Think of a software developer, or ‘coder’, and what comes to mind? The chances are that the words rock star or superstar weren’t part of the image you conjured. And it’s almost certain that you didn’t picture today’s software engineers as masters of their own destiny, revered like leading musicians or actors with their own Hollywood-style talent agencies to represent them.

But this is the cutting edge, the pinnacle of 21st century innovation where software developers reign supreme. The world as we know it is being rewritten in code, and an unprecedented tech boom and the worldwide proliferation of ‘digital’ means that software development and programming are no longer restricted to Silicon Valley.

“Everything is driven by ‘digital’, and the need to compete in new markets or defend from new digital entrants makes time of the essence,” says Alan Mumby, Partner and Head of CIO & IT Transformation Group at Odgers Berndtson. “The rate of change has never before been experienced and it is pretty exhausting trying to keep up with it.”

To put it simply every business, every industry, every government, everybody needs code. “Competing in such an environment takes new skills and tools, and those with them are the most sought after resource,” says Mumby. “Knowledge is everything and it will become your only property worth anything.”

Demand for the best and brightest software developers has ignited a talent war of epic proportions as everyone, from the smallest start-ups through to major global investment banks and multinational corporations, competes for the most talented coders. In 2015, for example, it was estimated that in the US alone around one in every 20 job postings was related to software development/ engineering, while in London a distinct lack of software talent is driving an increasingly competitive market.

And when time is money, everyone wants the best. Those in the highest demand are known as ‘rock stars’, and they are a rare breed.

Consider them the elite, the top few per cent of all software developers who, through their exceptionally creative lifestyles and talented coding have become the hottest human capital commodity.

Anatomy of a rock star

“Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good,” Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg once claimed. “They are 100 times better.” And so it is with the rock star coder. 

Programming, like any creative pursuit, is a labour of love for rock stars. Beware the common misconception that writing code is mechanical and purely scientific. The rock star is a highly creative, artistic and unique individual. They live very rich and very diverse lives – many are musicians, artists or poets – and their desire to create and innovate brings an incredible advantage in the coding they produce.

Like musicians or artists, their ability to draw from their vast experiences and inspiration allows them to be a more sophisticated, efficient and economical programmer who is more creative with code.

“They have one overarching talent, which is to blend really deep, cutting-edge technical acuity with the ability to lead teams of people on journeys defined by a vision. But a vision is useless without the means to deliver it, and those who can do both are the new techno-rock stars,” says Mumby.

At its most basic level coding consists of problem solving and an understanding of what needs to be done to make the code as scalable and effective as possible. A rock star could, for example, allow you to achieve in one hour what you can do in four or five hours with a team of very skilled software developers. There are even reports of rock star developers entering a business and solving a problem in a relatively short timescale that an in-house engineering team hasn’t been able to solve in some years, adding exponential value to the business in the process.

The world’s a stage

If you’re wondering what it takes to secure your own rock star – and why wouldn’t you be – then you’d better be prepared to enter a fierce bidding war. The sparsity of such highly skilled individuals has had a significant impact on the hiring process and created an environment where rock stars are effectively able to pick and choose whatever job, salary and bonus packages they wish.

Six-figure salaries are standard for the very best, as are the video games, pool tables, breakout areas and other novelties that have become synonymous with the ‘modern’ and ‘cool’ tech office.

But it goes beyond that. Everything is being offered, from on-site haircuts, on-site yoga and other activities to an indoor tree house (Airbnb), a music room (Dropbox) and free gourmet meals delivered to desks. That’s not to mention the ‘precation’, a fully paid for holiday to a destination of choice that’s taken after a contract is signed, but before a single line of code is written. 

Other examples include Twitter, which paid senior vice-president of engineering, Christopher Fry, more than $10 million in stock options in 2012- a figure that was second only to that received by the CEO. Meanwhile Google, in an attempt to prevent a leading programmer defecting to Facebook, paid him $3.5 million in restricted stock options.

If you can offer those kind of figures then you’re certainly an attractive prospect, but remember, the rock star is more than a mere mercenary. By their very nature they are attracted to diffrent or exciting opportunities, businesses with unique missions or innovative concepts that give them the opportunity to create code that will have a significant and lasting impact on the world.

This is perfect for the innovative and fresh tech start-up, coincidentally a favourite stomping ground of the rock star coder, but how can larger businesses compete? Quite simply, by making the working environment and the business culture as attractive a prospect as possible. A bank might, for instance, offr the prospect of changing the global economy for the future, or an insurer might describe coding work as protecting the world from the dangers of cyber crime or hacking.

Remember also that cultural fit is, in a large majority of cases even more important. When you hire a superstar you expect results, but what of the preconceptions associated with the world of software developers? To an extent it’s true that, while exceptionally gifted in terms of raw talent, many rock stars are less so when it comes to social interaction, dealing with the ‘business’ of doing business, communicating effctively and negotiating contracts.

But if you can navigate past this effectively and create an environment and culture that is able to lure such talent, you’ll have a formidable weapon in your arsenal. The choice is simple: if you want to remain competitive in a market that is changing more rapidly than ever before you need to hire the very best – you need a rock star.

Hiring the software superstar 

  • Can they really motivate and lead, no matter how unique their technical skills are?
  • Are they commercially focused despite their deep technical expertise?
  • How deep and broad is their technical expertise? Is it relevant to the role?
  • Are their all-round communication skills capable of being effective at Board level?
  • Do they possess robust all-round stakeholder management and political skills? 
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