Prima donna programmers


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> Prima donna syndrome
> Managing the employee who's too talented for rules

I can be a bit of a prima donna, for example I'm quite picky what I
work on (e.g., "I don't do Windows", though that isn't being very
picky at all imho), but I generally think I'm a fairly good team
player: cooperate with others even when they're clearly wrong ;) ,
try to do my share of maintenance and grunt work, etc.

I like this line:

> If the individual is productive, but lacks elementary social
> skills, telecommuting may be an option.

So that's why they let me work from home. :-)

slashdot discussion:

> Prima donna syndrome
> Managing the employee who's too talented for rules
> by Judith Sears
> issue:  Jul - Aug 2001
> ____________________________________________________________________
> Let's stipulate from the outset that programmers are allowed to
> be quirky.  Expected to be eccentric. But we're not talking about
> the idiosyncratically intelligent or the interestingly offbeat.
> We're talking about the insufferable egotist who can't or won't
> Play Nice.
> The syndrome often is found in someone like this: a young and
> brilliant software developer who lives and breathes IT. A true
> geek, "Hal" spends a lot of work time in techie chat rooms
> engaged in in-depth UNIX conversations, sharing code and
> discussing programming challenges. Despite his inclination to
> partake in on-the-job recreation, Hal is a prolific and
> productive programmer.
> So far, so good. Just another proud member of the hacker tribe,
> right? But unfortunately, Hal has another side. He makes rude and
> disparaging comments about his coworkers. If he doesn't like a
> project, he'll let it slide. In particular, he resists the
> drudgery of correcting or upgrading "someone else's ugly
> program."
> Hal also challenges managerial authority and expresses his
> contempt for his position. He tosses out statements like, "I
> could be making $200 an hour doing security work," and makes
> other muscle-flexing gestures to show that he can do what he
> wants, when he wants.
> Liz Rosenberg, IT director for Driehaus Capital Management
> [], an investment management firm in Chicago, recalls
> the Hal-type she managed a few years ago. "He seemed to feel that
> he was this all-knowing programming god," she says. Brilliant but
> bratty, though, because for every technical problem he solved, he
> created a personnel problem for the team.
> Like Hal and like most wizards, prima donnas really do have
> talent and a true love of IT. But, the prima donna combines this
> passion and expertise with arrogance or lack of concern for
> others. With Hal, it was constant complaining and carping. Other
> symptoms of prima donna syndrome include an obsessive desire for
> control, the attitude that the world revolves around them, and
> the conviction that the regular rules don't apply to them.
> Control freaks
> Ed Wojchiehowski, CIO of Menasha Corporation [], a
> conglomerate of manufacturing and services companies
> headquartered in Neenah, Wisc., recalls an individual who created
> a very innovative logistics software package. Impressed,
> Wojchiehowski asked the programmer to work with others on the
> team to expand and modify the package to make it, oh, actually
> useable to the corporation.
> But the programmer, call him "Spock," refused to share
> information with other programmers. Spock claimed his innovation
> was too complicated to explain and that by the time he was done
> explaining, he could have changed the program.
> Wojchiehowski concluded Spock's real agenda was control. "Prima
> donnas hold back information or work 80 hours a week so they
> don't have to share information with anybody," the CIO says.
> "I've discovered in many cases, it's almost physically painful
> for them to give it up."
> All about me
> At other times, prima donnas give the impression that they
> believe the world and the project revolves around them. Early in
> the beginnings of Perseus Development Corp.,
> [], a provider of Web-based survey software
> and services in Braintree, Mass., Jeffrey Henning, president of
> the software division, was managing a developer who took the
> attitude of, "I'm the most important person in the company, and
> without me, you couldn't exist." "Angela" refused to help other
> programmers with their work, yet expected them to drop their work
> to help her.
> This developer was very valuable: She'd written most of the early
> versions of the company's products. "Nevertheless, she was close
> to being more trouble than she was worth," Henning says. Her
> exclusive focus on her own needs was a constant obstacle for the
> department.
> "The term 'prima donna' comes from a difficult leading woman
> soloist in an opera," Henning reflects. "I think 'soloist' is a
> key word. A lot of prima donnas act like soloists - they don't
> work well with the team, and they think their voice is the most
> important."
> Beyond the rules
> Some prima donnas behave as though ordinary rules, such as work
> schedules, don't apply to them. Andy Andretta, a senior partner
> with Daprex [], a software evaluation firm in Stamford,
> Conn., recalls a prima donna who found just showing up to work
> regularly a problem. The employee, who held a second-level support
> position for a software product, often worked magic fixing bugs -
> when he was there. "But," as Andretta points out, "he's not too
> valuable if he's not there, which was quite a lot."
> The situation only deteriorated as the manager continued to
> accommodate the delinquent, Andretta says. To complicate matters,
> the prima donna had a shrewd sense of timing and organizational
> politics. Like the Lone Ranger, he'd ride in just in time to play
> the hero in emergencies and take the credit. "He'd put the bow on
> the package," Andretta says.
> When the manager finally decided he'd tolerated enough
> shenanigans, he confronted a loss of face and credibility with
> his superiors. Why? Because he had to tell upper management: 'I
> want to get rid of the most talented person I've got.' And his
> bosses thought he'd lost his mind.
> "They're very smart," Andretta says of prima donnas. "And they
> know who their audience is - upper management - and they play to
> them very well."
> Seeing it from the prima donna's perspective
> The trick for the IT manager is that some of these charges could
> also be made, to a lesser extent, against positive, contributing
> employees. For example, playing games or spending time in techie
