Managing A Rockstar’s Ego

Noah Beddome

VP of Security Engineering at Datadog



At my previous company, I got paired up with a guy who was my senior in terms of how long he had been at the organization. However, I had recently been promoted to a Director role in the company, so was his senior in terms of organizational hierarchy. He was a rockstar developer and was well known for being really good at doing what we needed to do for the project we had been paired up for, so I gave him his part of the tasks, and assumed he would just get them done without needing much babysitting. One day, when I was travelling to go to the client's site, I got a phone call from our account manager. He told me that the client I was about to go onsite for had said they didn't want to work with us anymore and that they were really angry with us.

Actions taken

What had happened was that the really experienced guy I had been working with got too cocky and did some things that he wouldn't have done had he been a little more cautious. When he was challenged about it by other people he told them he knew what he was doing, he was a principal and they weren't, and then told them to leave him alone. I got on the phone with him and he sang a different tune, saying it was an accident. However, I had chat transcripts that proved it wasn't. The problem I was facing is that I couldn't just tear into this guy or fire him, as a significant number of people in the organization had learned their skill-set from him, he was well known, he was high-performing, and he had gotten the company through some dark times. As a relatively new director to the company, I couldn't have just attacked him. I decided instead to back him all the way up, set him some basic tasks, and then ask him to have check-in intervals with me. I was able to convince him that this was the best way forward by explaining that the client was really mad and that I was going to talk them down, but that we needed to show that we were using due diligence. I made sure to suggest that he try some new technical approaches that I knew he'd find interesting. He enjoyed them and realized their effectiveness, which in turn helped to retrain him. In addition, I demonstrated my technical proficiency by jumping in and working with him on a couple of things, and I complimented him when he did things well. With rockstar developers, you have to gain their respect. If they don't, then they'll treat you like you are their junior even if you're their superior. This approach helped to build that respect with him. A couple of weeks later, I debriefed with him. I explained that what he had done was really bad, and that while I didn't believe it was completely accidental, I understood what happened.

Lessons learned

I earned his respect and played to his ego, and by doing this I was able to gain his respect. I was then able to approach him, not in a "do this or else" way, but in a more collegial way, asking him to set a good example for those who look up to him, and to provide higher quality work for our clients. Things that feed into rockstar developer's ego can be really effective. We were never best friends, but we had a solid operational relationship that went on for a couple of years after this.

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Noah Beddome

VP of Security Engineering at Datadog

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyFeedback TechniquesTechnical ExpertiseTechnical SkillsProgrammingCareer GrowthSkill DevelopmentIndividual Contributor Roles

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