How to Find 10X Engineers
Or how companies have managed to screw up team culture
I often get asked where to find the best developers. After all, in my work supporting developer communities, I come across 10X Engineers all the time. Well, after much research, a half million miles of air travel, and enough cold brew to fill the Gulf of Oman, I have found their secret hideout!
Well OK, maybe it’s not that easy. What can we say about 10X Engineers? What do they look like and how do they operate? Well, this weekend Shekhar Kirani lent the gift of his immense experience and insight as to what to look out for:
For those not inclined to read through his tweets, allow me to provide an abridged version of Kirani’s Bible of 10X Engineers. They do not like meetings, regular schedules, documentation, hacky code, mentoring or helping other mere earthlings, and job hunting. They know all the code as they are fullstack and can summon it magically from their minds in mere hours.
As thorough as Shekhar is, even he cannot fully grasp all the ways of 10X Engineers. Luckily Mike Conley is here to fill in some of the gaps for us:
A 10x engineer is usually levitating, and farting out 1’s and 0’s as they whiteboard a proof that P=NP. They stopped sleeping before they were born. They are usually typing on two keyboards simultaneously.
We are told to “celebrate” 10X Engineers. We must hold on to them at any cost, even if they make life difficult for others. What Shekhar describes though sounds a lot like maladjusted jerks with god complexes. He attempted to defend his views against those offended by his hot take, which Jessica Alter was having none of:
The past decade has seen the rise of the mythic 10X Engineer. Perpetuated by Silicon Valley tech machine and the rapid ascent of nerd wunderkinds like Mark Zuckerberg, we are told that 10X Engineers fit a particular archetype. What it translates into however is a monoculture that looks mostly male & white, socially awkward and is a pain to work with. Because they are geniuses however, we mortals are simply supposed to accept these negatives in order to achieve success at all cost.
This is the new expectation in hiring top engineers It’s reflected in job descriptions. It’s evident in the rise of “bro culture”. People that do not fit the archetype get passed over for jobs, feel isolated at work, and eventually leave the company or industry altogether, further exasperating the diversity gap in software engineering. To be clear, I blame the people creating the culture, not the people that are victims of the culture.
This in turn leads to a toxic culture exhibited in many startups as well as within enterprise engineering teams. There is evidence that shows even one toxic employee leads to negative financial impact in lost productivity, lower customer service, and attrition. This has led some teams to fire their top talent rather than continue to suffer the emotional turmoil.
The reality of modern software development is that the best products come from the best teams. It is not the efforts of a lone code slinger heroically saving the day. That was one key point in the Gene Kim’s book, The Phoenix Project, where one lead engineer was seemingly involved in every line of code and system, creating havoc for the delivery team.
Do 10X Engineers exist? There will always be people that have both high aptitude and passion for their chosen endeavor. Much like top athletes or famous musicians, their talents seem so far out of reach of average people. Talent does not come magically though, it is the kernel of innate ability that is nurtured, refined and honed after much experience, numerous failures, and continuous iteration.
The 10X Engineers I have met in my developer advocacy work however are the opposite of anti-social, arrogant, insufferable jackasses. They are some of the most active contributors to open source, happy to help others in need, and are wonderful to work with. You could arguably say sites like Stack Overflow are successful because 10X Engineers answer many of the questions.
The better perspective to take on the 10X Engineer debate is to instead look for 10X moments to boost your existing team. Hiring the very top talent is both expensive and difficult, if you can even find these folks. If you invest in the talent you already have and give them the work environment and tools in a positive, developer-friendly culture, you will see 10X results.
This is even more critical at this moment because there is simply not enough talent for all the work needed. The App Association estimated that there were 223,054 job openings last year in the US alone, Instead of focusing on 10X Engineers, companies would be better served making their engineer openings more welcoming to women and under-represented minorities that tends to get overlooked and under-recruited for technical roles.
If you are looking for top developer talent, we could do better than the advice of an out-of-touch VC. Instead listen to people and organizations whose mission is focused on serving the needs of developers and supporting communities built to advance education and opportunities for developers.
But if you really need a 10X Engineer, may I suggest this guy that Jeff Atwood knows:
Do you work with 10X developers in your organization? Does your team have a developer-centric and inclusive culture that fosters 10X team results?
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