Ziggy played guitar
In late 2016, I wrote a slide deck. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I re-wrote -- no, I adapted -- a song. As a presentation slide deck. You know, as one does.
Over the next year and some change, however, I never delivered the presentation to an audience. I never... felt comfortable delivering the presentation to an audience. I wasn’t unaccustomed to public speaking. I’ve done plenty of presentations over the years I’ve been a professional software developer. I’ve presented to my teams, to my bosses, to my clients, to my customers, to the CEO, the president, to conferences (usually when I was on the schedule… once when I wasn’t). To adults. To children. Just never… to music. So I adapt (again).
David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tells the story of a rock-and-roll frontman whose self-absorbed braggadocio alienated (haha -- it’s a joke because… well, just read about the album), and ultimately destroyed, the band. Basically. David says it better, so listen to the song. I’ll wait.
3 minutes 13 seconds, 3 minutes 14… you’re back? Great. Where was I? Right. Ziggy. A Rock Star. Like those software job postings are always asking for. Wizards. Ninjas. Rock Stars. But is that what we want? Do we want to work on a team with someone who thinks they’re the nazz, parading their god-given ass around the office carrying a southpaw guitar? (Seriously, if you haven’t heard the song, then these references will make no sense at all. Go look up the lyrics, at least.)
We’ve all worked with someone who seems to know everything. Or acts like a know-it-all, anyway. Maybe they do their work really quickly. Or they come up with elaborate solutions, explaining how the problem is really complex, and how clever they had to be to solve it. They may be unconventional, do things differently. Management likes them, even though they’re… eccentric. They get accolades. They get attention. Still… something is off.
Made it too far
When one person has all the answers, other people lose their voice. The prominence and importance of one person is raised at the expense of others. These Rock Stars accomplish more than they should, and at too great a cost. They are toxic and should be considered ultimately harmful to the long-term health of a team.
The Rock Star will attract fans, groupies, other engineers who want to be like them. ‘Cause we all just wanna be big rock stars -- wait, wrong song. There will be people who admire the star’s work, who want their attention, who are eager to please them.
Others will chafe under the friction caused by the dissonance. They may be vocal with their objections, which will make them unpopular with management who appreciate the star and just wish everyone else could be more like him.
Should we crush his sweet hands?
A few people will work actively to undermine the star. This could take the form of withholding critical information, failing to call out risks, or of keeping quiet when a potential solution or improvement presents itself. The supporting members don’t feel like part of the team anymore.
The Rock Star will fight any challenge to his (we’ll save the discussion around gendered pronoun usage regarding egomaniacs for another blog post, mmkay?) dominance, trying to stay on top of the hill. He will denigrate, deny, deceive, and destroy in his struggle to remain relevant. In the Rock Star’s mind, his history of “success” enforces the idea that he is right, that challenges and objections are from small-minded people, jealous of his success, or simply less skilled and unable to see “The Truth” as he does. Even if the Rock Star has a good point, it may not be accepted by those he alienates.
But boy could he play guitar
Any personnel manager or HR professional should be triggered by the phrase “but he does such good work.” The Rock Star will cross a line sooner or later. Passive-aggressive bullying, or even overt abuse of others is a natural progression from the egotism combined with resistance and criticism. Don’t enable this behavior. Stamp it out quickly before it’s too late.
Before drastic measures are required.
Before it breaks up the band.
For all you engineers: don’t try to be a star. Be a catalyst. Start something wonderful -- be an instigator! Be someone who makes your team more than the sum of its parts. Everyone has a role to play, and that includes having a leader sometimes. Sometimes that might be you. Sometimes other people get the spotlight. Raise your voice in support of your teammates when it’s their turn to shine.
Ziggy played guitar
I wrote code. Increasingly, lately, I coach others through writing their code. When they ask a question, I lead them down a path to answering it themselves. I play rhythm, not the solos, trying to keep everyone on the beat, and in harmony. It takes getting used to. It takes practicing a new set of skills, and new approaches to situations. In the end, though, we all sound better when the band plays together. I don’t need to ham it up, to showboat, to impress anyone. I improvise. I adapt.
Still... just maybe, if I can ever get the slides to sync up with the music, maybe I’ll be the special man for three and a quarter minutes.
Special thanks to my good friend Mike Bland for his insight, thoughtful critique, and encouragement that led to this blog post, among other things.