Professional Development

How does music relate to coding? 5 technologists on how hobbies influence their careers

These pros shared how their out-of-work passions translate to tech — and in some cases, directly led to their current line of work: "This basically all started because I was toying around trying to make art in my basement."

Brad Flaugher started making computer-generated art to brush up on his computer science skills.

(Courtesy photo)

Some people pick an interest or hobby as a child and run with it all the way into adulthood. They go to school for it and it becomes their career. (Hats off to you, pro ball players and artists who Made It.)

But for most of us, the path is not so linear. And plenty of us adults even drop our childhood hobbies or interests when we join the workforce.

Of course, it is possible to hold onto a hobby and a career that seemingly have nothing to do with each other — except, if you think about it, you can probably find similarities between what you fill your free time with and the job that pays the bills.

Technical.ly asked our Slack community to give examples of their favorite hobby or side project and how it translates to their tech career. Here are five of our favorite answers.

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UX and painting (and teaching)

Colleen Brand is a user experience designer at Radnor-based fintech company BM Technologies, Inc., but she also loves to paint. Brand said both painting and design are forms of communication. Painting communicates her emotions visually while design communicates a process visually.

“For both, I’d consider it visual storytelling,” she said. “A lot of my paintings are imagined colorful horizons or color field paintings. Here, I’m trying to tell the story of my feelings … colors and inspirational horizons that delight me. Like most stories, then what the viewer/listener takes away is up to them. For design, I’m telling a different story. How can I best help the user navigate from point A to B to C with the clearest and accurate message? How can they feel supported along the journey? What is the voice of this experience that is guiding the user?”

Brand not only paints for herself, but she also teaches the art form, which she said has helped her to look at painting from a new perspective. She’s also mentored other professionals in design.

“For both painting and design, I am constantly a student and a mentor/instructor,” she said. “I think the learning and teaching and learning cycle in both of these fields have been instrumental in my life.”

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Coding and piano

Tim Allen is the IT technical director at Wharton Research Data Services (and a noted metaverse enthusiast), but connects his passion for coding to his passion for playing music.

“I started writing code at the age of six, when my mother won a raffle for a summer camp at the Montgomery Country Day School,” he said. “In the mornings, they had fun but educational sessions, and I chose computers. I wrote my first lines of code on Apple II+ and Commodore PET machines. In the same year, I started taking classical piano lessons, and since then, music and code have walked hand in hand for me.”

Allen said the two fields similarly require agile fingers, but less obviously, they both leverage mathematics.

“Mathematics is the language of nature, and the patterns of thought to learn to read music and perform a piece, or develop a computer program, are similar and complementary,” he said. “Developing software and composing music are both individual and collaborative undertakings at the same time. Both code and music are somewhat abstract, with there often being more than meets the eye, and compositions are more than the sum of their parts. Both intersect the arts and the sciences, which have been separated in the American education system, to the detriment of both. Throughout my life, coding and music have both been my blank canvas.”

Currently, Allen primarily plays guitar rather than piano, but maintains the similarities between coding and music.

UX and video games

Matt Sharayko is a senior UX researcher at AmerisourceBergen who believes his childhood hobby of video games played a part in his tech career. He said he started gaming around 5 years old with computer games on floppy disks, and for the next 20 years he played frequently.

In the last five years or so, he said, he hasn’t had the time to play as often. However, he sees a lot of similarities between researching and designing for an app and a video game.

“In either case, the user is navigating a user interface (UI) to accomplish something, whether they’re trying to book a flight for the lowest price or trying to beat Bowser in Mario. Therefore, the UI needs to be clear to understand and easy to use,” Sharayko said. “Like a lot of skills, you learn with experience, and I think playing lots of video games growing up helped to give me some good experience as to how a product should look and feel (and conversely, how they shouldn’t).”

Entrepreneurship and cars

Entrepreneur Sean Dawes is one of the owners of Modded Euros, and he said his passion for cars set him on the path to his career. Dawes said he was always into cars and his dad was also a sports car enthusiast.

After graduating college, he wasn’t able to find a job in his field. So, he pivoted, turning his hobby into a career when he applied for a marketing job at Turn5, an ecommerce auto retailer.

“[I] worked there for a bit gaining a lot of experience and eventually decided to leave and start my own business,” he said. “At first doing marketing consulting work all the while working on my own automotive ecommerce business [Modded Euros]. Two of my coworkers from Turn5 came with me and now today we have warehouse/offices in West Chester doing millions in revenue.”

Dawes noted that his talent for fixing cars is all self taught. He said he bought a junker car and learned how to take it apart and put it back together himself without worrying about messing up a nicer car.

“This same concept applies to business,” he said. “How can you deconstruct processes to limit risk while focusing on the upside? I have taught myself how to program in similar manners: by taking specific problems, deconstructing them and learning how to code to solve those unique problems. So instead of just ‘learn to code’ I focus on solving a specific problem. The same was done with the car. What things do I need to learn to do and do it on this demo car, then apply my lessons to my actual car?”

AI and art

Brad Flaugher, a lead engineer at open source platform maker Medusa, said he got deeper into his field by making artificial intelligence-generated art.

“I had studied computer science but my skills were falling behind,” he said. “I have always been interested in painting but not very good, so [I] started playing with computer-generated art. In the process of pursuing my hobby I learned a ton about state-of-the-art AI/ML tooling. I polished my skills using neural networks and TensorFlow and started using it in my career as a software developer.”

“Deep neural network based models are the models that are powering most leading AI services today, self-driving cars, adtech and fintech models, and health outcome predictors all use the same tech stack that I was using to generate my art. I know this because I have parlayed my hobby into consulting work with big companies like Procter & Gamble, and smaller ones via my work with NextFab here in Philly.”

Flaugher said he has also been trying to teach intelligence and machine learning the same way he re-learned it to people looking for a career change. In his own bootcamp, Data-Focused Programming Bootcamp, the students pick passion projects using AI/ML models and he helps them with the project over six weeks.

“This basically all started because I was toying around trying to make art in my basement,” Flaugher said.

Bonus: Journalism and baking

As for me? I wouldn’t call myself a technologist, but as a tech reporter, I still see similarities between my profession and my hobby. I started baking during the original COVID-19 lockdown in the spring of 2020. Since then, it’s become one of my favorite things to do with my free time.

I find myself getting into the same focused zone while I bake as I do when I write. The attention to detail, the necessary patience and the satisfying outcome all can be applied to both reporting and baking.

While I’m never going to be a world renowned baker, I make excellent (in my opinion) chocolate chip cookies and I get the added bonus of  practicing soft skills that are necessary for my career.

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