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How Do You Find Programming Superstars? 763

Joe Ganley writes "You are a programming superstar, and you are looking for work. I recognize this happens relatively rarely, which is part of my problem. But stipulating that it happens, how do I, as a company looking to hire such people, connect with them? Put another way, how do you the programming superstar go about looking for a company that seems like one you'd like to work for? The company I work for is a great place to work; we only hire really great people, we work on hard, interesting problems, and we treat our employees well. We aren't worried about retention or even about how to entice people to work here once we've found them. The problem is simply finding them. The signal-to-noise ratio of the big places like Monster and Dice is terrible. We've had much better luck with (for example) the Joel on Software job boards, but that still doesn't generate enough volume." What methods have other people used to find the truly elite?
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How Do You Find Programming Superstars?

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  • Uh (Score:5, Funny)

    by iONiUM ( 530420 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:06PM (#22579690) Journal
    I'm right here.
    • Appeal (Score:5, Funny)

      by Jeremiah Cornelius ( 137 ) * on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:09PM (#22579766) Homepage Journal
      to their obvious sense of humility, and only ask for mere "stars".

      That, or go trawling through the strip-clubs near Boston.
      • Re:Appeal (Score:5, Insightful)

        by ShieldW0lf ( 601553 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:30PM (#22580130) Journal
        Great programmers work for who they want, on what they want. They take getting their personal needs met for granted, but they have grand ideas about things they want to see realized and not enough money of their own to do it.

        So you advertise on the basis of the interesting work that you're doing, and aim for the ears of someone who has been itching to build such things rather than talking about the creature comfort and monetary perks.

        Great people want strong leadership that will help them achieve beyond what they can do alone.
        • Re:Appeal (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Fozzyuw ( 950608 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @07:02PM (#22580702)

          Great programmers work for who they want, on what they want.

          I'd take a step back on that one. Before they're "programmers superstars", they're usually college graduates. Start by trolling for college students. Lower your needs from "must be" to "can be" and take those who actually enjoy programming and build them up into superstars by putting them in your super company. They'll probably turn into Superstars in no time if your company is as good to work for as you describe.


          • Re:Appeal (Score:5, Insightful)

            by gmack ( 197796 ) <gmack&innerfire,net> on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @07:54PM (#22581380) Homepage Journal
            I disagree. Some of the best programmers I've ever met never had official training in a computer field.
            • Re:Appeal (Score:4, Interesting)

              by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @08:33PM (#22581844)

              Some of the best programmers I've ever met never had official training in a computer field.
              I'd start by looking for math or physics majors with programming experience. Compared to quantum field theory or category theory, C++ or Java hacking is freaking child's play. You have to make sure to evaluate them on clarity of thought, not volume of knowledge, though - a lot of the best coders I know have no CS experience and even have to Google for a lot of their standard library calls, especially at the start, but in the end they put together the cleanest, most intelligible, and least buggy code I've seen.

              But make sure you have something interesting to let them work on, otherwise you'll lose them, probably to the banks where they will be paid at least six or seven times what you can afford - make sure your projects are at least that much more fun for them to work on. And never EVER EVER put a math/science person in charge of any sort of UI, no matter how good a coder they are. Seriously, don't do it!
        • Re:Appeal (Score:4, Insightful)

          by xero314 ( 722674 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @08:19PM (#22581672)
          There needs to be more detail on what a "Great Programmer" is. Is a great programmer a good code monkey capable of following instructions but turning out high amounts of bug free code? Is a great programmer a person that knows how to work without a specification but still do what the company or client needs? Is a great programmer a person who is great at coming up with new and unique software projects that may eventually be profitable?

          Point is that what a great programer is depends on the environment they are going to be working in. Because of this I'm going to suggest finding people who have never done any professional programing but have the right personality and drive to become the great programmer you need. If you try and get a great programer that is already in the industry you risk finding someone that is set in their own ways which are in conflict with what you actually need.

          Even Linus Torvalds is only a great programer is certain environments (if he even qualifies as a great programer and not just a well known programer).

          Oh and great programers do not necessarily come from formal education programs. Most of the truly great programs, whether they went to college or not, learned there skills through practice and self education.
  • by Dusty00 ( 1106595 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:07PM (#22579722)
    Be Google.
    • Re:Simple answer... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by flannelboy ( 344272 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:23PM (#22580020) Homepage
      I have to say that I've had some people hired away from me to go to Google, and they have been hiring the people who can quote chapter and verse of some coding standards doc. But they haven't been my superstars. They have been "A" players. But not "superstars". I'll qualify that in one second.

      The superstar is more than just somewhat hard to come by.

      First, they are only going to be 1 out of every 100 programmers you work with. And that is only if you are lucky, and if you are good at hiring. If you hit job boards, you aren't good at hiring. (with apologies to the job board advertisement that is almost definitely above this post :)

      Second, they can almost never identify themselves. Lots of people THINK they are the superstar. But then they get very little actually accomplished. These are the people I've lost to Google. But the superstar does much more than just know the tech details. They actually get stuff done. And their code really really works. And it is highly reusable. And they change others around them. The always make sure the best tools are in place, and they get others to use those tools, not just themselves. In this sense, they are also quite good leaders, although most do not want to manage large teams (and you'd be wise not to have them do so).

      I've probably worked with 1000-2000 programmers in my lifetime, and I think I would give only about 10 of them the "superstar" status.

      The superstars produce 2x to 10x what a very good programmers can produce in the same amount of time.

      As far as finding and hiring them, the biggest problem is that they are very rarely on the market. So job boards are a bad place to start.

      Just about all (maybe even 100%, actually) of the superprogrammers I've hired have come from friend referrals.

      Go to your current employees, and give them very big checks if they can attract other programmers to your firm. Make sure this is worth their while (ie: $10,000 or more for bringing in someone). This will almost always be your best bet to find these guys.
      • by davidwr ( 791652 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:32PM (#22580160) Homepage Journal

        And they change others around them.
        In my experience as a rank-and-file programmer, I'll vouch for this one.

