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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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Escaping the Cubicle

Bill Venners: I'd like to talk about how you ultimately escaped the cubicle to chase your dream. And I mean "escape the cubicle" metaphorically, because for a lot of people that cubicle is their dream—to have a good job with good pay in a nice cubicle. The cubicle is a promised land for a lot of people. So what I really want to get at is: whatever someone's dream is, how do they make it happen?

You already mentioned that you went into computer science because it would leave you time to pursue your passion in music. But what were the mechanics involved of actually going from typing public static void main in a cubicle at Cisco to performing your music on Dave Letterman?

Vienna Teng: It did help when I started my job, I wanted to pursue music to see what would happen there. So I did have a bit of a game plan. I wanted to finish and release the CD on my own. That way I would have a product to sell. And I wanted to try and play shows in the Bay Area. I didn't know how to start, initially, but I figured I would work my way up from coffee houses to bigger coffee houses to maybe a club or two—in general to just try to get noticed. I also wanted to see whether I had an audience, or to put it in business terms, to see if there was a market for this product. So during the two years I spent at Cisco, I was not only working the day job, I was also testing the waters to see whether I had what it took, and whether I wanted to do this.

February to May 2002 was when things really started to happen. That was when I started to sell out the little venues I was playing in. That was also when Virt Records, my record label, approached me and asked for my CD, and we started talking about the possibility of working together.

After a while, it started to be a problem of having so many opportunities in the music career coming my way that I was neglecting work, because a lot had to be done during business hours. I would get into work, and somebody would call me and I'd have to answer that, or I would have to get back to somebody. And pretty soon I was taking many hours of my workday out to spend on music. Then I would have to leave to play a show. It got to the point where I wasn't being fair to my actual employer because I was working more on this nascent music career than I was on my real career. So it was probably time to go. In terms of how I escaped the cubicle, I was just waiting for a time when it no longer made sense to have a day job anymore.

Bill Venners: One thing I sense is that you had a clear mission. You knew what you wanted. I know a lot of people who to some extent still don't know what they want at an advanced age. Also, while reading your weblog, I sensed a clear focus. Maybe that's mostly because it is your music weblog, but you seemed focused on this one thing.

Vienna Teng: Yeah, that's probably partly because the weblog was on my music site, so I didn't post about programming so much. But it's true. I actually have talked to a lot of my friends in my age group about this. It's a prevalent problem of people in their mid 20s to figure out what they want to be doing and where they want to go. I find that my friends who have many talents in different areas are usually most troubled by it, because they say, "I could be really good here, and I could be really good there. But if I throw myself into A, then I'll be neglecting B. And will I always wonder if I should have been doing B instead."

I guess I don't really have any inspirational story to give because I'm the rare case in that I knew what I wanted, and for better or worse, I stuck to it. And it so happened that I also had a couple of lucky breaks, and I may be able to actually pursue music for a living now.

I guess there was a period of time my sophomore year in college when I thought, OK, there's medicine, there's software engineering, and there's music. I can't do all three, obviously. And medicine, if I go that way, it's a lifestyle. It will determine the way I live my life. It will consume the way I live my life. And I was torn for quite some time trying to decide how I was going to do this. I also questioned whether I was good enough in any of the three. So that's probably the point where I had to make the call and then basically stick to it. But that's more my personality than anything. Once I decide something I stick to it.

Next Week

Come back Monday, June 16 for Part II of a conversation with Elliotte Rusty Harold. I am now staggering the publication of several interviews at once, to give the reader variety. The next installment of this interview with Vienna Teng will appear in the near future. If you'd like to receive a brief weekly email announcing new articles at, please subscribe to the Artima Newsletter.

Talk Back!

Have an opinion about programmer productivity, backwards compatibility, or breaking code versus programmer pain. Discuss this article in the News & Ideas Forum topic, How Vienna Escaped the Cubicle.


Waking Hour

Vienna Teng's debut album is Waking Hour, which is available on at:

Vienna Teng's website:

Liane Hansen's NPR interview with Vienna Teng:

Vienna Teng's biography at Virt Records:

Latest News at Vienna Teng's website:

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