What developers think when you say "Rock Star"

When you say "rock star" in your job post, you're discouraging the best software developers from contacting you.

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."

Using "rock star" in your job post may have communicated a trendy vibe at one point, but those times have passed. Now it communicates a desperate attempt to seem cooler than you really are, a sign that you're too full of yourself, or that you're just naive. 

Naivety worries developers the most. To developers, "rock star" communicates that you're not sure what you want. Or rather, you do know what you want, and what you want is a miracle worker. "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).

Speaking of overworked and underpaid... there's really only one time "rock star" is appropriate: "We want a rock star developer. We know you're rare, and we'll pay you like a rock star." Sadly, this isn't usually the case. Here's how software engineers are paid in relation to rock star software engineers [1, 2].

Now here's how musicians are paid in relation to real rock stars [3, 4].


So next time you're thinking about saying rock star, ninja, guru, etc in your job post, consider it a sign that you have more thinking to do about your hiring requirements. Here are a few questions and trade-offs you should consider answering with your job post:

  • Do you want a specialist or a generalist?
  • If you want extraordinary people, can you compensate them extraordinarily or provide an extraordinary environment? 
  • Do you want a technical person who cares more about the business/market challenges or do you want someone who cares more about the technical challenges? 
  • Do you want someone who prefers quick, practical, "good enough" solutions or do you want someone who prefers to take their time and do things more maintainably or scalably?
  • Do you want a feature developer or a maintainer? 
  • Do you want a risk taker?

Let us know in the comments If you have any more high-level questions you like to have answered before you post a job description.


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    [1] Simply Hired salary estimates for software engineer
    [2] Simply Hired salary estimates for rock star software engineer
    [3] Simply Hired salary estimates for musician
    [4] Average salary for the top 10 best paid music stars. But wait, those are only the top 10 musicians! Yes, exactly. Rockstars are stars because they're scarce, and because they're the best.

    Also, an associated queston on Hacker News a few months back was very helpful. Thanks for all the comments there today also.

    62 responses
    I think perhaps your numbers on musicians are off by more than you think. Not that I am going to take Courtney Love's opinion for much but this is probably relevant: http://www.salon.com/technology/feature/2000/06/14/love
    yea can we add 'Ninja', & 'Hipster' too?
    So what's the difference between Ninja pay and run-of-the-mill assassin pay?
    Great post, and I'd like to point out that you could definitely switch out developer(s) with system administrator. If I had followed this advice I could've saved myself a lot of heartache in my last position. I have a feeling though that there are a lot more Seekers reading this, and too few Companies, alas.

    I'm definitely going to add your list of questions/trade-offs to my interview questions to ask perspective employers.

    As a software engineer this is what I call a software rock star http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Zuckerberg

    The difference is more then 1622%

    Hilarious! Actually more like 161,290%
    @Chris Nicole - Thanks for the link. Very interesting. People have been saying that most of an artist's compensation comes from tours, tshirts, and sponsorships.
    The difference between $31,000 and $50,000,000 is actually about 160,000%. You're off by two orders of magnitude: looks like you just forgot to turn it into a percentage, but that change makes your argument even stronger.
    Actually "Code Assassin" sounds like someone worth paying extra for ;-)
    @EvanKRob definitely. On a ruby mailing list I'm on, people have started to refer to "rock stars" as frogmen, making fun of the job posts.
    @ambert Hah. Probably the same difference between a Viking and a typical seafarer.
    @whenpbmetj thanks for pointing that out. It's definitely applicable to sysadmins!
    @Danny indeed. Huge difference.
    @irickt @Johnny thanks for pointing that out - will try to update shortly.
    Job posts that contain "rockstar", "ninja", "hero" etc., other than being super-annoying, may as well include the following requirements for good measure: http://blog.submitmy.info/2010/02/wanted-the-worlds-best-candidate/
    Totally agree.
    To me, "rock star" programmer feels more like a personality requirement (one that is not necessarily conducive to being a good programmer). If you want a programmer who is also a PR face for your company, just say that (DHH, etc. would probably qualify). If you want a really good programmer, just say that.
    luvly post
    So all bosses reading this: Check the cost of hiring a new employee and then think about a raise for your devs.
    Being un-employed and looking for a job in the startup world I see this "rock star" phrase used a lot and it drives me crazy. Rock stars would make terrible developers. Great post.
    I'm just a regular hit man and I usually make about 10k per job. I know a few Ninja Assassins though, and they usually make from 250k-1mil per job. Might wanna add those stats in.
    @pheathwa - Pretty funny how bad job posts can get. That one's not too far off from reality sometimes.

    @Chris Thompson - Great advice. Awesome example too.

    @sschuermann - Exactly. It's even worse if your company uses headhunters.

    @Colby - Hah rock stars would make awful developers. Unless you like your developers to come in drunk or high.

    @McQuade - they make even more if they're a super violent movie!

    Any "rock star" developer who's only taking $77K is by definition not a rock star. Add 50-100% minimum, plus bonuses and stock, millions if you get lucky.

