This starts with the Beatles, but it’s not about them. It’s about us.
So, a friend tweeted earlier today the question “what is the final Beatles song“, and as usual, these topics lead to fun conversations. You see, the “end” of the Beatles is a fuzzy matter, because they recorded their last two albums in 1969 and 1970, but released them in reverse order — Abbey Road was recorded last and released first, and Let it Be was the other way around. And then, do the Anthology sessions from 1994 with Paul, George and Ringo playing over an old recording of John count? (I feel they do!)
As the conversation went on, she shared with me this little story (on everything2! they’re still around!!), which only drives its point home really deep if you’re a hardcore Beatles fan, but one element in it is that it imagines a Beatles album made from songs that the individual members released immediately post-breakup. That on itself is not very remarkable: building those imaginary what-if-they-stayed-together album setlists is a favorite pastime for Beatles fans. Invariably, the semi-obvious conclusion is that if you took the best tracks from each of the four solo albums from a given year, you’d make an album that’s better than the individual works. And as you can imagine, those playlists are widely available. Still, those always sound like compilations to my ears (and, without giving away too much, the story linked above addresses that beautifully).
To me, the fact that such fan-fictional albums sound like compilations and not like true albums has to do with the reason why I think collective works — be it in music or not — tend to be better in general than solo efforts. Because work done in a collective yields results of a different nature.
“People change like colors bleed,
As I sense a shade of you in me”
— “Color Bleed pt. 2”, from the album Color Bleed (2011)
Work done by two or more people always reflects that multitude, it’s always unlike any single person’s work. When I’m in a collective environment — and by that I mean any setting where my work is presented to and discussed by others as it is developed — even when I’m doing work completely on my own, even before I’ve had my first piece of feedback, I feel a sort of mind game playing in my head where I “play the part” of my peers and imagine what their feedback would be, be it consciously or subconsciously. I’m doing the work not only for myself, but for others too, whose opinions I care about. That affects in subtle and not-so-subtle ways the results of what I do. Even the work I do alone, when in such environment, is different and better than the work I do alone-alone.
When I recorded Color Bleed, I invited my friends who had played in a Pink Floyd cover band with me to join in. Even though I wrote all the songs — some written years prior, some written as the project took shape — all of them ended up influenced by the fact that I was playing the songs with them, and even though I tried to venture away from the cover stuff we were doing, there are clearly some floydian moments here and there, which maybe don’t sound so much like Pink Floyd to my ears, but certainly alluded to our favorite moments on stage together (and let me tell you, playing keyboards along with another keyboardist is really cool!) — by the point we were recording the original songs, the point was never to sound like the cover band, but for it to sound like us. So even if that wasn’t truly a “band effort” in the idealized sense that we imagine “four people in a garage”, it was never a lonely project: from the very beginning it was me and Coutinho, who was the other keyboard player in our band, who also owned the studio and took the role of producer/engineer, and then the other folks joined in contributing parts as we went. The end result was much better than anything I could achieve on my own, and most importantly, even the things that I did were better than if I had done them on my own.
This lineup ended up playing only one gig! I swear that if this pandemic is ever over, I’ll get the band together for a Color Bleed 10th Anniversary concert.
That feeling of being “in a band” is not exclusive to music. I definitely felt it as a software developer as well. At my last job, I made the interesting observation that it was the third time in my career that I was part of a team called “Core Team”. The first one was back in college, and it was the most special one — maybe because it was the first, maybe because it was the experience that shaped the rest of my career: the Core Team for GoboLinux, my first successful open source project.
Looking back, it’s funny how it started very much like Color Bleed. Back in 2002, I was at the university and I had this idea for a crazy Linux distribution which would require recompiling the entire system from scratch. A friend joined in and we did it together over the course of a weekend. One by one, more friends joined in, switched over their systems, created bootable CDs, made kernel patches adding cool features, we were just having lots of fun tinkering with the OS. Then we were slashdotted (think “HN frontpage x10”), then we were on a magazine cover, photo shoots and all, then we were invited for internships in Silicon Valley, all the way from Brazil. I never took music seriously, but at least in tech I had the “indie band having its one-hit-wonder moment” experience. And yes, it was as cool as it sounds.
Cover story! And a cool band pic!
There we are, next to KDE and Gentoo! We’re “for real”!
The second Core Team was at a local startup, where I worked with Guilherme, who was also in GoboLinux. Since we already had the chemistry from that project, this really felt more like a side project than a new band — think Petrucci and Portnoy doing LTE away from Dream Theater (yes, I just blatantly made that comparison haha).
In between the first and second Core Teams I got my Masters degree, and between the second and third, I got my PhD. I loved it at PUC-Rio (or else I wouldn’t have gone there twice!), and made great friends each time, but it never felt like a band. In both occasions we had a research group, but each person was running their own project, with little or no overlap. Opportunities for collaboration were limited, everyone was on a different schedule, and while we created a great environment which I’ve called home for many years, it just wasn’t “a band”.
The third Core Team was at my last gig, at Kong. Again, that felt like a band — a scattered group of hackers from all over the world — China, Finland, Spain, Brazil, Peru, Canada, US — brought together because of their Lua knowledge to maintain this open source project. Each one with very different skills and backgrounds, and it was complimentary: it felt like each one of us played a different instrument. And doing creative work as part of that group felt like doing it in a band context: even when I did stuff on my own, I had it in my mind that it is was being done for that particular team to review and maintain (even if each of us would still put our personal flavor to the code). I had a great 3½ years with that team, where I learned a lot and played different instruments—I mean, roles, and then I put in practice something that I learned from the many bands I played since I was a teenager: leave on a high note. Looking back, the only regret I have is that… apparently we never took a picture of our team? (To be honest, I’m not sure we’ve ever got my last lineup of the team together in the same room — it was supposed to have happened in 2020, but then the pandemic hit. Maybe a pic of some previous lineup at least?)
Not all of my coding projects were “bands”. Even though I had tons of pull requests with contributions over the years, the process of developing htop was always a solo endeavor. I liked it this way, for a good while it was my chill-on-my-own thing away from everything and everyone. But then I drifted away from it, and free/open source projects (FOSS) projects need maintenance. From a distance, I feel like that the new team who picked it up works like a band. I’m happy for them!
Maybe it’s better if FOSS projects work more like bands than solo projects — bands often outlast their members, after all. But then sometimes you just want to pick up an acoustic guitar and do stuff on your own. There’s got to be a place for that too. Now that I think of it, I’ve never been part of a really huge FOSS project — I have a tendency of starting projects rather than joining established ones! — and I don’t know if this “band mentality” of mine has prevented any of my projects from growing (whenever I read about the structure of the Rust project, even before the Foundation, it seemed super sprawling!) but I know that a team can only feel like a team when it is about the size of a band, and I know that a team feels best when it feels like a band.
Not all teams feel like a band, and to be honest, not even all bands. But when it happens, it’s somewhat magical. It’s something that build memories that you take with you forever, and which change you in some way or another. Whenever I listen to the solo works from my favorite artists who left my favorite bands, I can always tell that the influence of their old bandmates is always obviously there, whether they want it or not, whether they’re Paul McCartney or John Lennon, David Gilmour or Roger Waters. I’m sure the influences from all the great people from my past history are there whenever I play, and whenever I code.