January 14, 2012

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

What Can We Learn From Dream Theater's Drummer Auditions About Hiring Great Software Developers?

I'm sure I can't be the only software developer who thinks the way we hire for our teams is completely f**ked up in a lot of cases.

When I compare it to how, say, bands hire musicians it seems we care a heck of a lot less about who we work with. I know some of you will complain that hiring is often taken out of our hands, and therefore how can we to be to blame? Well, if we let such important decisions be taken out of the hands of the people who can tell the difference, then maybe it's our fault all the same.

One of the most technically demanding jobs in music is playing drums for prog rockers Dream Theater. After their previous drummer and co-founder, Mike Portnoy, quit the band, the search began to find a replacement. These were very big shoes to fill. There may only be a few dozen drummers in the world who play those parts well enough, and fewer still with the right temperament to fit in with a long-established band.

How does a band like Dream Theater go about finding that person? Do they pick up the phone and call Drum People Inc. and ask for a prog rock and metal drummer to start rehearsals on Monday? I can just see it now - the agent persuading traditional jazz drummers to add "prog", "metal" and "double bass" to their CVs.

And did Dream Theater leave the hiring process to their Director of Human Resources - a tone deaf, musically illiterate Justin Bieber fan who has not even the most basic appreciation of what it is Dream Theater actually do?

No, that would be silly.

How does a band like Dream Theater go about finding the right drummer, then? Well, it starts with drumming, oddly enough. That is, they listen to a lot of audition tapes sent in by drummers from all around the world. They must have received hundreds of them, so that's a few days of dedicated listening. Luckily, you only have to hear a drummer for a few minutes to know whether they'd be up to the standard of someone like Mike Portnoy. But it's still a lot of listening.

But this is a critically important decision for the band. In a 20+ year career - mostly with the same brilliant drummer - what's a few days listening to audition tapes?

The ones who stand out go into the "maybe" pile. And, of course, most drummers of any note have things like web sites and blogs and Twitter accounts and YouTube channels these days, and they and their bands are discussed in various message boards and on other kinds of social media. That is to say, they have a searchable public profile, and catalogue of music we can check out, and a reputation.

They can even watch drummers rehearsing for their audition.

By checking out the portfolio of work the drummer's done and researching them online, Dream Theater were able to whittle down hundreds of auditionees down to the three drummers they thought would be worth auditioning in person.

You can tell a lot about someone from their work, but what you can't tell is how they'd work with you. That's really what an audition should be about - not "can you play this tune?" but "what does it sound like when you play this tune with us?" and "can we write a new tune together?"

Auditions aren't about technical ability - that should already have been established before you even think of inviting that person in and taking up everyone's valuable time. Auditions are about the dynamic: how does this band perform with this person integrated into it? What would Dream Theater with Peter Wildoer, celebrated Swedish death metaller and jazz fusioner, sound like? Possibly a bit heavier - a bit more technical death metal and a little less Asia or Yes? That might be why he didn't get the gig. There's no doubt he's up to the standard of Portnoy. Wildoer's one of the best. He just wasn't the fit they were looking for.

Most notably, when I watched the band's video of the auditions, Wildoer was not spitting feathers because they'd rejected him. To him, being one of one only three drummers in the world even invited to audition was a great experience. God knows I'd be flattered if they even listened to my audution tape for more than 30 seconds!

He was at their level musically and technically, and they weren't wasting his time. The audition video's been viewed 1,000,000 times. That's good exposure and good experience. To get to play and jam with musicians of that calibre, and with that level of passion and professionalism, and have a good time to boot, is not really a waste of anyone's time.

If a great team flattered me by inviting me to "audition" for them, and my technical ability was not under question because we'd already established I was technically good enough to work with them based on my portfolio and reputation, and they said "Hey, Jason, come and spend a day with us and let's play some of the old tunes together and maybe jam a few new ones", and they paid my expenses and put me at my ease - then if I didn't get the job, I'd still feel like I got something out of it.

Posted 9 years, 1 month ago on January 14, 2012