Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
What developers think when you say "Rock Star" (hirelite.com)
181 points by nathanh on Oct 4, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 85 comments

Whenever I hear the phrases "rock star developer" or "code ninja", I think, "Oh, they want some young fresh-out-of-college full-of-himself developer who thinks a language named after a rock is the wave of the future."

Jokes aside, those phrases raise red flags in my mind. I think maybe it is that from such an employer, I would expect to see the occasional presentation with swear words ("We're all adults, here" -- "Sure, but you act like you just left your parents' house, and with your first taste of freedom, you express your naughty self."). Ah, that is the word I am looking for: professionalism. I have a hard time taking them seriously.

To me, rock star/code ninja also conveys a bit of prima-dona attitude. I'd rather take someone humble over egotistical any day of the week.

To me it means I'm going to have to keep a large supply of cocaine and cheap whisky around the office.

Which might also be an effective recruiting tool. I used to sit next to someone who used to hit the restroom at 1pm every day, like clockwork, and come out reeking of whiskey. Also kept a bottle of Wild Turkey on his desk that slowly diminished. He wasn't fired, so I assume he was good and got his stuff done.

A functional alcoholic, to be sure.

You're suggesting he was a Lisper?

When a company asks for a rock star developer, I think pretty much this:

> "Rock star" signals that you haven't thought enough about the role this developer will fill, leaving developers with a feeling that they'll be receiving ill-defined requirements, not enough time, or not enough resources to do their job (in addition to being overworked and underpaid).

Or more specifically, they really need 5 people to do this work, but they only plan to get 1.

Let's add that regardless of what anyone says about how "great" programmers are n times more productive than mediocre programmers that productivity is not the number one driving force behind these job descriptions. Business people want bang for their buck, and they seem more informed by (non-existent) wunderkind genius teenager and movie hacker stereotypes than any kind of reality based measure. Budgeting concerns are where it's at.

One has to wonder how much the ranks of computer science programs everywhere would swell if the other half of this supposed rock star equation were present. Orgies, copious narcotics, groupies, press coverage, and throngs of adoring fans? For an office job? Shit yeah, I'll learn everything von Neumann ever day-dreamed about. Worst case scenario I can take my girlfriend out to the beach and write her a little PHP script that outputs a screed indicating my level of interest (over HTTP), right?

In all fairness, there are individuals of that calibre that can accomplish an enormous amount of progress - even on the 1/5 ratio that you reference.

But I would venture to say that you never find that kind of person from a job posting. A "5/1 ratio" person certainly only lands his next gig through word of mouth.

The company I used to work at, is in the process on hiring 2+ employees and an outside IT services company to replace me. It was an amicable, planned departure and I've helped them keep everything running till my replacements are found. Frankly, it hasn't been easy to find the people. The helpdesk person was fortunately easy to find but proficient programmers aren't easy to come by.

My experience from reviewing/interviewing people based on job postings is that almost all of the applicants are looking to be a part of an already established team - very few seem to have the initiative to work on their own or create new systems from scratch - both of which are something you'd look for in potential employees at a startup. Almost all of the applicants have worked well in teams but haven't done much on their own. I'd say they're good 1/1 candidates but not 5/1. The latter are indeed found through word of mouth.

What I think of when I hear "Rock Star Programmers"?

I think how most musicians, signed to a major label, who perform as "rock stars" still get a net zero payoff after two years.

I think how if programming degenerated to the level of music or motion pictures, the average programmer would labor for nearly nothing in a start-up "hoping to be discovered" while handful got a fake buy-outs with no long term money and a much smaller handful became actual multi-millionaires.

> if programming degenerated to the level of music or motion pictures, the average programmer would labor for nearly nothing in a start-up "hoping to be discovered"

Welcome to the source of my startup skepticism.

A recruiter contacted me via email looking for a developer "at the Jedi level". Interestingly, though she said she'd read my resume, she was looking for a Java developer in Maryland (I am a Ruby developer in Chicago). I asked her to clarify what skills the Jedi level entailed (I couldn't help myself). She wrote back and said that it meant they wanted "a rock star"

Recursive Super-Hero Bingo for the win!

