vol. 10 Ensemble

Credit: Faces of Open Source

01 / 01

Helen Hou-Sandí:
"Piano is life. It stands on its own"

Pianist & Engineering Manager & Open Source Developer & Mother

A chat about inherent talents, technique, the 'people' factor and a lifelong love of music.


Jul 25, 2022 | As told to Cherie Yang & edited by Megan Hill

As Helen says, “it always goes back to Twitter.” I came across Helen’s colourful moodboard during a leisurely scroll and, from there, became entranced by her impressive career marrying music and tech.

These days, Helen’s musical recitals are largely reserved for her family at home but her proficiency with a keyboard extends beyond music.

As one of five lead developers of WordPress—a CMS responsible for approximately 43% of the internet—it’s fair to say Helen knows her way around computer keys too!

The harmonious relationship between tech and music first became apparent to Helen in an eighth-grade typing class. Today, Helen maintains that some of her most valuable assets as an open source developer were nurtured whilst sitting on a piano stool.

Helen’s technical ability is indisputable but her success, as a Chinese woman at the top of a historically gate-kept industry, largely lies in her ability to see beyond the code—analysing the ‘why?’ of her work.

In our chat, Helen recalls her awakening to responsibility, calls for more human interaction in the software space, and explains how piano has shaped her understanding of the world.

Find Helen on Twitter, GitHub and her personal website, and listen to her playlists on Spotify.

  • A big thing for me growing up was piano. Piano has had a huge influence on my relationship with tech and who I am today.
  • &: Let’s start with: what was your childhood like?

    HS:

    I have two kids. Watching them makes me think a lot about what I was like as a child. Did I terrify my parents the way that my own children terrify me?

    I was born in New York—a lot of who I am is a New Yorker. My parents split when I was young and I grew up with my dad, which definitely impacted how I was raised. My dad believed that you had to really try something before you could decide you didn’t like it.

    A big thing for me growing up was piano. Piano has had a huge influence on my relationship with tech and who I am today.

  • I’m not competitive, at least externally. Doing something better than somebody else is not important to me, what I really care about is if I did something in a way that I am happy with.
  • &: Tell me more about the piano.

    HS:

    I started piano when I was five and it quickly became an integral part of my life.

    I took piano lessons from an older Chinese woman in our apartment building but she soon decided I needed a more serious teacher. It was one of those things that just clicked for me. I started going to a more serious piano teacher and I got involved with piano competitions—which I hated.

    I’m not competitive, at least externally. Doing something better than somebody else is not important to me, what I really care about is if I did something in a way that I am happy with.

    As a teen, I was really unhappy with piano and it got to a point where I didn’t want to do it anymore. I had won a scholarship for my lessons because they were very expensive, especially for a single dad who works as a teacher, but I hardly practised. However, in order to keep the scholarship, I had to give an hour-long recital from memory.

    In the end, my dad rescued me. He proposed that we do a violin sonata so that I wasn’t alone and I didn’t have to memorise so much. Only as an adult do I really appreciate what he did to keep that going for me.

    That whole experience taught me an important lesson: I enjoy playing music with other people. I started playing for church choirs, which I have continued throughout my life, and it made piano something I enjoyed doing again.

  • Today, Helen is a collector of quirky keyboards.

  • &: Was tech of any interest to you growing up?

    HS:

    Not really, but I was always doing dumb stuff on the computer. I did a website-making competition in the eighth grade, not because I showed any special affinity for it so much as I already knew how to type.

    In my computer class, the first thing we did was take a typing test. I already knew how to type; piano really helped with the coordination aspect. I wasn’t going to get anything out of this class, because it was essentially a typing class, so instead I had an independent study session with the computer teacher.

    In this independent study, I learned all the stuff I’d need for this website competition, a little bit about Flash, a little bit about Paint Shop Pro and a little bit about HTML. I didn't get anywhere with the competition—I wasn’t actually very good at it and I didn’t pay it much attention.

    At that age, you don’t think about your future. You just want to talk on the computer with your friends and kiss a boy for the first time!

  • My dad ... grew up in China in the communist era, when Western influences were banned—a Beethoven record was contraband.
  • &: Back to music, your dad is a musician too?

    HS:

    My dad only listens to classical music: Beethoven, Mozart and a little bit of Tchaikovsky. He grew up in China in the communist era, when Western influences were banned—a Beethoven record was contraband.

    When things loosened up, my dad taught himself to play violin because he loved it so much. He had to be self-taught because you were still not permitted to learn classical music.

    So I was exposed to a lot of classical music growing up, growing up, classical piano in particular. I think, and my dad agrees despite being a violinist, that piano is easier to listen to alone than violin.

  • I don't care whether my kids are good at piano or not, but I do believe it gives you the strongest foundations for if you choose to go and do something else.
  • &: Are your kids musical?

    HS:

    They both play piano. My oldest child is very naturally gifted; reading music immediately makes sense to him. My other child learns very quickly, but it's not the same kind of innate understanding of music notation and scores and how to connect that with your hands and movement.

    I don't care whether my kids are good at piano or not, but I do believe it gives you the strongest foundations for if you choose to go and do something else.

    Piano also has a much lower barrier to entry than basically any other instrument. Our piano is not off-limits, whereas my children can't just pick up my husband's clarinet and start playing—it's much more delicate… and expensive.

  • We grow up with the idea that you go to college to study a ‘thing’ and then you go to work to do that ‘thing’ for the rest of your life.
  • &: You went on to study piano, is that right?

    HS:

    I did my undergrad in piano. Then, for my master's degree, I got into a competitive piano-specific program at the Eastman School of Music. I loved it and I learned so much. However, when I finished I realised it wasn’t the career that I actually wanted. I thought it would be great to have a paycheck and health insurance and being a pianist wasn’t the best option for that—it's a lot of freelancing and uncertainty and it does not pay well.

    We grow up with the idea that you go to college to study a ‘thing’ and then you go to work to do that ‘thing’ for the rest of your life. That's still the mindset for a lot of people—definitely in my family.

    The music conservatory at Eastman was hiring a web developer and so I applied.

  • I ended up back in computers because it turns out that when it comes to adult life and supporting yourself, computers are a good option.
  • &: Did you have any experience in software at this point?

    HS:

    Whilst studying at Eastman, I was part of the graduate student association and I worked in the computer lab. Working in the computer lab meant I restocked the printer and made sure that freshmen were not watching things they were not supposed to be watching on the computers…

    But because I was in the lab, the web developer at the school asked if I wanted to try making a webpage for the graduate student association and so he taught me some basic PHP and the concepts around my SQL databases. I had a basic understanding of this because I started college as a double major in computer science and piano. If I'm being honest, that was as a result of the pressure to major in something ‘productive’—being a music major was a little controversial in my family and community.

    Although I found programming easy to pick up, I did not enjoy it as a major. I was deeply unhappy and so, instead of suffering, I dropped it.

    I ended up back in computers because it turns out that when it comes to adult life and supporting yourself, computers are a good option.

  • My priority is not making a ton of money. Money is nice, but it’s not my priority.
  • &: What is the most important factor in choosing a career?

    HS:

    My priority is not making a ton of money. Money is nice, but it’s not my priority.

    My priority has always been having a family. I didn't grow up with a ton of stability and so I wanted to create that for myself. I realised that working with computers could provide that.

  • My job was to write the code in service of the school—the programming skills could be learned, but the human part would be much harder for somebody to pick up.
  • &: Why do you think you got the job at Eastman?

    HS:

    One of the big reasons they hired me was because I was a collaborative piano major.

    Eastman is a world-class music conservatory, it would be difficult for someone who has not experienced music at that level to understand the level of specialisation and the needs of music professors.

    My job was to write the code in service of the school—the programming skills could be learned, but the human part would be much harder for somebody to pick up.

  • I wrote terrible code—I'm sure I would be terribly embarrassed by all of it!
  • &: What was your first project in your new role?

    HS:

    The first thing we needed was a blog. A fellow pianist, Chris Foley who runs the collaborative piano blog, had recently told me about WordPress and so I figured I’d look into it.

    The big appeal of WordPress, over platforms like Blogger, was static pages. As a musician, the prospect of having a space to talk about music whilst keeping a static ‘about me’ page for self-promotion was really cool and so I used WordPress to create this blog.

    I wrote terrible code—I'm sure I would be terribly embarrassed by all of it!

  • &: What other features initially attracted you to WordPress?

    HS:

    Working with WordPress made me understand the meaning of a content management system (CMS).

    As a responsible web developer, you have to pay attention to what is going to happen when you update the software. WordPress has a policy of backwards compatibility, meaning every effort is made to stop your site from going down during an update—that was a huge relief for us as a low-budget music school.

    WordPress also made it possible to run many sites, connected with a single user base—that feature made so much sense for the music school. We had separate departments and studios that all needed control over their own subsite. WordPress allowed us to give permissions for the things they were supposed to be able to access and block what they weren’t.

    Ultimately, we went on a year-long project to move the entire school over to WordPress. That formed the bulk of my learning in understanding and developing with Worpress.

  • Huge impact isn’t just huge features. A huge impact can be the small thing that impacts somebody's daily workflow.
  • &: And what did you discover about software development as a whole?

    HS:

    I was introduced to the idea of the four freedoms of software.

    This one, in particular, stood out to me: to make modifications to the software, you have to inspect the source code. We're so used to proprietary software on the computer, that being able to see and modify the source code was mind-blowing to me. But as a musician, it made total sense.

    A big part of being a musician is master classes. You perform a piece in front of an audience and then somebody picks apart that performance—a very real form of learning in the open—so the idea of learning in public was familiar to me.

    I had a really quick turnaround on fixing things in WordPress. Some modifications felt small, for example altering a border colour, but when you take a small fix and you multiply it by the scale of the people using it daily—it’s huge.

    Huge impact isn’t just huge features. A huge impact can be the small thing that impacts somebody's daily workflow. That was a light bulb moment for me.

  • Open source is heavily white and male, more so than tech at large.
  • &: Were you the only female lead?

    HS:

    Many women contribute to WordPress but of the five leads, I'm the only woman. I'm also the only non-white person.

    Open source is heavily white and male, more so than tech at large. It is a privilege to have the time, space, and energy to do work that is not directly paid—it's basically impossible to do this work if you are not fully equipped outside of it.

    Luckily, because the university job was not high-pressure, I had the time and the space to explore within my daily work. I wouldn't have been able to do so if I didn't have the space within my paid job.

    There is a lot of energy behind reframing the software industry to benefit the people who have historically been excluded by default. It's not a solved problem by any means, but there's some hope there.

  • ... Adulthood is about taking those ‘flaws’ and finding productive ways of channelling them.
  • &: Do you consider yourself a designer?

    HS:

    I'm not inherently a front-end engineer but I care about UI and UX because without them, who cares? It has to be pleasant. It has to be delightful—open source struggles with that. There are a lot of projects in WordPress where our priority audience is non-technical users, which means UI has to be considered mindfully in our process.

    My appreciation for design combined with my technical ability is reflected in my aesthetic and my method of working. I will not let something go live if the UI is bad. If I was involved with software that went out looking or feeling bad to use, I would be ashamed. I don't want that.

    It is my way of exerting control essentially. Is it a personality flaw sometimes? Sure. But adulthood is about taking those ‘flaws’ and finding productive ways of channelling them.

  • A director should be setting standards and uplifting the whole company but I realised I had lost the ability to do that...
  • &: How did you know it was time to move on from WordPress?

    HS:

    My last big project at WordPress was for the White House—we essentially engineered a one-on-one editing experience. It was exactly the level of editor experience that I wanted to achieve and I am very proud of it.

    That project set a bar for a new standard at WordPress, but I realised I didn’t have the energy to implement it. I was tired of being a public figure—I realised I couldn't say anything in interviews without it turning into a quotable in somebody's post! It was exhausting, but it was the reality of the role that I had accepted.

    I’d also stopped learning as much. Learning and passing on knowledge is an important part of directorship, but I no longer had the energy to do so.

    A director should be setting standards and uplifting the whole company but I realised I had lost the ability to do that—I think it's important to be honest and humble about that.

    At the end of the day, for me, computers are just a tool—I don't feel strongly about them outside of work. Whilst working at open source is incredible, I cannot get the same feelings from a computer as I do from music. Music evokes such strong emotions in me—I wanted to feel that same passion and sense of movement within my job.

  • As a music student, you have the framework of school and you know what your milestone markers are.
  • &: Was that feeling similar to the burnout you felt with music?

    HS:

    As a music student, you have the framework of school and you know what your milestone markers are.

    But when you’re pursuing something on your own for leisure it’s hard to know how to direct yourself. I lost that self-drive with music. I used to wake up in the morning dreading practising, and the same thing happened with WordPress.

    At GitHub, we have a Slack channel for recovering music majors—evidence that the two industries are closely intertwined. This morning, I asked the group what they reach for when they are feeling the itch to learn something new, without getting too ambitious.

  • I may perform again someday but I'm not in hot pursuit of it—it’s not primary to me.
  • &: How do you balance your performance schedule with work? Are you still performing?

    HS:

    Whilst I was working at Eastman, I was still a pianist. I played weekly at church, I played with orchestras and chamber groups, and I played with my husband (he plays the clarinet). I was performing frequently, not just regularly but frequently.