    You're completely ignorant of real developer jobs if you think anyone in civilization (rock star or not) takes that kind of lowball pay since the dot-com bust.

    @Mark Hughes - Thanks for the comment. I see what you're saying. Both of those figures ($72k and $77k) are averages from Simply Hired data. Your comment is especially relevant since developers are currently in such high demand.
    Amen to this post! This is why I had to start my own company. Not because I am an entrepreneur or MBA type or fascinated with bureaucracy and regulations. But because the BS, and the waste of my work from corporate was unbearable. Yes I am a rock star, but no I am not for hire, nor is my company for sale. We do incredibly well being autonomous and kick serious butt. It's pretty funny looking back because if I had had even one manager that wasn't a clueless idiot who squandered my best efforts, I'd be contributing the 8 figures of worth to some other company in return for that extra 10% mentioned in the post rather than keeping it for myself and the causes I support (including employment for a couple dozen folks). Corporate USA is so stupid! It would be trivial to hold onto talent, but they have no interest. Everything is a giant political play by petty people on power trips. They'll never get over themselves either, even as the megacompany they go to circles the toilet drain.
    This was probably the most helpful post I've read over the last month. It has implications that ripple through everything I do. Thanks for the wise words and now I'm going to change the way I write job posts forever.
    'Cause we all just wanna be big rockstars
    And live in hilltop houses driving fifteen cars
    The girls come easy and the drugs come cheap
    We'll all stay skinny 'cause we just won't eat
    And we'll hang out in the coolest bars
    In the VIP with the movie stars
    Every good gold digger's
    Gonna wind up there
    Every Playboy bunny
    With her bleach blond hair

    Hey hey I wanna be a rockstar
    Hey hey I wanna be a rockstar

    Using the term Rock Star, as Intel does, also betrays an overwhelming US centred view of the world. The rest of the world dislikes Rock Music and Rock Stars.
    @Scott - Congrats on starting a company! It's awesome to see people who can build things taking control.

    @Allan - Thanks for the kind words. I hope it helps.

    @simoncpu - Oh Nickelback, I know you were really talking about software engineers in that song :-)

    @Grumpy Brit - Thanks for the perspective. Know of any "rock star" equivalents in non-US job descriptions?

    Sir - you should familiarise yourself with this article, before you start suggesting how much real rock stars earn;


    Coming at it from another direction, I'm not happy about this post.

    As a developer looking at job posts, this was a quick keyword I could filter for jobs I /did not want/. The more times it gets brought up as a red flag that
    "rockstar jobs" aren't "good jobs", the less often people will call them that. Hence, the likelier it is that bad jobs will go unlabeled. A useful negative buzzword is helpful, sometimes. Think of tells in poker.

    @Wyatt Carss - Thank you for your comment. Great point. I guess what I'm assuming is a lot of these places can reform their ways and become better. Do you think that is possible?

    I'm hoping that by getting companies to think a bit more about their hiring requirements, it will make the job search better for developers.

    @Colin Rogers - Thanks for that link. You're right about my familiarity with the music industry. I tried to note that in the article with how I came up with those numbers. I've been told that tours, tshirts, etc are where most of a band's money comes from. Is that accurate?

    As a developer, I want to thank you for posting this. I believe your comments are spot on.

    As someone who used to be heavily involved (and is still involved, to an extent) with the music industry, I'm backing you up - most of a band's money does come from merchandise and ticket sales.

    Recently, an indie artist I know mentioned that he only sees $1 from every $10 spent on recorded music. Unless you're financing the recordings yourself (which is still relatively tough to do, especially so if you're used to having a big budget - instead of cutting tracks in your home studio) - there's still a minimal return on your efforts.

    I completely agree. The term 'rockstar' is thrown around too much and the people who are searching for 'rockstars' are the same people who are looking for amazing designers that can draw stunning logos in a mere couple hours for minimum pay.

    Most people that use the term 'rockstar' or 'ninja' loosely tend to be super non-technical people who do not realize how much time and effort are spent on these mind-racking problems and assume that through the developer's magical powers, everything comes into place.

    Although I enjoy my fair share of fantasy novels, the only way to hire amazing developers is to pay them what they're actually worth and to provide them the best, most flexible, super creative and if possible, most fun environment ever so they will want to join and not ever want to ever leave.

    Great examples include Google or Twitter: surround your coworkers with other genius coworkers and also add a dash of awesome to get the brain juices flowing. It's as simple as that.

    As a "rock star" developer I wouldn't even consider a job paying as low as $77k. At minimum they better be prepared to pay me at least $120k just to even get me to interview.

    However, I currently make more in the bay area.

    Great post! Even we are building automated tools for hiring programmers. Totally second your thoughts.
    @nicholaswyoung - Thanks for the kind words. It's crazy how little of a musicians money comes directly from recordings.

    @ladyfox14 "Although I enjoy my fair share of fantasy novels" - Too funny. Great examples of how to motivate people.

    @John - You're right. I think these figures are so low because they're averages.

