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How Vienna Escaped the Cubicle
A Conversation with Vienna Teng, Part I
by Bill Venners
Jun 9, 2003

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In this interview, you'll find out how Vienna Teng, a 24 year old Java programmer at Cisco, landed a record contract, quit her day job to pursue her passion in music, and before long ended up on the Dave Letterman show.

Last December, while doing some last minute Christmas shopping at the Santana Row mall in San Jose, I came upon a young woman playing the piano and singing. She had set up her equipment in a corner across from a coffee shop. I liked the music, and stopped to listen. I felt a bit uncomfortable standing there in front of her, though, because I was the only one. For the most part, everyone else was walking by ignoring her. I listened for a while, but I had presents to buy and the stores would soon close, so before long I too walked on.

A few weeks later on a Sunday morning in mid-January, I heard Liane Hansen interview a new female singer named Vienna Teng on NPR Weekend Edition. The music sounded nice over the radio, so I looked the name up on the web. To my surprise, there was that same face I'd seen at Santana Row. The web site said she'd be playing at Border's Books in Milpitas that weekend, so I went to see her. About 60 people gathered at Borders, and they weren't walking by ignoring her. They were listening intently.

At Border's I learned that Vienna Teng had attended Stanford, initially in pre-med, but ultimately with a major in computer science. I learned that after Stanford, she had been a programmer at Cisco for two years before quitting her day job the previous May. And I learned that two days after that performance at Border's, she was scheduled to perform on Late Night with David Letterman.

How did she do it? In this first interview with a former programmer, I ask Vienna Teng how she became interested in music, why she chose computer science over medicine, and how she not only chased after her dream but managed to catch it at such an early age. Along the way, she compares song writing with software design.

Getting Started with Music

Bill Venners: How did you get started with music when you were young?

Vienna Teng: It started apparently before I really made any conscious decision. My parents said I'd always been attracted to music from an early age. The classic story is I started singing before I talked. My Mom would play me tapes, and I'd be able to sing them back perfectly. She said my pitch was dead on, but I'd fill in nonsense syllables for all the rest of it. The words would be all garbled, because I didn't know how to talk yet.

So I always liked to sing, and apparently when I was about four or five I also started to be attracted to pianos and musical instruments. Whenever we went to a friend's house, I vaguely recall climbing up on the piano, plunking on it, and trying to figure it out. So my parents figured I was interested and asked me if I wanted to take piano lessons. I said sure.

Waking Hour
Listen to: Gravity
Bill Venners: At what age did you start piano lessons?

Vienna Teng: That was shortly before I turned five.

Bill Venners: You started piano before you were five? That's very early.

Vienna Teng: Yeah. It started out really simply. My teacher, who was great, sat me down at the piano and said, "This thing is called middle C." Find another one that looks just like it. It was almost like a kids game for a long time.

So I started on the piano before I turned five and, basically, just kept taking piano lessons. From early on my strengths were learning by ear, making stuff up, and trying to figure out music just by listening to it. I wasn't so patient at being able to read notes off a page, and to this day I'm pretty bad at it. I was always more interested in taking what I was learning and trying to synthesize it into something new.

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