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What makes a 10x engineer?

Cover image by Cbaile19, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

I know the fashionable take is that there's no such thing as a 10x engineer. And I'll agree that the idea from very early in the history of the software industry, the idea that one developer could literally do the coding work of ten of her colleagues, was probably never true and certainly isn't true now.

Can you code ten times better than someone else? Yes, a baby. You can code ten times better than a newborn baby. Congratulations.

But I do think there's such a thing as a 10x engineer because I believe there are people who make their team ten times better.

Be it through mentorship, documentation, or making sure everyone starts standups on time, I'm curious what you think makes a truly valuable team member.

So what does make a 10x engineer?

Discussion (2)

juandiegopalomino profile image
Juan Diego Palomino

When it comes to an employee developing a product, I believe that their impact to a company can be categorized into 3 different section: the direct contribution to the product, the efficiency of their team, and the vision development. You can see how this segregation splits nicely between the "expected" purpose of the individual contributors, lower management, and upper management. Having said that these are merely human-made conventions -- people like to stick to their intended roles, but there should be nothing prohibiting them from contributing in the other forms if need be.

A 10x engineer is an individual whose technical skill, communication capability, and product understanding allows them to contribute on all of these sections simultaneously; and in doing so delivering a contribution greater than the sum of their parts. It's not just about writing good code, it's writing code with product foresight that will make it a beloved staple 2 years and 10 product iterations down the line. It's not just putting the right people on the right jobs, but inspiring them with the product vision. It's not just pitching a great idea from left field, but selling it to your team and implementing it. It's not just about carrying the team, but helping them to be the best version of themselves that they can be.

"10x engineer" is a misnomer as it is neither related to the quantity of the work done, nor the individual contributor aspect. It's about being the team player and leader that makes the whole team 10x.

jcolag profile image
John Colagioia (he/him)

The more I think about the "10x" idea, the less I'm sure that there's a legitimate answer that isn't an ultra-capitalist delusion. On the one hand, you have a Chosen One narrative, that employers merely need to locate the one elite worker, who will happily put in extra hours for free. On the other, you have the idea that individual workers don't matter, as long as the elite leader--teacher or manager, formal or informal--is there to guide the benighted laborers.

Is that reductive? Maybe. Is it a distortion? Probably not, since we're talking about a term used to discuss productivity to multi-billion dollar, multi-national corporations.

There's maybe one exception where I'd be comfortable using the term, but it's unsatisfying, since none of us gets to feel special: Modern tooling makes us all far more effective at our jobs. I can't put a number on it, but the libraries, frameworks, error checkers, and even coordination tools available now make it much faster and easier to create and deploy an equivalent project twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, or sixty years ago.

That is, even a mediocre programmer today is (on average, assuming that they use the tools available) going to get things done faster and more reliably than even small teams working twenty years ago. Most of us--assuming that we planned out the necessary features ahead of time--could probably kick out a basic centralized social networking site in a weekend on our own. But that definitely wasn't the case in 1996, when the first sites launched. If that's not ten times, then we're all definitely working ten times faster than even the best developers writing mainframe applications in the 1970s...

So, maybe the answer to the specific question is that communities, building and improving tools and code over decades, are what make 10x developers.