Ann Arbor's tech-sector employees say they share a proclivity not just for programming, but also for rocking out – and this weekend they'll get a rare chance to indulge both in the same setting.
Bank of Ann Arbor will host the inaugural Ann Arbor TechCity Jam on Friday, Dec. 15 from 7 to 10 p.m. at The Neutral Zone, 310 E. Washington St., in Ann Arbor. The free event is billed as a year-end party for southeast Michigan's innovation community, featuring open mic-style live performances by members of the region's technology and life sciences sectors. A house band and about a dozen individual musicians have officially signed on to the lineup, but anyone is welcome to perform at the event. The three musicians who comprise the house band, the TechCity Players, will jam with individual musicians who get on stage.
Bank of Ann Arbor's Technology Industry Group president Michael Cole crafted the event's lineup by reaching out to musician friends and clients to see if they would be interested in performing at TechCity Jam, the last of three events celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Technology Industry Group. Cole is an amateur musician who's played blues harmonica for about 30 years. He believed there would be enough involvement based on the number of conversations he's had with peers about putting on an event that brings together the tech and music worlds.
"There seems to be a pretty big overlap between people who work in the tech sector and being amateur musicians, or sometimes professional musicians," says Cole, who's in a band called the Chief Blues Officers, as well as a family band with some of his brothers-in-law.
Throughout his career, Cole has noticed there are a lot of musicians in the tech community. He thinks the connection is due to a shared sense of creativity among those in the tech world, as well as cognitive similarities between the tech and music realms. Cole believes music is a kind of language that overlaps with other language-based skills, including coding and other elements of the tech field.
David Bloom, principal of Ann Arbor-based business accelerator Factotem, has been playing music for about 50 years and has been involved with tech startups for about 30 years. He recalls working with other musicians on almost every tech team he's been a part of over the last few decades.
"A lot of geeks are musicians and vice versa," he says.
Bloom sings in a jazz band called David C. Bloom and Friends and sings backup and plays keys in a classic rock band called Naked Ace. He compares the mental state of focus known as "flow" that programmers use while coding to the way musicians get into a groove to improvise while jamming.
"You want the endorphin rush that you get from 'flow.' When you’re a programmer and you’re in 'flow,' the code just flies out of you and it’s always good. It’s like you’re jamming. It’s like you’re in this groove, … the whole band is locked in, … [and] you’re not even looking at your hands. You’re looking at each other and smiling all the way," Bloom says.
Bill Mayer, vice president of entrepreneurial services for Ann Arbor SPARK, thinks there’s a fairly high correlation between people who are involved in early-stage or growth-stage tech companies and musicians. His hypothesis is that both realms consist of people whose brains are "a little off-kilter."
"You’ve got musicians all over the tech industry," Mayer says. "I think we enjoy working in this slightly chaotic, slightly freeform creative space."
He believes many techies' entrepreneurial spirit makes them "either fearless enough or crazy enough to climb up on stage in front of people." He thinks entrepreneurs often lack the fear of failure because they're used to experimenting and improvising.
Mayer has played the drums since he was in elementary school and still practices at least a couple times a week at home, but currently doesn't have enough time to play in a band. He's looking forward to participating in TechCity Jam because he'll be able to perform on stage with other musicians without all of the commitments and logistics that come with being in an actual band.
"The nice thing is having the ability to come together ... and just play for the fun of playing," Mayer says.
Marisa Smith, professional Entrepreneurial Operating System implementer and founder of The Whole Brain Group, sees many parallels between working as a team and performing in a musical group. She often uses music metaphors while teaching about teamwork, which resonates with her clients who also have a musical background.
"Everyone has to be reading from the same music and playing in the same key or tempo to make beautiful music," Smith says. "The same is true for teams. If you don't have a common vision ... or some of you are going faster or slower than the others, the result is going to be business cacophony."
Smith has played several instruments throughout her life but has continued to sing for at least 40 years. She immediately signed up for TechCity Jam when Cole asked for volunteers because of how much fun she had performing in Kickshaw Theatre's recent Broadway revue, Passion and Perseverance. She also felt compelled to add some gender diversity to the mostly male lineup.
"I think it's just a great opportunity to get together with others in the community to have a little fun, reconnect with old friends, and celebrate the talent we have here in Ann Arbor," Smith says.
If the inaugural TechCity Jam is successful, Cole hopes it will continue as an annual event. If the jam does return next year, he hopes he'll be able to connect with and enlist more tech folks who are interested in playing music.
Bloom believes TechCity Jam "is going to make the whole ecosystem stronger" by bringing together musically inclined techies and providing them the opportunity to build relationships with one another, so they can team up to play similar gigs in the future. He's previously worked or jammed with about half of the musicians on the lineup, and he thinks the event will be a fun opportunity to discover new talents among his colleagues.
"These are my peeps. This is who I want to play for," Bloom says. "They all know me as either this guy who does a lot of startups or this guy who’s in a rock 'n' roll band, and now I get to put them both together."
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe.