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I have noticed a recent trend in requesting programmers who are rockstars. I get it, they're looking for someone who is really good at what they do. But why (pray) make the reference to a rockstar?

Do these companies really want these traits as a real rockstar?

What is wrong with Senior or Principal Software Engineer who has an established and proven passion for the business? Rather do we mean quite the opposite, someone who:

  • rolls up the sleeves and gets to work,
  • takes appropriate direction and helps influence teams,
  • programs in lessons' learned and proper practices,
  • provides timely communication to the whole team,
  • can code and understand multiple languages,
  • understands the science and theory behind computation,

Is there a trend to diversify the software engineering ranks? How many software rockstars can you hire before your band starts breaking up?

Sure, there are lots of folks doing this stuff on their own, maybe even a rare few who do coding for show, but I wager the majority is for business. I don't see ads for rockstar accountants, or rockstar machinists, or rockstart CFOs. What makes the software programmer and their hiring departments lean towards this kind of job title?

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4  
Where are you seeing this? –  Jonathan Khoo Feb 23 '11 at 22:01
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@Jonathan Khoo - Even within this community: careers.stackoverflow.com/jobs?searchTerm=rockstar –  Xepoch Feb 23 '11 at 22:05
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The other one is "Ninja". Some companies are starting to fight back and make fun of this by advertising for "Jazz" or "Pirate" programmers. I read a cool blog post a while ago, where someone explained why they'd much prefer to be a jazz programmer than a rockstar. Worth a read. –  Jörg W Mittag Feb 24 '11 at 0:12
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@Jörg W Mittag: "Ninja" programmers? What is that, really? Someone who sneaks into the office, fixes a bug, commits it through someone else's account and sneaks back out again? –  gablin Feb 24 '11 at 11:50
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@Jörg W Mittag: deadprogrammersociety.blogspot.com/2007/05/… Jazz programmers: Their programs start off pretty normally but quickly descend into experimental, ad-libbed craziness that nobody else understands. They know the theory of programming inside-out but a lot of what they do doesn't quite work. –  Ant Feb 24 '11 at 15:09

16 Answers 16

up vote 34 down vote accepted

The term "rockstar" implies a certain amount of glamour, flash, sexiness, maybe even dangerousness, characteristics which really good programmers generally don't exhibit, but might wish they did. I wouldn't take it too literally. That is to say, it's a buzzword, and like many such, not particularly useful.

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@user13645: The company expects a developer to display sexiness? You are hiring for coding right? –  Fanatic23 Feb 24 '11 at 14:54
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@Fanatic23: No, they expect the developer to think he/she displays sexiness. Whether the developer actually does display sexiness is in the eye of the beholder. Except in my case, where it's a reflection of objective reality (assuming that I get to define sexy for everyone else, of course). –  PSU Feb 24 '11 at 15:23
4  
@Fanatic23 Is that your call stack, or are you just happy to see me? –  Maxpm Mar 24 '11 at 2:24

Take a look at the UrbanDictionary definitions. One defines a rockstar programmer as a weak technically but strong politicially (seems like what you're describing), and the other describes someone who is truly proficient.

I like the description on the second definition - it's like a guitar player who is beyond just good - thus rock star.

Interestingly, the first definition got more votes.

I agree, it's a stupid term, but it stuck. A good question (that I would like answer) is when this term was first used.

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8  
I suspect it may be a case of unintentional truth: the company really does want someone who is politically very good and if they can program too that's a bonus. So they advertise for a really good programmer, a rockstar. I am definitely not inclined to work for them, but if I saw the ad locally I might be tempted to apply and go along to the interview in a satirical manner (turn up looking and acting like Ozzy Osbourne) –  Мסž Feb 23 '11 at 22:12

Rock Star Engineers Debut in Intel's New Advertising Campaign That Focuses on the Future would be the Intel ad that you may have missed that some companies may just blindly follow that lead.

Ever wonder if the reason why some companies put up such cheesy job ads is that they are trying to get people to apply? Consider how whatever ad it is that had that term is something you tell a friend, "Could you believe this company wants..." rather than just not having that discussion and the information doesn't spread like a virus.

If you saw a job ad that put you to sleep, would you apply there? Really?

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It seems like an attempt to invoke the image of someone with loads of talent and passion for what they do. At least in a extremely simplified, rosy-glasses connotation of "rockstar". That and possibly an attempt to make the company sound a lot cooler than it is.

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Because Rockstars will works for a lot less than a Principal Software Engineer.

Actually, I propose the creation of the title Chief of Software, for the guy who buil[t|ds] the software the company runs on. With lots of shares, a hefty salary in the $500K+ range, secretary, access to corporate retreat, jet, a badge that gets full access everywhere, a signature that can sign good million-dollar checks, a large office with conference table, 12 computers for himself, and an IT department that says "Yes Sir Right Away Sir" because they don't want to hear him say: "Meet me in my office with a VP from HR in ten minutes."

It's about time the marketing and finance boys learn who really runs the company.

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11  
Yeah, good luck with that. –  Malvolio Feb 24 '11 at 3:36
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I think that you over estimate your value. –  Pemdas Feb 24 '11 at 4:24
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I think that guy is called the CIO. –  Kirk Broadhurst Feb 24 '11 at 6:32
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@Kirk: the CIO doesn't program--and if he did once, he certainly does not now. –  Christopher Mahan Feb 24 '11 at 17:07
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@Kirk: I rest my case. –  Christopher Mahan Feb 27 '11 at 1:05

I always see stuff about Rockstar DBAs and such....but like many others say I think it's just a flashy word. Or maybe it makes the company hiring looks cool...

