On the myth of the "10x" engineer

A lot of people have been talking about "10x engineers" and how "important" they are to things like software development. People want to put forward the idea that hiring the "right" developers (almost always white or Asian, male, from specific colleges or with specific pedigrees) is the key to making your company successful. And yes, hiring good people is important, but this "10x" stuff is complete bullshit. Let me tell you why:

Teaching + Teamwork > Raw Productivity

Assume for a moment I can get 2 or 3 times the work done that an average employee can. That's great! Now what do you do with me? If you put me nose-down in code for 40 hours a week, it's like hiring an extra person. Still great! Except that I cost the company almost as much as two junior engineers - so... not so great.

Now, what if I spend half my time teaching, mentoring, reviewing code, working with the members of my team to make them better. Say that after a year I've boosted each of their performance by a mere 25%. But then I've still put in my 100% (instead of 200%) and on a team of five the other members have contributed another +100%. But if they've learned something, that's a permanent upgrade that doesn't go away if I stop mentoring! So next year, our team gets +300% if I just write code... but maybe also if I continue to help them improve, and then the following year it's 400% instead. So on, so forth, etc. - and the company still reaps the benefits if I leave!

Combine that with the dearth of minority mentors and role models in the industry and I am far more valuable as a force multiplier than I am as an extra-productive engineer. I say that the same goes for all of these "10x" or whatever people - the idea that people can be judged only on the volume of their work output is silly and counterproductive in the long term, both for the companies they work for and the industry as a whole. Better to judge them on how much more productive they can make the people around them.

Or to put it another way, a "1x" engineer is only a liability if you're not willing to help them grow in their career. I'll take a "1x" who's willing to learn and works well with others long before I'll hire an antisocial "pro" (and have, by the way - it was a good choice).

And now, a sportsball analogy:

Consider the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. The Yankees have by far the highest budget in MLB. They can (and do) buy all of the "10x" players they want - guys like A-Rod and Clemens and Ichiro. The Red Sox have a pretty big budget, but not as high. When they were very successful in the '00s, they had maybe half what the Yankees had. They also routinely lost good players to teams who could pay more. How did they win? They had amazing farm teams. They bought up promising young players and taught them how to be major-leaguers - how to win. And you know what? It worked.

Companies awash in cash can afford to go out and head-hunt the big guns. The rest of us have to develop talent. In that atmosphere, a teacher is far more valuable than a big gun. And a team player who knows how to communicate and make a whole team more productive (even if they're not teaching) is still more valuable than a big gun who only works alone.

The Stamina Bar Model of Emotional Energy

A lot of people talk about the Spoons Model of Disability (and more recently, the Forks Model), and I know a lot of folks (disabled and non) who apply the principles to describe their own lives. I have talked about being "low on spoons"; some might call this appropriative but I think it applies to a lot of us for whom the demands of life routinely exceed the available supply of energy.

Stamina bar
The stamina bar is the yellow half-circle on the right.

Recently, though, I've come to prefer a new model inspired by the stamina/mana bar from Dragon Age: Origins. In this game, anything interesting you do consumes stamina, so if you're planning on not getting eaten by Darkspawn you need to make sure your characters have a constant supply.

Emotional energy is a bit like that. We've each got a budget to spend on stuff like motivating ourselves to be productive, giving love and care to our friends and family, and making good choices for our own well-being. What happens when we run out is different for different people, but we've all been in a situation where we've had difficulty getting out of our pajamas or resisting that free donut at work or not snapping at an acquaintance over something minor. Science backs me up on this - studies have shown that we each possess a limited amount of willpower and are more likely to make short-sighted, comfort-seeking decisions when we're spent.

The thing is, people lead stressful lives. Everyone has their challenges. But most people have a pretty decent reservoir of stamina to draw from - plenty for the normal day-to-day, at least.

So what's the problem? Activated vs. sustained abilities

In Dragon Age, there are two kinds of abilities a character can use. Activated abilities are one-time and use up a chunk of stamina. If you have enough, you can use the ability, and maybe later you can use it again. In the Stamina Bar Model, activated abilities are things like "shave my legs today" or "choose something healthy for lunch" or "ignore my annoying co-worker" or "pay attention during this meeting". Again, most people have more than enough stamina to do most of these things most of the time, to the point where they don't think much about it.

But there's another kind of ability that's just as crucial for winning the game - sustained abilities. Sustained abilities aren't a one-time use of stamina. When they're turned on, they sequester a portion of your pool, effectively reducing your total. In the Stamina Bar Model, anything you're constantly dealing with is a sustained ability. Obviously, if you've got a physical or mental illness, you're got a really expensive sustained ability that you need to always have on just to function. But being able to go out into a busy space if you're introverted or have social anxiety is also a sustained ability. Dealing with the constant micro- (and macro-) agressions that come with being a minority, woman, visibly LGBTQ person, etc. is, too. So is having to worry about the rent, or how you're going to feed your children.

A sustained ability
A sustained ability (Dragon Age II)

A lot of us don't have the luxury of using our entire stamina bar, because we need to have a bunch of sustained abilities up just to be able to function. For example, the "IDGAF Field" I need to be able to go out in public presenting female when I don't pass is a huge chunk of my stamina bar, which is why I don't do it very often (and deeply admire the women who do and still manage to live their lives).

Living with chronically low stamina

Everyone develops coping mechanisms to deal with stamina drain. Some people overeat. Some smoke, some watch trash TV or procrastinate on their household chores or surf the web when they should be working. People with big pools find a way to strike a balance so they almost never get too low, because getting low can be bad - like, having a breakdown in public bad.

People with chronic illness, or for whom going out in public is unpleasant or dangerous, or who have constant life struggles don't have that luxury. They're constantly running near empty; constantly having to make compromises.

You don't always know how much stamina you have left, but you can usually tell when you're about to run out. I tend to find myself becoming unfocused and irritable, or craving junk food. But most people who have to deal with chronically low stamina have coping mechanisms - they comfort-eat, they retreat from social situations, they allow themselves to drop a few sustained abilities and buy that little bit of extra juice to get themselves through the rest of the day. But this makes them less productive and less fun to be around (if they're around at all) so there's a social and economic cost to it.

Because gods forbid you that don't notice you're getting low; that you actually get to zero. That's panic attack, emotional outburst, crying in public, making-a-total-scene territory right there. And yeah sometimes you get to that place (or close to it) without realizing it and all of a sudden you're all in Emergency Shutdown Mode trying to keep from just completely losing it.


Accommodating people with chronically low stamina

The biggest takeaways from this whole thing, I think, are that (a) some people just have a smaller reservoir of energy available, (b) it's often due to external factors beyond their control, and (c) some of them have built up coping mechanisms to deal with it. It doesn't mean they're weak-willed (often they'll have built up very big stamina bars or fast regeneration just to be able to function!) or bad people, just that they've got other shit draining them and have to let something go. Maybe they smoke or overeat as a coping mechanism. Maybe they're angry because they're constantly dealing with microagressions and don't have the energy to let yours just roll off. Maybe they don't want to hang out or aren't very good company because they're emotionally exhausted and literally can't muster it.

The best things you can do for people in this situation are:

  • Don't judge
  • Offer support even if they don't ask for it; sometimes asking can be difficult
  • ... but leave them alone if that's what they need
  • Understand if they're hurting - don't take things personally; be as charitable as you can
  • If they're using up too much of your own stamina bar, it's okay to back off; remember that you don't owe anyone your time or energy