Perhaps you should have alluded to an ability to produce code without physically interacting with a computer system, and to control the minds of the weak-willed--like department VPs. I'd be interested to see how far you could push it.

I've always felt like going to a "rock star" job interview with dyed blue hair in a mohawk, ripped jeans, chains, black string vest, black nail polish, black eye liner, leather jacket, walk in late and demand only blue M&M's.

That would be amusing.

The M&M's thing served a purpose when it started though. It showed attention to detail when that could be important for a decent show or even safety: http://www.snopes.com/music/artists/vanhalen.asp

You can read the actual contract rider for yourself at: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/crime/van-halens-lege... In my opinion, the document is full of a whole lot of weird stuff and the safety excuse may just be a post-facto rationalization.

Upvote for sharing that tidbit on vanhalen. Cracked me up.

Don't forget to bite the head off a bat and trash the place on your way out.

If by rock star, you mean someone that parties all night, comes in late and hungover, has weird contractual demands, and trashes hotel rooms on business trips, then yes, I guess I'm a rock star. When do I start?

I agree with you that to me "rock star" always connoted "bratty prima donna" to me.

I would point out that the weird contractual demands are often canaries meant to uncover a venue that has not read the contract closely enough to guarantee the safety of all performers and the audience. The famous example, of course, is Van Halen and the brown M&Ms:


A Microsoft recruiter told me I was a rockstar after an internship interview in 2001. It felt awesome at the time. But now it sounds like a dated way to recruit 19 year olds.

In about the timeframe at MS, I remember stumbling upon a couple of living, breathing, but rarely bathing, young developer/gamer stereotypes being shown around one of the buildings in the Office division by two young, well, they looked like strippers dressed to appear in a porno as two hot "professional" women who let loose at the office.

Perhaps you were recruited by a related program?

Well, I'm female, so I wasn't recruited by strippers. But I did get to go to their 'Diversity Weekend' before my interview. They invited out about 30 college kids - women, minorities, and some white males who happened to be in the society of black engineers. They took us to a couple of dinners, saw some sights around Seattle, and we had a full day of mock interviews with real engineers where we got immediate feedback. I had a great time and the interviews were helpful.

Perhaps the event you saw was the sister event for their not-diverse recruits.

Rock Star = I get to fix the problems, all the race conditions and exceptions and bugs that the RS developer didn't do a good job on.

Rock Star = He looked more productive than he actually was.

Couldn't agree more with the first statement but add to that unmaintainable mess and spaghetti code

Rock Star = praised, promoted, highly visible, and in management's view infallible.

Yup. Partially finished code - the main use cases covered, the fun and satisfaction drained out of the project. Now that I hire, I wouldn't ask for a rock star since it doesn't actually convey any of the qualities that we're looking for.

Rock Star = someone who may code well, but they're a pain in the ass to deal with (we used to call them prima donnas)


I worked at one of these places, as a contractor. They never offer health insurance. They buy a lot of pizza and junk food, and give out lots of cheap praise, but will never send you to a conference or otherwise contribute to your well-being or professional development.

These guys offered me a permanent position, and I turned it down for a real job.

It's just semantics. The term rock star was involved in the recruiting process of my current job, and those who used it included a great hands on CTO and a CEO with above average tech knowledge. I had no illusions as to some kind of huge salary or RIAA like treatment.

It's cliche, yea. But sooner or later you'll miss out on a great opportunity if you run away when you see "rock star".

>It's just semantics.

It's probably all the time spent on LtU mucking with my brain, but I have to suppress a minor rage every time I see this idiom. Does this happen to any other programming languages people?

"In popular culture, people like to say 'It’s just semantics!', which is a kind of put-down: it implies that their correspondent is quibbling over minor details of meaning in a jesuitical way. But communication is all about meaning [...], therefore, we will wear the phrase 'It’s just semantics!' as a badge of honor, because semantics leads to discourse which (we hope) leads to civilization. Just semantics. That’s all there is." -Shriram Krishnamurthi, _Programming Languages: Application and Interpretation_ (http://www.cs.brown.edu/~sk/Publications/Books/ProgLangs/200...)

In other words: Absolutely. (Good, free book, btw.)

