Secrets of the Rock Star Programmers

Hey Nerd, You’re a Rock Star

By Stuart Nachbar

Before I became a writer, I spent ten years in the Internet software world, starting close to the beginning of the dot-com era. I coordinated the circle of software product life working with designers, programmers, marketers, sales people and customers. I have never written a line of code in my life, nor do I intend to. But I have gotten a good handle about who I’d like to program for me.

{mosimage}Ed Burn’s Secrets of the Rock Star Programmers would have provided good direction had it been available to me years ago. Burns, a senior software engineer at Sun Microsystems, is an excellent writer and interviewer. The top of the back cover of Secrets says: A-List Programmers Reveal How to Develop Breakout Skills. I could not have described the book better myself. Interviewees include software technology experts, world recognized leaders in specific technologies or products; software pedagogy experts, who are world-recognized instructors in software development; software development experts who are generalists, rather than connected to a specific product or technology and one true rock star: Weird Al Yankovic, whom Burns calls “the programmer’s rock star. Yankovic’s YouTube video White and Nerdy included images well-known to the software development culture.

Each of Burn’s interviewees is asked to discuss their technical background (admitted I glossed over these parts), necessary soft skills, hard skills, business knowledge and the inner—and interpersonal skills required to succeed long-term, not only in software development, but also in the software industry, if a programmer wishes to make that industry their career. Each A-list programmer was also asked their concerns about out-sourcing and about their Plan B, should they desire to leave the industry. While these individuals do not fear outsourcing as it affects their own work, they know that it will impact the hiring of development teams and more routine programming tasks; they treat the downward spiral of salaries to handle this work as expected. 

Burns selected men of varied approaches and personalities; none were the unkempt geeks that are perceived to dominate the field. There are “work is life” professionals as well as nine-to-fivers in this mix. It is also fascinating to see what they say about business and career development. These A-listers include entrepreneurs as well as bright people who have succeeded within corporate settings. All of the programmers interviewed agreed on a need to understand business and business problems, but not all of them wanted to become entrepreneurs or executives. One, in fact, has become a successfully published writer of technical programming book, as well as a blogger on software development.

The only concerns that I had about Secrets were the lack of interviews with programmers who must develop software outside of the software industry; for example, in an earlier life I worked with software developers at Merck, a pharmaceutical company, who designed proprietary applications and a lack of interviews with women. That would have added to the diversity of the interviewees and enriched the content of the book. Then again, Secrets, is the type of book that will need continuous refreshing, especially as more Millennials advance onto the A-list and new technologies are introduced.

In conclusion, Secrets is an excellent book for parents to buy for a young computer science major or for a recent college graduate to learn what it takes to move up in a field. It’s also useful for someone who must hire the best software developers to fit their business culture and needs.

Contact Stuart Nachbar at , a blog on education politics, policy and technology or read about his first book, The Sex Ed Chronicle, a novel on education and politics in 1980 New Jersey, at .

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