        I've met very few superstars and this more than anything else set them apart as someone I would want on my payroll.

        You want people who can lead by example, without even trying.
      • by inKubus ( 199753 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:50PM (#22580498) Homepage Journal
        "Superstars" (which is the fluffiest word I've heard in a long time) are attracted to two things you didn't mention:

        Number one, extremely dedicated and intelligent people are looking for more than money. They want to change the world. They are driven. If they are after money, they want to be a part of the project, financially. That means stock. That means board positions. That means respect.

        Number two, they want to know that you are a good person to work for. What is the company's goal, mission, vision, idea, et al? What career prospects are there? What can a "superstar" programmer expect to be doing in 10 years at your company? Hopefully not still programming.

        You are referring to things that aren't necessarily associated with programmers, but with CEOs, CIOs, etc. Attention to detail, actually caring, etc. Well, ask yourself, why should anyone care about your company? Also, and lastly, these skills (pride in one's work, strong desire to learn and teach others, etc.) seem to be the type of skills taught in church (or synagouge)......
        • by naoursla ( 99850 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:58PM (#22580646) Homepage Journal
          I like this answer. Maybe you cannot find superstar employees because you are not a superstar employer. Self-identification is prone to error.
        • by AuMatar ( 183847 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @07:03PM (#22580724)
          Board position? Hopefully not programming?

          Every superstar I've ever known would run at either of those two thoughts. Cash is nice, but superstars are superstars in part because they love programming. So yes, they do want to be programming in 10 years. They may want to be lead programmer and be paid more, but that's about it.

          As for the religion part of your comment- well, it shows your bias, but its absolutely not true.
        • by mikael ( 484 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @07:35PM (#22581124)
          From the people that I have met (who have architected international specifications and written books on their area knowledge), the superstars are the laid-back and chilled out programmers, while the arrogant programmers are the wannabes - if they really knew as much as they thought they did, they wouldn't be so insecure.

          The original poster of this disussion hasn't specified what the nature of the work is - is it user-interface - is his company designing the next killer application. Then they would need someone who knows how to design and implement really polished application UI's.

          Are they looking for someone to implement highly computational intensive core libraries - then maybe a programmer with Matlab experience or someone with a mathematics background would be more suitable.

          Or are they looking for someone to write general purpose libraries that can be reused - then someone with good object-oriented design experience would be best.

          If they are just looking for a programmer to implement specifications, then looking a someone who has done similar ework in a final year project or thesis would be a good place to look.
          • by TekPolitik ( 147802 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @12:18AM (#22584084) Journal

            the superstars are the laid-back and chilled out programmers, while the arrogant programmers are the wannabes - if they really knew as much as they thought they did, they wouldn't be so insecure.

            True to an extent. An arrogant programmer may well become a superstar some day, but to get all the way they need to lose the arrogance. A superstar is going to be somebody who has learnt enough to know that he doesn't know everything and that new ideas of merit can come from surprising sources. If they don't, they stop learning. A superstar doesn't have to go around putting down people as incompetent - a proto-superstar might still be doing so, but must outgrow it before they become a real superstar.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by mad.frog ( 525085 )
          What career prospects are there? What can a "superstar" programmer expect to be doing in 10 years at your company? Hopefully not still programming.

          If this is what you think, then you have never, ever met an actual "superstar programmer". Superstars live to code. Most would suck at management, and hate it too.
      • by lgw ( 121541 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @07:17PM (#22580876) Journal

        Second, they can almost never identify themselves. Lots of people THINK they are the superstar. But then they get very little actually accomplished. These are the people I've lost to Google. But the superstar does much more than just know the tech details. They actually get stuff done. And their code really really works. And it is highly reusable. And they change others around them.
        That's it in a nutshell. You can't distinguish the top 1% from the merely arrogant in an interview, but if you do your interview wrong, or your working environment is clearly borked, then the top 1% will defintiely self-select away from your company. Ask hard programming questions, but not language trivia questions or mathematical parlour tricks. Don't force programmers to use tools that they consider inferior. A superstar programmer who's been around a while will ask about the build environment, version control system, and bug tracking system that you use, as the answers to these questions are great warning signs of a broken shop (and managers haven't been trained to lie about these questions the way they lie about typical work hours, project planning, and what your responsibilities will be once hired).

        If anyone knows how to locate superstar programmers in the first place I'd love to hear it. Once I have one on the phone I have a fighting chance to hire him, but you certainly can't spot them from their resumes.
        • by HeelToe ( 615905 )
          To reiterate what others have said, they almost always come on a personal recommendation. Someone good to great themselves seeing an opportunity to hook up two parties that each has the pieces of the employer-employee relationship the other wants.
        • Re:Simple answer... (Score:4, Interesting)

          by korbin_dallas ( 783372 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @10:19PM (#22583052) Journal
          "A superstar programmer who's been around a while will ask about the build environment, version control system, and bug tracking system that you use, as the answers to these questions are great warning signs of a broken shop (and managers haven't been trained to lie about these questions the way they lie about typical work hours, project planning, and what your responsibilities will be once hired)."

          Amen brother, preach it. If a shop is using PVCS RUN dont walk to the exit, do not wait to get your parking ticket validated.

          PVCS is what we use and we call it a BDPOS. Broke Dick Piece of Shit.

          And the IT dept. Do they support the programming staff, of merely say NO to everything. Our IT is worse than useless, they are IN THE WAY of progress.

          Sorry had to vent, today I was told by IT they didn't have memory for the computer they gave me. Repeat, did not have memory for the computer hardware they give to every employee. No spare parts? WTF kind of IT dept is that? I meant to say no parts for the computer they LEASE the software dept. IT thinks they are a cost center, making money for the company. Oh I wish the original owner was still here, he would have fired all them dam useless SOBs in a microsecond. Getting in the way of a BILLION dollar contract, get the F*&^ out of my company. Right now!

