Tag Archives: Business

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 engineering vs. the sales mindset, or "how to avoid impostor syndrome"

One time at a place I worked our CEO brought together all of the software developers and gave us a presentation to help us better understand the other side of the business.

"Engineers," he said, "care about the truth.  Engineers want to know their product is perfect; they want to know it's better than the competition's; that it's bug-free and feature-rich.  Engineers are perfectionists - they're willing to put in extra hours to fix a bug that only they know about and that will never affect a customer, or to complete a feature that will never actually land us a sale.

"Salespeople," he continued, "don't give a damn about the truth.  Don't get me wrong - they don't want to lie. Lying to customers is bad for business. It's just that facts aren't interesting. Stories sell. Value sells. Relationships sell. Salespeople want the story; the angle that will get our product in the door and get us a contract.

"Salespeople don't care about perfection. They're selling imperfect, buggy software, because all software is imperfect and buggy, and they've got no control over that. Most of their leads are dead-ends. Verbal agreements and offers fall through all the time. Salespeople are coin-operated. They want to know what the return on their investment of time and energy is. They'll work overtime - they work a ton of overtime - but only if they think there's something in it for them. And when a sale falls through, they don't take it personally - they get up the next morning and do it again."

I'm not telling you this story because I think you should think like a salesperson all the time. Not everyone is cut out for it - I'm certainly not!  But there is certainly something to learn from the sales mindset, especially for us creative types who tend to be self-critical and constantly question our own success.

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