“10x engineers”: Stereotypes and research

July 14, 2019 · 5 min read

I was going to write about something else today, but it looks like everyone on Twitter is talking about “10x engineers” again.

Do 10x engineers exist? And what does the term even mean, anyway?

The topic sparks strong emotional reactions in people, because it touches deep ideological topics: whether some people are more talented than others, why that is (and whether it’s inherent or changeable), and how we should treat people if so. Thus the acrimonous fights on social media: On the one side, people say that 10x is a myth, that it’s all based on stereotypes, and that anyway aren’t there more important things like whether you can write documentation or mentor other engineers or just be a nice person? On the other side, people roll their eyes and say of course there are 10x engineers and anyone who doesn’t acknowledge this obvious fact has been blinded to reality by social justice propaganda or is a loser who doesn’t want to admit their own inferiority.

Let’s try to get real. And to start, let’s get empirical.

What to know about the research

The best explanation of the concept and its basis the article “Productivity Variations Among Developers and Teams: The Origin of 10x” by Steve McConnell. Here are the key things to know about “10x engineers”:

What I believe

Here’s what I think based not only on the research but on my own anecdotal experience and personal worldview:

So what?

What is the 10x debate actually about? The emotional impact of the question is its implication for how we hire, how we reward people, and how we treat individuals.

Here are my conclusions:

And there are no special tricks to “spot” a 10x engineer (despite the bizarre, ridiculous Twitter thread that sparked the current chatter). They aren’t fairies or leprechauns, and you can’t identify them by the color of their terminal, the wear on their keyboard, or any other arbitrary stereotypes.

My keyboard

My keyboard, after 6 years of use. I guess the only thing I do a lot is copy. I promise it’s not ALWAYS from Stack Overflow.

These days I do most of my writing at The Roots of Progress. If you liked this essay, check out my other work there.


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