          As you can tell no superstars work for us...
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by mkiwi ( 585287 )
        Summary mentions: What methods have other people used to find the truly elite?
        Along with what you said:

        Job sites are a bad place to go. I looked at the discussion forums on one time and from all the complaining I knew I wasn't going to find anything good there.

        Referrals are really the way to go. There are so many people in this world who can, given a normal task, write a program for it. However, there are very few people who can actually think up a new project from start to completion, lead e

      • Re:Simple answer... (Score:4, Interesting)

        by dwater ( 72834 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @07:57PM (#22581406)
        > I have to say that I've had some people hired away from me to go to Google, and they have been hiring the people who can quote chapter and verse of some coding standards doc.

        I've noticed this too in my own interviews with them (no they didn't hire me). Their interviews seem to largely test for people who can a) remember stuff, and b) think on their feet in high pressure situations (like interviews). They seem to completely ignore previous experience, references, and other stuff. Being able to perform well in an interview is often not a good reflection of a person's potential.

        On more than one occasion, I told the interviewer/screener that I didn't know the answer to a question and they proceeded to ask if it were "a" or "b" where it was so obvious that only one of them could be correct (ie "a" = !"b"). Them telling me the answer to their question is disingenuous and I had already said I didn't know so they should take that as my answer - I felt like they were asking me to cheat.

        In many cases, the answer to a question could be found out in a couple of seconds by looking it up in the manual - or a web search (knowing how to find answers is still a skill). Those of us not still in our 20s have learned to select what we remember and forget what we can easily find out again when necessary. One of the principle things we remember is what problems various technologies can be used to solve, and so we can build systems using different technologies in order to solve bigger problems. We learn how to learn new things. We build intuition not a database.

        Selecting only specialists with good memories and high confidence under pressure is fair enough, if those are the sort of people you want (ie they remember all the nitty gritty details of all the technologies they've worked on), but I wonder what it would be like in a company full of such people. I've heard some stories about Google, for example, that make me think that they could do with people who actually just 'get on with it' - ie not everyone has to be 'a superstar'.

        Why do companies want people like this? Are these people 'superprogrammers'? Do they actually get work done in real life?

        What about people who have demonstrated that they can solve problems by selecting from, learning, and using various technologies that are available? People who are engineers rather than programmers.

        Also, do companies only want specialists these days? Is there no place for a generalist? It seems to me that generalists are quite valuable for startups and small companies, but large companies want teams of specialists, with each a specialist in a particular area. I the larger companies, I guess a generalist might be a reasonable manager or system designer, with the specialists doing the bits of the system they are specialist in...or something.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by mad.frog ( 525085 )
        The superstars produce 2x to 10x what a very good programmers can produce in the same amount of time.

        Actually, I'd say it's more like "the superstars produce what the very good programmers can't produce, ever".

        It's not just about productivity, but insight.
  • One opinion (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fyngyrz ( 762201 ) * on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:08PM (#22579736) Homepage Journal

    The first thing to do is remove arbitrary barriers. IE, "must" have X years of experience, X degree, held X previous positions, must move to our area. That's the sum of major mistakes most operations make. The best programmers in the world don't typically get that way by being just another college / job drone (though some do... just don't slam the door based on mundane requirements - you want the problem solved, not a title you can be proud of.)

    Secondly, market the job — make sure people can find out about it. That's perhaps obvious, but I know a lot of companies that try to stick to the back alleys of old boy's clubs, and it's no wonder they can't find anyone. Put an ad, a BIG one, somewhere programmers go a lot. Like slashdot. :-)

    Third, salary, salary, salary, and benefits (particularly insurance and family coverage). Move 'em if you have to. We've even bought houses outright for our programming team members. You can't expect to hire a superstar by treating them like a drone.

    The problem is almost always that really good programmers don't have to go looking, and if they do, they can - and will - turn their noses up at being treated like a commodity. Yet that's just what most companies do. Plus they throw up arbitrary and unrelated barriers to entry. Unfathomable, really.

    • Re:One opinion (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Intron ( 870560 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:15PM (#22579880)
      True. One of the smarter people that I know never finished his degree. He got bored and left school to start a successful company. However, its unlikely that his resume would ever go through an HR dept filter. The CTO or Principle Engineer would call him personally and make an offer.
    • Re:One opinion (Score:5, Insightful)

      by penix1 ( 722987 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:21PM (#22579972) Homepage
      Overall a good post...I would add one more thing though...

      Attitude, attitude, attitude!

      I won't take a job where the person interviewing treats me as if they are doing me a favor in offering the job. They are after me, not the other way around. Even if I need the job, I'll never portray it like that. It is they who need me even then. Call it arrogance if you will but I'm not into indentured servitude.
      • Re:One opinion (Score:5, Insightful)

        by PhrostyMcByte ( 589271 ) <> on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @07:02PM (#22580698) Homepage
        I'll add one more: no stupid Microsoft-ish riddles.

        Although I have heard one or two that were programming problems in disguise, I would argue that even in those cases your riddles are worthless to determine their skill, and anyone would be well within his sanity to respond "well, I'd look it up online. Why waste time figuring it out when the answer is done for me?".

        A great programmer will love to talk shop. Have one of your existing coders talk to him.
        • by prockcore ( 543967 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @07:24PM (#22580966)

          I'll add one more: no stupid Microsoft-ish riddles.

          But they're so much fun to ponder in a non-riddle context.

          "Why does a farmer have a wolf? How can a 5lb chicken eat a 50lb bag of grain? How is he able to prevent the wolf from eating the chicken when he's present?"
        • by geekoid ( 135745 ) <`dadinportland' `at' `'> on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @08:52PM (#22582054) Homepage Journal
          be prepared for answers that make you think.

