How being an Apple and Google engineer, and a rapper, are all the same.


FULL DISCLOSURE: I‘m a level 5 senior Apple engineer.

(UPDATE: Since the time this article was first published, I’ve decided to join Google am no longer with Apple. I have nothing but positive energy toward Apple and will always be proud of the work I did there. For an impartial, well written, editorial perspective check out the follow up to this story now featured in the Wall Street Journal.

As I sat across from Jimmy Iovine one Thursday afternoon, I had an out of body experience. We talked about my music career, my “Multidream” idea, and we went back and forth about what I felt my future and the future of the industry should look like. I watched myself and asked, who is this guy, speaking to Jimmy Iovine as if he’s earned the right to do so? At that moment I realized that whether or not anyone else saw what was happening in my life, I could be satisfied with my rise.

For a few years now I’ve struggled with self identity. I’ve struggled with expectations for myself. The engineer in me wants to focus on science, while the musician in me wants to focus on my culture and my art. What I’ve realized is the conflict itself is the art. The lines have blurred and I refuse to live 2 separate lives. I’m by no means a perfect engineer nor am I a perfect rapper, or a perfect husband/father. I think the secret to life is allowing our dreams to flow and to shape shift. As I’ve struggled with this, and with the multiple dreams I have for my own life, I’ve wrestled with one simple question:

Can you be excellent at more than one thing?

When I flew to Miami to meet legendary producer Timbaland, I didn’t mention my theories on how artificial intelligence would impact the music industry, or that I was really good at C++. I just played him my music and that was enough. Music and software are so similar and yet from the outside no one would ever connect them. They are both centered around accessibility and user experience. They both require immense collaboration. Great music, like great software, takes many minds coming together. Also, they are both subject to “regressions”. Regressions are tiny (and sometimes big) problems that actually occur as a result of trying to make something better. Changing one bit in a computer program can render it useless. Changing one note in a song, can strip it of all emotion.

But what music and software share most in common, is that years of innovation and hard work, are consumed by the user in under two minutes. Where in that time a person can easily make a judgement call — “I love this“ or I don’t. And so when I met Timbaland, I didn’t mention C++, or Java or Python. I didn’t mention the wolves I had fought or the darkness I had climbed through to get to that point. I just played him my song. His reaction made everything I had left behind at home, every sacrifice I had made, every credit card swipe I did on my wife’s card, make sense. I crossed the line of fear, climbed up the mountain, and yes…I yelled from it. One month later I was still broke and unsigned. The takeaway here was that overcoming our initial fear is often not the climax but rather the beginning of our story. From there, it’s on you to define and manifest your own excellence.

But what does it mean to be excellent? At what point can we reflect, pat ourselves on the back, and say, “hard work does pay off”. At what point can we be worthy of saying “Nothing is impossible”. If given the choice to measure ourselves based on what we’ve done, or based on the perception of what we’ve done, which is most helpful? In my double life as an engineer in Silicon Valley, as well as a musician in Los Angeles, I made the decision to measure myself based on perception.

I approached the problem as an engineer would.

I compartmentalized features so that development could be done in parallel without interference. I created interfaces around two worlds. These interfaces were very strict and very simple: Never mention Apple to music, and never mention music to Apple. And so over a period of time I gained very close friends who until today, have absolutely no idea who am or what I do. Compartmentalization may seem unnatural or strange to most people especially when talking about relationships. For some though, compartmentalization is our specialty. What happens in our daily lives or whatever story got us to where we are doesn’t matter at all. What matters is that when the lights are on, we perform. 

When I was in high school I went to the YMCA in the middle of the hood every single day. One night, a kid I knew from around the way got into an argument with another kid who wasn’t from the city. The argument started over a foul call but the intensity increased as if the argument was life or death. As the aggression intensified he got on the phone and we all knew he was calling his gang. An older guy from my neighborhood who was affiliated with another gang that was closer to where we were at the time, tried to intervene. As this guy is on the phone deciding whether or not to provoke a shoot out, my friend had every chance to back pedal. He could have made peace knowing that things were about to get bad. He could have remembered that he’d already been shot in the chest before and he was lucky to be alive. Instead, he walked up to him while on the phone, stared him in the eyes and said “You’re not as tough as you think you are.” In life there are opportunities to be cautious and opportunities to be fearless. Knowing when is the challenge.

I’ve never been afraid to lose my job, but I was afraid to meet with Jimmy Iovine one on one. The pressure of knowing you have an opportunity to either prove, or ruin, everything you believe in…that can feel like a lot to carry. I guess our minds are wired to produce fear as we approach situations that feel foreign or uncomfortable. What I love most about the design of our minds, is that once you’re “in it” all fear subsides.

The term “Multidream” originated from a concept in computing called “Multi-thread”. It is a technique in which even a single core computer switches contexts so fast that it appears to be doing work in parallel. In our lives, we can create the illusion of being excellent at more than one thing by context switching. Note the word choice “illusion”, this is why I made the decision to measure myself based on perception — because if excellence requires literally giving our all, context switching will always be flawed. I started this journey as an exploration in music and technology and what I discovered was that the same themes apply to fatherhood, marriage, friendship, spirituality and our careers.

Fully dedicating yourself to any one of these dreams by definition will pull from another. Perhaps the focus should have never been to be excellent at more than one thing, but rather to make the most important decision of our lives: what to be excellent at.

If there is a commonality among all dreams, then by choosing to pursue excellence in that area, you can make progress towards achieving excellence at all dreams at the same time. In my journey, I’m beginning to discover that the common theme among all dreams is the way we interact with each other. Without the relationship I forged with Luke Root in college, my engineering skillset would have never been activated. Without the musical gifts I absorbed while living with Evon Barnes in Atlanta, I never would have created Multidream. Without the self belief I took from my phone calls with Timbaland, I never could have imagined sitting across from Jimmy Iovine while he peacefully sipped tea. And without the trust I built with my wife, this story would have ended 7 years ago in Boston.

The way we learn from one another, the way we speak to one another, the way we convey information to one another, are the most critical skills that are common to all dreams.

And now a note to my fellow engineers.

If we imagine a space, where each axis represents one of our dreams, then the only way it is impossible for us to be excellent at more than one thing is if these dreams are orthogonal. In other words, they have nothing in common. But when you look at our dreams, they are not orthogonal. In fact this dream space can be simplified into a smaller set of linearly independent vectors, primarily composed of a single component: The way we interact with eachother.

And so to answer the question: Can we be excellent at more than one thing?

That’s up to each individual. As for me, I choose to accept that they are the same: Music is Software.





(Original post on Medium.)