For developers, a good soundtrack can be as crucial to productivity as Red Bull or coffee. But what's playing through all those headphones? We asked engineers at Facebook, Spotify, Snapchat, Airbnb, and Pinterest to tell us what music has been fueling their latest projects—they even made us playlists.
Earlier this year, Facebook released Paper, its new iOS app that beautifully repackages your Facebook feed. For that, it enlisted the help of a dedicated team within its company. And all the while that the Paper team was coding away, it relied on a serious set of music to maintain its creative flow.
Scott Goodson, lead engineer on Facebook’s Paper team, immediately associated the track “Counting Stars” by OneRepublic with his team's new app. “This started playing on the radio in the last couple months before we shipped Paper, and it was pretty timely," says Goodson. "[It encourages a] kind of a dreamer attitude, eagerness to sacrifice sleep to get something across the line, generally hoping it goes well, uncertainty as to what will actually happen."
Goodson says trance music motivates him to code. “I have some vaguely neuro-scientific theories about why progressive trance is especially conducive to the thought processes involved in programming.”
It seems that other electronic sub-genres fit the bill when it comes to getting projects done as well. When asked what music keeps her going, engineer Maddie Boyd simply declares, “Daft Punk. Alive 2007, full album, start to finish, for when I really need productivity.”
For engineer Ben Cunningham there's no better song than “I Can Change” by LCD Soundsystem. “Reminds you that everything will be ok," he says. "Crucial reminder when in the thick of development.” and the Chemical Brothers’ “Escape Velocity” to keep coding to the end. “You can’t not work to this song," says Cunningham.
Cunningham and fellow engineer Tim Omernick might listen to music passively during the workday, but they completely activate their musical abilities when they are not in the office. Omernick is a budding DJ, and Cunningham once constructed an entire laser show to go along with some house music he was listening to.
Every now and then, Pinterest holds “make-a-thons” for their engineers, an all-night coding session to make good on ideas for cool, new products. A recent make-a-thon to support Pinterest’s new animated GIFs came with its own soundtrack. Senior technical support engineer Rich Varrasso says the engineers kicked it off with a mix from one of San Francisco DJ’s Jymmi James’s recent live shows.
“Most of my projects are connected with a single track," says Pinterest engineer Michael Ortali. "For example, CloudGrid is "Addicted to You." The rewrite of our international framework is "We're Planets," and one of my make-a-thon projects in December, the Nelson Mandela tribute, is "Freedom."
“It's not just something in the background to help me concentrate; it's a source of inspiration, a door to free my mind from our day-to-day routines, and, at the same time, it's a way to memorize an experience," says Ortali. "I play tracks in a loop, sometimes the exact same track all day long. It's a way to connect with the lyrics, and move the tempo beneath my skin.”
Varrasso shares Ortali’s devotion to house music when he codes. “I listen to house music almost exclusively when I work because it doesn't need to be managed when listening to mixed sets. I'll pick one to three sets, and I'm set for the day because they're at least 80 to 90 minutes each,” says Varrasso.
Software engineer Jon Parise takes a more Zen approach to his music while coding. His preferred playlist, “Chill,” brings your heart rate down just enough for you to hear those for-while structures forming in your head. It will unwind you for a good seven hours.
But sometimes, you just need to bring your heart rate up to 130 beats per minute to get coding. Software engineer Dmitry Kislyuk says, “Two of my playlists, 'Dreamy Trance' and 'Energy Trance,' are regularly playing during work hours. Trance music dependably powers all my data visualization tooling and analysis work.” Kislyuk is so into trance that he even makes his own trance mixes in his free time.
It seems that software engineer Matt Jones is the only one on the Pinterest development team that likes to listen to unmixed guitars and drums from time to time, citing the Pixies’ and Fleetwood Mac’s iconic albums, Surfer Rosa and Rumours.
But most of the time, he’ll fall in line with his teammates with more electronic discs. “I've been listening to Lanterns by Son Lux, II by Moderat and Cold Spring Fault Less Youth by Mount Kimble pretty repetitively while prototyping the promoted pins system,” Jones says, referring to Pinterest's new way of promoting pins on its site.
The entire Snapchat team had their heads down coding when we asked them about their music picks. But Michael Heyeck finally shed some light on the trance trend in all of these teams’ playlists. “EDM/Trance just goes on and on and on, so it's good for getting into a coding groove,” he says.
His teammate David Tian agrees. “I usually find that songs which have lyrics are slightly more distracting, because my mind tends to either want to sing along or maybe think about the lyrics," says Tian. "They're great for everything else, except coding.”
Tian’s pick, “Moon Trance,” embodies his no-vocals philosophy. ”It is kind of trance-like, the rhythm is continuously moving and yet not distracting, so, subconsciously, it has the effect of moving forwards. Positive reinforcement of whatever it is that I’m coding,” he says.
But it’s nice every once in a while to code to what you know, says team member Janelle Tiulentino. “I also like to listen to older, more familiar songs that I know I like, instead of putting on new playlists and having to skip through songs that aren't as great.”
One of Airbnb’s backend software engineers, Lou Kosak, must have been a Pinterest engineer in a former life. A couple of his choices overlap exactly with some of Pinterest’s preferred coding music, like Robot Heart, LCD Soundsystem, and Fleetwood Mac, but he brings out his Montreal roots with his other picks.
Both Kosak and Michael Ortali from Pinterest were fans of San Francisco DJ’s Robot Heart while coding. Here was Kosak’s take on one of Robot Heart’s Burning Man Festival performances: ”An amazing set at Burning Man from a friend of a friend who's become a well respected house DJ in SF, alongside being a killer iOS engineer at Facebook. Amazing music for slipping into a flow state and finishing a project late in the evening.”
Kosak thanks LCD Soundsystem’s “45:33” for helping him finish a key project. He says, “Forty-five minutes and 33 seconds of fabulous NYC beats from the inimitable James Murphy. Allegedly composed as a soundtrack to running, it works great to add focus and energy to a programming session. This song and some other LCD Soundsystem gems got me through a long, challenging solo project, building a financial data platform.”
Kosak’s playlist is squarely geared toward the coder that wants to get over an afternoon slump with right music. For that, he heads to his Montreal indie band go-tos, like Arcade Fire, St. Vincent, and Broken Social Scene.
Spotify, the expert on these playlists that stream so easily in a typical coder's work setup, explains what its engineering team listens to during intense projects.
“One of our developers, who has been with Spotify for pretty much the life of the company, has this playlist that’s called, “Every Day I’m Nerdin’,” which is the playlist he uses to code to. And now it’s become kind of a cult hit, where lots of developers use it when they’re developing,” says Charlie Hellman, vice president of product at Spotify.
The developer, known as Blixt on Spotify, tends to use obscure ASCII symbols in his playlist titles. The title of the “ ∞ Every Day I’m Nerdin’ ” playlist starts with the infinity symbol. Other ones he has created showcase a heart, a sun, and an umbrella (appropriately used on “For a rainy day”). It's like his calling card.
Blixt updated “∞ Every Day I’m Nerdin’” a few days ago with the song “Reprise” by Feint and continues to add more tracks to nerd out in new ways.
All these teams make the case that the best music to listen to while coding is keeping your work computer stocked with a bounty of trance, house, and evolved electronica. Whether one playlist makes you more productive than another is up to you to decide. But you can’t beat tried-and-true recommendations that have helped talented engineers churn out creative, innovative products.
[Image: Flickr user kev-shine]