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Ask HN: "Rockstar" job listings, yay or nay?
30 points by andrewbadera on June 19, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments
Is the use of the term "rockstar" by the "average/generic small business, corporate department or other software shop" in a job listing generally appropriate?

Do you find it to be an overused, dead, beaten horse of a meme? Do you find it's often overused and abused by non-technical hiring personnel? Do you find it's often used in lieu of appropriate title and/or compensation?

Do you find that it automatically prejudices you against a job listing?

Do you use the term rockstar in your own job listings? If so, where do you see your startup or shop on the scale of gee whiz hotness?

I always groan when I see it in job listings. The handful of real "rockstar" programmers don't need to scan job boards.

I'm guessing what you're likely to attract with this kind of post is a lot of arrogant code cowboys that don't play well with others.

> The handful of real "rockstar" programmers don't need to scan job boards.

The handful of connected real "rockstar" programmers don't need to scan job boards. One could be a completely awesome programmer at a company which does not realize his/her potential and could be looking for a new job. Of course, mentioning the word "rockstar" doesn't really mean anything if the pay/benefits are no different from average. My point is not every rockstar programmer has a fan-following, famous blog, and tons of open-source projects. Corollary, not every programmer with a fan-following, famous blog, and tons of open-source projects is a rockstar.

not every rockstar programmer has a fan-following, famous blog, and tons of open-source projects

This is a problem with the term. 'Rockstar' has pretty strong connotations of fame and confidence. 'Rockstar toiling in obscurity' or 'underappreciated rockstar' are contradictions in terms.

Not only that, well developed analytical skills often correlate with poorly developed social skills.

I hate the term myself, except that it seems to indicate a certain cluelessness that may be exploitable.

Exactly. David Bowie doesn't scan job boards. But he does do drum programming on his own tracks, on a Roland 707 http://www.discogs.com/David-Bowie-Outside-Earthling-Hours/r.... Even if he did know Haskell, one doesn't see him responding to job ads. Real rockstars have too much of their own thang going on.

Agreed...I don't immediately discount the company because everyone seems to do it, but I wish it would stop, since that does nothing to inform me of what kind of company I'm looking at.

Under that theory, there isn't any point in using job boards, since there aren't any good programmers. Sure plenty of great programmers use networking, but plenty use job listings too. My best hire ever was from a free 5-line job post on craigslist.

If they let me show up with massive hangovers, allow me to drink at work, don't care that I smoke inside and miss half of my deadlines. Sure. Otherwise, stop fucking using that term.

Great thing I'm my own boss, I guess.

I got a rockstar job offer from some time ago.

I responded to the recruiter to ask if drugs, groupies and obscene amounts of alcohol were involved. And also if I could destroy a hotel room or two.

I then explained to them that there is nothing rockstar about software development and that I would rather be approached in a more professional way.

I quickly got a followup email back from the recruiter's boss saying that they made up the rockstar bit and that the client had nothing to do with it. He did apologize and said he would love to have a serious talk.

I wrote about it at length here: http://thesethings.posterous.com/rapping-grandmas-and-ninja-...

Short version: It was initially a helpful construct to suggest that:

* Your potential place of work was not stuffy. That the applicant could seek relief from their horrible bank job. (This signal is now false given that boring bank jobs say "rockstar." :D )

* The applicant will be respected and treated well (like a rockstar), not a codemonkey.

Nowadays, "rockstar" implies the applicant must be all-skilled, all-talented, with no burden on the potential place of work to live up to anything suggested by use of the word :)

I think the alleged appeal of a job listed as being "for rockstars" is a certain amount of automatic respect once you get there. No one wants to go and be some day trader's or insurance adjuster's software lackey, so the idea of being the 'star' of the company is very appealing.

The problem is that this is inherently completely bullshit. Most companies are driven by sales of a service or non-software product, which makes you less important than the people directly responsible for making and selling the product. Even if you're a developer centric company, there are so many 'stars' that there are none, so it's more like being part of the choir that accompanies a rock band (every 10 years or so, when that's cool again). It's pretty nice, but you're certainly going to be held accountable for destroying your hotel room.

In my opinion, the only things that can be appealing about a job listing are technologies used (if they're telling the truth and not just spitting out buzzwords) and location.

On the flip side, if you want me to think your culture is cool and fun (as the 'rockstar' listing aims to do), you have to make sure that every person I meet from your company (or a vast majority) are cool and fun. Otherwise, no amount of buzzwords is going to attract me to your position.

