Chris Carlson Drum Photo

Chris Carlson is a Berklee College of Music graduate with a Major in Professional Music. His principal instrument is the drum set. After graduating in May of 2009, he taught music and played gigs in the Seattle area. In 2012, he moved to Nashville for two years but decided to move back to Seattle. In 2015, he started programming and signed up for a coding bootcamp after feeling burnt out after pursuing a full-time career in music.

Chris says of his career shift, “A lot of the musicians I know are also engineers and they made a similar shift from having no technical background, to going through a bootcamp and getting a job. I think that trajectory is really challenging because you go from knowing nothing to drinking from the firehouse. I went from knowing nothing to getting my first job in about a year.” Chris is currently a Software Engineer II at Microsoft.   

How did you get into music and how did this lead to pursuing computer programming?

That is a long story. I come from a family of musicians. My dad is a guitar player and singer-songwriter that performed professionally in the 70’s. My grandfather on my mom’s side was a swing piano player. My sister is a great singer. So, I was raised around music and was always around it. I have early memories of my dad playing music in the house. He played a lot of seventies stuff like Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers. I became interested in the drums around the fifth grade. We had a family friend that was a percussionist. I remember going over to their house and being fascinated with all the various percussion instruments that they owned. There were Brazilian and African instruments of all kinds. I think they noticed my curiosity, since they began teaching me some basic rhythms, like the Clave, soon after. At the time, my family and I lived in Montana, and I didn’t have access to a drum set. Getting one at the time wasn’t feasible because the only place I could have had one would have been in the garage. The winters in Montana are intense, getting down to forty below at times at night, so storing one in the garage wasn’t an option.

My dad works as graphic designer and at the time got a job working for Quest, which is based in Seattle. So, we decided to leave Montana and move to the Pacific Northwest. Obviously, I was really bummed about having to move and leave all my friends behind, so my parents made a deal with me. When we got to Seattle, I could get a drum set. I had just turned twelve and was going into the sixth grade. My Dad took me to Guitar Center and got me a 5-piece cherry red Sound Percussion drum set. Shortly thereafter I started taking lessons from a great local drum instructor, Chase Culp. I took to it right away, however at this point I wasn’t interested in coding at all. The coding thing came much later. I was always around computers because my dad was a graphic designer. I learned how to use them at a pretty young age. Working on a computer wasn’t something that was foreign to me. I was very passionate about music all through school up until I left for college. I participated in all the school bands as well as some musical projects outside of school. When I was seventeen, I started playing in clubs. I joined a band of Seattle musicians that were all a lot older than me. We played around Seattle, California, Oregon, and Idaho.

After high school, I attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. I graduated from Berklee in the spring of 2009. At the time I had the intention of moving to LA because I have family there and was somewhat familiar with it. I figured I needed to move to New York, LA, or Nashville to try and make it as a musician. LA seemed like the most logical choice. I decided with a few friends of mine from Berklee that were all going to move to LA. I came back to Seattle for the summer, but couldn’t convince myself that I wanted to live in LA. My heart just wasn’t in it. It’s smoggy, the traffic is terrible, and the weather isn’t for me personally. The plan fell apart, so I decided to stay in Seattle, and began teaching and gigging locally. In early 2010, I met my wife. We married in 2011. In late 2011, I began to reach a place where I was feeling unsatisfied with the musical opportunities in and around Seattle.

In the summer of 2012, we decided to move to Nashville. My wife and I were newly married and didn’t have much tying us down to Seattle. We had visited Nashville earlier in the year and felt like it could be a good fit. So, in late 2012 we decided to move there. We were in Nashville for two years, but realized it wasn’t for us in the long run. We moved back to Seattle, and I fell back into the same type of work, teaching private drum lessons and gigging locally. I was feeling very burnt out on music and trying to pursue a career in music.

Around this time a musician friend of mine just completed going through a coding bootcamp. I thought it was interesting how he went from knowing nothing to getting a job in a matter of months. This was back in early 2015, before bootcamps were all over the place. I would spend time with him and ask questions about what he was learning and how he got interested in coding. He suggested that I get my feet wet and see how I liked it. I started taking free tutorials online focusing on basic web development and the 3 main languages of the web: JavaScript, HTML, and CSS. I learned how the three technologies talk to each other and work together. I really liked taking the tutorials and I started making my own basic websites. After about 6 months of teaching myself, I realized that I could see myself being very happy with a coding career. At the end of 2015, I decided to attend a twelve-week coding bootcamp. It was the Twelve Week Web Development Immersive Bootcamp through General Assembly. They have since changed the name of the program to Software Engineering Immersive. After completing the program, I started looking for my first professional coding job, which I landed in 2016. I have been working professionally as a Software Engineer ever since.

Are there similarities between drumming rhythms and the flow and rhythms involved in programming?

I do think it uses similar parts of the brain. Drumming is math as you are dividing time. I think the same analytical part of the brain is used when you code, solve problems, and build new things. I was really drawn to the creative aspect of coding early on. One of the things that I built recently is a modern gig tracker. It allows you to track gigs you’ve played with various bands. It’s mainly for hired guns that play with a lot of bands. You can enter gig data for each gig and see how much you made with a given band, where you played with each band, and how many states you played in over a given year. It’s really cool to see it come to life because it started as an idea in my head and now it’s reality. It is the same thing with music. You can flex that creative muscle.