Yeah. I don't know how "words mean things" came to be regarded as a counterargument to anything.

My experience is "Rails, small team, git or hg, won't mind you reading programming blogs during work hours, office environment will look fun, telecommuting unlikely."

The whole notion of software engineers having much in common with rock stars seems rather misguided. Being a software engineer does not usually involve making loud noises, trashing hotel rooms, having a shallow superficial personality, attracting teenage groupies of the opposite sex, repeatedly firing your manager or buying football teams.

You mean you don't have groupies?

Recruitment consultants and estate agents have a lot in common - both use limited vocabulary as props to fill adverts they don't spend nearly enough time thinking about.

A house with 'character' is in a bad state of repair.

A 'rockstar developer' is competent, but young enough to not know his or her worth.

A rock star is somebody who plays in a rock band!

There is no such thing as a rock star developer. It's a stupid stupid term. You have no inherent connection with rock music, you are not famous and don't have thousands of adoring fans. I'm convinced that a number of balding, pony tailed idiot developers and snotty college grads think they do - but you don't - get over yourself.

Stop using the term, right, now, it's stupid, seriously.

I'm not going to get started on "code ninja". Jesus... WTF comes up with this rubbish.

What's the big deal? It's just a bit of fun. If one doesn't like the attitude that a 'rock star' job posting conveys then one should simply not apply.

No no, it's not the attitude it conveys, it's the attitude it encourages in the way developers act.

The title of a job posting does not encourage or influence the way I act... They're just trying to differentiate themselves from the mundane 'Java Developer w/ 2 years exp' jobs, that's all. It's really, really not a big deal. I'm really having a hard time understanding why everyone is so hung up on what is essentially marketing fluff. Can we please yell at people posting jobs with 'requirements' like "6 years of RoR" rather than some cute buzzword in the title?

The analogy breaks down when the author implies that rock star musicians (or really musicians of any kind) are paid a salary by the record companies. All the record companies pay are advances, and then the rest is just gouging the artist's creative output for every expense they can muster.

At first I thought that's what the article was going to get into: "We want you to produce amazingly high-quality output for an unfairly-low wage and relatively low performance bonuses." Instead it implied that rock star musicians get a significantly better deal than "rock star engineers," and that's pretty bogus. Just ask an aspiring rock star if they'd like to make ~$75K base salary with bonuses (i.e. equity) that reward the quality of their output.

For real rock stars, records are a loss leader for concert tickets and t-shirts.

Whenever someone is advertising for "Rock Stars," I immediately have two thoughts:

1) Will they be paying me Rock Star money?

2) Oh great, another bunch of douchebag middle managers trying to sound trendy....

There is no way that they really want a rock star, i.e. a fussy, unreliable prima donna who won't work unless they get things their way. What they really want is a genius who's inexplicably dumb enough to work for median salary.

When I hear Rock Star Developer, I expect them to work for Rockstar Games. Otherwise they are not a Rock Star Developer.

Here it's just a lazy way for clueless HR people to say "highly/broadly skilled." It indicates as little thought as someone who says, "You rock!" when you performed some technical task they don't understand, whether it took ten hours or ten minutes.

Someday we may well ask, "What was it, once, to rock?"

I think we owe it to the community to email this link to the poster of a job position that mentions wanting a "rock star" programmer.

Finally someone put into words the cringeworthy feeling of seeing "rock star" all over the place. On the other hand, I think people use the term because it so commonplace nowadays, rather than it being due to some sort of pretentious attitude or outlook.

Why are software developers segmented between "rock stars" and "not rock stars"?

A salary estimate search on Simply Hired for "rockstar accountant" yielded no results :-)

The rock star accountants are all in jail.

One would suppose that the real rock star accountants are so good they are unknown by the public.

It's in the Mythical Man Month, not that Brooks uses the term 'rock star'

Good developers are 10x more productive than average developers.

There are no comparable studies for accountants.

The graphics in this article is very misleading. The first three salary values are average values from SimplyHired.com while the last value for rock stars is the "average salary for the top 10 best paid music stars". If you use the same criteria to search for the last category (rockstars), you simply find an average salary of $54,000, not $50,000,000.