"I think the alleged appeal of a job listed as being "for rockstars" is a certain amount of automatic respect once you get there. No one wants to go and be some day trader's or insurance adjuster's software lackey, so the idea of being the 'star' of the company is very appealing."

It does sound appealing. But then you quickly become part of crazy meetings, changing priorities, deadlines, 'agile' planning, dealing with other teams that are less rock-band-like and other stuff that gets in the way of rockstar habits.

The use of "Rockstar" reeks of self-importance on the part of the hiring company - obnoxious. I've seen it so many times it motivated me to write the following Job Ad:


I personally find it to be slightly negative because a) The job ads where I initially saw it about 2-3 years ago were generally for rockstar interns ready to work in a microscopic paycheck. aka - everyone here at McFranchise is a manager but gets paid minimum wage. b) It is now used by companies like Intel. Any company who wants to hire a rockstar and insists on doing a background + drug test is not cool in my book.

Personally I find that using the words "rockstar" or "ninja" makes the company that placed the ad sound like a bunch of immature amateurs.

Whenever I see such an ad, all I can think of is this:


Since this is not Twitter, here's the actual URL of the above link: http://johnstamosfever.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/ninjas-an...

Nice 404 you have there.

I get a nice 200 OK. Maybe someone has installed a ninja-filter in your firewall?

I think that this phrase was moderately useful when it first appeared, as it indicated both a certain level of respect for the skills involved and a relaxed work environment. Unfortunately, it also became useless almost immediately afterwards due to companies jumping on the "We're cool too!" bandwagon.

My question is, are there other ways of indicating those qualities that won't be immediately copied by the "uncool" companies?

When I see a job posting looking for a "rock star" I immediately think "OK, but are you willing to pay for a rock star?" If the ad indicates that they are looking for skills way above average, they better be willing to pay way above average. Otherwise, it seems to me they either aren't sincere or are only really looking for a bargain.

In Lake Wobegon, all children are above average.

In the bay area, all programmers are rock stars.

I don't like to see such colloquialisms in job postings, but as someone who has done a fair amount of hiring in my career, I also don't want to see them on resumes or CVs unless you've worked for Rockstar Games or real Rockstars.

I wonder if these listings ever come with "rockstar" salaries. I doubt that the people who use this term is even prepared to offer 2x market rate.

I'm not a fan, but that's because it's overused. I feel the same way about "Ninja," although it does seem more appropriate for Software Development jobs.

One term from a job posting that I really liked was "best available athlete." It was for a business development type job, and it said to me that they were looking for talent over experience. Unfortunately, it turned out that they were looking for someone who could take on an entry level job at the company while also filling in for their soon to leave admin.

I guess the best way to determine what terms are effective an which are overused is to split test them somehow. Someone should build that kind of functionality into an Applicant Tracking System.

Put it another way: are you a rockstar business? If not, why would a rockstar want to work for you?

Do rockstars even have jobs? Probably they do in a way, but I could imagine that they don't see themselves as people who have jobs.

Well it's definitely becoming more common in job listings to say the least:


It definitely turns me off to a job. But then maybe I'm just not a rockstar.

I find it ambiguous, but on the whole probably a good sign. A negative part is that it appeals to the needy ego. A postive aspect is that it maybe signals a knowledge of the Spolsky school of management, which is a clear improvement over average companies.

But it's not as informative as other signs. For example, programming language choices and transparency. In this regard, the most impressive company I know is Relevance:


Other good companies include Freiheit and RethinkDB:

http://www.freiheit.com/tag/Jobs (note the google translator)


I am almost guaranteed to read the post if it has something like that, whereas I sometimes skip ones like "Application Developer II" or something lame like that. It's usually obvious from the rest of the post whether it's a phony HR ploy or a company truly searching for top talent (most of the time). And if so, I know that 1) they are willing to pay well, and 2) I'm going to get to work with other smart people. Sure, it's a cliche and sometimes abused, but so are lots of words, like agile, lean, software craftsman, etc. Just bc someone says it, I don't trust it 100%, but it's still sometimes useful to use it to convey an idea in a single word.

I think it's appropriate in terms of describing an attitude, but it is not so great at describing skills. "Ninja", "rockstar", "guru" and such tell me that they want somebody to show up who doesn't feel stress and is able to make the tough decisions needed to be made to make the thing happen. It also means you're willing to put up with a bit of cowboy mentality in return for exceptional performance.

Doesn't mean that the programmer is worth a damn. That's a different question. Confusion results when you confuse what's being said.

It also doesn't mean that a rockstar programmer is what you really need. But that's also a different question.

I think the actual position almost never lives up to such a breathless description.