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I first saw this term with Ruby. There are several puns around the name of the language in that community. (For instance calling packages "gems".) Therefore I suspect that "rock star" started as another natural in joke, and then spread.

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2  
Interesting take. –  Xepoch Feb 24 '11 at 3:39

I think it means that the dress code is not the usual 'business' / 'smart office' but more rockstar specific, e.g. 'punk' / 'torn jeans'. You have to wear muscle shirts and black jeans, have really trendy haircuts, and lots of tattoos.

If you work with C / C++ you're expected to wear spandex pants, loose tanktops and a headband (you aspire to be the Axl Rose of programming).

If you work with COBOL or Fortran then you should wear tie-died shirts and flared jeans, maybe have an afro or long hair. Platform shoes optional, and you should enjoy smoking weed and dropping acid in your lunch hour.

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uh, no. The term is merely indicative of the "we only want the top 1% of people to apply" attitude that's completely taken over the industry. Typically there will be strict dresscodes in companies explicitly stating so, as they consider themselves elitist. Expect everyone to be expected to sit at their desks in a 3 piece suit and tie all day, every day. –  jwenting Feb 24 '11 at 7:25
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Take me down to parenthesis city/where the notation's big-O for complexity/Oh won't you please take me home! –  glenatron Feb 24 '11 at 10:52
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@jwenting you are correct. I think Kirk missed the point, or perhaps hasn't read any such job ads (possibly because he is in a secure job which he enjoys). on a side note I hope never to work at such a place. yucky. –  Anonymous Type Mar 23 '11 at 23:09

Pretty much every company out there is claiming to (and/or trying to) hire only people in the top 1 percentile of the professional population in their field. Of course this is utterly impossible, as 99% of employees in the field cannot all be in the top 1 percent.

Some companies/headhunters just use different language to express that desire than do others. Some call it rocket engineers, some call it rockstars, some are honest and just state openly that "we want only the best".

And all of them will then try to screw you over during contract negotiations and offer compensation that's not at all in line with what you'd expect the best in the industry to be paid.

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I believe that at least part of the times the main reason is to make the position appear more glamorous to the potential programmer.

The same holds for some interview questions that are more challenging from the day to day work in those places, and are mainly used to make the position appear interesting

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Maybe they want someone from Band on the Runtime.

"Band on the runtime" was made up of a few famous developers in the .Net world, with musical talent too, who played gigs at programming conferences. "Rockstar developer" is a silly term, so a joke fits here.

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I think it's mostly a way to represent the tone or environment of the company. Generally (or, at least, originally) the places that advertised for "rockstar programmers" are startups. They want to advertise that they aren't your usual button-down-and-khakis corporate cubicle farm, but something fun. (The cynical side of me says that they push their laid-back side as a perk to make up for less in the way of compensation, but I digress.) In effect, it's a way of saying "stodgy suit-and-ties need not apply". Often startups are not only looking for good programmers, but someone who meshes well with the environment (since startups are so small) and is passionate about the product (they're not just looking for a paycheck). And rockstars are cool, y'know?

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It's a psychological trick. Who doesn't want to be a rockstar?

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It's antiproductive. A true "rockstar" would never consider himself to be one and won't apply. Only those will who are clueless. –  user8685 Feb 24 '11 at 16:04

I blame Intel & Microsoft for this term. They started using it heavily in their advertising material awhile back, and ever since Recruiters have thought it was a pseudo technical term for geek.

But yeah, if they need a Rockstar, or a ninja or any other crappy keyword based role, they are basically asking for a slave that will code non stop for 14 hours a day, go non stop for 48 hour periods during the final production release schedule, as well as being expected to mentor and train less experienced staff.

The irony is that there are still alot of programmers out there that at least have the narcism bit in common with a Rockstar, in that they see it as their duty to work insane hours to prove how hardcore they are. Mores the pity all it does is make the rest of us look bad, because we are smart and don't want to ruin our health doing stupid work practises.

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Because they have an over inflated sense of the importance of their own products. Like celebrities who only get with other celebrities, some companies feel they need 'rockstar' developers. Just ego. A good solid team, well lead, with varying skills will do better than a couple of 'rockstars'.

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Rock symbolises individuality, rebellion against status quo, preconceived ideas about the world order and established authority. It is associated with independent mindedness, feeling strongly about own ideas and convictions, determination. And being a star simply means that the person is damn good at what they do. Rockstars are able to ignite with energy and passion everyone around them.

It's easy to see why technology companies willing to build things that were never built or even deemed possible before try to attract candidates with these qualities.

The exact opposite would be someone trying to blend in, a person accepting established rules, constraints and conventional wisdoms. Treating the job as something that "pays the bills" and seeking to be told what to do. Always looking for a compromise and being worried about upsetting the existing order, being fairly average at what they do and lacking any visible energy or passion to share with others. A somewhat degrading industry term would be "a coding monkey".

I believe that the term rockstar as referring to an intellectual worker was first introduced into programming culture by T. Lister and T. DeMarco in Peopleware, but I might be wrong. Then it was further popularised by J. Spolsky in his essays on software development.

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