Rock star coders

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

As for ego, however, leave it at the door. "We would rather have someone with decent skills that can get along rather than a genius who has to have everything his way," Weaver says.

The argument against rock stars

Weaver's caveat brings up a good reason why plenty of people warn employers to know what they're getting into when they look for rock stars. For one thing, this type of developer may be more interested in the exciting work of creating code than the routine stuff of debugging, maintaining and understanding business requirements, Glen says. "Many are junkies for creation," he says. "When you're trying to incrementally improve or stabilize a system, they'd slit their wrists."

Many developers of this caliber might also be ambitious, hoping to someday start their own company and sell it for millions. "So the idea of working at a company for a lowly US$100,000 a year is not their idea of fame and fortune," says J. Strother Moore, who heads the department of computer sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.

Kinsman, who now works at Google Inc., acknowledges that his real-life work is more tedious and less challenging than the abstract problems he sees on programming contests. "It's very important for them to be offered challenges that are worthy of them," McKeown says.

Another issue is the arrogance that often accompanies brilliance, which can demoralize an entire staff. "There are hazards that people run into when they're that smart," Glen says. "They start to believe their own PR." In fact, he says, he's had to fire rock star developers because their net impact on projects was negative. "Instead of using their talents to raise everyone up, they used it to diminish everyone," he says. "It's not about the raw horsepower of your intellect but how you use it."

Moore adds that companies may be better off hiring someone more akin to a symphony conductor than a rock star. "The world needs excellent designers who work well with a team," he says.

Helfman agrees. "Companies, hiring managers and developers who seek out rock star developers often ignore other important issues like how well they play with others and follow software engineering best practices," he says. Too many of them, he says, are wed to one particular programming language or area of expertise, disdaining all others.

This really becomes a problem when the employer sees the star developer as doing no wrong, he says. On his blog, Helfman contends that the best and brightest developers are not rock star programmers at all. "If it isn't something that takes every ounce of clever in their body to do it, it won't get done," he writes.

Indeed, plenty of people find the rock star nomenclature and culture distasteful. In fact, Hayes contends, really good developers wouldn't answer job postings that used the term. And, he says, the ones who do might be the most self-delusional. He cites a recent example of a job candidate he interviewed with just four or five years of experience who gave himself a top score of 10 on a self-assessment test. "Clearly, he thinks he's a rock star, but that kind of attitude doesn't work well with a lot of our clients," he says.

"I almost think of the term pejoratively," Moore agrees. "It implies a sort of arrogance that I don't actually see among the best programmers I know, who know their limitations and program with 'the other guy' in mind. If you have to call yourself a rock star, you ain't." Or as one blogger puts it, "I'd rather be a jazz programmer."

And perhaps the tide among employers is changing, according to Viget's Reagan. "We've been thinking that the rock star label has been overused in Rails job posts," he says. "Next time we might try 'Rails pirate' or 'Ruby MMA warrior.' "

The bright side of stars

But it's not all bad, says TopCoder founder Jack Hughes. The increased celebrity among prominent developers -- even if it never infiltrates the public's consciousness -- will only elevate the perception of the profession, in a 'rising tide lifts all boats' kind of way. "Could Microsoft or Google be where they are without star programmers?" he asks. "I don't think so."

And even while Nixon agrees with those who say the phrase 'rock star programmer' is silly, he says it doesn't reduce its usefulness. "Right now, we're in a place where the popularity of ideas and people matters as much as their technical merits," he says. "That's not the best criteria for technology or hiring decisions, but people aren't rational."

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