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Tag: Innovation

The parallel between software design and music

The parallel between software design and music

January 22, 2016 | By | Add a Comment
  • how the “workflow” of product design should be harmonious and keep a relationship “to the tonic,” i.e. the objective of the tool or task remains clear;
  • how jazz musicians innovated to create new musical approaches, as we innovate to create new software products and new approaches to solving business problems;
  • how we try to minimum “boredom” in user interface design by minimizing needless mouse clicks, as musicians try to keep the audience engaged.

By way of example, I read the following comment in an email about music a while ago: “Turnarounds started when jazz players became bored with chords that lasted for two bars or more.” This made me laugh! As the joke goes, a rock musician plays three chords to 3,000 people; a jazz musician plays 3,000 chords to three people. The email went on to say “These players thought up new ways to take a long tonic chord and play other chords on top of it to take the harmony to a different place.”


As described by the ‘Completion Principle’, people almost involuntarily seek to complete that which is not complete.

When something is certain and known then we feel comfortable and in control. When something is not complete, we cannot close that item in our mind as we have to keep thinking about it.” (

Music itself is often a play on an audience’s desire for “completion,” hence the concept of “tension and release” introduced by common harmonic structures such as the II-V-I, which “resolves” back to the I chord (or the V-IV-I in blues).autumn-leaves-small

Interestingly, what is considered musically “acceptable” has changed over the years. From at least the early 18th century, one interval was actually referred to as the devil’s chord: “Diabolus in Musica” (the devil in music), what we now call the tritone or flat 5 (diminished 5th). Perhaps equivalently, it wasn’t that long ago that business software programs were often designed for “experts” rather than laymen, with little consideration to usability or intuitiveness. The concept of a “self-service business intelligence” product was almost an oxymoron.

Yet thinking about features and not about flow (workflow) is akin to thinking about scales and modes, and not about the underlying harmony and melody. Having a bunch of loosely coupled UIs or “studios” is a little like having a bunch of musicians playing who are playing for themselves and not each other, who are not in tune with the rest of the band.

It is certainly just as important to understand the form/structure of a tune as it is to understand the overall structure of a software solution. Usability design (UX) without an understanding of form and function (business needs/problems) is perhaps the equivalent of elevator music.

Once the form (concept, requirements) is/are well understood, however, then good developers can be trusted to improvise and innovate. Similarly with good musicians. Here is a tip I got from a great jazz guitar teacher, Jody Fisher (in relation to creating improvised lines between chords):

chinese_symbols_for_innovation_9599_2_40“You know, you can play almost ANYTHING to approach the next chord; you’d be surprised how freeing this can be…It works because any note has some relationship with any chord–of course it’s a matter of taste…”

In our world, I think this has parallels with giving developers “freedom to create” (or “fail-fast”). “Fast failure” is the new culture driving innovation: being afraid to fail kills ideas. Interestingly, innovation means create-new (Chueng Xin) in Chinese.

What is more important, essence or perfection? Comparing waterfall vs agile development could be analogous to comparing classical vs jazz. Classical has detailed “requirements,” painstakingly developed via the score, which is played as written. Jazz is more free-form, a general idea/form (theme) which is then built upon through improvisation (iterations/sprints).

My friend Adam Rafferty, who studied with Mike Longo (former pianist and musical director for Dizzy Gillespie) ,recently wrote about how Mike described the difference between “How To Play” and “What To Play.”

“How To Play” “What to Play”
  1. Touch
  2. Time
  3. Tone
  4. Technique
  5. Taste
  1. Harmony
  2. Melody
  3. Rhythm
  4. Counterpoint
  5. Form

Adam suggests:

  • “What to play” can generally be written on paper in a book form – it’s “information” much like a cookbook.
  • “How to play” is a bit more elusive…some chalk it up to “feeling” but it’s much more than emotion. It’s intuition and experience.

Similarly in software development. Concepts (harmony), such as “material design,” or architecture (form) such as the “MEAN stack” are the building blocks, but it takes intuition and experience to turn these into elegant software. In fact, it’s sometimes “how to play” can equate to “what not to play.” As Miles Davis once said “it’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.” In his book “Simplicity.” John Maeda comments:

“The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction” (John Maeda, ”The Laws of Simplicity”)Simplicity

In my R&D lab we often talk about “simplifying complexity.” It’s much harder to make the complex seem simple than it is to make the simple overly complex. Hence the brilliance of someone like my favorite guitarist, Wes Montgomery.

The great Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki wrote: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Regardless of how much we learn or how expert we become, we can benefit from seeing ourselves as beginners. Keep an open mind. Think “outside of the box.”

