At tails.com we have a fortnightly “ask me about” session where people from all over the company talk about anything that’s personal to them - it could be a hobby, an area of interest, or something more personal about their being or lifestyle.
My colleague Thom, one of our Product Managers stepped up last week to talk about his lifelong obsession with Lutherie (AKA woodworking and musical instrument construction) which led me to ask about whether he’d ever made any instruments out of vegetables. It really is a thing!
Shortly after I had a chat with Mario, our Head of Engineering who casually mentioned that he studied Musical Instrument Engineering at his home town in Germany. It’s really where the craft is kept alive. He opted for brass over wood because in his words ‘it’s more forgiving’ even though it meant working in a furnace all day to mould the instruments.
I’m a huge believer in the Universe presenting opportunities in the most random of places, so it got me thinking….
Can making musical instruments out of veg help me in my job?
I work on the engineering team, and have recently been involved in some fast paced projects with challenging deadlines. It involved wrangling both our regular technologies along with some new and unfamiliar (looking at you handlebars JS, which describes itself as minimal templating on steroids.) I absolutely loved it - creating something quickly so we could get it out to customers to test and learn as soon as possible was such a thrill. But did I creep into bad practices?
We all have times in our job where we just need to get things done. We log on, stick our heads down and power through without being mindful of the what’s and why’s. Our focus is just reaching the end goal. This can be especially true of coding where there are so many approaches to take - it can be tempting to try out a few and before long you get stuck in a rabbit hole trying to fix a problem you might not even need to fix.
Like the musical instrument makers in Germany working on their brass, coding is forgiving. We make a mistake, we just delete it and try again. We get hot under the collar the more attempts we make, but we can get there. But what about the instruments made of wood (or vegetables) - you make a mistake and you can’t just glue it back on, it’s done and you have to start over. Surely you can’t help but be mindful?
So my challenge this hackday is to make a (dog friendly) carrot recorder and see if it can help me be a better engineer.
STEP 1 - find a handy online tutorial
STEP 2 - try and find the best tools for the job… in this case some suitably sized drill bits, a sharp knife and some willing carrots
STEP 3… have fun!
I started examining, slicing and gutting the poor carrots, and I noticed immediately that I was much more mindful of what I was doing. I was really in the moment and having a great time! Things went wrong, many times - sometimes I’d get a beautifully carved carrot but have no sound. Sometimes I could get sound but only if I puffed until nearly passing out, and even then only produce a wheeze. Sometimes I’d get frustrated and chop a carrot a bit too aggressively, but would quickly realise this wasn’t helpful in any way.
The keys to successfully transforming a carrot into a recorder were taking it in small steps and checking along the way that things were on track. And when things did go awry, it was all about taking the time to understand why. Was it that I hadn’t done a great job carving out the centre, was the whistle hole too big, were the slanting angles all wrong? Did I just need to walk away for a bit and come back with a fresh perspective?
When things go wrong, it’s tempting to throw what you’ve done away and start over or try a different approach entirely and hope that one of them works. It’s easy to get flustered and think you haven’t achieved anything whereas in reality you have because now you at least know what doesn’t work. So whether it’s a page covered in scribbles, a snapped carrot or a malfunctioning function, remember that sometimes the more you fail the more you succeed as long as you remain mindful.
So… Can making musical instruments out of veg help me in my job?
YES! It absolutely can.
It was a great mental check-in on how I work with myself and a chance for a reset. My advice to future me is to keep focused on the end result, break it down into manageable chunks and have regular check-ins. Keep rubber ducking (aka talking to yourself) and sometimes step away from the problem to see it from a different angle. Keep curious, it can be frustrating when things don’t go to plan but that’s OK. Take some time to ask why and don’t rush into solutions.
Most importantly keep at the coding, because I’m definitely no musician...