The smartest Person in a Jazz Band: Thoughts on Working in a Team

June 26, 2023

In his book "The Passionate Programmer," Chad Fowler introduces the Jazz Band metaphor. Paraphrasing, it goes as follows: Before becoming a programmer, Fowler was a Jazz musician. Early in his career, he was asked to play in a band with musicians far more experienced than he was at the time. Despite initial hesitation, Fowler joined the band and eventually played at their level.

The „magic“ of playing in the Jazz Band, according to Fowler, is that he did not consciously put in extra effort to improve his playing. Instead, playing with experienced musicians elevated him to their level. All Fowler had to do was to not quit and overcome his imposter syndrome.

Fowler concludes the metaphor by comparing the Jazz Band to a team of professionals, emphasizing that, working alongside capable people, a team will elevate its weakest parts.

Image of a saxophone with a group of jazz musicians in the background.

The Jazz Band metaphor strikes me as the more nuanced version of the saying, “if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” Think about the musicians who invited Fowler to join their band. Why didn’t the best musician among them leave the band? Fowler was playing on a level below them. Why wouldn’t they start looking for a new band to join?

I think they were fine with playing alongside Fowler because the band provided its members with value greater than the sum of its parts: There was a spot to fill for Fowler. Probably, he initially played mostly in the rhythm group and then slowly started playing more difficult solo parts.

I believe these dynamics exist in any team of professionals. If someone truly thinks they’re the smartest person in the room, they should take a moment and think about the team they’re a part of. Is the team’s impact greater than the sum of what each member could achieve individually?

Conversely, if someone finds themselves in a room that diminishes them and their impact, they are well advised to leave. And I think they don’t need to be the smartest person in the room to make that decision.

Photo by Jens Thekkeveettil on Unsplash

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By Philipp Jung, a data engineer with one foot still in academia. Follow me on, or reach out on LinkedIn.