Erik Oosterwaal, Software Developer and Vocalist

My name is Erik, and I am a full stack developer and tech lead, currently working on software for big fitness chains. Our customers include almost all major fitness chains in the Netherlands, and some in other countries such as the UK and Canada.

I live just south of the centre of the Netherlands. Career wise it would probably be better to live in or around Amsterdam, but the south is a really nice place to live. I can run out the front door and be in the woods in five minutes. We have a national park nearby with woods and naturally occurring sand dunes, and, if any of you readers would like to visit the Netherlands, one of the best theme parks in Europe called “De Efteling” is over here in the south, actually practically in my backyard. They say that Walt Disney himself visited it to get ideas for the Disney theme parks. From here it takes about an hour to get to Amsterdam (in theory – in practice it takes longer most of the time due to traffic), but I actually find Antwerp in Belgium a more beautiful city with a very relaxed vibe, and Antwerp is only 45 minutes away.

Since I was young I have been interested in technology. It started when I was about 8 years old, with a simple electronics kit that included a battery, a few light bulbs, a bell and some switches. I could fiddle for hours running wires though the house creating a bell for my room, or a makeshift alarm system. Later on, I became interested in computers. At first it was just playing games on an Atari 2600, but later I got a Commodore 64 that gave me the possibility to tinker with programing in Basic. I settled for a long time on the Commodore Amiga, which had capabilities light years ahead of PC’s at that time.

At the time I was ready to choose an education, there really was not a school in the Netherlands with an education specifically targeting I.T. or programming. So I settled for electronics, which was a bumpy road for me because a lot of the curriculum did not really interest me. Also, for some reason I cannot turn on a soldering iron without getting at least second degree burns by accident. I can tell you that that is not an advantage for studying electronics.

After that, my higher education did not bring me much except for one thing: Internet access. The school that I went to was connected to the Internet from very early on, and by joining a club called InterLink, members could have access to the early Internet (Netscape 1.1 and Gopher, anyone?). InterLink went on to create the first big search engine in the Netherlands called the InterLink Search Engine or ILSE, and I became fascinated with the Internet. I gave up my higher education to go to a 6-months multimedia course that introduced me to software such as Photoshop, Illustrator, Authorware and director, but more importantly, it also taught me HTML. Through my Internship I got my first job at a multimedia / Internet company.

In my spare time I like to do different things; I have practiced Tai Chi, worked as a sound engineer, I had vocal coaching for quite a while, and currently I work out in a small group with a personal trainer twice a week. I like learning new skills and broadening my horizon. Historically, music is my largest passion outside of software. I can admire things in most music genres, but I often listen to 80’s alternative, punk, metal, hip-hop and hardcore (hardcore metal, kids. Not that house stuff). Some of the bands that I like to listen to are Roxy Music, NOFX, Deftones, Cypress Hill and Madball.

The story of how I got into music is almost a textbook example of how any band starts I imagine. I had some friends in school when I was about 18 – one of them a drummer, the other one a guitar player. We were messing around often after school, them playing songs and me singing along. Covers at first, of bands like Faith No More, Pennywise and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but also hip-hop/metal crossover bands like Bodycount.

We soon started writing our own material. We played music with rap-like verses, and melodic choruses, as well as a mix of metal, grunge, hip-hop and punk (later on, someone coined the term “groovecore”, which has a nice ring to it). We needed a name for our band, and because our drummer at the time studied Chinese, the band went on to be known as “Ni Hao”, which is “hello” in Chinese.

After a while we wanted to take it a step further, and we found a bass player. We started rehearsing in a garage (how’s that for a cliché?) and planned our first show. Before we played our first show we also attracted a second vocalist. This gave us the opportunity to play with the vocals a bit more and deliver our songs with a lot more energy on stage.

For some reason we gained a fair amount of traction and we were booked more and more often. After a while we were playing some of the bigger festivals over here in the Netherlands like Dynamo Open Air and Popwerk for 25,000+ people. We recorded a few CD’s and played with bands like Sick Of It All, D.R.I., Ryker’s, Sheer Terror, Deviate and 24-7 Spyz.

For me this lasted about five years. At that point in time I needed to do a year of internships. My first internship was as a technician at a theatre, and that meant sometimes working late or in weekends. At the same time the band was offered to do a 21-day tour across Europe. There was no way I could combine these two things. I had to make a choice, and I chose to leave the band.

I always tell people how my teenage years were pretty weird. Whilst a lot of my friends and classmates went out to bars and clubs in weekends, I got into a van with a few of my closest friends, and we drove all across the Netherlands and beyond to play shows. I still have a diary from that time, and at our peak we would play 2 or 3 times a week. We got to see a lot of venues and cities; we were always meeting cool new people and shared the stage with more than a fair share of incredibly talented musicians.