    But the last time I performed was in 2019. My husband and I went to Guatemala for a music festival where we gave master classes and performed—it was super fun. I did a bunch of performances around that time but then it slowly tapered off again.

    I may perform again someday but I'm not in hot pursuit of it—it’s not a priority for me.

  • Piano teaches you a lot about discipline, being considerate and understanding that your personal problems don't trump everything else.
  • &: What lessons did you learn as a musician that are essential to your work today?

    HS:

    Being a performer taught me the art of self-promotion—a lot of people in tech struggle with that. You can work your whole career with your head down, but certain roles require getting comfortable with self-promotion and outreach.

    Piano also taught me responsibility. When you play piano at church, you have to show up every week, whether you like it or not.

    Music is a huge part of the church experience, especially in the type of church that I grew up in. There are hymns, music during offerings, music when people are coming in, music during prayer—there's music all the time.

    So you don't have a choice but to show up because it directly impacts other people. You can’t back out because you had a bad week—too bad, suck it up!

    Piano teaches you a lot about discipline, being considerate and understanding that your personal problems don't trump everything else.

  • The people with the most value, in a business sense, are those who know how to influence others—that's where I can be really effective.
  • &: What is open source lacking?

    HS:

    The human aspect—which I know I’m contributing to at GitHub.

    In tech, human connections are just as important as technique. But when your daily work is writing code alone, you don't get a lot of practice doing the people part.

    I’m good at building relationships with people. My work relationships are not just transactional, they’re genuine—which means we can communicate and approach work more efficiently.

    The people with the most value, in a business sense, are those who know how to influence others—that's where I can be really effective.

  • Engineering is not just writing the code. It's understanding the problem. It's connecting people. It's caring about the end result.
  • &: “Technique without music is pedantry. Music without technique is not music.” This was on a sign hanging in your graduate professor’s office. How do you relate to that today?

    HS:

    In music, you can be excellent at playing scales but if it's not in service of making music then it doesn't mean anything. But you cannot execute and express yourself through music without having that baseline technique, and so the two have to work together. That's the same in tech; if you don’t understand the problem then you're just writing code for the sake of writing code!

    My real strength is deeply understanding the problem space. I learned the value in that thinking whilst working at Eastman and it has formed the basis of my approach to work ever since.

    Engineering is not just writing the code. It's understanding the problem. It's connecting people. It's caring about the end result.

  • I started realising that this is who I am now. Open source itself is inherently political, it is a movement, and I have become a person in this capacity instead.
  • &: You gave a talk at WordCamp in 2016 in Vienna, titled ‘Code is Poetry: A Musician’s Tale’. You mentioned that you identify primarily as a musician. Is that still the case?

    HS:

    I had a real career highlight moment in Vienna. I played the piano and then I gave a talk on software—I essentially combined the two worlds.

    But since that talk, my identity as a musician has faded. Back then, I still thought of myself as a musician doing computer work on the side. But then, I had my portrait taken for a project called ‘**Faces of Open Source**’—putting a spotlight on formative, influential people in open source.

    I had my photo taken in between Camille Fourier (writer of The Manager's Path Book and former CTO of Rent The Runway) and Limor Frid (co-founder of Adafruit)—two really big deal names in the industry! That whole experience changed my thinking.

    I started realising that this is who I am now. Open source itself is inherently political, it is a movement, and I have become a person in this capacity instead. I have friends performing at the Met and winning Grammys, which is so cool, but I've let go of the idea of that ever being me again. And that's okay.

    Editor's note: Watch Helen's talk here.

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Off the Cuff

with Helen Hou-Sandí

Ampersand
  • People always think that I'm good at design—I’m not. I'm not the person to execute the design. I just have so much respect for people who do.


  • Collaboration is the key to everything—we don't acknowledge it enough. These days, especially in the US, everyone has a strong sense of individualism but really everything is about collaboration.


  • My husband is a clarinettist. He is very good! He was just doing a premiere of a work by Isaac Misra at the Guggenheim. The clarinet is also one of the first instruments that I did chamber music with as a pianist.


  • Violin is the one instrument that I've never attempted. It seems really hard. I've never seriously studied anything except the keyboard. I've taken voice lessons. I'm not good at singing but the lessons taught me to respect it—singing is very vulnerable. I also had an affinity for the French horn, I think it’s the coolest sounding orchestral instrument, so I learned to play a scale on it. But other than that, it’s always been piano.


  • Piano is life. The piano stands on its own in a way most other instruments don't. Other instruments can be played alone, and it's compelling, but the piano is fascinating.


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Helen Hou-Sandí

"Engineering is not just writing the code; it's understanding the problem."

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