          I did-like the riddle portion of an interview. Often given by people who thuink that are good at riddles.

          Example you responses I have given":

          "How man quarters would it take to fill this room"
          4 (I had to explain this answer at the end of the interview. )

          "How would you move MT. Fuji"
          "Am I going to work at Microsoft?"
          alternate answers:
          "Hire David Copperfield"(This gets a laugh)
          "Convince the boss guy who sold that project to fire his sales team"
          "Spec out the task, come up with a rough number, 500 Billion, after it is about 'half way through' Use the "Managed 500 Billion dollar project" on my resume to get a higher paying job somewhere else.

          Yes, I know the answer there looking for, but really who doesn't?

          I just remembered one that really pissed off the person interviewing:
          I can't believe I ahd forgotten theis.

          You have a farmer and chiken and a fox, only two of which can cross the river, but the chicken and fox can't be together without the farms.

          I picked up the phone, hit speaker, called a buddy of mine and had him put on his 9 year old son, who I repeated the question to and he answer in about 30 seconds

          My friend and his wife where laughing hysterically.

          After which I hung up, told them this was a great interview now I know for sure I never want to work here, and left.

          The word "Livid" comes to mind when thinking of there reaction. speechless would be another.

          One guy was literally sputtering....ah good times.
    • Re:One opinion (Score:5, Insightful)

      by tknd ( 979052 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @07:07PM (#22580764)

      I don't necessarily agree with all of the points made because I've seen research show otherwise and have experienced otherwise myself.

      The first thing to do is remove arbitrary barriers. IE, "must" have X years of experience, X degree, held X previous positions, must move to our area.

      This part I agree with. Many hiring agencies shoot themselves in the foot asking for very specific requirements (must have 5 or so years experience with C++, must know domain specific but stupid tech with buzzword acronym, etc). The problem is you're always going to train an employee and there will always be some sort of lag time to start up. You're rarely going to get an employee who will be spitting out production quality work on day 1. If that was possible we'd all be contractors. What organizations should be after are highly qualified technical learners and a good foundation in software engineering practices.

      Secondly, market the job -- make sure people can find out about it. That's perhaps obvious, but I know a lot of companies that try to stick to the back alleys of old boy's clubs, and it's no wonder they can't find anyone. Put an ad, a BIG one, somewhere programmers go a lot. Like slashdot. :-)

      This in practice sort of works but not as well as you'd expect. If you post the job, the only people interested will be people actively seeking a job. Everyone else will just gloss over it because it is more of a waste of time than anything else. It's like commercials.

      Third, salary, salary, salary, and benefits (particularly insurance and family coverage). Move 'em if you have to. We've even bought houses outright for our programming team members. You can't expect to hire a superstar by treating them like a drone.

      There's a limit to how much you can bribe someone. Furthermore, just because you bribed them does not necessarily mean they will perform. You ideally want a match: you like them, they like you, for reasons other than money. For example what if you got paid to hack together open source linux code at home and you just happened to be a kernel dev? What if you got paid to work on your fancy game idea without any restrictions? Most people would rather do the job they enjoy for decent pay rather than get paid a boat load of money to do something they could care less about or worse hate to work with.

      The easiest, cheapest, and most reliable way for a company to find quality employees is by word of mouth and employee referrals. This makes sense. If you were to start your own company from scratch, what would you rather do? Dig into the back of your mind across every trust-worthy and awesome programmer you worked with or interacted with and convince them to join you, or go through a lengthy hiring process about people you know jack about? I would rather do the former because I have personal work experience with the people I know that I don't even have to ask for a resume or guess if they're lying or not. I also probably have some sense of their personality and quality of work. In fact, I can easily make a decision in the back of my mind without even contacting them. The only barrier is if they would be willing to accept the offer.

      I'm not surprised this is getting asked on slashdot, but I do think that slashdot lacks the expertise to answer it correctly. If you want a better answer to what truly works, you need to get in contact with an HR agency on a personal level rather than a business level. Yes, that's right, you need to know a friend that works in the HR or head-hunter business--if you come to them from the business front they will treat you like a customer rather than a friend so they'll skew everything they say towards supporting their business. But if they are more a friend they will easily be able to tell you things like success rates and employee turn over rates because that is what they deal with. People on slashdot often are just in front of their computers all day and don't g

  • Step one (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Verteiron ( 224042 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:08PM (#22579750) Homepage
    Stop calling expert programmers "superstars".
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ucblockhead ( 63650 )
      The best programmers don't call themselves superstars. As they say, true wisdom is not knowing. It isn't even knowing what you know. True wisdom is knowing what you don't know. Those who label themselves "superstar" are nearly always prima donnas who produce badly engineered, WTFworthy code and refuse to work with others.
  • by vanyel ( 28049 ) * on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:09PM (#22579772) Journal
    You can't have both quality and quantity. Searching for the best of the best is bound to return a small number of people.
  • by swimmar132 ( 302744 ) <> on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:09PM (#22579780) Homepage
    Unfortunately, software development is one of those things where you can only judge talent if you have talent.

    Assuming you already have a couple good guys on staff (but how do you know they are good? :-), do you use any open source projects? Interview those guys. Open source is a great way to get to know someone -- you can review their code and documentation, and you also know that programming is something they love. People who are involved in open source typically love programming (otherwise, why do it?).
  • Linkedin (Score:5, Funny)

    by Nefarious Wheel ( 628136 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:10PM (#22579792) Journal
    (Clears throat, adopts heroic stage pose) "People... people who know people..."

    (Dodges ballistic vegetable matter)

  • by COMON$ ( 806135 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:12PM (#22579820) Journal
    As a desirable sys admin I went with a headhunter. She filters out businesses and matches them to employees. I tend to be a people centered admin so I like smaller businesses, so she calls me when a really nice job comes up and sells me on it. A larger corporate job may go to someone else as sitting in a server room all day isn't my cup o tea.