    @interviewstreet - Thanks! Your product looks great.

    Can you imagine a job post specifying its requirements in terms of one or more of the following developer types defined by Uncle Bob in http://thecleancoder.blogspot.com/2010/09/hacker-novice-artist-and-craftsman.... : Artist, Craftsman, Hacker, Novice.
    Right, you want a rock star. So you'll be ok when I show up late still high from last night and proceed to have sex with everyone.
    @Philip Schwarz - interesting. Those would be hard to mix.

    @keith r. - as long as you can get work done :-/

    @Hirelite - Get work done? Does a Rock Star? Surely someone else does all the work? (session musicians, autotune, etc)
    @Matt - You're right. I was joking before. It's hard to get work done when you're busy checking your M&M bowl to make sure there are no brown M&Ms.
    @JeremyHutchings - nice post. It's definitely weird to see people describe themselves as rock stars. Terms like that (rock star, ninja, guru) are like nick names - ok for other people to call you maybe, but definitely not ok to call yourself.
    @nahurst Thanks, I tend to think a little more humility and a lot more realism wouldn't go a miss ! :)
    Rock star musicans are simply overpaid … no one needs 20 luxury cars, 5 houses w/ 20 rooms in 5 different countries.
    @Rene - overpaid or not, the market seems to support it. It would be interesting to see how pay compares with quality (but for music, it's very subjective).
    I liked this... cool post...recruiters need to read this everytime they think of rockstart or ninja.... :)
    Forget ninja or assassin or whatever. How much should I be looking for as a bloody minded moron with a baseball bat? (I perhaps over-rely on brute force solutions)
    @Dave - I'm looking forward to a solid B horror movie where all the characters are based on things mentioned in job posts. Sounds like you'd be a good writer for it.
    @Giovanni - Is that serious or a joke?
    I also feel it is a code word for "male" - I'm not saying there are not female rock stars, but I don't know any female software developers who would describe themselves as "rock stars".
    Just came across this post...great stuff.

    Saying "rock star" not only means you are probably an ass, but that you are also too lazy to put real thought into what you need and who you want to hire. If you care so much about finding and working with great talent, then act like it - put time into a real job description, an easy explanation of your culture/values/vision, and make the package attractive. Oh, and realize that anyone who might even loosely be considered a rock star is already employed and kicking ass. So, you don't find them with cheesy posts on your crappy company blog or by tweeting about it all the time. You want to get the best possible, you better identify those people and actively pursue them.

    @Nancy - Interesting - good to know. I wonder what the rockstar equivalent for women is? "We're really looking for a software mermaid?" Maybe?

    @sandman_a - great points. What are some distinguishing cultural things a company should list in their post? Everyone lists "we have a great team", but that often says so little.


    Right, everyone says they have a great team of super awesome people. They reference the silly stuff like foosball tables or free cokes, but they often don't do a good job of making it clear what the company, and co-founder's, values really are. Is it a place that wants to make everything sound cool or that actually IS cool? Is it a place that says it has lots of fun or does it really value its employees and their work (and life) satisfaction? I could go on forever...

    I know it is tough to do, but you can tell when it is fake. Just be yourself...as a founder, as a hiring manager, as a company. Make it clear that you compensate fairly, fairly enough that compensation is never a reason for concern, that you want people to do great work and you will give them the environment to do so (tools, right office space, actual autonomy, easy processes to follow), and that you believe the work has meaning (that the company has a real purpose, that employees are part of that purpose, and that everyone works towards it whether building product or volunteering or whatever it might be). If you do this right, you just need to add a bit in about specifics for a particular job, like whether it is a Ruby or PHP shop, and you will be in great shape. Heck, if you do a really good job of capturing the work culture, good candidates will find you.

    @sandman_va - Thanks for the response! I think you're absolutely right. I wonder why more companies don't do write about those things in their job post (other than them not actually doing them). I think it comes down to companies often thinking from the perspective of "what do i need" vs "what do i offer".
    i enjoy really by reading this blog.Thanks for provide or sharing your experience with us
    @Grumpy Brit
    "Using the term Rock Star, as Intel does, also betrays an overwhelming US centred view of the world. The rest of the world dislikes Rock Music and Rock Stars. "

    What are you babbling about rest of the world disliking rock? I'd say that you're post is typical US know-it-all a**hattery, but with the popularity of conservative politics and word views in USA I am astonished that rock is not disliked more in USA.
    Rest of the world loves rock - you would know if you're nickname wasn't a sham. Britain is after all home of numerous rock legends.

    Just my opinion, from Finland.

    As for the "rock star" in job titles of programmers, developers, etc. - it's just another annoying buzzword which hasn't even been properly defined and thus means numerous different things to different people.
    It's not silly, it's plain stupid and causes rage.

    I pulled together a sample of company ratings from Glassdoor and companies hiring "Rockstar Developers" actually have slightly higher ratings across the board: http://blog.codejobs.io/post/95398815036/the-ri...
    1 visitor upvoted this post.