The original "x" was the worst developer and the "10x dev" was the best developer in comparison; on some metrics the best was 25x or 5x or 10x, so "10x" was chosen as a catch-all to indicate that there was an order-of magnitude difference.
Somehow in all the talk around the "10x dev" the "x" became morphed into the "average" or "mediocre" developer, which is just wrong.
The original study that found huge variations in individual programming productivity was conducted in the late 1960s by Sackman, Erikson, and Grant (1968). They studied professional programmers with an average of 7 years’ experience and found that the ratio of initial coding time between the best and worst programmers was about 20 to 1; the ratio of debugging times over 25 to 1; of program size 5 to 1; and of program execution speed about 10 to 1. They found no relationship between a programmer’s amount of experience and code quality or productivity.
Detailed examination of Sackman, Erickson, and Grant's findings shows some flaws in their methodology... However, even after accounting for the flaws, their data still shows more than a 10-fold difference between the best programmers and the worst.
In years since the original study, the general finding that "There are order-of-magnitude differences among programmers" has been confirmed by many other studies of professional programmers (Curtis 1981, Mills 1983, DeMarco and Lister 1985, Curtis et al. 1986, Card 1987, Boehm and Papaccio 1988, Valett and McGarry 1989, Boehm et al 2000)...
Augustine, N. R. 1979. "Augustine’s Laws and Major System Development Programs." Defense Systems Management Review: 50-76.
Boehm, Barry W., and Philip N. Papaccio. 1988. "Understanding and Controlling Software Costs." IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering SE-14, no. 10 (October): 1462-77.
Boehm, Barry, et al, 2000. Software Cost Estimation with Cocomo II, Boston, Mass.: Addison Wesley, 2000.
Boehm, Barry W., T. E. Gray, and T. Seewaldt. 1984. "Prototyping Versus Specifying: A Multiproject Experiment." IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering SE-10, no. 3 (May): 290-303. Also in Jones 1986b.
Card, David N. 1987. "A Software Technology Evaluation Program." Information and Software Technology 29, no. 6 (July/August): 291-300.
Curtis, Bill. 1981. "Substantiating Programmer Variability." Proceedings of the IEEE 69, no. 7: 846.
Curtis, Bill, et al. 1986. "Software Psychology: The Need for an Interdisciplinary Program." Proceedings of the IEEE 74, no. 8: 1092-1106.
DeMarco, Tom, and Timothy Lister. 1985. "Programmer Performance and the Effects of the Workplace." Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Software Engineering. Washington, D.C.: IEEE Computer Society Press, 268-72.
DeMarco, Tom and Timothy Lister, 1999. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, 2d Ed. New York: Dorset House, 1999.
Mills, Harlan D. 1983. Software Productivity. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown.
Sackman, H., W.J. Erikson, and E. E. Grant. 1968. "Exploratory Experimental Studies Comparing Online and Offline Programming Performance." Communications of the ACM 11, no. 1 (January): 3-11.
Valett, J., and F. E. McGarry. 1989. "A Summary of Software Measurement Experiences in the Software Engineering Laboratory." Journal of Systems and Software 9, no. 2 (February): 137-48.
Weinberg, Gerald M., and Edward L. Schulman. 1974. "Goals and Performance in Computer Programming." Human Factors 16, no. 1 (February): 70-77.
Thanks for bringing the footnotes. It makes my lapsed-academic heart so happy.
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