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The Myth of a “Rockstar Developer”

Why “creative” job titles are ultimately a bad idea.

Photo by Maite Tiscar on Unsplash
“[Rockstar developer is] a dated expression overused by recruiters.” — Jim Haughwout on Quora

And still, it is quite frequent in job postings.

Apart from rock stars, there are also ninjas, hackers, gurus, geniuses, and many other loud synonyms. They either replace regular job titles or are squeezed into job descriptions.

Not so long ago, Indeed analysed eccentric job postings. They found that the most popular titles in the US were “rockstar” and “guru,” followed by “ninja,” “genius,” and “wizard.” Quite surprisingly, in 2017, the attribute “rockstar” was used 19% more frequently than is 2015.

You can rest assured that in Europe, companies look for “rock stars” as well.

While it all started as an innocent marketing trick, the search for mythical ninjas, rock stars, gurus, or wizards has negatively affected all participants in the recruitment process.

Image credit: GlossaryTech

Hiring companies

Programmers tend to ignore job ads with unclear titles.

The data team at Workopolis have analysed 450.000 job postings. One of their findings was that job ads with regular titles performed significantly better than the eccentric ones. For example, the ad for a “Data Analyst” performed 14% better than the one for a “Data Ninja.”

“Rockstar” ads won’t help companies filter out less experienced candidates.

First of all, you should keep in mind the Dunning-Krueger effect. Instead of getting the top talent applying for your “rockstar” ad, you might get a bunch of mediocre developers who have a way too high opinion of their abilities.

“If your projects aren’t boring as hell then the talent will come.” — Chapley Watson on Quora

Secondly, those who fit the qualifications of a “rock star” wouldn’t probably look at your opening. They will be interested in working for a business with a cult status, such as Alphabet or SpaceX.

Your company wouldn’t want to pay “rockstar” developers a “rockstar” salary.

“I think the creative titles are being generated as a way to compensate employees in a way that costs less than paying them more. ‘Congratulations — you’ve been promoted to 00 agent!’” — Philip Mitchell on Quora

In 2010, Nathan Hurst compared the difference in the median paychecks of programmers vs rockstar programmers and musicians vs rock stars. The trend has not changed since then.

Image credit: Nathan Hurst for Hirelite

Strong job titles shun minority candidates.

It has been shown that words like “ninja” or “rockstar” target mostly white young men, while turning off women, people from different ethnic backgrounds, or older candidates.

Once Nvidia removed eccentric adjectives from their job ads, they got 2.5 more applications from female developers (Fast Company)!

Most likely, you don’t want to hire a rock star.

Rock stars are loners who don’t normally fit into a team. Although very attractive from a distance but unbearable in the immediate vicinity, they can be your toxic employees. They can give a good performance but will not solve problems effectively.

“I have no desire to work with a “Rockstar Ninja coder”. That ego can be detrimental to a team environment.” — Chapley Watson on Quora

In his article “We fired our top talent. Best decision we ever made.”, Jonathan Solórzano-Hamilton recounted how their superstar Lead Developer nearly killed the company’s project. The moral of the story is not just “don’t hire rockstars,” but, as Tony Robinson points out in a follow-up article:

  • pay close attention to one’s soft skills from the very first interview
  • don’t place your individual contributors upon a pedestal
  • don’t delegate the responsibility for the entire project to a single performer
  • treat your employees like humans (and not rockstars)
Image: Rock Star Developer by skeletonclaw.com

Developers

Non-specific job titles only confuse developers.

Candidates need clarity when it comes to job descriptions. They need to understand what the company does, who it is looking for, and what the job responsibilities are.

“As a developer, when I see “clever” job titles in job postings, they are almost universally a sign that the recruiting company has no idea who they are looking for. That’s a significant turn off as I’m not interested in working with an organization that naive.” — Jonah Williams on Quora

“Weird” job titles can foster high expectations from developers and lead to anxiety.

Jo Franchetti of Samsung writes that perfectionism-related anxiety is frequent among tech industry employees. One of the key reasons: the hype around “tech celebrities” (read: gurus, ninjas, rockstars, geniuses). While less self-reliant engineers might feel shut out by the demanding industry, some will drive themselves to a burnout by trying to master many different technologies.

“Rockstar suggests magical thinking or […] the employer wants overtime.” — Nicolae Marasoiu on Quora

Eccentric ads might lead to the distortion of the career and learning goals.

Many young engineers focus not on how to find optimal solutions, but on how to be cool in solving the problems. It becomes not about excelling one’s craftsmanship anymore, but rather about fame. Just google “How to become a rock star developer” and see it for yourself.

Agency recruiters

“Creative” job titles often hurt the client company’s brand.

It is a responsibility of agency recruiters to be marketers and brand advocates of their client company. “Rockstar” ads usually don’t help the company’s brand too much. On the contrary, they can significantly damage the client’s reputation as an employer (unless they are called Rockstar Games).

Weird ads do not help companies define their recruitment goals.

As mentioned before, they suggest the company’s inability to articulate what or who it is looking for. If the client is not sure about its talent strategy or recruitment goals, it’s your task as recruiters to educate and consult the client. This involves convincing them to give up pointless job titles.

“Rockstar” titles diminish the importance of soft skills.

Recruiters must understand that soft skills are as vital for developers as hard skills. So what does a superstar have to do with being a loyal part of a team? What does a guru have to do with being able to learn? These titles send quite the opposite message.

Conclusion

A “rockstar developer” is a myth. So let’s not nurture myths.

“Save the ninjas, rock stars, and geniuses for cartoons and costume parties; they could be costing you real star talent.” — Lydia Dishman, Fast Company

If you are a hiring company:

Be specific and reasonable in your demands towards candidates. Don’t try to look for rockstars, ninjas, gurus, or wizards. Search for people who solve problems. Search for those who bring value into your development team.

If you are a developer:

Be humble in your CV. Don’t use cool-sounding yet meaningless titles, as they don’t describe what you do.

If you are a recruiter:

Be a counsellor and advocate to your client. Help them understand their organisational needs better and focus on finding them the right talent.

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