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Why I Like Prima Donnas (But, You Can’t Have Two Or They’ll Fight!)

September 25, 2013

Rodney, I don’t get it.


You go to all this work to build a cohesive team and then you let Dave sort of blow it up.

Well, he’s the Prima Donna.

Yeah, no kidding!

No, you don’t understand. I LIKE Prima Donnas.

No one is supposed to like a Prima Donna. How could you? Here’s a popular online dictionary definition of a Prima Donna.

1. a first or principal female singer of an opera company.
2. a temperamental person; a person who takes adulation and privileged treatment as a right and reacts with petulance to criticism or inconvenience.

Clearly I wasn’t putting on an opera, so given the second definition, why would I, why would anyone for that matter, actively hire a Prima Donna?

Why? Because in order to be a Prima Donna, you have to be a great programmer. Not just a good programmer. You have to be fantastic. Because here’s what happens. If you have a rotten personality. If you take adulation and privileged treatment as a right and react with petulance to criticism and you are NOT a great programmer, you will be an unemployed programmer. No one is going to put up with your terrible attitude. But, if you are a fantastic coder, people are willing to put up with an attitude.

Prima Donnas, especially software code monkeys often don’t know they are acting like a Prima Donna. They have two overriding characteristics that permeate their work relationships. First, they don’t see themselves as arrogant, because, let’s face it, they really are smarter, or at least a better coder than everyone else. So, they lack self awareness. But, they have mounds of confidence. They are fearless, willing to tackle the most complex coding challenge, because they are just that good.

I remember hearing Bill Gates speak, early in my Microsoft career. Windows 95 had suffered yet another delay and someone asked Bill how he was handling the stress.

Well, sometimes I’m tempted to take the code base home and rewrite the entire thing over the weekend.

He was only half joking. Prima Donna’s would charge hell with a bucket.

At this point some of you are shaking your heads and thinking, “This time Rodney’s gone too far. I’ve worked with Prima Donnas and they are a pain in the butt! No one would recruit them!”

It’s an excellent point. Hey, I understand reality. I would love to have the programmer equivalent of Captain America or Superman. They are guys who are brilliant at programming and just really swell guys too! But, those guys are all working in Hollywood. So, given the choice of a brilliant Prima Donna or a slightly above-average Regular Joe, I’ll take the Prima Donna every time. I’m not hiring people who need to go out and represent the company in public. I don’t want “well rounded” individuals. I want guys who are completely off the charts in the area that’s important to me, such as programming, and I don’t really care about their other characteristics. Sure, it would nice to have someone who’s going to be nice, but it’s not a requirement.

It’s a somewhat foreign concept, I’ll admit. But, look around your office. If you don’t have a Prima Donna engineer or programmer, or sales gal, or graphic artist, ask yourself why. I’ve had managers who built teams out of well rounded individuals. Those teams were adequate, but rarely were they spectacular.

But, as I said in the title, you can’t have two or they’ll fight. I discovered this by accident. RESMARK was chugging along, but many pieces, especially the online version were way behind schedule. As we came off a software Sprint, I pulled Dave out of the feature work he was doing and teamed him with Jason to work on the online version of the software. Jason was working for me for the summer, but was already a fantastic developer.

I congratulated myself on a brilliant management move. If one brilliant coder was good for a project, two would be outstanding. After the first 2 week Sprint I sat down with Dave.

How’s it coming?


What’s the problem?

Jason won’t do anything I tell him.

Interestingly Jason had the same complaint about Dave. What I realized was that if you put two Alpha dogs together, they are going to fight. It’s natural and it was my fault. I reassigned Jason and thinks went a lot smoother. So, take a look around your team. Are they the very best at what they do? Or, did you hire a the women who was not quite the best programmer, or support person, or dog catcher. Or hire a guy who is “good enough?”

We’d all like the Prima Donna to be nice. But, unless you are in the business of handing out sunshine and lollipops, appreciate the Prima Donna among you. (But, remember, just one otherwise they fight!)

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

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