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 [driehaus.com], 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 [menasha.com], 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., [perseusdevelopment.com], 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 [daprex.com], 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 BSDI.com, 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” [http://web.demigod.org/~zak/geek/hack.shtml], “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. [esynch.com], 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.”