That's not to say the website's information is accurate or indicative of what people each of these categories actually make.

Salaries probably not a normal distribution, and the real high earners wouldn't be captured by guesses based on mean income. I would rather make the argument that the graphics displayed and information provided are really bad metrics. They are at best confusing, at worst misleading.

If you want to find the income from the top programmers you would need to include people like Bill Gates. While he spent most of his life as management most of his wealth from stock gained while he was a programmer.

Rock stars not rock musicians in general.

Not to mention the fact that the author confused 1622% and 1622x...

That's exactly the point, they aren't. It's just a buzzword to draw attention to a job posting just like "senior" or "experienced" were before it. No reason to start the hype machine up over this stuff, if you ask me.

It is the complete opposite of "senior" or "experienced". It's 22-years-old, thinks the web is all of the computing world, and thinks fleshing out a framework is all there is to programming.

Sorry, I think you misunderstand my point. I'm not comparing the terms' meaning, but rather the purpose of using them. You want to attract a certain kind of developer with a term like 'rock star' or 'ninja', just like you want to attract a certain kind with 'senior' or 'experienced'. That's all. The point is they don't really mean anything.

Becuase its the software developers' turn.

Strangely enough, it happened in hospitality just before I left that industry, the term 'Rock star chef' was being used a lot to describe the new wave of chefs who were more interested in getting their profile up so they could get on television rather than actually try and cultivate a decent restaurant. The focus of the business drive shifted massively.

I have a vague theory that it just cycles through industry after industry and it's interesting to try and spot the wave before it occurs.

Was it being used as a negative term in the hospitality industry? If so, that's an interesting difference in apparent outlooks, since it's almost always meant as a compliment in programming.

I'm pretty sure some hedge fund managers earn more than every rock star put together.

"Rock Star" is the 2000's version of the 1990's intra-office Nerf fight. Bait for idiots to apply at bad companies.

There's only one rock star, Ajay Bhatt. Proof below.


:( So sad

Well, They actually used an actor to portray him in the ad. Stunt double perhaps?


I recently discovered this site. Seems relevant:


I see you posted a question about this six months ago: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1248389

I think "douchebag manager."

This. I find it is frequently accompanied by a non-trivial degree of condescension and complete and utter lack of understanding about how what they're trying to build would actually work.

If you want extraordinary people, can you compensate them extraordinarily or provide an extraordinary environment?

Being able and being willing may take a while to converge, usually after interviewing a large number of the ordinary.

This captured my feelings exactly about the ubiquity of this term in wanna-be-trendy job postings. I've seen quite a few companies use it, and without exception, it has meant that the company didn't know what you'd even be doing. It also means the person that's hiring you probably wants to "jump on a call" to discuss things, to see how you can "build out" their ill-defined, overly ambitious projects with whack-a-mole feature creep.

I have never minded terms of endearment and respect like "rock star". Much better than being treated like a lowly cog, if you're the sort of developer that has some ambition and self-respect. I think the term comes from coders who are a bit hipper and more arrogant in their attitude than your typical computer nerd. I understand some might find that attitude grating, but I don't really care. Their attitudes are boring and docile.

It's one thing if your boss calls you a rock star after the fact - ie, based on your performance. It's something else entirely if a company says they're looking for a rockstar in a job ad.

The difference between 50mil and 31k is 1622x, not 1622%.

It kind of reminds me of another fad where someone was equating hackers to painters. Oh wait.

always seems strange to me when a company publishes such a subjective post.

It's basically an advert - they're trying to appeal to developers.

EDIT: the article has a purpose .. it's content designed to complement the main purpose of the site - which is to get people to use their recruitment service. They are showing that they understand what developers think - and at the same time, they 'might' also be educating hirers.

A less cynical response for the downvoter - and yes I expect to be downvoted again ;)

moreso, it's the way they present it so matter of factly (when in fact, it's not):

When you write, "We're looking for a rock star developer." A developer sees, "We want to treat a developer like the RIAA treats rock stars."

Well, yes. I'm boggled that anyone would downvote this point.

Cargo cult practice in effect.

"Rock star" is an overused term, sure. I don't know that its by hiring companies use makes developers think of abuse, though.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact