Less 10x Engineers, More 10x Environments

The Myth of 10x Engineers

The idea that there exists 10x software engineers in the wild is quite persistent in the tech industry. It regularly comes around, and is either supported or ridiculed with similar fervor. It even reached meme level after the following thread was posted on Twitter:

A lot has been said either for or against the very existence of 10x engineers, so I won't spend too much time going over divergent arguments.

As in every field, some people do perform better than others. The idea that there is a significant disparity in productivity between software engineers comes from decades old studies. Those disparities also seem to between the worst and the best engineers participating in those studies. Extrapolating from those studies that there exists engineers that are 10x more productive than the average is a bit of a mental gymnastic. We can also argue about the validity of these studies, as the field of software engineering has evolved tremendously since then, but even recent studies have found disparities in productivity, albeit less significant than "10x".

The interpretation of studies on software engineers productivity is not the only point of contention. The very definition of what a 10x software engineer is or does is marred with conflicting views. Are we talking about 10x the output? Maybe 10x the value to a business? Are those people just typing 10x faster? Are they earning 10x the average salary? Is it enough to change my terminal color to a dark color to qualify?

Why looking for 10x engineers might not work out?

As you can see, we can spend all day nitpicking a loose definition of an even looser concept, but it might be more interesting to root the discussion on more down-to-earth topics. Let's assume that there exists 10x software engineers however you want to define them. Those people are out there, and of course, as a savvy leader, you want to recruit them on your team!

Clearly, every team and every company is hiring the top X% of the software engineers on the market, which should be the 10x (or close to 10x) engineers. But if everyone is hiring the top X%, then probably nobody is. Another interesting perspective is to look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself why such an accomplished person as a 10x software engineer would want to work for you. In practical terms, there aren't enough 10x software engineers on the market, because by definition they are only a small percentage of the overall population, and even if you were to cross paths with them, they probably have bigger ambitions.

Which brings us the next logical point: do you even need a 10x engineer? Unless you are trying to send people to Mars, or solving climate change in a global scale, or tweaking quantum computers, the truth is that you probably don't need a 10x engineer. If your project needs a 10x software engineer, don't worry, they will find you!

Create 10x environments instead!

Instead of wasting time arguing and chasing the mythical 10x software engineer, create 10x environments and grow the people in your team!

I have myself been described at points in my career as a "10x engineer", while I was barely reaching the bar at other points in my career. I deeply believe that people put in the right environment can achieve great things. A "10x environment" is probably a sine qua none condition for attracting and retaining 10x engineers anyway! What that might look like is fairly dependent on your team structure, the culture of your company, the markup of the team, and a lot of unique aspects regarding the people and the context surrounding your team.

Yet, at a minimum, ensure that your team feels psychologically safe. Truly listen to the needs of all your team members and genuinely care about their well-being and their personal and professional growth. Praise and value each member of the team, and be open to coaching them when they face challenges. Provide them with the tools to succeed, and that success will translate to a higher productivity, output, lines of code, or whatever the bar is to be a "10x" in your books.

A motivated team is the true and only key to unlocking "10x" whatever!

Antonio Villagra De La Cruz

Antonio Villagra De La Cruz

Multicultural software engineer passionate about building products that empower people.