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The whole ‘rockstar developer’ thing is backwards

Another day, another clearout of junk from people who want ‘rockstar iPhone developers’ for their Shoreditch startups. I could just say “no”, or I could launch into a detailed discussion of the problems in this picture.

Rockstars are stagnant

No-one, and I mean no-one, wants to listen to your latest album. They want you to play Free Bird, or Jessica, or Smoke on the Water. OK, so they’ll pay more for their tickets than people listening to novel indie acts, you’ll make more money from them (after your promoter has taken their 30%). But you had better use exactly the right amount of sustain in that long note in Parisienne Walkways, just like you did back in ’79, or there’ll be trouble. Your audience doesn’t care whether you’ve incorporated new styles or interesting techniques from other players, or bought new equipment, you’re playing Apache on that pink Stratocaster the way you always have.

That’s exactly the opposite of a good model in software. Solving the same problem over and over, using the same tools and techniques, is ossification. It’s redundant. No-one needs it any more. Your audience are more like New York jazz fans than VH-1 viewers: they want tradition with a twist. Yes, it needs to be recognisable that you’re solving a problem they have – that you’re riffing on a standard. But if you’re not solving new problems, you’re no longer down with the cool cats. As the rock stars might say: who wants yesterday’s papers?

Home taping is killing music

That riff you like to throw out every night, that same problem that needs solving over and over again? Some student just solved the same thing, and they put it on github. The change in code-sharing discourse of the late 1990s – from “Free Software” to “Open Source” – brought with it the ability for other people to take that solution and incorporate it into their own work with few obligations. So now everyone has a solution to that problem, and is allowed to sell it to everyone who has the problem. Tomorrow night, your stadium’s going to have plenty of empty seats.

Programming groupie culture

Programming has a very small number of big names: not many people would be as well-known in the industry as, say, Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, DHH. Some people might choose to call these people “polarising”. Others might choose “rude and arrogant”. Either way, they seem to bring their harems of groupies to the internet: cadres of similarly-“polarising” males who want to be seen to act in the same way as their heroes.

A primatologist might make the case that they are imitating the alpha male baboon in order to gain recognition as the highest-status beta.

Now the groupies have moved the goalposts for success from solving new problems to being rude about solutions that weren’t solved by the “in” group. What, you want to patch our software to fix a bug? You’re not from round these parts, are you?

Embrace the boffin

Somehow for the last few years I managed to hang on to the job title “Security Boffin”. Many people ask what a boffin is: the word was World War 2 slang among the British armed forces referring to the scientists working on the war effort. Like “nerd” or “geek”, it meant someone who was clever but perhaps a bit, well, different.

Boffins were also known at the time as “the back room boys”[*] for their tendency to stay out of the way and solve important – and expedient – technical problems. We need these messages decrypting, the boffins in the back room have done it but they keep talking about this “computer” thing they built. Those boffins have come up with a way to spot planes before we can even see them.

The rockstar revels in former glories while their fans insist that nothing made later even comes close to the classics. If you need a problem solving, look for boffins, not Bonos.

[*] Unfortunately in the military establishment of the 1940s it was assumed that the clever problem solvers were all boys. In fact histories of early computing in the States show that the majority-female teams who actually programmed and operated the wartime computers often knew more about the machines’ behaviours than did the back room boys, diagnosing and fixing problems without reporting them. A certain Grace Hopper, PhD, invented the compiler while the back room boys were sure computers couldn’t be used for that.