    My suggestion would be to use a headhunter, sure they are expensive but you get matched up with quality people that match your business philosophy. Also to you job seekers out there I would suggest finding and hitting up Head Hunters. I have had extrordinary success with em on both sides of the table.

    • by glop ( 181086 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:33PM (#22580168)
      I would second that for real head hunters.

      Most of the head hunters that jump on you when you post your resume on Monster are pretty bad though. They do simple keyword matching, ask silly questions ("how many years C?") and seem to rely on their speed and the amount of people they reach to find a few matches that will bring big bucks.

      I ran across a sharp head hunter and he really took time to:
        - get me interested in the job
        - make the conditions of recruitment easier (he made me skip the phone interview with the company)
        - helped me prepare for the interview by telling me what kind of book I should use to revise
        - found the matches between the job and me, despites the mismatches

      So I am pretty impressed with good head hunters.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:12PM (#22579838)
    You have found me. How much is my salary?
  • by bbrack ( 842686 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:13PM (#22579844)
    Honestly - imo, you are incredibly fortunate to hire excellent experienced people based off interviews (our hit rate is about 25% good, 50% passable, 25% poor)

    the 2 best strategies for having a high hit rate with your new hires:

    1. hire young - bring people in as interns/coops and use their term as a 6 month interview - this can give you a great insight into their potential

    2. poach - has anyone else in your organization worked somewhere else? find out if there are any excellent people from previous jobs looking for work
  • This may help... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Randolpho ( 628485 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:13PM (#22579864) Homepage Journal
    Jeff Atwood had an interesting article [] on the subject a couple weeks ago. It generated a metric buttload of comments, so you might consider mining for ideas there.
  • In 3 Ways... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by FreeKill ( 1020271 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:16PM (#22579888) Homepage
    I would say in 3 ways. One, stop calling them superstars. To a programmer, the world superstar implies massive overtime with little compensation (aka we want someone who loves programming so much that they won't worry about the fact that we under pay them and over work them). Two, do some research on job requirements. Don't list idiotic buzz words as requirements when the package is something a programmer could pick up in less that a day working with it. The best way to get people to completely glaze over your job posting is to list so many technologies that they are bound to be missing one or two. Third, treat them and pay them what they are worth. If you want a superstar programmer, be willing to pony up. I read something a few days ago here on Slashdot that said Facebook and Google were competing for new grads and offering salaries in excess of 110K to new grads. If that's the treatment those companies give them, what do you think someone with experience and "superstar" status probably thinks they deserve? If you can't give them the money, make up for it with benefits and ability to progress or become a partner in the company...Bottom line, be realistic, and they will take you seriously. A programmer can detect a job that will probably be bad from a mile away just by reading the description.
  • by Peter Cooper ( 660482 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:16PM (#22579902) Homepage Journal
    If a developer is truly a "super star" there will be a trace of that on their public record. They'll have built code that they've sold, built a business, built up a successful blog, contributed to or started an open source project, written a book, any of those sorts of things. If you're hiring from Monster or Dice, you will rarely find anyone with a single one of these qualities.. so that's how to start. Find developers who've written books in the field(s) you cover.. find popular open source projects and look at who's contributing.. it's not hard, and so few employers actually bother to take this route. I don't know why though, since this is how you find the best people and, most importantly, the best contributors and communicators.

    So.. books, projects, blogs, open source.. investigate all those in your field.
  • Why? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mapkinase ( 958129 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:17PM (#22579914) Homepage Journal
    Seriously, why do you need a programming superstar, why not settle for a programmer with substantial experience in the area you need?

    For example, universities do not look for supergenius professors (if not only for label "Nobel prize winner"), they are mostly looking for a person who will be able to get grants

    Supergeniuses are good in the environment that does not require any results any soon. That's the way they work.

    Normally people are looking for good workers with a good experience able to fit in the environment.

    I am actually glad that in my line of work there is no obsession with top level performers, like it happens in showbiz. As a result a lot of people are paid quite well.
  • by justdrew ( 706141 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:17PM (#22579918)
    believe me , nothing your business is doing is so god-damned special that it takes a "superstar" to accomplish. Just find some people with some programing background and give them the opportunity to learn and grow. Anyway, the person asking of this question, if _they_ were a "superstar" HR person/manager, would already know the answer. Since the company can get by with plain old average HR/management I think it can live with average normal programmers as well.
  • by wonkavader ( 605434 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:17PM (#22579920)
    While you can market to wazoo, and you should, following the advice of others, here, you'll always only be half right, because talented people first and foremost recruit other talented people and solicit other talented people for work.

    So go to the experts at your current job, the people you REALLY respect, and ask them if they know someone. If they say no, then they're probably LYING, and you just don't have enough to draw their friends. Try to find out why, and fix that. Then those same people you asked will begin suggesting people.

    If you don't have experts at your company, cast your web out to all the experts you know, and offer to pay people what they're worth. You may have to pay enough to relocate someone. That can get expensive. Say you'll do it.

    This is in conjunction with the advertising of the job, not in lieu of it.
  • by ( 463190 ) * on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:18PM (#22579934) Homepage
    ...and be prepared to hire telecommuters, even in other countries. All of our software guys at Slim Devices (now Logitech) found us through our open source projects, and to this day every one of the telecommutes. The stratum of talent you gain access to when you are reaching the people who are so excited about the technology that they'll work on it on their own time.... unbelievable - forget about, this is the way to do it!
  • by CaptainPatent ( 1087643 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:22PM (#22579996) Journal

    What methods have other people used to find the truly elite?

    Wouldn't that be sort?
  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:23PM (#22580014) Journal
    Just this morning Slashdot has this big article about how IT professionals aspiring to break into management should wear matched shoes and belts, wear ties and full sleeve shirts and no torn/frayed/stained clothing. Read that piece and eliminate all those who follow those tips. Obviously they are aspiring professionals gunning for your job.

