5 min read

Words like ‘ninja’ and ‘rockstar’ have been flying around the tech world for some time now. Data revealed by recruitment website Indeed at the end of 2017 showed that the term ‘rockstar’ has increased in job postings 19% since 2015. We seem to live in a world where ‘sexing up’ job roles has become the norm. And when top talent is hard to come by it makes sense. The words offer some degree of status to candidates and, and imply the organizations behind them are forward-thinking.

But it’s starting to get boring. In this year’s Skill Up survey, 57% of respondents said they didn’t like creative terms like ‘rockstar’ ‘ninja’ and ‘wizard’ – only 26% said they actually liked the term. While words like these might be boring, they can be harmful too. In an age of spin and fake news, using language to dress up and redefine things can have an impact we might not expect.

Graph showing developer attitudes to words like ninja and rockstar

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Using words like rockstar and ninja pits developers against each other

The industry’s insistence on using these words in everything from recruitment to conferences cultivates a bizarre class system within tech. When we start calling people rockstars, it suggests something about the role they play within a company or engineering team. It says ‘these people are doing something really exciting’ while everyone else, presumably, isn’t.

While it’s true that hierarchies are part and parcel of any modern organization, this superficial labeling isn’t helpful. ‘Collaboration’ and ‘agile’ are buzzwords that are as overused as ninja and rockstar, but at least they offer something practical and positive. And let’s be honest – collaborating is important if we’re to build better software and have better working lives.

The unforeseen impact on developer mental health

An unforeseen affect of these words could be a negative impact on mental health in the tech industry. We already know that burnout is becoming a common occurrence, as tech professionals are being overworked and pushed to breaking point. While this is particularly true of startup culture, where engineers are driven to develop products on incredibly tight schedules as owners seek investment and investors look for signs of growth, but this trend is growing.

Arguably, the gap between management and engineers is playing into this. The results of innovation look shiny and exciting, but the actual work – which can, as we know, be repetitive, boring, hard as it can be enjoyable – isn’t properly understood.

Ninjas, rockstars and the commodification of technical skill

It has become a truism that communication is important when it comes to tech. Words like ninja and rockstar are making communication hard – they undermine our ability to communicate. They conceal the work that engineers actually do. It’s great that they shine a spotlight on technical professionals and skills, but they do so in a way that is actually quite euphemistic. It’s hints at the value of the skills, but actually fails to engage with why these skills are important, how you develop them, and how they can be properly leveraged.

More specifically, words like ‘ninja’ and ‘rockstar’ turn technical expertise into a product. It makes skills marketable; it turns knowledge into a commodity. Good for you if that helps you earn a little more money in your next job; even better if it lands you a book deal or a spot speaking at a conference. But all you’re really doing is taking advantage of the technical skills bubble. It won’t last forever, and in the long run it probably won’t be good news for the industry. Some people will be overvalued, while others will be undervalued.

Ninjas, rockstars and open source culture

These irritating euphemisms come from a number of different sources. Tech recruitment has played a big part, as companies try and attract top tech talent. So has modern corporate culture, which has been trying to loosen its proverbial tie for the last decade.

But it’s also worth noting that rockstars and ninjas come out of open source culture. This is a culture that is celebrated for its lack of authority. However, with this decline, it makes opens up a space for ‘experts’ to take the lead. In the past, we might have quaintly referred to these people as ‘community figures’. As open source has moved mainstream, the commodification of technical expertise found form in the tech ninja and rockstar.

But while rockstars and ninjas appear to be the shining lights of open source culture, they might also be damaging to it as well. If open source culture is ‘led’ by a number of people the world begins referring to as rockstars, the very foundations of it begin to move. It’s no longer quite as open as it used to be.

True, perhaps we need rockstars and ninjas in open source. These are people that evangelize about certain projects. These are people who can offer unique and useful perspectives on important debates and issues in their respective fields, right?

Well, sort of. It is important for people to discuss new ideas and pioneer new ways of doing things. But this doesn’t mean we need to sex things up. After all, certain people aren’t more entitled to an opinion just because they have a book deal. Yes they have experience, but it’s important that communities don’t get left behind as the tech industry chases after the dream of relentless innovation.

Of course it’s great to talk about, but we’ve all got to do the work too.

Co-editor of the Packt Hub. Interested in politics, tech culture, and how software and business are changing each other.


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