A dialog of thoughts and ideas about software, usability, and products, with random science and wacky ideas thrown in for good measure.

I sometimes wonder if there could be a path for software engineers to become rock stars - not glorified engineers respected by the software engineering community, but actual stars that win over the general population, get their picture on the cover of Time magazine, get featured in ads wearing milk mustaches, and, when the world least expects to see them reappear, have a shot at Celebrity Apprentice or Dancing with the Stars. (EDIT: When I wrote this, I didn't know that Steve Wozniak was actually on Dancing with the Stars)

So what differentiates a software engineer from a rock star? (Perhaps the use of the word, "differentiates"? Or putting the question mark after the quote because it's not part of the string?) The irony of "Rockstar Games" is that there are no rock stars! Not by my definition, at least.

Music is about so much more than just the sound and lyrics that we hear on the radio. Successful musicians exhibit their personality and themselves through their songs, stage performance, and lifestyle. The popularity (or notoriety) of a musician is as much a part of their stardom the music they sing. Music is an extension of personality. Programming is not so directly related; it's not a physical expression that can be generated on the spot, but a mental expression that takes time to nurture. What would a software engineer in concert look like?

Music is about entertainment. The closest programming correlation to entertainment is games, but games are becoming more like movies than music. Many of the latest games even have tie-ins with books and movies. This makes me think that programmers are more like gaffers, best boys, set painters, and paint setters than musicians or even actors. They make the magic happen, but they're not the hero who the crowds want to see.

Classic songs and movies are respected. Casablanca is still a great film. Is Commander Keen still a great game? Of course, there's a cadre of people who enjoy playing classic games like Pac-Man and Asteroids on original devices or Mame emulators (or Microsoft's new Game Room), and I still love text adventures, but in general, games quickly become forgotten. And while songs can be listened to over and over again, playing the same game repeatedly gets boring. Our brains must process these things differently.

I'll leave you with a novel thought. Music and movies are both types of media, and within a medium, specific styles, instances, and stars are created: techno, "Baby Got Back," Taylor Swift; horror, "Star Wars: Episode I," Jim Carrey. Games are are a medium, too, but their stars, if any, are characters (Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, GLaDOS), not people. Sure, there's John Carmack, but is he a household name? Maybe true programmer rock stars will only emerge when a new type of medium, independent of our current notions of entertainment, emerges. Perhaps this new medium can emerge on devices like the Kindle, iPad, and Droid Incredible. Maybe the medium will fit in a unexplored part of our daily lives that music and movies can't fill. And maybe, just maybe, programmers can emerge from this medium as rock stars.

(Epilogue: If this new medium does emerge, I think what will really happen is that everyday people will have a new, non-music, non-movie chance at stardom... and again, the programmers become the enablers. But, after all, that's really not such a bad place to be.)
Brad Rosenberg said...

Every industry has its rock-stars, it's just limited to the community of interest. There are rock stars in software engineering (Josh Bloch) and computer science (Donald Knuth) as much as there are in cooking (Emeril, Rachel Ray), anthropology (Jane Goodall), religion (Pat Robertson, Richard Dawkins), and tabletop gaming (Steve Jackson). It just depends on the size of the community of interest. Now, if you're saying will the software engineering community of interest ever hit the mainstream? Only if it's sexy. Alot of people know who Mark Zuckerberg is, Shawn Fanning, and Kevin Rose. Would you call them engineers though? Or creators?

Rock-stardom is not simply idol worship for ability. Rock-stardom is a representation of triumph through defiance and being a free spirit. What are engineers defying?

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