Like a Song: What Music Taught Me About Programming, Part Two

Welcome back! Today, we’re going to talk about the elephant in the room. The under-performing, 17-years-in-the-waiting, 71-minute-long elephant. And, we’re going to talk about one particular programming mistake that this elephant demonstrates better than literally anything else I can think of.
Chinese Democracy Record Cover

The Reader’s Digest Version

For those unfamiliar with Guns N Roses and the saga of the exceedingly long wait for Chinese Democracy, here’s a quick recap: Guns N Roses stormed onto the music scene in 1987 with Appetite for Destruction, which became one of the best-selling records of all time, as well as one of the most acclaimed rock records ever. Appetite was followed by the EP GNR Lies in 1988, and the simultaneous release of Use Your Illusion I & II in 1991. The band is doing great; both of the Illusion records will top 18 million records sold apiece. Now things start to go south…..

One by one, the classic line-up that made Appetite dropped off, leaving singer Axl Rose the sole original member of the band shortly after the recording of  1993’s all-covers The Spaghetti Incident. Rose was notoriously capricious, a perfectionist, and had reached the level of fame and prestige where one can’t be put in check by anybody. Chinese Democracy was first mentioned by name in 1999 during an interview with MTV, but the record wouldn’t surface until 2008, becoming a running joke along the way for something that would never happen.

The big question after a wait that long is naturally “Was it worth it?”, and the answer is “…not really?”. Chinese Democracy is better than a lot of people would give it credit for, but it ultimately fails to live up to the lightning-in-a-bottle volatility that characterized Appetite for Destruction, and “overproduced” is not an unfair criticism of the record. You can’t rush art as author Neil Gaiman eloquently put it in a 2009 blog post regarding the long wait between George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones novels, but there is such a thing as taking too much time to complete a task, and that’s definitely what happened with Chinese Democracy. At the time of this writing, CD has sold approximately 2.8 million copies worldwide; far less than the next worst-selling GNR record (The Spaghetti Incident, 6.1 million copies), and well short of their greatest success (Appetite for Destruction, 30 million copies). It is true that the record industry and music sales changed a lot in those 17 years, but how much of those poor sales were caused by the world moving on from a musical act that refused to keep up in a medium that demands participants stay current?

The Takeaway

When you first start learning programming, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by everything that you need to learn, and also the skill you need to acquire to put together truly impressive projects. I want to remind you that you cannot be rattled or intimidated by that difficulty, and not to fear building programs or applications that are of poor quality at first. This is hard work, and I understand being cautious about what you put out there for viewing by employers and your peers. But you cannot afford to make the Chinese Democracy mistake of taking far too long to create something to get it “perfect”. You have to move quickly, and perfectionism or other tendencies that slow productivity (beyond reasonable caution taken for testing, security, etc) will be a huge impediment to you showing what you can do. You will be bad at first, and that will be frustrating. But you will get better, and that will be fantastic. See you next week!


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