Hiring Rockstars

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Is a superstar technologist worth 10-100x a regular engineer?

Today, one of my favourite bloggers and technology strategists, Simon Wardley, discussed this issue. Ironically, today, Michael Eisenberg of Aleph VC discussed what those engineers should focus on (hint: avoid adtech).

Simon's main thrust was about knowing the right thing to do; after all, that is his specialty. He focused on his time at Fotango and then Canonical (company behind Ubuntu), how they hired every superstar Perl developer they could get their hands on. Yet, important as it was, the key to their success was knowing where and how to compete, not just building the best platform with which to compete.

I believe it was Peter Drucker who once said that engineers will always want to build things right while good business product decisions are about building the right thing. How many startups - and large corporate initiatives, for that matter - have died after building a beautiful product... that no one wanted?

Yet, hiring rockstar technologists is still important, for three crucial reasons:

  1. Flexible people: Rockstars love challenges. They tend to be capable of shifting on a moment's notice, and will attack a new project with gusto. Your initiative will change. I guarantee it. Worse, it will change in ways you don't and cannot currently anticipate. Rockstars will complain about all of the work they have done that now needs to be changed, all the beauty to be thrown out... for somewhere between 5 mins and 1 hour. After that, they will dive headfirst into the new project. You need this flexibility to be able to turn on a dime. Average, even good, engineers will have a much harder time changing directions and envisioning where you want to go.
  2. Flexible platform: One of the truisms of technology is that great engineers are lazy: they hate to do the same thing twice, or even think about doing it twice. Great engineers almost never will solve a problem; they will solve the underlying concept so you never have to solve anything like that problem again. This takes a bit more time, but leads to much more flexible platforms. Flexible platforms take less time and effort to switch gears into your new direction, and likely have much that is reusable.
  3. Attracting people: Every technologist wants to work with great technologists. Having a rockstar or two on your team makes it that much easier to hire other great people, both in engineering and in other areas of the company. As the saying goes, A list people attract A list people.

All that having been said, it is crucial to keep in mind 3 constraints:

  1. It is hard to keep rockstars happy. They need a constant stream of challenges they believe in, respect, and no BS. Some execs live and die by their handwaving magic, "fake it till you make it" light and mirrors. Rockstars will not be won over by anything other than continuous substance. But if there is that substance, they will stick with you and product through thick and thin.
  2. Never hire rockstar jerks. They are not worth it. Every executive has hired or inherited the type at least once and lived to regret it. They seem like they are worth putting up with, but they never are, for all 3 reasons above: they will be less flexible and complain bitterly about change for days or weeks; they will not share exactly how the amazing platform is built, making it more brittle, rather than less; and they will drive everyone else away, making hiring harder, not easier.
  3. Don't hire too many. A company needs a mix of good people who can do their tasks well, and great people who can do the one thing no one else can, or save the day when the proverbial fan is getting dirty. Too many of them, however, makes it nearly impossible to operate on a day to day basis. What is the right number? It depends on company size and stage, but it should be well below 50%.

Rockstars are invaluable, they can make or break your execution ability, but hire the right ones.