Rock star coders

For rock star programmers, it's not only just about brains but how you use them and get along with others

"You sound great singing in the shower, but there's a rock star inside you!" So read the first line of a job posting placed by Viget Labs in December, in its attempt to fill a junior-level position for a Ruby on Rails "would-be rock star programmer."

Meanwhile, Web-based marketing service Emma asks, "Are you a PHP rock star?" And it goes on. Online brokerage firm Redfin seeks an AJAX rock star, social network BrightKite is looking for a Ruby rock star and software developer Backstop Solutions Group, a Java rock star.

So when did programmers become equated with rock stars and all that they entail -- fame, ego, phenomenal talent, single-minded passion, brilliance to the point of self-destruction, absurd employment terms and crazed groupies? Some say it's the surge in Web 2.0 start-ups and the resulting demand for talent. "The innovation engine is cranking at high speed again, and that means more start-ups and more venture capital money," says David Hayes, president of recruiting firm HireMinds. And there's nothing like a hot job market, he says, to bring out the egos. "The employment rate for technology professionals is extremely high, and that gives some people the sense that they're now and forever in charge of their own destinies."

Others say the phenomenon has roots in the growing fanfare and big winnings of code competitions, particularly those hosted by TopCoder, which offers up to US$50,000 to first place winners and now hosts its annual TopCoder Open in the entertainment Mecca of Las Vegas. "It's an entertainment ethos that's taken over a small area of the programming world," says Paul Glen, an IT management consultant and author of Leading Geeks. One frequent winner of these competitions, Tomasz Czajka (known in competition as Tomek), actually has enjoyed celebrity-like status in the Polish media and has been featured on a billboard in his native downtown Warsaw. He's even had a song written about him by MC Plus+, a "geeksta" rapper (yes, there is such a thing). Another, Derek Kinsman, who uses the handle "Snapdragon" and lives in Canada, says he gets recognized from time to time, once while dining in a restaurant.

Jim McKeown, director of communications at TopCoder, says he has seen the social status of frequent winners grow significantly in the last four to five years, especially because of the "incredible search for talent from companies with deep pockets," he says. "They used to just be guys who were brilliant but not very well known."

Still others point to the ease today of developing a following and a level of fame, however small, thanks to both online and physical world venues, such as blogs, open-source software sites, content-sharing sites like Digg and conferences designed for avid programmers, such as invitation-only Foo Camps, an annual hacker event sponsored by O'Reilly Media.

Developers who lead major software projects, such as Linus Torvalds, have always attained rock star status within their community, points out Dan Helfman, a longtime developer and founder of Coderific, an employee rating site, who recently wrote a diatribe against arrogant coders. And while he doesn't think that kind of reputation is recognized by the greater public, it holds tremendous sway within the IT community itself.

"Some developers base their careers around eventually becoming rock stars," Helfman says. "Others practically worship at the virtual altar of software rock stars, hanging on every word of their blog or mailing list posts."

But the difference is striking between those who became popular before 2007 and those who've gained their celebrity since then, says Clinton Nixon, a senior developer at Viget Labs, a Web design, development and consulting firm. All you have to do, he says, is visit the Web sites of older-style programming gurus such as Joel Spolsky or Paul Graham,/a> and compare those to the likes of Obie Fernandez, who used a commercial photographer who works with modeling studios to help create his Web image.

Then there's Zed Shaw, whose profanity-laced blog is filled with arrogant retellings of his greatness -- perhaps just an act, but in any case quite a show. Another programmer who comes across as ego-filled (whether authentic or not) is Kyle Brady, who literally calls himself a "rock star programmer" and admits to having a huge ego "but not without good cause."

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