Networks

Rockstars in IT: They Can Do, But Can They Teach?

May 15, 2020

Rockstars in IT: They Can Do, But Can They Teach?

Rockstars are a vital asset to any company. In the technology world, they’re often the subject matter experts coworkers turn to when they have questions about a product or service. But while specializing on a topic can be a good thing, teaching others the “rockstar” way may not be suitable for all employees. Product superstars know their product like the back of their hand and they’re more than qualified to explain a product, but there are both benefits and drawbacks to having a specialist train other employees.

From experience to attitude, all things must be considered when asking an expert to train new or inexperienced employees. Businesses often have a standard process for training new employees, but what if only one employee knows the ins and outs of a product? While training more employees on a product can be a smart move, the training process should be carefully crafted. Businesses must avoid the bias of product specialists toward certain products, while also ensuring their genius shines through in training.

Why You Should Let Your Rockstar Train

Asking your superhero to train can be the obvious option when looking to teach new employees. Having a product specialist teach others how to be product experts seems like a no-brainer. They know a lot of specifics, they’re aware of company standards, and they’re hopefully somewhat enthusiastic about the product they’ve dedicated their work to. Rockstars can answer a lot of questions other employees might not be able to, giving you a deeper technical knowledge. They can get into important details, making them some of the best employees to learn from.

The benefits of asking your specialist to train don’t have to be specific to the employee. Unpacking a superstar’s expertise may take some time, but it can be a business advantage in the long run. Having several employees to do the job of one person can cut down the time it takes to preform multiple tasks while also taking the stress off of your specialist. As long as standard training procedures are enforced along with best practices, rockstar trainers can result in several future pro employees.

How to Avoid the Rockstar Way

While there are many benefits to having a product genius train new or inexperienced employees, there are a few drawbacks. As specialists, pros often prefer the rockstar way. Being the main or only product specialist in their company means superheroes are given the opportunity to work in their own way. Superstars have years of experience with their product, so it may be hard to revert initial training standards when they’ve been left to their own devices for so long.

Take for example Brent in the book The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford. Brent’s character is a rockstar engineer but is often a speedbump in projects requiring his expertise. While he knows much about engineering, having him as the only specialist creates four issues.

  1. Rockstar Approval—Others often rely on his approval to move forward. This can increase the time it takes to complete a project. Brent is essentially a bottleneck in each project, since he’s the only one who can give others the green light. While he may not be trying to hold others up, having several well-trained employees capable of giving the same approval could move projects along much faster.
  2. Cheat Codes—Brent has cheats for everything. He can cut corners and get away with bypassing best practices, which could potentially create bad habits if he were asked to train anyone. While this works for him, initial training on workarounds isn’t necessarily encouraged. New trainees should have a standard process free from any workarounds.
  3. Tasks Only They Can Perform—If there’s only one rockstar, like Brent, they may be the only person capable of correcting certain issues or building new pieces of a solution because they’re the only person who knows the ins and outs. If someone else steps in, they could potentially break things without a clear picture of how they’ll operate within the microcosm. This leads you back to relying on your product specialist to fix or rebuild the solution. And once again, there’s more and more dependence on the specialist which prevents them from moving forward in their career and creates a bottleneck for any new work in their arena.
  4. Nonexistent Processes—Lastly, there’s no process. Since Brent’s process is organic, it’s nearly impossible to write down everything going through his brain. Pros most likely spend years working with their product without the need to ever document their steps. After a certain point, everything comes naturally which is great for the specialist but not the best for training new employees. Rockstars can often fall into what they’re used to and may not upgrade their training with new product updates.

Another drawback to having your specialist train can be their attitude toward a product. Companies must consider how their expert feels toward the product they’re being asked to train on. If your rockstar isn’t the biggest fan of the product they’re teaching, it can come across during training. Companies should always ensure their pros are comfortable training on a specific product, not only to save their time, but to guarantee trainees are receiving the best instruction possible.

How to Do Rockstar Training Right

This isn’t to say product masters can’t make good trainers, but some things should be considered before asking your pro to train. Most importantly, your expert must be aware of standard procedures. This includes a standard training process for all employees excluding workarounds, and removing all bias from training. Have an honest conversation with your specialist before asking them to perform the training and have them teach you something. You may find they work well with one-on-one training but not one-to-many training, or they’re comfortable in either format. You may also find their teaching methods are innovative or maybe don’t meet your standards. Consider having them work with a more experienced trainer if they’re struggling with the teaching aspect or developing materials, or have them take a class on public speaking. This will help your employees get the best training possible without influencing their initial feelings for a product and it’ll give them a chance to learn in their own way. If your product specialist is fully capable of sharing their knowledge, there’s no reason you shouldn’t use your best resource to enhance your team. Rockstars are a gem to each company and with their help, future employees are guaranteed to learn from the best.


Chrystal Taylor is a dedicated technologist with nearly a decade of experience and has built her career by leveraging curiosity to solve problems, no matter the size, industry, or client. Whether tinkering with the family computer, or inflicting general destruction in MS-DOS Tank Wars, Taylor has always been a geek. Taylor is a SolarWinds deployment veteran who’s built a successful IT career by translating client needs into optimized and performant systems. She loves customizing current deployments to ensure systems grow in tandem with user needs. She’s achieved several SolarWinds certifications. A THWACK® MVP since 2011, she understands the power of community and the SolarWinds commitment to its users. In her role as the Global Services Team Lead for Loop1 Systems, Taylor was the troubleshooting sniper, handling technical escalation for the engineering team, providing break/fix and augmentation support, and assisting clients as the subject matter expert for SolarWinds® Orion® Platform and Security Event Manager (SEM) (formerly Log & Event Manager) products. Her focus on capacity planning, server architecture, and troubleshooting allow her to attack any issue on multiple fronts.