    Real programming superstars, usually love coding so much they take precautions so that they are not accidentally promoted to have management responsibilities like tracking vacation requests and authorizing the expense accounts. So they make sure their belts don't match their shoes, their pants, if and when they wear it, are never ironed. If they are forced to wear ties, they pair it with half sleeved shirts. They are the the programming superstars. But be prepared for huge number of false positives.

  • by mapkinase ( 958129 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:32PM (#22580156) Homepage Journal
    You cannot HR the superstar. They are so rare, that you just cannot open a superstar position and expect it to be filled up. Instead, what people usually do is when they accidentally stumble upon one, they create a superstar position for him.
  • by DaedalusLogic ( 449896 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:35PM (#22580206)
    What I find to be important is to have a diverse staff. You can no more have a coding staff full of "superstars" than have a football team full of quarterbacks and wide-receivers. What I find a lot of people mean when they're asking for "superstars" is, "someone who produces a lot of code". Which sometimes is needed, a person that come hell or high water gets the problem solved. But I've also found that a lot of those people leave a path of uncommented and undocumented destruction in their path. In which case you need other talent that can polish their code or influence them to come back later and pickup the pieces. Those people are usually a little more academic, they might be as slow as Christmas and if you counted solely on them to get the product out the door... It would never get done.

    As far as where you find higher quality people, I've had the best luck being involved in user groups, professional societies and getting leads from friends.
  • by johnlcallaway ( 165670 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:36PM (#22580222)
    I find you....


    I haven't had to 'look' for a job (i.e. interview with more than one company) since the early 90s. I have a network, and if I want to change jobs, I ask the people I respect the most (and who I think have respect for me) if there is anything out there. (Changed job 5 times due to corporate changes such as mergers, acquisitions and startup failures.) Usually my income went up, but I took a cut in pay for the last one because the company appears to be that much fun to work for.

    People who are truly superstars are probably working at a job they like and you won't be able to budge them *unless* you have an open pocketbook or something 'Google-like' that would appeal to someone who can get a job anywhere. Or something has changed (or their patience has just run out) and in a month or two will have another one through people they already know.

    My suggestion is if you want a superstar, start networking with the people YOU know and respect the most. Maybe your network and a prospective employee's network will connect somewhere. That's how I got this one. A guy I know knew about this job and let me know about it because he thought it was something I would be interested in and knew that my company was going through an acquisition and thought I might be looking.
  • by tlambert ( 566799 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:48PM (#22580454)
    Be a superstar company to work for...

    (1) Drop the buzzwords:

    - Every company thinks they are a great place to work.
    - Every company thinks they only hire great people.
    - Every company thinks their problems are interesting and hard.
    - Every company claims to treat its employees well.

    instead, give concrete examples. Are you trying to solve the protein folding problem with something other than the brute force IBM is is trying to use, or are you trying to figure out the best billing algorithm to use on credit cards so you collect the most late payments by skirting banking regulations? Is Paul Vixie on your board of directors? Did you just successfully hire Dennis Ritchie because your ideas are compelling to brilliant people? Would all your employees say that they would enthusiastically have their friends and family come to work for you?

    (2) Have smart people working for you already; smart people like to work with smart people

    (3) Ask the smart people who already work for you to refer other smart people they know

    (4) Poach; if you can't poach smart people away from their current gigs, it's really, really doubtful that you are half as compelling a company as you think you are

    -- Terry
  • Nerd Idol (Score:4, Funny)

    by Midnight Thunder ( 17205 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:53PM (#22580544) Homepage Journal
    Two solutions based on current reality models would be either "Nerd Idol" or "Big Brother Nerd edition". The idea would be to pit these guys and gals together and see what develops. Sure it probably wouldn't get the same ratings as the current versions, but something has to be said for cult value ;)
  • by TheGrapeApe ( 833505 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @07:05PM (#22580744)
    Convey to the applicant that your company values *production* and *problem solving* over meetings, phone calls, "strategy" and any of the other abstract "big picture" bullsh*t that people with "soft skills" use to justify their positions at the expense of programmers. Bonus points if you can point to a programmer or two in your organization and demonstrate that they make more money and are more valued than the softies. Let the applicant know that "Yes, we expect you to function within our management framework, but that framework is here to help you be *more* productive"...every good programmer dreads the "Office Space" scenario where they are spending more time filling out TPS reports than doing the work that they love.

    Every good programmer's worst nightmare is to step into a new job bright-eyed and ready to be creative, only to be told that their function will be to learn and maintain a piece-of-crap monstrosity that someone else created. Make it crystal clear that this is not the situation they are being hired into. far as "where to find them"...The same principle that applies to "getting hired" (i.e. networking is always the best) also applies to hiring. Ask your five best programmers to give you the names of some of their friends and don't be afraid to aggressively go after them and lure them away from their current gig.
  • by asc99c ( 938635 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @07:15PM (#22580844)
    The place I work has some top people working there. It also had one of the strangest interviews I ever did. I was barely asked about programming or anything related to my job. Just pointed to an engineering diagram of a chemical plant and asked how I'd tackle it. I'd never done chemistry and didn't understand the diagram, so I figured I was probably failing the interview. Another poster mentioned the difference between top grade programmers, and the real superstars that actually get things done. I think this was the type of question that was really aimed at separating those types of people. It was a question you didn't have to get 'right' - it was just to find out what you'd do to figure out how to figure out the answer.

    Looking for a job straight out of uni, I did a lot of interviews heavy on the technical side. Looking back, I'm not sure what the point was. They could already see how good I was at technical learning from my degree. The major difference between programming academically vs industry always seems to me to be that in industry you're programming for users other than yourself. In most academic situations you've got fairly clear user requirements of what the software must do. Most of the work I have done since then has begun with vague ideas about what the system needs to accomplish. Getting from there to coding a system that meets the requirements is very much like that question in the interview - 'how would you tackle it?'.

