September 1996 saw Manchester United come up against Juventus in the group stages of the Champions League. More intriguingly it saw United’s French superstar Eric Cantona come up against his countryman Didier Deschamps. The battles on the pitch went the way of the diminutive midfielder with Juventus winning home and away, but in the war of words between them, there was only ever going to be one winner.

Cantona flicked away his rival by damning him the faintest of praise. “He gets by because he gives 100%, but he will never be more than a water carrier”. Dechamps could only agree. “A water carrier? Yes, that’s exactly what I am. Great teams are not just created by the architect but also by bricklayers and hod carriers.”

Cantona, of course, would end up being so much more than your average footballer, as likely to digress into philosophy or art as well as he was to execute the odd flying kick on a mouthy Crystal Palace supporter. Deschamps went on being a water carrier – tackling and passing his way to multiple titles and eventually leading his country to win the World and European Cups. It should come as no surprise that of the two, he was by far the more successful football player.

Cantona was a rock star where talent, ego and indulgence all combined to produce a player who was equal parts angel and demon. He was probably the first real rock star that the Premiership and satellite TV ever produced. Like a lot of rock stars, he fundamentally misunderstood the importance of his role. This is not to say that he wasn’t a genius. Earlier that year he and Peter Schmeichel had combined their talents to produce five one nil victories in two months, which ultimately led to United overhauling Newcastle on the way to winning the Premiership.

Where Cantona fell down was in how he misunderstood both the difficulty and the importance of being a so-called water carrier.

Deschamps is hardly unique in being dismissed in this fashion. Claude Makélélé was a central and pivotal part of Real Madrid’s success in the three years he spent there. But when he wanted to be paid a similar amount to Real’s galacticos – Zidane, Figo, Raúl, and Ronaldo – the management derided both his importance and his abilities and shipped him off to Chelsea. Whereupon he became a pivotal part of the West London club’s rise to the top of the English game. For their part Real spent millions trying to replace him and failed.

Rock star developers

In the software industry everyone seems to be looking for rock stars these days. You see it in far too many job advertisements. It often gets lost in the array of idiotic adjectives that seem to attach themselves to tech job descriptions: gurus, ninjas, evangelists, etc…

The rock star is the worst of them. They myth goes that the rock star is talented to a supernatural degree. He or she will produce more and better code than a dozen mere mortals. Apparently ordinary developers create complex solutions to simple problems and great developers create simple solutions to complex solutions. Rock star coders supposedly go beyond that and just make your problems disappear. It’s a myth, and a problematic one.

Obviously we are not talking about real rock stars. They don’t sell records or play stadiums. They don’t trashed hotel rooms, or drive their gold-plated Rolls Royces into Les Paul shaped swimming pools. But they have the attitude, the ego, and the monstrous self-entitlement, and that is the problem.

Rock stars don’t make your team better. On the contrary, they will inevitably make your team worse. This is because they don’t understand the value of water carriers.

Talent with the wrong attitude can be a real problem

The problem with clichés

The real problem with clichés is that they are true, so true that they become dull and trivial, and it’s a cliché that it takes a team to win. Rock stars don’t realise that. In their world the rest of team are either there to make them look good, or else they are just along for the ride. I should know. I used to be one.

I entered the graphic design industry in 1987, a time when Apple Macintoshes were wreaking havoc on the industry while transforming it into something entirely new. Those like myself, who excelled with both software and hardware found themselves in huge demand. We became as much prized for our IT skills as for our design chops.

This brave new world brought prestige clients, management roles, and consultancy work. But for me, it also nurtured an ego that eventually spun out of control.

When I started out I was determined to be the best I could be. After a few years I ended up being more concerned with making sure everyone knew how good I was. Your ego is a trap. It makes you blind to your mistakes, a pain to your colleagues, and a nightmare to manage.

The worst thing was that my unprofessional behaviour was often encouraged by many of those around me, because there is a horrible tendency for people in all industries to indulge talent.

What eventually cured me of this nonsense was starting my own company. Management and fellow workers might indulge your ego, but your clients will not. They tend to quickly walk away from unprofessional behaviour.

So managers will always have this dilemma. There is no replacement for talent. There is no substitute for skills, intelligence and experience. But talent can bring baggage, and every manager eventually has to weigh up someone’s ability against their more negative attributes.

Rock star employees are assets and liabilities at the same time. The downsides are enormous if they are not managed properly, while their attitude makes them singularly difficult to manage.

They will upset your other staff. They will not recognise or admit to their own mistakes. Worst of all, they can undermine you in ways you never dreamed possible.

So why hire them at all?

The answer to that is simple. Don’t.

Talent and ego do not go hand in hand. The Dunning-Kruger effect is ample proof of that. Yes, there are amazing developers out there with egos to match. But the reverse is also true. There are plenty of people who are brilliant at their job but don’t feel the need to shove it in everyone’s face.

Which brings us back to Eric Cantona. A player who ultimately failed at the highest level because he never understood that for a team to win, the artist needs the water carrier just as much as the water carrier needs him.