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Silicon Valley Has Gone All-In on A Cappella

The software engineers, project managers, and one preschool teacher of Googapella warm­ing up, in their team jackets, for a September perform­ance for Google Creative Academy.

One of the truest things in life is that where there are nerds, there is a cappella. Thus, as Silicon Valley has taken over as the nerd capital of the world, the hills outside of San Francisco have come alive with the sound of unaccompanied vocal harmonies. “There’s like a real Silicon Valley tech-company a cappella scene,” says Deke Sharon, the genre’s current éminence grise, known for arranging the music for the Pitch Perfect movies. Come December, he will reprise his role as the master of ceremonies at the fifth annual “Techapella,” at which vocal groups comprising employees of the area’s largest technology companies will put aside their devices and their dreams of conquering the world in order to perform renditions of popular music onstage at Redwood City’s Fox Theatre in real, pasty life. “It’s like a bunch of musical nerds singing their hearts out,” says Aaron Roan, a 34-year-old data scientist for Google, who came up with the idea after Laolee Xiong, an engineer and Roan’s co-founder in Googapella, the company’s first official a cappella group, defected to Facebook, where he quickly set up a rival crew: the Vocal Network. Their first “sing-off,” in 2014, was so popular that it spawned, in the words of Pitch Perfect, “aca-children.”

Photo: Cody Pickens

“A few of us went, and it looked like so much fun,” says Neil Pomerleau. A new employee at LinkedIn, fresh out of school and yearning for the camaraderie of his college a cappella group, Pomerleau got together with a few colleagues and started InTune, and while the exact origin story is a matter of some dispute — as is characteristic of the tech industry, everyone claims to have come up with the same idea independently — Mountain View and its environs were suddenly teeming with rival groups. Dropbox had Syncopation; Pinterest had Pin Tune; some Airbnbers became Airbnbeats; and tweeters at Twitter, naturally, took the name the Songbirds.

Photo: Cody Pickens

Up north, in Seattle, members of the Baudboys, an a cappella group that has been mmm-bopping at Microsoft since 1989, heard what was going on and decided to head south to perform at Techapella 2015. “We were like, ‘We’ve been doing this since Silicon Valley was just a baby,’ ” says Mark Adolph, a 19-year veteran of the group, which takes its name from the now-obsolete measure of the rate at which information is transferred in a communication channel. “So we decided we should go and show them how it’s done.” He jokes: Although there are the rivalries among the various tech companies, when it comes to a cappella, Adolph points out, “Everyone’s just happy that other people are doing it.” (Attendees this year are unlikely to see an 8 Mile–style battle in which fake news, Russian hacking, and antitrust settlements feature in lyrics.) The group’s members are all friends and even vacation together yearly in Tahoe. “We call it Snowappella!” says Pomerleau, who is dating a fellow InTuner. (“A cappella is a very elaborate mating ritual,” Sharon notes.) Still, the players didn’t get this far without being a little competitive: Not long ago, Googapella started touting itself as “Google’s premier a cappella group,” after a second one, AlphaBeats, sprung up within its parent company. “There is more of a demand than supply of a cappella groups,” explains Roan, adding that despite the music’s popularity, no one is planning on recording an album. “You know what they say,” Roan says. “Internet killed the radio star.”

*This article appears in the October 2, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Silicon Valley Has Gone All-In on A Cappella