To finish with an (alleged) quote from the infamous Yogi Berra:

“Anyone who understands jazz knows that you can’t understand it. It’s too complicated. That’s what’s so simple about it.”

And so it may be with good software design…




October 10, 2014 | By | Add a Comment

This blog post was originally published on the Rocket Software Blog

I was recently asked by a Rocket Software Business Partner, Pentana Solutions, to give a talk on the topic of “Innovation”. Specifically:

  • How do companies promote innovation
  • How do companies create a culture of innovation
  • How do companies prioritise and manage the Business As Usual Vs. Innovation

At first, I was a little perplexed. What do I know about Innovation? However, as I mulled over the topic, I saw parallels in my own work and home life. At work, in Rocket’s Sydney R&D Lab, we are innovating daily to build a truly user-focused, self-service, Cloud/mobile-enabled data discovery & exploration solution for our customers. At home, I struggle daily with the challenges posed by a study of jazz guitar: creativity, improvisation, innovation.

The first ‘lesson’ I considered is summed up by the words of educationalist Sir Ken Robinson, in a recent TED talk: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original“. Or as my jazz guitar teacher says, “Letting Go” – letting go of fear and inhibitions. Creating a culture of trust, removing or reducing fear of failure, creating an environment when team members feel empowered to think “outside the box”, these are all key elements to promoting originality, which leads to innovation. This ‘culture’ needs to be enabled at the individual level, at the team level, and at the organisation level. For the latter, the organisation needs to consider it’s ‘brand’, the image it wishes to portray. A stodgy, outdated website, or bureaucratic hiring processes are not going to attract the kind of “creatives” you want to employ in the first place: people with an aptitude for creative thought, a passion for innovation and change.

When Steve Jobs talked about his Macintosh development team at Apple, he talked about “..musicians and poets and artists… who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world”. He talks about “trying to expose yourselves to the best things that humans have done”. Get out of the office, take a walk, get inspired by the ideas of others, mix things up..

”Habitual thinking is the enemy of Innovation”

(Prof. Rosabeth Moss Kantor, Harvard Business School)

“It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”

(Jean-Luc Godard)

Another important consideration is that Innovation can come from anywhere – it’s not just about product. Any process, any service can be improved. Sometimes the small things get overlooked, but innovative thinking couldInnovation Slide yield big improvements in unexpected areas. Be open-minded and willing to challenge perceptions. As Nolan Bushnell comments in his book “Finding the Next Steve Jobs”, Neutralize the Naysayers (“any idiot can say no”)

One often overlooked aspect of innovation is the thinking process itself. A great way to create ‘space’ for innovation is to give people time to think. Treat is as  part of everyone’s job, make it a KPI. “Hackathons” and “Innovation Jams” are great, but innovative thinking should become part of everyone’s default thought process: how can this be improved? Allocate time for the thinking process. People like to create, like musicians with a tune in their heads. Our job is to capture and focus this creativity. Give space to people. We need to orchestrate, provide a vision, then allow the creative ‘juices’ to flow.

Another key to allowing this ‘culture’ of innovation to flourish is, of course, hiring people with an aptitude, attitude or predisposition towards creative thinking. Hire for passion and intensity. For example, when we hire front-end developers at Rocket, we don’t just look at javascript test scores, we look for passion, energy, creativity. Does the candidate want to be challenged? Is the candidate comfortable having an opinion? Does the candidate show initiative, intuition?



”Innovation is a state of mind”

(James O’Loughlin, The New Inventors)







A key area when it comes to Usability and User Interface Design, is Simplicity. Over the 20+ years I’ve been working in the Business Intelligence industry, it’s often seemed like simplicity has been the last thing on the software vendor’s minds. Yet when attempting to design a product for an end-user, self-service audience, rather than a ‘tech-savvy’ or IT audience, intuitive usability is critical. If a 4 year old child can use an iPad intuitively, why should a 40 year old executive have to struggle with some counter-intuitive, poorly designed piece of business software? It doesn’t make sense.

In John Maeda’s book ”The Laws of Simplicity”, he comments  “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful”. Simplicity is about clarity, brevity, refinement, restraint.



Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” (Steve Jobs)


“What is sought in designs is the clear portrayal of complexity…” 

“…not the complication of the simple”

Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information


Rocket Software constantly questions, reevaluates and revalidates its assumptions, talking to customers and partners, clarifying their assumptions and needs. We try to assume nothing. And as we continue to develop exciting new products such as Rocket Discover, I personally try to keep the following thoughts top of mind:

  • Inspire yourself to inspire others
  • Challenge the status quo
  • Suspend disbelief and cynicism: Believe in the art of the possible
  • Empathize – Listen – provide a ‘context to create’
  • Empower the team