The changing definition of "rock star"

"Rock star," at least in IT circles, used to mean "master of this domain." But is it coming to mean, "We want a miracle worker, because we have no idea what we're doing?"

You can find plenty of job ads that look for rock stars, such as "Senior expert guru wizard JAVASCRIPT/AJAX DEVELOPER" or "Hot NYC startup looking for rockstar developer." But—assuming you're immodest enough to think you're the top of the heap—just exactly what are these employers looking for?

A few years ago, calling someone a "rock star" meant:

  • You were the (or a) big cheese in this technology domain and/or a specific community
  • You were reasonably articulate about the subject and/or visible (such as someone who shares knowledge publicly—book author, conference speaker, or just well-beloved for expertise within a particular discussion group)
  • And, in the context of a Help Wanted ad, it also implied "We'll pay a lot"

Calling someone a rock star used to mean you were saying she was "best of the best," and in fact when I was editor at a previous publication, I did a whole series on ".NET Rock Stars," which were mainly Q&As with people that the .NET community knew: people who were almost a brand in themselves (Paul Vick, Chris Sells, Julie Lerman).

But now, I'm told, "rock star" has come to mean "We want a miracle worker" or "We're too lazy to describe what we want" (which implies "we don't know what we're doing").

You can't count on that as the definition, though. Since a job poster may have defined the term around 2004, when I did, it may still mean "goddess" -- in which case the Wanted ad will read very differently. "Do you know Python internals? Do you use lexx and yacc in your sleep? We're looking for a rock star who can..." would imply "goddess," while "We want an AJAX rock star" with little info to follow (or perhaps "2 years programming experience desired") suggests that the job poster isn't at all certain of what he wants, unless it's "we want someone who can do everything, and surely you don't mind working a lot of overtime?"

Whether it still means "we'll pay more" is up for grabs. I'm tempted to write to those job posters to ask how much they intend to pay... and then compare it to average wages for those positions ("Ajax developer" vs "rock star Ajax developer"). But before I do that... how do you define "rock star," at least in hiring or job-hunting terms? What's it mean to you?


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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