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Rock star coders

For rock star programmers, it's not only just about brains but how you use them and get along with others

By Mary Brandel
January 22, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - "You sound great singing in the shower, but there's a rock star inside you!" So read the first line of a job posting placed by Viget Labs in December, in its attempt to fill a junior-level position for a Ruby on Rails "would-be rock star programmer."

Meanwhile, Web-based marketing service Emma asks, "Are you a PHP rock star?" And it goes on. Online brokerage firm Redfin seeks an AJAX rock star, social network BrightKite is looking for a Ruby rock star and software developer Backstop Solutions Group, a Java rock star.

So when did programmers become equated with rock stars and all that they entail -- fame, ego, phenomenal talent, single-minded passion, brilliance to the point of self-destruction, absurd employment terms and crazed groupies? Some say it's the surge in Web 2.0 start-ups and the resulting demand for talent. "The innovation engine is cranking at high speed again, and that means more start-ups and more venture capital money," says David Hayes, president of recruiting firm HireMinds LLC in Cambridge, Mass. And there's nothing like a hot job market, he says, to bring out the egos. "The employment rate for technology professionals is extremely high, and that gives some people the sense that they're now and forever in charge of their own destinies."

See Images of the Rock Star's Webpages and Blogs

Tomasz Czajka (known in competition as Tomek)
Tomasz Czajka (known in competition as Tomek)
Others say the phenomenon has roots in the growing fanfare and big winnings of code competitions, particularly those hosted by TopCoder Inc., which offers up to $50,000 to first place winners and now hosts its annual TopCoder Open in the entertainment Mecca of Las Vegas. "It's an entertainment ethos that's taken over a small area of the programming world," says Paul Glen, an IT management consultant and author of Leading Geeks. One frequent winner of these competitions, Tomasz Czajka (known in competition as Tomek), actually has enjoyed celebrity-like status in the Polish media and has been featured on a billboard in his native downtown Warsaw. He's even had a song written about him by MC Plus+, a "geeksta" rapper (yes, there is such a thing). Another, Derek Kinsman, who uses the handle "Snapdragon" and lives in Canada, says he gets recognized from time to time, once while dining in a restaurant.

Jim McKeown, director of communications at TopCoder, says he has seen the social status of frequent winners grow significantly in the last four to five years, especially because of the "incredible search for talent from companies with deep pockets," he says. "They used to just be guys who were brilliant but not very well known."



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