> chatrooms is common and can help many programmers to be more
> productive. As Peter Seebach, a member of the technical staff of
>, a firm providing Internet infrastructure-grade systems,
> software and solutions in Berkeley, Calif., writes at his Web
> site "The Care and Feeding of Your Hacker"
> [], "Hackers, writers
> and painters all need some amount of time to spend 'percolating,'
> that is, doing something else to let their subconscious work on a
> problem."
> Menasha's Wojchiehowski agrees that this kind of putzing around
> while searching for an idea is perfectly acceptable. "I don't
> worry if they're playing a game," he says. "And, I don't have any
> problem with walking into somebody's office and finding them with
> their feet on their desk staring at the ceiling. They may be
> thinking about the problem."
> It's also true that the best programmers' drive for excellence
> can leave them understandably curt when others seem less
> committed. Eric Haddan, a self-described "recovering prima
> donna," has been frustrated when working with team members who
> seem more motivated by opportunism than a true love of
> programming. "The market is flooded with a bunch of people who
> just took some classes, but they're not really into it," says
> Haddan, a software development manager for eSynch Corp.
> [], a Tustin, Calif., firm which provides video
> delivery tools, streaming media services, and software utilities.
> "They have a degree and they've heard the money's good."
> As for the charge of "arrogance or rudeness," some hackers argue
> that it's just as big a failing for others to be too tender or
> defensive. "I used to be a lot meaner to co-workers than I am
> now," Seebach, the hacker translator, reveals.  "People say,
> 'They worked hard on it, so don't trash it,' but on the other
> hand, would you like to drive over a bridge with the assurance
> that people worked hard on it? Or do you want to know they got it
> right? A complete refusal to acknowledge either side of that
> constitutes failing to play well with others."
> Signs that they're going prima
> So how do you tell the difference between someone who's just
> creative and frustrated and someone who's suffering from a bad
> case of prima donna syndrome?  The true prima donna, according to
> managers, won't work with you or for you.  Andretta believes that
> prima donna syndrome is marked by denial. "They do not accept the
> fact that they are wrong," he says. "It's not them, it's everyone
> else."
> As a result, a prima donna often leaves havoc in his wake. Not
> least is the damage to morale. Seeing someone else, no matter how
> talented, disregard the rules that others must follow can be
> dismaying to employees who are working hard and playing by the
> book. "Once you start with favoritism you turn good people sour,"
> Daprex's Andretta contends. "It's never worth it."
> Besides seeing someone get away with murder, colleagues may wind
> up doing the prima donna's work, which really causes resentment.
> In Andretta's situation, other employees often had to pick up the
> work of the AWOL programmer, delaying the completion of their own
> assignments. "It affected our work load and morale," Andretta
> recalls.
> CIO Wojchiehowski points out other hazards. The controlling prima
> donna who holds onto information will eventually move on -
> leaving others to figure out what the blazes they were doing. Not
> surprisingly, such an event can delay or even doom projects
> completely. In either case, the company loses face with its
> clients. "It's just negative in all aspects," he says.
> Homing in on that giant ego
> If you've determined that you've got a true prima donna on your
> staff, the next step is figuring out what to do. Sometimes you
> can make some management moves that rein in the runaway ego. But
> you must move quickly. "I can assure you, prima donnas only get
> worse with time," warns Wojchiehowski.
> If the individual is productive, but lacks elementary social
> skills, telecommuting may be an option. In other cases, selective
> delegation and assignments may give the individual enough
> challenge to keep them out of too much trouble. The best
> programmers, prima donnas or not, dislike repetitive tasks.
> Designing prototypes, for example, can be a good assignment for
> many of these very bright individuals. But Henning stresses that
> they are best assigned to prototypes, not actual products.
> "Products," he points out, "require team input."
> Former prima donna Haddan suggests keeping a regular flow of
> applicants coming in for interviews. In other words, keep the
> feet of difficult techies to the fire. "If you do find someone
> good, move her in and start weeding out the bad ones. I am
> willing to bet you would have to do this only one time," he says.
> "If the attitude persists, repeat the process."
> Straight talk express, tech-style
> But, sooner rather than later, the employee will have to be
> confronted directly. Perseus' Henning had been on the verge of
> firing Angela, but gave the situation one last try with a blunt
> performance review. He catalogued and congratulated her strengths
> and also described explicitly where her performance was failing.
> The review seemed to help Angela settle down. "I think part of
> her behavior was insecurity," Henning says. "She was afraid that
> she wasn't really valued."
> Angela's successful turnaround appears to be rare, however. In
> the end, most managers aren't optimistic about salvaging prima
> donnas. Instead, they aggressively rid their staffs of them as
> quickly as possible. "I'm a strong believer in people and am
> willing to invest in their development," Wojchiehowski explains.
> "But, frankly, as soon as I understand that it's a prima donna
> situation, I work to eliminate it. You work with those who are
> team players. And those who aren't, well, in the most loving
> manner, you help them exit."
> Daprex's Andretta dismisses the idea that a prima donna's talent
> makes the extra grief worthwhile. "It doesn't matter how smart
> they are, they will hurt you," he warns. "And, the smarter they
> are, the more they can hurt you."
> He believes that it's better to invest in bright - but not
> brilliant - people and train them to be more productive. "You can
> buy talent," he says.  "Personality, by which I mean a good
> attitude, really can't be bought. I'll take a team player any
> day."

Gerald Oskoboiny <[email protected]>

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