a tale of two programmers: the Rock star and the Ditchdigger

Recently, I've seen some true words about the term "Rock Star" developer.  That is, the company tarts up a job description by calling their programmers 'rock star' and think they'll get a higher quality of candidate for open positions.  The truth is: bullshit.

Let's say you're hiring for a startup.  Resources are limited.  Your office space, if you can call it that, is five square meters of closet space that you rented from your aunt because it was the Decent Thing To Do.  Devil-may-care about the lack of heating or the moldy carpet or the fluorescent lights, the point is, you got a good deal.  You found that desk at a yard sale.  The chairs were donated from a church.  Let's not even get into phones, computers, or security.

So where was I?  Resources.  Right.  You have none.  But you have a vision.  And you are sure that it will KICK ASS ON THE WEB as soon as you can get it to work.  To work your way.  No exceptions.

But for that to work out, you need a hot-shot developer.  Someone who can make the code sing, or at least bend it to your will.  You already have some code out there, but the last developer you had quit on you, they got a year of experience and got to the next rung in their career.  Away from you.  And that armpit of an office you work in.

But you need to attract someone better than the last one.  And you need him to clean up that code, and make it work the way you want.  And you need to get a good deal.

You want someone who is cheap.

You want someone who won't protest, at least not as badly as the last developer.

And he/she has to put up with your jokes, your office, the ghastly coffee you make in the kitchenette in the morning.

You're not really looking for a "Rock star" at all.  You're looking for the Ditchdigger.  The developer who, when given an assignment, won't balk or fight back or anything, but just work work work.  You can't say that out loud though.  No-one graduated with a CS degree from Yale or MIT and said 'ditchdigging here I come!' so you have to dress it up a bit.  Give it some flash-bang, some gee-whiz.  Some instant cool.  So you figured out a name that would evoke a little rock-n-roll, something that smacked of fandom.

And hey, you didn't have to invest any time in hard things.  Things like company culture.  Things like passion for the idea.  Things like a community for the product.  Things like infrastructure.  These things don't cost money, but they take time to build and hey, let's face it, they're hard to do.

So, instead of calling the developers 'cattle' or 'sheep' or 'Ditchdiggers' you called them 'Rock stars' because you wanted to attract the best with all that you had going for you – smoke and mirrors.  Pat yourself on the back for that one.  You'll probably get a few good eggs.  Two employees, maybe three, maybe five.  Just watch out when you start landing larger and larger projects.

Why be cautious?  Because 'Rock stars' are individuals, after all, they want all the fame, all the attention, all the glory for themselves – and they don't necessarily work in teams.  Ditchdiggers can get along; rock stars often don't.

Reflect on this, for a moment, and think about putting more effort into that job description, besides the words Rock and Star.

One thought on “a tale of two programmers: the Rock star and the Ditchdigger”

  1. Loved the title of your post. WordPress thought it might be related to mine, because my romantic interest is a ROCK STAR (well, a musician with a modicum of success in his chosen field).

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