How to be in a popular rock band, have a full-time job and stay sane

Ricardo Fiel
Apr 27, 2015 · 6 min read

And a couple of leadership lessons learned along the way

I play guitars for a very well known artist in Portugal (by our standards) and I work full time as CTO for Rupeal, one of the top IT companies here. I’m also a dad, which can mean more work than everything else combined. Nowadays, I rarely do gigs anymore, but there was a 5 year period in my life that I did loads of them. During that period, of the questions I got asked the most was: how do you handle it?

Well, there’s no secret formula. What I can do is share my beliefs on how great companies work and how focusing on results and outcomes gives you a whole different approach to time management. Interested? Ok, let’s move on.

Photo (c) WonderMag

A bit of history

I started playing guitar when I was 14 (wow, that was 22 years ago!). Fascinated by stuff like My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Slowdive and all the shoegazers of the time, I became curious about the sonic textures that a (very loud!) electric guitar and a load of effects pedals could achieve. By 16 I was in a highschool band and by 20 I had played around 200 gigs and recorded an album in the UK with Darren Alison producing and Rachel Goswell (Slowdive, Mojave 3) helping with the vocals in one song. This was more than a dream come true and taught me a very important leadership lesson: do what makes you happy and dream big. Inspire people to do the same.

After 2 years of not attending a single class, I was finally able to go to college and I started to enjoy it. Actually, I enjoyed it so much that I graduated as best student in Computer Engineering and received an honorary scholarship to work at the University research center. Two years later, I started working for a company full time as software engineer. I actually missed coding, solving problems and being in a team, but I didn’t want to stop playing music.

The best leadership answer I’ve ever heard

After a year working at a small company with less than 10 people, one of our clients needed help so I went there as an outsourcing gig. Two days later I get a call from my boss saying the client company wanted to hire me directly. Great news, as they were a big company, with offices around the world and the market leader in Portugal. It is a digital agency, so there’s obviously loads of perks, but what made me take the job in a second was my soon-to-be manager. Why?

At the time there were a handful of great companies in Lisbon trying to hire me, and one or two actually allowing me to play in a rock band, but I always felt like they were doing me a favor or something, not really trusting that I’d do an excellent job, no matter what. When I asked Tiago if he was ok with me playing in a band and doing some gigs every other week, this is what he answered:

“The only problem I have is jealousy. I used to play but now I have 4 kids and can’t find the time. If you’re here for us when we need you, and that means overtime and occasional weekends, you’re free to manage time as you want it.”

For me, this was a brilliant answer and what made it stand above all other recruitment processes I was in was that it felt amazingly honest. Everything I believe makes a great leader was there: trust, expectations and autonomy. I accepted it in a heartbeat and went on to work for 6 years on worldwide projects and with awesome people. Sure, I’ve worked a lot and may have screwed up here and there, but I never, ever, failed because of having to be with the band for gigs. Another leadership lesson learned: let your team know you trust them and give them autonomy on their work. Amazing things will happen.

What did autonomy mean for me?

In the year 2008 alone, I had some of the most challenging projects of my life. The kind that requires all of the most senior people working on them together. This was the year I’ve played an insane record of 86 rock gigs. 86! That’s, at least, 100 days working remotely on a company that didn’t have a remote working mindset. I was forced to learn how to be in constant communication with everyone (skype, at the time), be very clear on ownership and totally transparent on progress with everyone on the team. Never, at any time, I felt like I wasn’t part of the team or, better yet, that we weren’t at our full potential.

Having been given this amount of trust by Tiago, my peers and the whole company triggered something in my head: “I WILL find a way of doing outstanding work even when remote”. Notice the strength of the word “WILL”, not “try” or “should”. This is a very different mindset.

This meant working with my headphones in a van for long hours without interruptions. Working in hotel rooms without interruptions. Working in backstage rooms without interruptions. Hmmmm… is there a pattern here?

Interruptions kill productivity. I realised it so soon that I started saving work that needed me “in the zone” for when I was travelling in the van. I felt so much more productive OUT of the office than in the office. There’s an awesome TED talk by 37signal’s Jason Fried on this. If you haven’t watched it, do it now:

And this led me to another leadership lesson: our best work won’t happen at work.

No-one cared how many hours we worked. All that mattered is if we were delivering the projects. I remember the most insane month of all, May 2008, where each of us in a specific project did approximately 15 days (DAYS!) of extra work if you would sum up the working hours. I’m not advocating long hours here (actually, I’m against them), but what autonomy meant to me was as simple as this:

Tell us where you want to go, what you want to achieve, and we, as a team, will find a way of making it happen.

Staying Sane. How?

Like I said in the beginning, there’s no magic formula, and I guess it’s all common sense. Here’s the most important things I’ve learned along the way:

  1. Beware of the rock n roll lifestyle
    Well, first and foremost, the rock n roll lifestyle is a tempting road to go, but if you have other commitments beyond the band, avoid that road at all costs. That means drugs and late night parties fuelled with alcohol. Be a saint? No, I mean have some freaking fun along the ride. Just don’t make it a habit. I had plenty of that in my late teens when I was playing full-time.
  2. Daily shutdown from the world
    One of the things I did during the crazy May 2008 month was taking 30 minutes, at least, every day, to myself. That meant actually turning off the phone and doing some meditation or enjoying a jacuzzi. For 30 minutes, the world could wait. It did wonders to keep me focused and balanced.
  3. Learn and respect your limits
    There will be times when you’re feeling insanely tired and you don’t want to sleep. It’s like your body’s giving you extra energy. Fight it. The human body will give you all the energy you need until one day you wake up in the hospital with a burnout. Before that happens, it will start giving you signals that you must rest. Respect the signals. Sleep and rest.
  4. Have a rock solid emotional foundation
    For me, that was my friends and family. Arriving home knowing that someone will be there is priceless. Having a relationship keeps your feet in the ground. Making time for friends and family was probably the thing that gave me the most energy to keep up with a very demanding schedule.
  5. Talk to your boss and team mates
    More than once I needed a reality check — how am I doing at work? am I meeting (or exceeding) expectations? am I missing something? This gave me a fair deal of certainty that things were going smoothly. Waiting for the yearly performance review was too long, I needed shorter feedback loops, so I remember asking these questions on a regular basis.

The things I’ve learned about leadership and autonomy play a crucial role in keeping these 5 tips together. If there’s no personal leadership, working remotely and with a high level of autonomy is a recipe for disaster.

One last thing, make sure you’re having fun. The moment you’re not having fun anymore, it’s not worth it.

Thanks to

Ricardo Fiel

Written by

Cloud at Microsoft. Shipping Software Faster. DevOps, Serverless, Modern Apps. Shoegazer. INFJ. Lisbon, Portugal.

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