What does 'Rockstar Developer' really mean?

“If by rock star, you mean someone that parties all night, comes in late and hungover, has weird contractual demands, and trashes hotel rooms on business trips, then yes, I guess I'm a rock star.”

When do I start?

In the IT industry, the term ‘Rockstar Developer’ has become quite divisive and controversial, with a variety of interpretations as to its real meaning.

For some, Rockstar Developers are egotistical prima donnas with an overdeveloped sense of their own abilities, whilst for others the term simply denotes a very talented Senior Developer. For recruiters trying to use the term to attract talent, it’s a veritable minefield.

With the help of some of the opinions on the Internet, we attempt to get to the bottom of this and find out what ‘Rockstar Developer’ really means.

The Popular Opinion

The popular and most common opinion of what a Rockstar Developer is seems to be this: An overpaid, arrogant employee that likes to be the centre of attention and display their coding skills to whoever is passing by.

Much like a real life Rockstar they are impetuous and unlikely to be a team player.

“Rock Star = someone who may code well, but they're a pain in the ass to deal with (we used to call them prima donnas)”

“Senior + Loud != Rockstar”

“A rock star is somebody who plays in a rock band!

There is no such thing as a rock star developer. It's a stupid stupid term. You have no inherent connection with rock music, you are not famous and don't have thousands of adoring fans. I'm convinced that a number of balding, pony tailed idiot developers and snotty college grads think they do - but you don't - get over yourself.”

However, a Rockstar developer could also be a developer who has to do the work of several people due to their extraordinary abilities as surmised by this quote.

“"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). 
Or more specifically, they really need 5 people to do this work, but they only plan to get 1.”

The Positive Opinion

Not everyone is quite so negative about Rockstar developers. Many people think that the term ‘Rockstar’ is simply a Senior Developer with a great deal of talent and experience, who is capable of solving complex problems and leading projects. This camp believes that the term ‘Rockstar’ has been misappropriated by ‘wannabes’ and that there is still a place for a genuine Rockstar.

“To me, a rock star (or just 'star') programmer is someone who has a real gift for learning new technologies, integrating them into their existing toolkit, and solving complex or lengthy problems quickly, efficiently, and well.”

“Junior Engineer - Creates complex solutions to simple problems. Engineer - Creates simple solutions to simple problems. 
Senior Engineer - Creates simple solutions to complex problems. 
Rockstar Engineer - Makes complex problems disappear.”

“A rock star programmer is the kind of programmer you wish you were, if you're a programmer. And hopefully they don't have a big head about it. Most of the ones I've known have been decent people, willing to collaborate and to explain their work to others.”


And finally poor recruiters. Recruiters have a tough time trying to attract developers for their roles and have often fallen into the trap of using ‘Rockstar’ as a way of sounding cool and different. Unfortunately, along with ‘ninja’ and ‘jedi’, that has become something of a cliché, and most developers are suspicious of job adverts using such phrases.

"We're looking for a rockstar programmer to join our team, are you interested?" Translation: "You seem reasonably competent, we want you to think we are cool and we think a lot of you."

“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.”

“It's just a buzzword to draw attention to a job posting just like "senior" or "experienced" were before it.”

Alright, so we didn’t quite get to the bottom of all this, but what we can safely say is that it’s probably best to avoid to using the term ‘Rockstar’ if you can help it. Whilst it may once have been a useful term to describe talented programmers, it’s meaning has become so ambiguous and loaded that it’s difficult to use it without running the risk of annoying somebody.

We’d love to hear your opinions though, what does ‘Rockstar Developer’ mean to you? Are you in fact a ‘Rockstar Developer’ yourself? Get in touch on FacebookTwitter or in the comments section below!