Fred Wilson Plays to the Superstar Developer Myth

I like Fred Wilson a lot.  His writings are consistently informative, well-written, and thoughtful.  This morning, however, he gets it wrong on the myth of the superstar software developer:

But managing developers is even harder. The better the developer the harder they are to manage. I assume its a bit like managing high maintenance entertainers. The best developers are artists who are often moody, are anarchists who have bursts of creativity and equally long periods of uselessness. They are strong willed people who will fight with their colleagues over anything and everything. The people who have mastered the art of managing these kinds of people are a rare breed and every great technology-based business needs one of them.

This meme has been going around so long that it’s become part of the common folklore in the software world.  The idea was able to get a toehold precisely because, in the early days of software, a lot of work was done by individuals, many working in academia, who fit the stereotype of the brilliant, eccentric genius.  There’s a book called Touched By Fire by Kay Jamison that explores the relationship between mania and artistic genius, and wonders aloud if there isn’t a causality there in addition to the correlation.  Many people want to posit the same causality in the software world.

I have heard that the Hot or Not website — one of the web’s biggest draws — was developed in a few weeks by one guy.  I have also heard that the first Facebook website was developed in a few weeks in a caffeine-and-pizza fueled burst of energy.  These types of tales serve to spread the myth that software is ONLY about inspiration.  What is ignored is the 95% of the software industry projects that require teamwork, coordination, communication, good manners, dependability, and diligence, in addition to inspiration.

Web 2.0 serves to facilitate the myth because with easy availably of mashup sources like Flickr, Amazon’s S3, Yahoo Web Services, etc., a lone gunman can develop something quickly.  With ubiquitious broadband, performance considerations are rapidly becoming obsolete, removing another engineering obstacle.  The mashup architecture is easy to grasp and develop against.  Browser standards convergence removes a lot of the previously-required scutwork involved in testing and exception handling.  All said, a kid in a dorm room can get a lot done these days — but that doesn’t prove that the superstars are moody and irritable primadonnas.

In my 10+ years as a CTO/VP Engineering/CIO, I have had four people who could vie for the title of the best developer that has worked for me.  Of them, only one even came close to fitting Fred’s profile.  The other three, in addition to being great developers, had all the other intangibles as well.

It’s time to put this myth to rest.


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