As a gigging musician that plays a lot of gigs you really learn how to work with other people. It comes naturally to a lot of musicians. You may show up to a gig not knowing any of the other musicians. You might not even have played together before. But at gig time you must make it work. I have played a lot of wedding gigs which tend to utilize rosters of musicians. I might show up to a gig and know it’s going to be a five-piece band, but I have not played with any of the other musicians before. You just show up and make it work. I think one of the biggest strengths in life is to be able to work with people and have a good attitude. This has helped me get a lot further in my coding career than just being able to learn new technologies.

Can you talk about your current role at Microsoft?

My official title is Software Engineer II. At Microsoft the engineering roles start at Software Engineer, then Software Engineer II, Senior Engineer, and Principal. I am currently in somewhat of a transition because the team that I am on recently moved to a different organization within Microsoft. We are in the process of taking over some new projects and learning about the type of work we are going to take on. For the past 5 years I have been working on the Azure marketing website. It is the marketing website for Azure that showcases Azure features, cost, and strategies to migrate your existing tech stack to Azure. Now we are migrating the website to a CMS, content management system, that Microsoft owns so they can scale back the complexity of the site and refine its purpose.

Over the years the website has grown in complexity with many engineers, designers, and project managers on the team. I think it became overly complex and bloated, and therefore we decided to migrate and simplify. My team is now focused on work in this new organization. However, we still work on the Azure website, but only do work on it that is absolutely required.

Microsoft owns many different websites. They have the Xbox website, Microsoft website, Office 360 website, and so on. All these websites share a universal header and footer that is configurable per site. So, if you go to any of these websites you will see that they have a similar header and footer with the same menu structures, styles, and functionality. The service that controls this global header and footer is one of the new things that I am going to be working on. There are a few other smaller websites that we will also be taking over. I am still doing a lot of front-end work, but it will become more full stack as we focus on these new projects.

What is a typical workday like for you?

I work entirely from home now, which began during the pandemic. Since then, we have become a dispersed team, with employees spread across the country. My team has engineers in Chicago, Nebraska, New York, and the Seattle area. Due to that, it doesn’t make sense for me to commute into an office. I love working from home since I save a lot of time and money and I also get more time to be with my family.

I wake up fairly early since I have two little kids. I usually start my workday between 8-8:30 a.m. in the morning. I spend the first half hour going through emails and Microsoft Teams messages. Then I have standup at 9:00 a.m. This is a very short fifteen-minute meeting where all the engineers go around and discuss what was done the day before and what they will work on today. We were working in two-week sprints, but I think that will change in the new organization to 2.5 to 3 week sprints. A sprint is a set of planned work over an allotted period of time.

After standup, I have two to three other meetings per day that vary from touching base with colleagues to discuss ongoing projects to general Microsoft meetings focused more broadly on the company. In between meetings I work on the work assigned to me for the current sprint. I also spend time reviewing code. I usually sign off for the day around 4:30-5 p.m.

Do you still have time to play the drums and pursue music?

I think I have kept a pretty healthy balance between coding and playing music. Obviously, Covid hurt a lot of musical projects that I was a part of. I think my busiest gigging year was 2018. I was working as a full-time engineer and playing in 10 different bands. My wife and I started having kids in 2020 so my focus on music hasn’t been a primary focus. I have a two-year-old and a four-month-old, so I haven’t been playing as much in the past few months, but I plan to start taking on more gigs in 2023.

For someone interested in learning about web development, how do you recommend they proceed?

When I was starting to learn how to code, I primarily used Codecademy. At the time they had awesome free tutorials covering basic web development. These included tutorials on JavaScript, HTML, and CSS. They also had a free course on building a web page where you combine all three. It was very eye opening to go through these tutorials and learn the basic concepts. There are so many resources now, especially compared to when I was first learning about programming seven years ago. I would check out YouTube, Udemy, and Google basic web development or JavaScript tutorials. There are a lot of great resources, and I would focus on those three languages to start. Aside from the basic web technologies there are many JavaScript frameworks and libraries that are used widely, like React and Vue. They constantly change. I would just focus on the basics: JavaScript, HTML, and CSS. If you want to do front end or full stack development, JavaScript is probably the best language to learn and know. It is the language of the web. There is a lot of paid content that is pretty affordable with great content.

A lot of the musicians I know that are also engineers made a shift like I did from having no technical background to going through a bootcamp and getting a job. I think that trajectory is really challenging because you go from knowing nothing to drinking from the firehouse. I went from knowing nothing to getting my first job in about a year. It prepares you for being in the hot seat and having a lot of information thrown at you, which is good when you are joining a new team or getting a new development job. Every team has their own stack, own way of doing things, own way of testing, and own way of documentation. It is good prep for the real world.

What else do you want to accomplish?

In the coding space I still feel like such a new programmer. I have been doing this for seven years now and I can’t believe it has been that long. There is always more to learn. In terms of my personal career goals and the corporate ladder, I am trying to figure out what I need to improve upon to move up to the next level in my level. With Microsoft there are two levels within Software Engineer II. I am currently at the lower level and am focusing on how to move up to the next one. As far as how high up I want to go, I don’t really know that yet. I’m not sure if I want to try and be a manager or focus on being an individual contributor. There is so much planning with the manager role, and you tend to spend a lot of time in meetings. I am still thinking everything over.

As for music, one goal I have is to hopefully build a small drum studio at some point. I was going to build one at my house two years ago, but it has been postponed due to various reasons. I have always had a goal to get a studio together to start doing remote tracking. Back in 2015, I put together my own group that plays my original music. I guess I would put it into the jazz category, but it’s influenced more by modern jazz than straight-ahead. It has been a long time since I have booked gigs with that band. I want to book more gigs and maybe one day record my own record as I don’t have my own original music out there. These are two of my music goals.