Back when the economy was a bit more dire, I interviewed with a place that called itself "funky", with a team of "ninjas".

Turned out to be an accountancy software house with some typical line of business apps that needed to be ported to the web because a local web startup was eating them up for breakfast and converting their customers like crazy.

I hate the idea of the term "Rockstar," (or "Ninja") because it implies that by just showing up, you've already done your part; by extension, it implies that you don't need to improve.

I'd much rather see a job ad looking for a "Software Samurai," already possessed of great competency, but eager to learn new tricks and improve himself as a developer.

Anyone here have advice for those non-technical people who know they need a great programmer on their team?

Start becoming technical yourself. You'll begin to learn what 'great programmer' means to you, and will have a much better sense of what type of technical talent you need. I think this is true even if you don't progress very far down the path towards becoming technical -- at least giving it a shot will count dramatically in your favor.

Just write what you need into the ad. No requirements for buzzwords.

Get someone -- a friend, a consultant -- with domain knowledge and preferably hiring experience to help write your listing, screen and interview your candidates. Make sure your qualifications are spot-on, well-targeted and appropriately descriptive.

In addition to this good advice, make sure you give some indication of what makes your project interesting _to the programmer_. Only another good programmer can tell you what this is.

If it's not an interesting project, getting a good programmer to jump on it will be hard.

I'd never respond for an ad looking for a "Ninja" because I'm a software "Pirate" and we're natural enemies.

If you are shooting for the kind of people who aspire to be rockstars (i.e. teenagers, mostly?), why not?

That's just it -- many of these listings are misnomers, targeting the naive and/or desperate. Why beat that horse any more than it already has been if it's not even an accurate use of the term?

That might be a little harsh. I suspect that what's going on is that rather than targeting the naive or desperate, it's naive HR folks that think they're "getting into our heads" or "speaking our language".

It's sort of like a parent that really wants to be cool telling their kids that they really like those "Limp Biscuit" fellows - it's not that the sentiment is entirely unappreciated, but the attempt is so misguided and cheap that it's a bigger turnoff than if they'd just embraced their un-coolness to begin with.

Yeah, after a few weeks of a clueless founder, and surrounded by our fellow 'agile' and 'rockstar' programmers, you might be longing for reassuringly foosball-free break-room, and the steady whir and click as the TPS reports roll into the out-tray of the HP. Mmm. Kay.

Take a look at this posting on Quora for a related discussion: http://www.quora.com/Do-the-terms-ninja-and-rockstar-come-of...

The general sentiment is that it is neo-corporate and shows a lack of understanding and lack of concern about substance of candidates.

For me "Rockstar" is now a shibboleth.

If you have to call yourself, your company, your product or your programmers "rockstars" then none of you are real rockstars. If you have to ask "what's different about rockstar's lifestyles compared to the small people?" then you definitely have no idea what you're even talking about.

It's just like being called a "hacker", or a "gangster" or similar. You either have legit street cred, and thereby are automatically included amongst an elite, meritocratic subculture, or you don't.

and if you're posting on a site called "hacker news", you are not a "hacker".

Even people who wrote an single excel script call themselves hackers here (and are defended for it! I've seen it happen)

EDIT: At this point in my life I'd be embarrassed to be called a hacker. So I don't feel ashamed being an impostor here.

I'm not sure you deserved to be down-voted because it's a legitimate question.

Fortunately I don't think that anyone has tried to claim that posting to HN makes you a hacker. It's (news (of interest for hackers)) rather than (news of interest (for hackers)). So posting doesn't mean you are claiming to be a hacker, just that you are interested in the stuff hackers are interested in.

By the way in my view some of the most interesting hacks are done in Excel (for example the guy who wrote an Excel 3D engine - http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3563/microsoft_excel_r... - no one can seriously claim that this isn't a hack in the best sense of the word.) Making constrained systems do things they were never designed to do is practically the definition of hacking.

Maybe, if you assume this is a clubhouse only for hackers. I think the purpose is more like "news that would be of interest to hackers", which implies others could have interest in the same topics. If a recruiter posted in this thread it certainly wouldn't be out of place.

The use of the word "hacker" in the title here is not meant to be a claim of superiority.

I maintain a blacklist of recruiters who annoy me. Mostly it's the ones who call me up repeatedly, or who call me about ridiculously bad fits. However, I also keep a special section in that black list for any recruiter that uses the term "Rock Star" or "Ninja", and I openly mock the companies who use the term. I also find smugness later on when they fail, because they clearly were prima donnas trying to attract other prima donnas.

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