The Accordionist and the value of specifications

On those rare occasions when I arrive home at a God-fearing time, there is, sometimes, a Bulgarian Accordionist sitting in the neighbourhood playing familiar tunes. It’s not the action-laden showmanship that compels one to stop and gaze at the spectacle nor the stereotypical French sailor (the kind I never have met in France) easily recognisable from cartoons. He’s an average guy with an average face who is playing Dr. Zhivago and Brahms’ Hungarian dances like a stereotypical musician from the Balkans is expected to.

By Arent, Infrogmation, CC-BY-SA-3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Or so it seems, because, like I said, I don’t stop and really listen to what he plays; the entire setup seems optimised for quick conversion anyway: by-passers, office workers, walking from the metro station towards home, maybe in a hurry to snatch the last bottle of milk from a supermarket shelf before somebody else does. The Accordionist sits, strategically, not in anybody’s way, but surely close enough to be heard and seen. A rather unremarkable appearance, dressed in earthly tones, destined to not steal the show from the few coins in his red, inviting donation casket. The accordion can be heard over a distance, the music still indiscernible, but it must be Dr. Zhivago and Brahm’s Hungarian dances, because street musicians from the Balkans always play those, and as I walk by, the tune does indeed sound familiar. Good, I was right, I know my music.

Except, I don’t. Upon listening closely to what the Accordionist is really playing, I realise it is not a tune at all but an occasionally repeating sequence of randomly arranged snippets of familiar tunes.

In music, sampling is the act of taking a portion, or sample, of one sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or a sound recording in a different song or piece.

The Accordionist, obviously a passionate listener himself, probably never received a formal musical education or even significantly practised a musical instrument before joining the occupation (he would, ostensibly, play that instead). He improvises, arranges snippets of familiar tunes in a random manner with audible seams, just well enough for the hasty audience to buy into his cover and leave an obolus. But it works.

A run-down of the Accordionist’s product strategy

Product definition

A good product: a quick distraction, everybody likes music, the right size at the right place at the right time.

Recognisability: the product requires no introduction, training or customer awareness campaigns. It serves well-understood needs in a just as well-understood manner.

Bill of materials

Low investment: there is almost no up-front investment in assets or training apart from a second-hand accordion and average knowledge of folk tunes. And by that I mean only knowing of the melody of the tune, not the actual skill of playing it.

Re-usability: a low number of samples from well-known tunes are randomly arranged to continuously generate an ambient musical experience.

Low proficiency: playing a short sample requires significantly less skill, dexterity and memory than playing an entire tune.


Training on the job: the Accordionist’s skill did improve audibly over the course of a few months, from keying random notes to what could pass as decent background music or even to the creation of an idiosyncratic composer. Although it shall be noted that at the time of this writing I still have not heard him playing a single, coherent tune.

Low TCO: apart from the low upfront investment, there are hardly any operational expenses involved for a self-performer with no royalties or licence cost to pay or R&D.


A good retail channel: strategically located, exposure to the product is unavoidable yet unobtrusive. Try before you buy, no commitments, recurring performances, the product advertises itself, no personalised marketing required, customers seek out the product.

Market localisation: it’s an easily localisable, global product. While the high identifiability of the incorporated musical samples probably yield a universally consumable product, the particular production method can be easily adapted to other markets and audiences. Not to mention that the Accordionist probably plays several gigs across town at different times and locations.

Win by association: while you think you heard a world-class tune, it was the few borrowed samples which patched in the Brahms association and conjured the mental picture of those romantic streets of Prague (which isn’t even in the Balkans).

A familiar tune?

The Accordionist’s product development process is not dissimilar to how low cost, offshore software delivery centres operate. Delivery centres create personalised products at low costs the same way the Accordionist sells entertainment: a well-tuned assembly line re-arranges pre-manufactured components into what appears to fulfil any arbitrary KPIs and specifications without being the real thing. The music sounds OK, can be made to sound OK for any formal specification of “OK”, but no musician will ever concede that this arrangement of notes has inner consistency, inspiration, a “soul” or is even real music. Just as the Accordionist’s music vanishes into the evening air as his hasty audience scurries homeward, a delivery centre’s software product is condemned to only ever have users, not fans.

A binary soul

The customer’s expectation can at best be approximated by specifications as they suffer from the same inherent ambiguity of human language as every mental model based on abstraction. Hence, a product built exactly to specifications does not meet the buyer’s expectation but merely approximates just as specifications only approximate the product owner’s intent and the implementation approximates only the specifications’ intent. The product’s soul is that one undefinable yet overwhelmingly inherent quality which makes the product deviate from the specifications in exactly those desirable ways that make it fit for the intended purpose rather than complying to its formal specifications.

Understanding software delivery

A word of caution to anyone who reads this post as a call to arms to rid ourselves of delivery centres: the very opposite is the case. Delivery centres were born out of the necessity to standardise software delivery through reusable processes and flexible resource allocation. A business analyst, IT architect or QA tester who has worked with a project with or in a delivery centre can easily move to other projects not only within the same delivery centre but even to a different one. The ability to scale up and down project resources on demand is what makes affordable software delivery even possible; there wouldn’t even be the abundance of enterprise software we know today without delivery centres.

An evening at the orchestra is most certainly as enjoyable an experience as it is rare and expensive, whereas the casual listening to the Accordionist’s sampling is cheaper, more frequent and less memorable. Both serve similar purposes in radically different setups which makes them comparable solutions to different demands. The Accordionist’s music may not be good, but it is good enough for many occasions, which is why he will be playing, hopefully, for many years to come.

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