Things to Know Before You Hire A “Rock Star” Employee [Will Always Have A Side Project]

Everybody wants a rock star programmer in their team, but very few actually need them. There is a huge difference between need vs. want, though many startups are in a constant cribbing mode for not being able to find rock star programmers.

To give you certain perspective, I have worked with quite a few rock star programmers in my career and here are my observations vis-à-vis rock star programmers.

Discipline & Rockstar Programmers

Most of the rock star programmers, in my observation have their own schedule. And the bad news is that you cannot influence it.

They work late night, might be late to work and while they are good at what they do, this might impact your overall team motivation. So just know where to draw the line.

Syd Barrett - Comfortably Numb

Syd Barrett - Comfortably Numb

Rock Star Programmers Carry Blinds

They are too focused on their core technology. And mind it, they are damn good at it as well. The challenge however is that as a startup, you need somebody to do wear multiple hats plus do the dirty job as well (includes testing). Most importantly, you need a versatile employee who is willing to look at business aspects/usability etc and rock stars typically do not fit this definition.

A big company can afford to have people who are good at just one thing, but startups need a good mix.

Rock Star Programmers Will Always Have a Side Project

Well, you better accept this. Rockstar programmers will always have a side project and the bad news is that they will leave your company one fine day, without a rhyme or reason (no matter what salary are you paying them). They are quite entrepreneurial in nature and are driven by passion, so if one of their side project clicks, they are on their own.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing, just that if you look at the amount of time/effort you invest in hiring a rock star, the returns may/may not justify the experience.

In fact, an average duration of a rock star in an organization stays around 1year -1.5 years.

Reality: Rockstars do not exist

Frankly, rockstar programmers do not exist. It’s a hype created by product companies/startups to improve their ‘own perception’. Everybody wants to be the place where ‘rock star’ programmers work, but in reality very few need them.

Adding ‘rock star’ in job description makes one feel good about their own company and that’s where you make the first mistake. Replace the job title with ‘Principal Engineer’ and you will get more marriage material applicants than one-night stand relationships [Recommended Read: What Makes A Great Startup Employee?].

Rockstars: How Do You ‘Tame’ Them?

There are two things I have observed that works tremendously well (at least for me)

- Be the bad guy.

In the movie Chak de India, there is a phenomenal dialogue that sums up the entire philosophy of rock stars

Har team mein bas ek hi gunda ho sakta hai, Aur is team ka gunda main hun!

That is, a team can have only 1 ‘bad guy’.

Apple has Steve Jobs, Microsoft has Steve Ballmer.Facebook has Mark Zuckerberg (example of companies that desperate need a bad guy/girl are Yahoo and Nokia).

If you really want to keep a rock star, be the bad guy in the company. Do not let a few rock stars ruin the entire show with their decisions/actions. As a founder, be the one who is respected as a decision maker, though ensuring that you have ears open for all decibels of sounds (and not just rock stars).

- Be the Inspiration

Rockstar programmers do not just work for money/work quality. They work for a cause. They stick with people who inspire them (note the word stick). And you need to be a super rock star to deserve a rock star in your team. You need to be a source of inspiration to your employees so that they stick with you and actually follow a few rules (like discipline etc).

In short, you get what you deserve. So stop running around rock stars when you actually need somebody who sticks with you and can really make your startup work.

Agree? Disagree? Share your opinion?

Recommended Read: Want Smart Geeks to Join Your Startup? Take Some Risk

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