    Any technical questions will allow any good programmer to just fall back into answers they know. You'll be swamped with applicants who look good but are only mediocre.
  • by ryanisflyboy ( 202507 ) * on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @07:15PM (#22580848) Homepage Journal
    A 'superstar' programmer will find the job he wants with the salary he desires and get that job. A local company is well known for finding top flight programmers. They held a $10,000 programming deathmatch challenge. The winner got the cash prize, and a job offer. Guess what, they were extreamly successful. []

    What you have to be prepared for is the unexpected winner: []

    It was so succesful they did a second take, check here for sample questions: []
  • What Agency (Score:4, Funny)

    by ArhcAngel ( 247594 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @07:15PM (#22580854)
    What agency did you say you work for?

    Robert Half?
  • by LaskoVortex ( 1153471 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @07:19PM (#22580908)

    The first part of this is going to sound antagonistic, but its meant to be helpful.

    Are you a superstar company? Really? What product do you work on? Is it cutting edge/interesting/socially minded? Is it going to present a new challenge every day for your programmers?

    How top-heavy is your company? Are the salaries of the managers 3x more than the programmers? How about the top-level execs? Are they getting $1.5M bonuses every year while solving no problems themselves? Do their salaries go up 12% every year while programmers get 2% raises? Do the execs get their own parking spaces while the programmers have to park on the street? Is the disparity noticeable and constantly rubbed in the face of your programmers? Do the execs act snooty and drive $60,000 dollar cars? If these qualities apply to your company, there is no hope. If not, read on.

    People who can really solve tough problems (i.e. "superstars") know who they are. Their minds don't work linearly and they see patterns in everything. They make suggestions and observations only to get ridiculed because the small minds around them can't understand what they are saying. But they usually get vindicated []:

    People often ask me why I persisted in doing research on a subject that was so controversial. I frequently respond by telling them that only a few scientists are granted the great fortune to pursue topics that are so new and different that only a small number of people can grasp the meaning of such discoveries initially. I am one of those genuinely lucky scientists... --Stanley Prusiner

    The unfortunate thing is that superstars, as you call them, experience this pattern again and again. You need to recognize that this pattern is common for them. You need to cater to their intellectual needs, make sure they are payed well, and, yes, appeal to their egos. This doesn't mean a constant suck-up, which is a common misconception. You need to give your damn best to understand what they are saying, to understand that their insight might be better than yours and to recognize that they have shown insight through a solid record of achievement. Superstars are players and not coaches (i.e. cheerleaders) and they can point to success, but you don't need to acknowledge it directly. If you want to employ them, you need to show that you can be student instead of master, because superstars are also teachers.

    I know that that last one is going to hurt, especially in the hierarchical realm of corporate politics. However, your ability to be a student of your employees will separate you from mere mediocre employers and will get you those superstars you want so badly.

  • by Corydon76 ( 46817 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @07:20PM (#22580914) Homepage

    Most of these responses are geared towards evaluating people once they're in the door, and that's fine, but if you want to find quality people, the best way to do it is to flip around the question and think about it from the prospective employee's point of view: how do they find you?

    Word of mouth is certainly the best way, but I've also found the following ways that work:

    Hang around computer groups in your area, talk to people, learn who's good. Many businesspeople will try this once, in that they attend one meeting, they talk to the members of the group, and they leave, and they don't find it very worthwhile. The problem with this approach is that the members are unlikely to open up to you the first time they're meeting you. You need to hang around for several meetings before they will begin to trust your presence and will open up to you, and you can then discover which ones are bullshit artists and which ones truly have talent to share.

    Teach programming classes. This is what I do. I teach a weekly class from time to time, on C or Perl. I give the class for free, the class lasts 8-10 weeks, and the ones who turn in their homework assignments, and ask for feedback are the type of people that you want -- they are the type to become superstar programmers, and with a little guidance, they will. This also means that you can hire them on a fair market salary and not have to pay the big bucks. After all, you are looking for motivated individuals who are willing to learn new things. What better way to get the programmers you want than to entice them with a free class in the language you want them to use, and let the ones who are truly motivated show themselves to you. The best place to advertise these classes are the above user groups.

  • by bziman ( 223162 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @07:21PM (#22580934) Homepage Journal

    Let me tell you a story...

    I'm no a "superstar". But I'm a solid experienced programmer who does it for fun. I spent ten years with one company -- growing with it from an intern in a six person company to a senior engineer in a nine hundred person company. I got bored, and I left. Since then, I've been going to grad school, and browsing job listings looking for that "perfect job" for when I decide I should go back to work. I've talked to dozens of recruiters and been to a number of interviews, and I've taken a few short term jobs, mostly for fun, or to see what it's like, but mostly I take it easy, and do the school thing.

    So I've looked at a lot of job listings and talked to a lot of recruiters, and one huge problem I've found is that recruiters tend to know next to nothing about the positions they're recruiting for. I got a cold call from a recruiter the other day for a position that isn't something I would ever do because I'd been one of the people who built the software that they were implementing at their client -- sort of like trying to recruit Ian Murdock to help implement Debian at your client site. A little bit of overkill.

    Her problem was that all she had to go on was the name of the software and a long list of programming languages. She didn't know what any of it meant, and was just looking for resumes that contained those keywords. To help her out, I explained to her (in small words) the architecture of the product she's recruiting for, and the different types of experts available, and told her what questions to ask to see if people are a match for the position. It won't help her judge their quality, but at least it'll point her toward people who might be interested.

    Speaking of long lists of programming languages... there are so many job listings that list all major programming languages or all major operating systems. That's... stupid. How many projects use five different programming languages? And who'd want to work on one that did? I usually know most of the languages listed, but it makes me suspect that the author of the listing doesn't know what they're talking about.

