or four weeks on average which isn’t actually a huge amount of time but, like anything else, I find you have got to make a commitment and stick with that.”
He does not consider playing in the band as work at all. “It is relaxation. It is not a job, it is a passion.”
Putting the hard yards in
Occleshaw and MacDonald agree with Dickerson about the parallels between working in ICT and playing music.
“Music requires technical skills, creativity and commitment, and yes, lots of equipment as well, and IT is the same,” says Occleshaw.
“If you think of IT in terms of traditional silos like development and operations in the development side, creating good music requires technically-skilled people to come together, to create parts and integrate it as part of a holistic creation.”
MacDonald says the “volatile personalities” that Dickerson referred to in the opening quote was not true in his experience in IT. “Good discipline is part of it,” he says. “You have got to be prepared to put the hard yards in.
“If you are playing for customers, then you know you need the discipline to be well prepared, to turn up on time and deliver the goods and perform for their needs. That needs creativity, discipline and attention to detail, which of course are absolutely essential in IT.”
MacDonald finds similarities in performing for the audience and meeting the needs of the customers in business. “The key thing for me in performance is you must never forget that you are there to entertain the audience. It is not about your musical virtuosity, it is actually about the audience having a great time. That is a vital thing to remember in IT. It is not about the technology. It is about the business.”
So what can CIOs learn from musicians and performing artists? “Most successful musicians will never forget they have an audience,” says MacDonald. “They never forget they need to be technically very, very proficient and they also have to be able to deliver what the audience wants, and that is no different to IT. You have to be technically proficient, but you must ensure that proficiency is channeled to produce products, services or goods that the business wants or that the end users want.”
Occleshaw says he has a couple of lessons from his music playing that he applies to his CIO role.
“When you are playing in a live band situation and things don’t always go as planned you have to be able to improvise and very quickly solve problems,” he says. “There is a lot of number-eight wire thinking that sometimes has to go on. That is a very, very portable skill.
“[In] delivering IT solutions and projects, even with the best training, sometimes things can go wrong and you do need to be able to think quickly and improvise solutions,” says Occleshaw. “In the case of music, [you have to] ensure the audience gets what they want. In the case of IT delivery, ensure the business gets what it wants.”
For MacDonald the greatest lesson from his music is the recognition of the need for teamwork and collaboration. “When you play in a band the way that I do, you are working with three other individuals and you really are learning to work with people, I guess proving that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
Kumove concurs. “You are dealing with people who have natural creative tendencies, that is just part of that make up,” he says of people who are in music and IT.
“A lot of IT people are extremely passionate about the stuff they do and that is not dissimilar to someone in a band who writes his music and wants it done a certain way.”
At the same time, both have to temper their moves with real world realities, he says. “The Rolls Royce that an IT person or architect or designer has in their mind and designs on paper sometimes can’t be pragmatically delivered due to money and time issues.”
Kumove worked as a professional musician after completing a degree in music, with a focus on jazz performance and composition. He had actually started as a computer science major.
“I shifted and did a music degree before ultimately deciding that while it was a lot of fun, it was a lousy way to make a living and I went back and finished my computer science degree.”
He continues to play music “on a part-time basis”, though mainly solo performances during private gatherings.
But if you ask him now what lessons he has learnt in music that he applies to his current role, he says it’s the ability to stand up in front of a crowd and give a presentation. “Giving a business presentation to me is being on a stage, much like playing music. That sense, the ability to talk to an audience and not having to get nervous and worried is definitely something I can draw on from my days playing music.”
His onstage experience has also given him an added resilience to coping when things do not go as planned, as they do in corporate life. “If you make a mistake in the middle of a song you can’t stop the song, you keep going and you work through it. You adjust and you deal with it.”
Not fading away
MacDonald sees music as always being a part of his life. “I will always be playing music in some form or another. I may do some different things in the future; I may do similar work just on my own, sort of acoustic guitar and vocal. For the time being, I certainly see myself sticking with the other guys. We are having a lot of fun and getting a lot of bookings so people love us and like what we do.”
Asked whether there could come a time — due to work or other commitments — when he will consider leaving music, Occleshaw says; “Music is absolutely a fundamental part of my life. It is a part of who I am. I can not see myself ever leaving music.”
He says even during the times when career demands made it difficult for him to play in a band, he would still get together with other musicians to play occasionally.
“I always play for my own enjoyment, I will never give that up.”
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