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Why musicians may make the best tech workers

July 31, 1998
Web posted at: 2:30 PM EDT

by Kathleen Melymuka

(IDG) -- Jane Austen, Sigmund Freud, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Noah apply for two programming positions at your company. Each has left a successful career and recently graduated from a good programming course. whom do you hire?

According to technical trainers, Mozart and Noah are your best bets.

The aptitudes that draw a person to technology, they say, are often the same ones that led him to a previous career that, on the surface at least, couldn't be more different.

"Many people could have gone into computer science, but their teachers told them they were really talented in music," says Alan McNabb, director of the Arts and Science Placement Office at Indiana University's career development center in Bloomington. "If they had been told they could go far in computer science, they could have been there."

Orchestrating success

It seems that musical aptitude is one of the strongest predictors of success in a technical position. "The highest scores on the admissions test and best performers have been people with a background in music," says Terry Skwarek, director of the Institute for Professional Development in the School of Computer Science, Telecommunications and Information Systems at DePaul University in Chicago.

Others who deal with career changers agree. "I've had the same experience," McNabb says. He says he finds that students who begin in the performing arts program frequently migrate to computer science.

In the trenches, the correlation is equally strong.

But why?

"The common thread probably is that both are very structured environments," says Galen H. Graham, president of DeVry Institute of Technology in Columbus, Ohio.

"There seems to be a high correlation between musical ability and reasoning skills," Skwarek says. "It has to do with recognizing and manipulating patterns. That happens in music and in programming."

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Time and space

Some say the real correlation has less to do with discrete aptitudes than with the way technical people think: They favor spatial/temporal reasoning, or the ability to visualize. Mozart, who composed entire symphonies in his head, clearly excelled at that skill. And Albert Einstein, who was known to think about time and space, was also known to favor the violin.

The ability to do spatial/temporal reasoning is important in a lot of areas, says Gordon L. Shaw, professor emeritus of physics at the University of California at Irvine and co-discoverer of the "Mozart Effect," which demonstrates that exposure to classical music enhances reasoning ability.

"It makes sense that if you're good at one of these higher brain functions that involve the spatial/temporal aspect, you're going to be good at the others," Shaw says. "To construct a good program, you want to be able to see the consequences in your head, not just do line by line of the code. You have to be able to totally visualize it."

Howard Rosenbaum, assistant professor at the School of Library and Information Science at Indiana University, tells of a professional bass player who became fascinated with computers. "He told me that sometimes when he sits down at a computer, he can visualize what he's doing as if it were a piece of music," he says.

From ark to object orientation

That's where Noah comes in. He was able to visualize a highly complex construction project based on pretty scant numerical data.

That skill, too, works in information technology. Rosenbaum has another student who was a construction foreman.

"He has an interesting ability to visualize a project where it all fits in a blueprint he carries in his head," Rosenbaum says. "He looks at programming as having a structure. He starts by drawing blueprints and sketches just as he would if he were putting up a building."

The correlation is equally apparent on the job. "One of my best employees, now a senior program analyst, was a construction worker," says Jim Crumb, chief operating officer at World Media Co. in Omaha. "Companies should go out and start interviewing carpenters."

The ability to visualize facilitates another aptitude common among technical people: a knack for solving mental puzzles. Mathematicians who move to IT say their success depends more on their ability to solve mental puzzles than to do complex calculations.

But before you send Freud packing, consider this: Rosenbaum says success in technology may ultimately depend on a person's ability to relate technology to his previous career. "I think it's a matter of being able to find a workable metaphor," he says. "Many who are successful have done that." He cites graphic artists who think of pixels on a screen as oils on a canvas.

The metaphor's the thing

"When they bring a familiar metaphor from another area and see its application, the mystique is removed, and computing work becomes just another tool in their creative tool kit," Rosenbaum says. "They have an interesting conceptual framework to bring to the experience rather than just struggling with it line by line."

Finally, even novelist Austen may not have chosen the wrong second career. IT workers have to perform in the real world, where not every programmer gets to visualize and build a masterpiece from beginning to end.

"Sure, a guy who does music can see how [a whole system] fits together," says Don Goodman, vice president of business development at Chubb Computer Services, an IT training firm in Parsippany, N.J.

"But if you're working on year 2000 and you want to see the whole picture, guess what? You're not going to be able to. And if you're working with end users, you'd better be articulate," he says.

So look to former lives to predict technical aptitude but remember: It takes more than aptitude to succeed, and some IT jobs are less technical than others.

Mozart and Noah are shoe-ins for the programming slots, but based on her communications skills, Austen could be a good choice for a relationship manager or an internal consultant.

And they say Freud has a way with metaphors.

Melymuka is Computerworld's senior editor, management.

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