Rock star coders

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

A bit quieter in approach but still wildly creative is a programmer by the bizarre name of why the lucky, who blogs about his love of hacking code and a wide variety of other things, including his involvement in a band called the Thirsty Cups.

Some of what accounts for this change in style, Nixon says, is simply the changing culture of the Internet, thanks to the rise of social networks. The new generation of programmers grew up in an age in which it's de rigeur to create an image of yourself online. "We live in an age of individual, self-promoted celebrity within niche markets, where some programmers really work at promoting their expertise, eventually becoming recognizable to anyone who spends time reading weblogs and Digg-style sites," he says.

Nixon also points to a trend he sees of more people entering the development world with Web design backgrounds. "Image is now part of what makes a well-known developer, much like a designer's image is a major part of her portfolio," he says.

Rock stars resonate

Perhaps it's this new breed of image-conscious developer that is resonating with employers, particularly those of the Web 2.0 start-up variety. The combination of talent, passion, creativity, confidence and fearlessness about exposing their code and ideas to the rest of the developer community are traits that companies say they're seeking when they place those rock star ads. And when you get past the wackiness of some of these sites, you see that their authors have published books, started up companies, written downloadable code and spoken at conferences.

For instance, according to Viget CEO Brian Williams, Nixon's qualities approximate what he's looking for in a rock star programmer. In addition to working at Viget, Nixon, who is 31, writes and publishes role-playing games; is co-founder of the Forge -- a role-playing game community; has maintained a blog since 1999; and is a presenter at conferences such as the O'Reilly Open Source Convention and participates in Rails Rumbles. He's self-taught, having started programming as a preteen, and is currently pursuing his bachelor's of science. He's as interested in learning about Ruby as teaching others about it. And he performs publicly with his ukelele.

"For us, a rock star developer really boils down to two things: talent and passion," Williams says. In other words, you either "got it" or you don't. While you can become a better creative thinker or problem-solver, he says, "ultimately you either have the raw talent to reach 'rock star' status or you don't."

Without passion, he adds, talent is useless. "Exceptional developers are passionate about their code, company, clients, co-workers and the community at large," he says. "They're ambitious about growing in their profession and strive to earn the respect of their peers simply by doing innovative work and sharing it."

According to Patrick Reagan, development director at Viget, the company is "looking for the 20% -- the people who, when they're unfulfilled at their day jobs, spend after-hours learning new languages [and] frameworks and hacking on open-source projects."

While Nixon doesn't bill himself as a rock star and maintains a blog that's more humble than flashy, he says he understands what his employer means by the term. "They're obviously not looking for Mick Jagger's cousin who knows Ruby," he says. Rather, they're looking for someone who has technological depth and a desire and ability to be something of a public figure, interacting with other programmers and, as Nixon says, "dazzling clients with their brilliance."

As he sees it, his employer wants the sort of people who organize BarCamps, speak at conferences, and publish their findings and code for others to see.

"To be blunt, we don't want the stereotype of a dirty programmer with a scraggly beard in a pizza-stained threadbare conference T-shirt, no matter how good they code," he says. "We want someone who is a well-rounded human, and driven to excel in their chosen field."

Will Weaver, president of Emma, echoes some of these ideas. "We want someone who pushes past good, or better than average, and does something incredible -- someone who approaches development as an art form, not just a means to an end, and wants to create something memorable, not just make something work."

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