    So the important things, I suppose, are to make sure that your job advertisements are fairly specific to what you're doing -- don't advertise J2EE if you are writing your own threading and server code, don't advertise "Core Java" if you're looking for someone to program JSPs. And if you want to scare off the lesser programmers, mention "scary" algorithms that might come in handy -- "familiarity with Q-learning a plus" or something like that.

    Good luck!


  • by An Ominous Cow Erred ( 28892 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @07:23PM (#22580948)
    There's a vast pool of trapped talent in rural areas in the U.S..

    As an example, I spent most of my life stuck in Southeast Idaho. There's a surprisingly large geek population there, but not a lot of employment for them. Generally people wind up stuck in low-paying dead-end jobs doing whatever they can (first tier phone tech support at the call centers that constitute the majority of non-agricultural employment, or as IT for a cash-strapped school district that is distrustful of the internet for religious reasons).

    Because you are living paycheck to paycheck, you don't have the ability to relocate yourself with the funding necessary to find a job somewhere better. The majority of escapees (including myself) that I know of actually LIED on their resume and put a friend's address on it in a more lucrative market, and then lived homeless/couchsurfed/hitchhiked in order to get to interviews. It takes a lot of guts to throw caution to the wind and do that, and there's so much potential talent out there that could be snagged if employers would just reach out and find people and offer an escape that doesn't involve so much uncertainty.

    Most people within 20 miles of Silicon Valley/NoVa tech corridor, etc. have the physical support infrastructure to get a job already. The hidden gems will be found in places where geeks don't have that option. The best places to look are population 25k-75k towns which don't have a major metro area within a 150 mile radius, and a depressed economy that precludes local employment providing enough income for geeks to self-finance a move to the high-cost-of-living of a tech hub.

  • Salary range (Score:3, Interesting)

    by michaelmalak ( 91262 ) <> on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @07:24PM (#22580970) Homepage
    If superstars are really 10x as good as the average, why are they paid only twice as much?

    I don't know if this will work, but here's a suggestion: increase your offer by 30% and on top of that be willing to pay for the services of headhunters and "staffing companies". Limit each headhunter to one resume.

    Next step is to devise a way to qualify the applicants. This is an eternally discussed subject, and there are lots of suggestions out there: IQ-type questions, portfolios of past work, hobby computer experience, and just plain old good interview questions, such as "what's the hardest bug you've found, and how did you find it?"; "what's the most speed optimization you've realized?"; "what's the most clever algorithm you've invented?"

  • by Brett Johnson ( 649584 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @08:44PM (#22581972)
    In my experience, you attract premier programmers by doing this:

    - Know them personally or have worked with them in the past. When a stellar programmer changes jobs, it is almost always to work with someone they have directly worked with in the past. The great programmers don't usually browse the help-wanteds or craigslist looking for work -- they receive unsolicited offers from people they know and trust.

    - Have a project that is visible, interesting, and challenging. If a great programmer does happen to be open to new options it will be the ones that are truly interesting to him. Things that *don't* generate interest are: super-secret stealth mode startups (how can you hope to interest me if you tell me nothing), monetizing ad-space in video streaming, ecommerce, pr0n (other than as a consumer). Craigslist ads looking for "Rockstar programmers to work in a hip radical fast-moving environment with foosball tables, XBox 360s, and endless 'Dew" especially don't work.

    - Have a clear vision and communicate that vision well. Related to the previous item. If the project is interesting and challenging, you need to convey that fact effectively and motivationally. While attending an Internet2 conference, I attended a presentation by some guy studying off-shore microplate tectonics. They had embedded a network of sensors in the plates off of Puget Sound. The presentation was heavily into oceanographic and geological research -- not even remotely related to my previous employment history. But by the end of the presentation, I wanted to work on that project - now.

    - Grow your own. This is especially difficult to do. Great programmers are not born, they are bred. Intellect, problem solving skills, and drive are the raw materials; but experience working on great code with great mentors are what really builds a great programmer. Some of the best skills development happens in the first 5-7 years out of university. Stellar senior programmers tend to really become apparent in the 7-10 year experience range. Note that you rarely get great programmers right out of school. You can get talented programmers that have great potential right out of university. Identifying such diamonds-in-the-rough is a real challenge.

    - Don't be cheap. Great programmers tend to motivated more by the challenge than greed, however we still need to pay the rent/mortgage, eat, raise families. Free snacks and soda are OK, but not really sustaining. Great programmers are 4-10 times more productive than average programmers and should be compensated accordingly. Note that said compensation could be performance-based: equity or frequent raises. If you can only afford to pay a series of grad students $10/hr to write code, don't expect to be able snag a stellar professional with cup-o-noodles and a civil servant paycheck.

  • by tompaulco ( 629533 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @10:55PM (#22583426) Homepage Journal
    I used to be probably not a superstar, but certainly a star consultant in datawarehousing, replication, and database administration. Somewhere along the way (thanks Osama!) I got off of my preferred career track and now find myself working in an environment which is challenging for all the wrong reasons. My job is challenging in the way that punching your way through a brick wall is challenging, not in the way that, say, designing a skyscraper is challenging.
    I have been trying to break back into the datawarehousing world, but since my experience is now several years old, I have a hard time convincing companies to give me a chance.
    To answer your question, the best way to hire is your network. It is the same way for hiring as for getting hired. If I knew people in my area that were in the datawarehousing arena, I could probably get hired in a second, and that would be a good thing for both me and the company. Good for them, because after brushing off the rust, I know I will do an outstanding job, and good for me because I will be once again doing something I enjoy and making a difference instead of the technical equivalent of banging rocks together, which is what I do now.
    Are you hiring star datawarehouse people in addition to programmers?
    Why is everything technical in slashdot always about programming? There is so much more stuff that "nerds" do besides programming.

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