The soloists and populars of the software world

One of the fascinating things about the theatre worldwide is that practically every advance, every development of any importance has come out of a company situation1. Everybody for a certain time made advances, made new kinds of drama because of the company2.

There are two major groups of people you can find yourself in as a software developer. At one extreme, the popular groups3, located inside big organizations with fat org-charts and an excess of processes and daily meetings. At the other end, the soloists4, with a headcount of one, a disdain for bullet points and diagrams, blazingly fast at their keyboards, they explore freely with other soloists whatever ideas interest them. Both groups are valuable in their own right, but knowing which one you are finding yourself in has deep implications on your daily activities and, I would dare say, mental health.

I don't believe that you should design the play before you've discovered the play and I don't believe you can discover the play without the actors.

Everything new, everything bright and vibrant for the populars. Elaborate costumes, fireworks, big scenes and grand openings is their world. Earth shattering phrases drop into their mouths like flies in vinegar. Innovation, social responsibility, shared values, performance driven. Performance driven?! Why not speak the truth from those vinegar mouths: money-driven! Users, customers and profits, all in large quantities. Those are their real words and objectives. All else is just vinegar for the credulous insects.

Nothing wrong with money. All learn to live with the buck, eventually. But the soloists are bred from a different species. Not better, not worse, just different. Work itself is their end goal. Successful is the project that answers, at least, their own curiosity. Their work setup is simple and straightforward, as their intentions. Simple tools, direct questions, direct answers, casual clothes. They understand that beautiful things are born from messy beginnings. Their only problem? They bring this free-spirited mentality over to the popular groups and expect the later to function like a real family. In short, they are gullible. They fall for the fly traps without laying any themselves. Some die a slow, painful death without knowing the cause.

If you have the right group, the right ensemble, the right company, you achieve a creativity and a sharing with you, with everybody, which makes you think this is how a good family ought to be. This is how a good tribe ought to be and you actually come out of rehearsal better than you went in, having done work which is better than you are.

Ostensibly, pop groups consider Team members as their own brothers and sisters. Everyone is part of the congregation and they never fail to mention it in weekly meetings, parties and gatherings of which they have plenty. In such a setup, a team member is any person who receives their paycheck from a common master. Everyone else is stamped with the competition label or, at best, outside folk. As a result, fraternization outside the group is outlawed per the organization guidelines. Any brother or sister who decides to leave this warm nest is gone for good and is quickly replaced by a similar-looking sibling. Members are only useful and part of the family as long as they bring the family closer to its actual goal - money. Any other qualities, features or opinions are nice-to-haves but disposable.

The whole planet is my team, I see brothers and sisters everywhere in need of a good commit, says the soloist. A badge of honor and deepest responsibility he calls the contributions to any tribe's code, especially if they have used it for their own benefit. They gladly work on any project that pique their interest, regardless of its members. There are no adversaries, only friends in need. There are no enemies, only non-Lispers. Thus thinks the soloist.

Populars always seem to magically understand all problems and solutions, are always in agreement with one another, never speak-up, never complain and gladly await their turn in meetings. Even then, they prove themselves to be great imitators. They use the same words and turn of phrases as their colleagues. A ticket with the congregation's logo on it is the sign they can start working.

Soloists have no understanding for decisions based on boss-levels. Technical prowess is all that matters. Why bring in experts and seniors and then not ask for their opinions? Why even refuse to take their own suggestions into consideration when expressed with the best of intentions? They fix bugs without approval. They are heretics with their free spirited attitude - difficult people, in short.

A few years ago, John Tomlinson, who's one of the great Wotans of our age, is supposed to be carrying a spear and he instead of carrying the spear he appeared to be carrying a lollipop, and I said to him:
- Why were you carrying that?
- I don't know, I was asked to.
- Yeah, but it's nonsense.
- Yes I know, but you know, you don't want to be difficult.

For the soloists, two weeks sprints mean switching between reading, writing, watching theater, working on code, walking in the park, sleeping all day, tending the sheep or any other activities they might consider fun or useful in the long run. The populars' sprints, by comparison, all look exactly the same. The same project, the same group, the same tools, the same ideas. No wonder they need splashy ten days holidays three times a year to switch off, though they feel exhausted after the first week back on the project. After all, nothing has really changed in their absence.

if clauses and for loops still reign supreme in the popular's toolbox, because that's transferable knowledge from their daily activities outside work. They don't explore languages nor tools without first checking if there's a job market for them. Populars have no regard for the past, the origins of their industry nor for the names of their forefathers. While for the soloists a good book's place is deep in their hearts, populars use them as Christmas decorations. The day the soloists discover this cultural rift is the day of their purification. Of rebirth. They emerge on the other shore cleaner after swimming in foul waters for years.

If he's read the play lots and lots of times and he's talked to the author, if living, and he's studied the author, if dead, then he might be in a position to enter the rehearsal room.

Deep down, every popular wants to infuse themselves with the spirit of the soloists and every soloist wants to be part of a social group and be accepted by the populars as a legitimate brother or sister. The rift between them will always be too big. Anyone crossing the chasm, in either direction, is overwhelmed by what they find on the other side.

The fact is that theater will never be a hugely popular taste, never. No, I think it can't be, but because of that, it's able to do all sorts of things that the other media can't do because they're up there speaking to too wide an audience. I think it's able to take all sorts of risks and move all sorts of boundaries because it's playing to, on the whole, a sophisticated audience. And I think that's good. I don't think anybody should be ashamed of the fact.

Both groups have learned to live with each other in relative peace and harmony. Nonetheless, populars will always return to their parties and fireworks, while the soloist will always prefer the modest blinking cursor.

Petey: There's a new show coming to the Palace.
Meg: On the pier?
Petey: No. The Palace, in the town.
Meg: Stanley could have been in it, if it was on the pier.
Petey: This is a straight show.
Meg: What do you mean?
Petey: No dancing or singing.
Meg: What do they do then?
Petey: They just talk.
Meg: Oh.

Harold Pinter - The Birthday Party
[1] A small, 30 people maximum in Peter Hall's ideal world, independent and tightly knit group of actors. The examples given by Peter Hall are Stanislavsky, Berliner Ensemble, Jean-Louis Barrault's company, Jean Vilar's company.
[2] All quotes, except the last one, are by Peter Hall from his 2006 interview with his life-long friend and colleague, John Goodwin. I've edited them for shortness and clarity while keeping the orinal message. Full interview available on webofstories or youtube.
[4] From the free solo style of climbing without ropes nor safety gear, like Austin Howell or Alex Honnold.