Prima donna engineers

In a world where engineers truly are the new rock stars and markets continue to be moderately funded, it is not uncommon to witness or experience the engineering “prima donna effect.” I’ve gently suggested this term in the past and it struck a nerve.

The way I see it, the prima donna effect characterizes an engineer who is young, wildly inexperienced and believes he/she (but let’s be serious — he) is the greatest engineer since Jimmy Wales.

We hire and interview a lot of engineers. Speaking as an employer, we have an interesting vantage point that may provide a helpful perspective to a budding engineer, as well as more seasoned, talented engineers. As the markets soften, it’s easier for us to pick and choose who we want to work with. What we look for in a new hire is more focused on work ethic and basic professionalism; traits we’re finding harder and harder to come by.

You may be suffering from prima donnaism if the following resonates with you:

  • “Working hard” is rolling into work at 10:22 am and wanting to leave by 4:50 pm because you’re tired
  • You only write “good code” during full moons
  • You’ve graduated from a developer bootcamp and have full-stack engineer on your resume
  • You have to nap at least once a day in the office
  • You’ll only code using the newest JavaScript framework — when asked why, you say “because it’s better”
  • You and your friends refer to you as a “ninja”
  • You haven’t held a job for longer than three months in well over two years
  • You don’t know how to refactor code; instead, you try to rewrite the entire app

Major cities, notably New York City and San Francisco, are plagued by this the most. What we find is that you don’t have to venture too far outside of these major cities before you see loyalty, appreciation for work and work ethic increase by an outstanding order of magnitude.

Similarly, both cities require a premium price tag for “quality” engineering, as the cost of living is uncomfortably high. As a prima donna, you’re probably expecting to get paid that premium amount. To a potential employer interviewing you, this is a double whammy.

With ego leading the charge, we see a lot of the above. We gently cut the interview short and send a “thank you” follow-up suggesting you need more experience. What we really mean is, “You’re not nearly as accomplished as you think.”

It’s important to get back to basics. It’s very easy in the ever-changing, fast-paced climate of technology to get way ahead of yourself. What startups (and really, all companies) want is hard work, commitment and, at the very least, decent hygiene and limited amounts of complaining. The pendulum has swung too far and, as a result, our once quiet, generally nerdy industry is filled with confused, entitled youngsters who will find it harder and harder to acquire work as markets continue to soften.

However, all is not lost! Prima donnaism is reversible — with focus. With a solid shower, a commitment to showing up on time and, most importantly, an understanding that you don’t have all the answers — and that’s okay — you can be on your journey to getting a real job at a great company — being a junior engineer.