I never really let go of music completely though; I volunteered as a sound engineer at a local venue for a couple of years. After that I got a vocal coach and took lessons for a couple of years, still singing from time to time. In 2016, we were asked by a venue where we played when they opened, to do a one-time reunion show for their 20th anniversary. So we got together again, rehearsed for 12 weeks, and got on stage together for the first time in 16 years. I think I can safely say we rocked like we never quit.

What I have learned as a vocalist is that singing is a mix of disciplines. I do not exactly have an angelic or impeccable voice. But neither does Joe Cocker, or Rod Stewart to name a few successful singers. Just as important as your voice is timing, rhythm and storytelling. Depending on the genre, these things might even be more important.

Frank Sinatra for example, has great timing. Just try to sing along with some of his songs, and see if the moment you start (or stop) singing matches his. It almost never does. That is his thing. He timed his lyrics like no one else could. Dinosaur Jr. is a band that I really like. Their vocalist, J Mascis, sings with a whiny, barely in tune voice, which is weird but totally perfect for their music. The bottom line is that you do not have to have to excel at all aspects to be a successful singer. The combination of what you are good at and what you are not good at make up your identity. This also translates into other aspects of life.

A little while ago I saw someone post a message online about how he was worried he was mediocre at best at something, and not very good at anything. Whatever you do, there is almost certainly always someone that is going to be better at it than you. What defines you is your unique combination of traits. You do not have to be perfect at everything all at once. Everyone has a unique combination of capabilities that makes them perfect to accomplish specific things. The trick is finding your “thing”.

In my work I am just as eager to learn as in my personal life. The result is that I know quite a bit about a lot of different fields within I.T., but I am not an expert on any particular field. What singing perhaps taught me is that that does not matter. Sometimes problems arise in software that stem from elsewhere. Having knowledge of hardware, networks and databases gives me an edge to solve these problems where specialists might have to give up. I can also suggest stuff when we might be looking for a new piece of technology to solve a specific problem. I might not be able to implement it right away, but I know what solutions exist for specific problems. My “thing” at work is that I can broaden my scope, and look beyond just the software.

What being a vocalist also taught me is that I am a storyteller. I do not mind speaking in front of a crowd, as long as I have a good story to tell. While my fellow musicians would enjoy rehearsing or recording a lot, my favourite part was always the performance. The strange thing is I consider myself to be a pretty shy person. I really do not like to dance for example. And in small groups I do not like to draw attention to myself. For some reason that totally reverses when I am on stage. I jump, and run, and dance and scream and not for a single moment will it cross my mind to think about what I am doing exactly. I see a crowd of people and all I want to do is tell them a story, sing them a song, and entertain them. There is probably a very good psychological explanation for this somewhere, but I have not found it yet.

My knack for storytelling pops up in my work when it comes to the front-end of applications. User-interface design and user experience are some of the subjects I like reading about. There is a book by David Platt, called “Why software sucks” that really hit home for me. I met David Platt at a conference in Amsterdam a long time ago, where he explained software like this (paraphrasing):

“Your software is a tool. Just like a drill, or a roll of toilet paper. People don’t buy a drill because they need a drill. People buy a drill because they need a hole. People don’t buy toilet paper because they need toilet paper, they buy it because they need a clean butthole. So look at your software as a tool. It needs to accomplish a specific task and it needs to accomplish it in the best way possible without getting in the way of the person that uses it.”

I care about how people experience software just as much as about how elegantly I can solve a programming problem. It is not just about the voice, it is also about the way you tell your story.

I am looking forward to continue learning. Music has somewhat shifted to the background in my life at the moment, but there is no doubt in my mind that it will return at some point. I would still like to learn to play the piano for example. And who knows, maybe we will do a few more Ni Hao shows in a while. I would also like to learn an extra foreign language. I never had much trouble learning languages and I think it would be cool to speak a bit of Spanish, Italian or even Russian or Chinese. Learning new skills gives you all the more possibilities to venture in a niche that is uniquely yours.

What might be useful for any aspiring musicians is if I give you a short list of the most important things I learned playing in a band:

If you can play your song in a different style (or genre) and it still sounds good, you are on to something. Play your metal song in a reggae style for example or on the piano, and listen if you still like it. If you pick a band name, think about it long and hard. A band name sticks. “Free beer” might get a few giggles when you are playing the local pub, but you will regret it if you are ever asked to open up for your favourite band. It also helps a lot when you are friends first, and band members later. If you need to spend a couple of days or more together in a small van or just non-stop in each others company, you will get to know your band better than your family. Last but not least: Enjoy yourself as much as you can. Your times playing music are the times you are going to remember on your deathbed, not your days spent hugging a computer in a dusty office.

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