What do you do if you’re Salieri?

Watching the Polyglot Programming video courtesy of enabler-extraordinaire, Dave Laribee, and it revealed (or rather re-revealed) something about myself that I hope is common enough that I’ll get at least one BOOYAH in the comments.AMADEUS

I watched Amadeus when I was just a wee country whelp. And even at a young age, I could identify with the narrator, Antonio Salieri (at least how he is represented in the movie). It’s a simplified comparison, to be sure, but one that has stuck with me. In the movie, Salieri is a composer caught in the large shadow left by Mozart and he becomes increasingly enraged at what he feels is a cruel, cosmic joke. Namely, he has been instilled with the ability to recognize genius and the desire to create good music, but not with the talent. (This is compounded into murderous intentions when he is able to recognize that genius in Mozart, who seems to treat his gift so cavalierly. I don’t generally identify with him this far.)

Ten years into my career, and some thirty-six years into my life, I don’t have many illusions about what I can and can’t do anymore. On the strong end of the  stick, I can learn new applications and languages relatively quickly. I can be pretty productive when I put my mind to it and am able to communicate my intentions clearly. At least that’s what my resume says and it’s on the internet so it must be true.

But watching this video, and indeed, hanging out with the alt.net crowd in general, makes me refer back to Amadeus on more than one occasion. I can’t help thinking there are a lot of Mozarts out there. And I don’t mean in their day-to-day work. That’s the easy part. I can pound out good code and talk best practices, often coherently.

Rather, there are people out there who are able to create beautiful music in our industry by asking the right questions and having a clear vision of what the state of the world should be. Or at least, they recognize problems I didn’t know existed (and, it must be said, some problems I still don’t have – still a challenge to differentiate the two) and are able to steer the conversation in a way that facilitates solving those problems in a clear way.

On the other hand, I am able only to recognize when a "good" idea has been mentioned, or when a vision is worth being part of. "Good" being relative to my immediate sense of the world. Plenty of good ideas go whooshing by if they don’t have an short-term impact on what I’m doing. I’m able to run with an idea, maybe even expand on it a little. And I can certainly document my trials, hopefully for potential mass benefit.

I’m pretty sure this has to do with my tendency not to take anything in my career too seriously. Not sure if the attitude causes the problem or vice versa, but there it is.

Whatever the reason, the attitude has worked for me for over three decades so it’s not going anywhere. As for the lack of overall industry vision, as mercenary as it sounds, I’m good with that too. It’s hard enough copying what others are doing (e.g. starting a user group), without having to make up the rules as you go.

To tie this back to alt.net, I’m happy in my role as semi-silent observer. At least with respect to the bleeding edge trends like polyglot programming and future architectures. It’ll help to have that background for when I catch up.

And to tie it also back to the metaphor I’m using, it doesn’t mean I need to react the same way Salieri did upon realization of fate’s sense of humour. (That is, I won’t drive the likes of Laribee and Scott Bellware into madness and death, steal their work as my own, then absolve the masses for being as mediocre as I am.) I can still be active in my own way and play off the strengths I have. There are plenty of people in the same boat I’m in now and plenty in the one I was in five and ten years ago. I may not be able to push the boundaries of the playing field, but I can certainly invite more people to the game.

Kyle the Metaphoric

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  • http://www.bluespire.com/blogs Christopher Bennage


  • Kyle Baley

    Yeah, my post count kind of calls my semi-silent status into question. But as the song goes, “people talking without speaking”.

    I jest (a little). Don’t want to take the self-deprecating thing too far. Like I said, I know what I’m good at and what role I can play. On the technology side of things, I love being a generalist. People may look at my resume and wonder “Livelink, RPG, *and* SharePoint? In the same year?” but like I said, I see no reason to change my outlook now.

    But that’s also kind of what keeps me from being the “critical thought-leader” to use a loaded term. It takes a lot to phase me and the reason I often fall back on “these things usually work themselves out” is because historically, they always have. I’m optimistic to a fault (almost). Which does not lend itself to challenging companies like Microsoft to change the status quo.

    I shouldn’t have made it sound so much like I was lamenting. I’m not looking for a pep talk or commiseration (though I do appreciate the hair-style suggestion, Jeremy). Was more of a stream of consciousness run amok. And a general feeling that I’m probably not the only one out there that thinks like this.

    So I’ll keep doing what I’m doing and trying to get better at it. Sure, I won’t necessarily define what it means to “get better” but I’ll keep doing it anyway and try to make sure as many others as possible do the same. And I’m not doing it because I want to be a genius or I want to define the next big thing. I’m just doing it because it’s fun.

  • http://www.codesqueeze.com Max Pool

    Once when I was younger, I use to participate in triathlons, and in a number races I watched the same middle aged woman finish dead last.

    Being young (and therefor arrogant) I asked her why she even bothered if she was only good enough to finish dead last everytime. Her response amazed me:

    “I may finish last, but I finished ahead of everyone that did not participate.”

    There will always be people a few steps in front of you, but turn around a time or two to look how far you have come. There are a lot of developers who do not blog or participate in community. Even if you feel in the lower ranks of the company you keep, evaluate where they are and where everyone else is that did not participate.

    Trust me when I say blogging on CodeBetter is far from being silent…

  • http://geekswithblogs.net/leesblog Lee

    Great post. I can totally relate. Although sometimes it’d be a step UP to be Salieri.:) Sometimes I hear these guys talking and think, “This must be what my wife hears when I talk software with my friends.” The scary part may be when you actually realize that talent within yourself.


  • http://creedcultcode.blogspot.com Dale Smith

    I think we can learn a lot about our own chosen field by looking at how craftsmanship is approached by other collaborative creative disciplines with much longer histories than our own (architecture, cabinet-making, journalism, etc). Individual geniuses come and go, and they provide a lot of value to the community both in advancing the craft through personal achievement, and by serving as agitators to spark new ways of thinking in those of us who are not quite as generously talented. But in the long run, a disclipline’s creative heritage is built by day-to-day craftsmen taking that knowledge and applying it themselves in ways that help their employers and clients.

  • http://codebetter.com/blogs/jeremy.miller Jeremy D. Miller

    You do remember the part about Mozart dying young and ending up in a pauper’s grave, right? And that the Amadeus guy never had another movie part ever again? I’m trying to picture you with a black ponytail right now and it’s just not quite working.

  • Kyle Baley

    Point taken. I’m stretching the comparison a little. I was referring more to genius of vision rather than technical talent.

    Or maybe I’m trying to drive you mad…

  • http://codebetter.com/blogs/david_laribee/ Dave Laribee

    I’m not sure about this metaphor. I’d take a generalist over a genius any day.

    Their is a benefit to approaching everything as craft and generalism: namely simplicity is an easier thing to reach/understand/achieve.

    I also think there’s a lot of programmers in the community that talk a good game, but certainly are in our sub-genius category. Then again, in my travels, I’ve met a few savants so, as with every observation, this is an inclination or heuristic.

    My $0.02 to be sure.