March 7, 2017

While I was reconstructing the speaking section of my web site (post-move to Jekyll), I discovered I have a whole page of presentations at Confreaks. Wild. That’s not all of my conference talks by any means, but it’s a lot of them.

Then I took a look at the numbers and realized there were people out there really interested in a couple of those topics. And I was reminded that I’ve not really done any deep-dives on my blog on some of those topics. So, here we go on the topic of - Rockstars & Consultants - Who needs’em?.

What makes a Rockstar?

Let’s kick off this series by breaking down and seeing what that whole rockstar package consists of.

They know everything

Or do they?

At least some self-labelled rockstars think they do. When you are out there looking for that illusive rockstar, you need to take care not to hire the individuals suffering from Dunning–Kruger effect

a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is.

The flip-side of Dunning-Kruger must also be addressed - Imposter Syndrome

a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

Impostor syndrome continues to hobble otherwise eminently capable people, who could be the rockstars you are looking for, but fail to recogize that potential within themselves. They won’t ever apply for a job advertising for a rockstar, and so you could miss out on these otherwise skilled productive people.

One thing a real rockstar understands is that no matter how much they already know, there is always much, much more left to be learned.

Which brings us to the second key attribute of a rockstar.

Always learning

The only way for your real rockstar to know everything is to be always learning new things. These people are self-motivated learners. They learn new things because they enjoy learning new things. That’s a necessary attribute for a rockstar to have, but this one comes with a couple of down-sides, too.

Frequently they will want to introduce new technologies, just to have a chance to learn them. Again, a real rockstar understands when this is appropriate, to the project, product or company, and when it is not.

A self-motivated learner will also tend to get easily bored, when they are not in a position to learn new things. If you fail to give these people something to learn when they are craving it, you’ll end up with either


Proper care and feeding of your rockstar should include time to learn new things, but do try to keep those new things OFF the critical path.

They have all the answers


A rockstar will have great breadth of knowledge, because they’ve done it all before.

There’s a reason why people often refer to “full stack developers” as rockstars. When we think of the number of areas in which a developer needs not just knowledge, but expertise, the full stack developer really does seem to be a rockstar.

It can be terribly easy, when one has a rockstar, to come to depend on them to come up with all the answers all the time. Don’t do it.

We frequently joke about people being hit by a bus, but it’s not really funny at all. And it could completely sink your business if you, and the rest of your team, have become dependent on your rockstar to solve every problem.

The 10x developer

Rockstars “get’er done fast”. You’ve all heard of the 10x developer. That’s what most people think rockstars are: Productivity machines.

Reality check. A 10x developer can be 10x productive in sprints of limited time, on focused projects. But if you expect that 10x developer you hired to also:

  1. train novice or junior developers
  2. attend project/product/company meetings
  3. learn new things while delivering on deadlines
  4. explain what they are doing to the rest of the team

well, surprise. They probably won’t be 10x all the time. Or even a majority of the time.

Unless you have a team of one, it’s not possible for the best rockstar developer to be 10x productive over the long haul. That’s not to say they won’t be vastly more productive on average, but keep your expectations realistic.

Superhero (or Superheroine)

Rockstars get a kick out of being the superhero.

Got a tight deadline? Your rockstar will push that critical release out the door, on schedule, or kill themselves trying.

Pro-tip. Don’t do that to your best and brightest people. The flip-side of the superhero is burnout. Just because they can manage those insane deadlines once or twice, doesn’t mean you can hold that up as the “new normal”.

Burnout is real, with real consequences. If you are lucky they will just walk away but a very real danger exists that one day your rockstar who used to be like

now looks a lot more like

No fear

Having no fear of technical challenges is a great thing. Just watch your rockstar when someone says the words “can’t be done”. They won’t be able to let it go, until they solve that problem.

Some problems can’t be solved with the resources at hand, and a rockstar might just blow through your entire budget, while making the attempt.

Other problems are not appropriate to solve. For instance, just because you can store your social network relationships in a SQL database, doesn’t mean you should (use a real graph database!).

Take care when this starts to happen, and keep your rockstar focused on the real problems your business faces.

Don’t come cheap

A rockstar developer who isn’t suffering from impostor syndrome is more than likely to know what they are worth. And they won’t come cheap.

If you are really lucky, and they are still young and single, and they haven’t been burnt in the past, you might be able to get them to take part of their compensation in equity. (Hey rockstars… DON’T DO IT)

Really though, a rockstar is going to want to trade on their expertise for the big payoff. That means you either pay them the big bucks right now, or they get equity, which they expect will pay them the big bucks in fairly short order. And if that equity does not translate into the big bucks after a period of time, you’ll be watching your rockstar, and all their knowledge, experience and productivity, walk out the door.

Interpersonal skills


Let’s be real here. A not insignificant percentage of the developers out there are lacking in interpersonal skills. Especially the young ones. Triply so for the really talented ones. If you are unlucky, you could end up with a prima donna (a.k.a. the brilliant jerk).

Ideally, you would want the true professional, who is capable of leaving ego out of the equation.

Once again, let’s be clear. Unless you can get away with the one-person team, your rockstar WILL have to work with others. If your business depends on teamwork, you must not allow your rockstar to completely cripple your business by disrupting your whole team.

So Now You Know

If you had your sights set on hiring a rockstar when you started reading this post, hopefully you now have a more realistic idea of what they can offer your team, and what some of the downsides might be. My next post will discuss the pro’s and con’s of hiring consultants.