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The Rockstar Paradox

Pan Chasinga
Open-source hugger. Passionate about encyption and decentralization. How can we make a better world for the next gen?
Updated on ・3 min read

We all know that colleague who cranks out work from 9 to 9. He's known by many names, among them ninja and rockstar. Managers unabashedly herald him in public. He likes to keep to himself and eat at the desk. He chatters only professionally and during code reviews. Everyone thinks he's a genius.

Then there is you. You're responsible. You deliver within a reasonable timeframe. You hustle and stay over late at times when the need arises. However, you value your personal time, freedom in letting your creativity runs loose with side projects, and work-life balance just as much. You know the value of getting sustainable rest to fight another day. You want to spend more time with family and friends because you know they are what drive you to push forward.

For-profit companies are incentivized to acquire employees who work as much as possible while spending as little as possible. It's easy to herald a certain stereotype as a rockstar.

At times, you feel that you do not fit into the culture that calls people by brogrammer titles while using unclear messages to undermine some others' value. The undertone at work might encourage the idea that being yourself (a parent, Latina, senior, ex-military or any type that doesn't fall into a brogrammer stereotype) is less valued.

What is a Rockstar?

This interesting article by New York Times wrote a good amount about how the term may have become synonymous to what it is today. The origin of the term in the tech world context isn't as important as its implication in the workplace culture. Most uses of the term or the likes of it, either intentionally or not, subtlely creates a barrier between those who fall into the stereotype the organization wants to promote (again, not necessarily intentional) and the rest of the more normal ones.

The Paradox

For-profit startup companies are incentivized to acquire employees who work as much as possible while spending as little as possible to get to break even or acquire more funding before they run out of money. This doesn't mean this is true for all of them, but it's easy to go down this slippery slope and herald a certain stereotype as a rockstar.

The paradox here is that the greater you are heralded as a rockstar employee, the less you're trained to become a leader. Most leaders aren't going to strike you as rockstars. They are resilient, patient, and humble. Most employers might not want leaders working under them, at least not in most positions. Characteristic leaders raise their voices for the values they stand for, start an argument to better things that might not directly fall under their role, and take shortcuts and find creative hacks to help their company with very little respect for structure and protocol. Moreover, they are honest about their feelings and others', which can appear as expressing weaknesses (when in fact, it takes daring greatly to speak up). They are just too risky because they can easily create a stir where it does not matter to the company. It's a fundamental conflict of interest.

So keep this mind: Just because you aren't within the celebrated stereotype does not mean you aren't valuable. Speak up, let yourself be heard. Talk to your manager. Because a culture that openly ranks someone as a rockstar is one that slowly corrodes the moral value of the whole team.

Discussion (15)

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mortoray profile image
edA‑qa mort‑ora‑y

For-profit companies are designed to acquire employees who work as much as possible in their designated role while being paid as little as possible.

That is not true. Companies are interested in maximizing the value of their employees. If the company knows that paying an individual more will result in a greater increase in company value, it'd be in their interest to pay that individual more -- or give them more perks, holidays, reduced hours, whatever.

Good management is interested in maximizing productivity. But if their only approach is more hours and less pay, they suck at their job and the company's directors/officers should be looking to replace the managers.

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pancy profile image
Pan Chasinga Author

Hi thanks. I didn't say good companies or managements. I did think in general most of them (the way they are financially positioned) are incentivized to slip into this bad territory. It's like the case that if most people wake up one day with a superpower, they are incentivized to do bad things. But some will still manage to become responsible and emerge a superhero. Doesn't mean they have to, but it's easy.

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docsbydesign profile image
Bob Watson

Sadly, the relationship between for-profit companies and good management is not 1:1.

Companies might honestly be interested in maximizing the value of their employees, but managers often have more focused goals, which, when optimized to the extreme, can result in what the paradox the article describes.

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pancy profile image
Pan Chasinga Author

Thanks for the comment. I do not agree that great companies do this. I think most companies are incentivized toward this. So it's easier to fall into this trap. Better ones realize this and create a long-lasting culture with much needed employee loyalty.

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johncip profile image
jmc • Edited

Separate from this, for me a lot of that pressure comes from the fact that we're all programming using languages, libraries, algorithms, data structures, etc. that rockstars have created / invented.

I'm not sure there's another field where you have such a close relationship to the tools, and the tools are so often created (and so recently) by very small teams, down to teams of one.

Perhaps academic research has this quality as well, though I can't speak from much experience on that front.

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pancy profile image
Pan Chasinga Author • Edited

This is an interesting take. Although I want to be clear that great programmers are not necessarily rockstars. Rockstar is a term of status marketing/recruiter/media helped come up to distinguish a certain stereotype that's easy to market and discriminate "the more normal ones".

Great programmers who have created languages, libraries, tools have used today are just great human beings because most of them did without or with little financial benefits. I've come to know in person a person of this caliber (let's just say he invented a language) and he's more similar to most people I know. He struggles in the same way we all do. He may have more theoretical experience and a more streamlined thought process, but he wouldn't strike you as a genius or rockstar. He is just a resilient, patient and very humble man who always ask for feedback.

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adam_cyclones profile image
Adam Crockett
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pancy profile image
Pan Chasinga Author

I don't get it. How do you program in it?

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adam_cyclones profile image
Adam Crockett • Edited

It's all written in a rock balled sort of syntax, it's more of a joke language so now you can actually be a rockstar developer. 👨‍🎤

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prahladyeri profile image
Prahlad Yeri

If the manager rewards those who sit late at the office as against those who actually work and score goal points, then its a problem with your office culture. You might be talking about some old contracting IT companies, most modern ones have transparency and processes in place, so that this kind of injustice doesn't happen. But yeah, there are those "old style" ones too, especially those who were established in the pre-90s and haven't changed with times until today.

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pancy profile image
Pan Chasinga Author

Hi thanks for the comment. It's not necessarily my office culture, but this still happens even in the most forward-thinking startup companies. Sometime in more subtle forms.

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sandordargo profile image
Sandor Dargo

Rockstars are generally hard to get along with, aren't they?

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pancy profile image
Pan Chasinga Author

A rockstar isn't a real person. It is just a classification that management came up with to alienate people who don't fall into the stereotype.

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sandordargo profile image
Sandor Dargo

I was not clear enough. To me, rockstars, in the first place, are famous and successful members of rock bands. They are quite real. I hope so, at least. For some reason, rockstars are used as a metaphor in software development. But if we think about real rockstars, are they easy to get along with in general? If not, is it a good thing to be a "rockstar" developer?

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pancy profile image
Pan Chasinga Author

Perhaps this article might shed some light on the origin of the buzzword. However, I think the preciseness of interpretation is secondary here compared to its harmful usages in the context of workplace culture.

If anything, rockstar implies celebrity status, which means someone the general public put the spotlight on mostly superficial features of that figure. That means when you call someone a rockstar, people will inevitably take notice of that person's characters, appearance, skills, etc. and just like a real rockstar, they will either get inspired to imitate him or compare him to themselves.

You don't want people to imitate or compare themselves to a few privileged in an organization. You want them to be confident of who they are and do their best in their own swagger.