Up Learn's take on the mythical 10x Engineer

10x Engineer Tweet

10x Engineer Tweet

Back in 2019, a startup investor tweeted that founders should aim to find 10X engineers as they significantly increase the chances of the startups’ success. He went on to provide traits of these engineers and how to find them, receiving a lot of backlash in return. The idea of the 10x engineer is quite exciting for tech writers and journalists. However, the industry in general does not believe that such engineers exist, firmly parking the idea into the category of myth. While there is truth to the idea - there are engineers who perform 10x than worst engineers - the general belief is that this is a result of some engineers being really poor rather than some engineers being a lot better than the average.

We at Up Learn hold the rather unpopular opinion that there are 10x engineers that contribute many times more than average engineers. This belief comes from a much deeper understanding of the role of a software engineer. Not convinced? Hear me out.

10x value addition does not mean 10x code

One of the first things I must clarify is that 10x value addition does not mean 10x the code. We aren’t talking about typing speeds here, but the ability of software engineers to create business value. It is possible for one to add value by deleting code, by adding tests, by refactoring, by redesigning, by thinking deeply about the architecture and making decisions that stand the test of time, by mentoring junior engineers, by doing code reviews, by writing documentation and many other ways. The role of a software engineer is to deliver business value through any of the above activities.

Software development is a social activity

The next insight that helps to think about 10x engineers is that software development is a social activity. It involves communication, coordination, and planning and not just writing code. So this is another avenue where a software engineer may excel. By having high quality communication and coordination, an engineer can save lots of wasted effort, missed edge cases, software design errors, and bugs. In addition, good planning can avoid errors in architecture that can cost (in terms of technical debt) in the future. Thus, a software engineer can provide business value by improving the social activities required for software development. Such improvements usually have a bigger impact than writing code faster as it impacts the whole team rather than an individual. And this leads me to the key insight behind our belief of existence of 10x engineers.

Increasing the output of the team is better than increase your own output

If a software engineer increases their own output to 2x through learning a new technology or changing a personal process, then that’s great. But it’s even better if they increase the output of the whole team by 20%. That will usually result in more overall output. This is the key insight - a 10x engineer improves their team’s output instead of just their own. A team’s output can be improved in a variety of ways:

  • Training and mentoring junior engineers
  • Improving development processes
  • Improving engineering practices like TDD, Pair programming, Refactoring, etc. in the team
  • Improving communication within the team and among different teams
  • Automating away manual tasks the team needs to do

These are of course just a few examples, but if you reflect on things that your teammates have done that helped you, those are all examples of activities a 10x engineer does.

At Up Learn, we believe in Growth Mindset. Everyone in the team can be a 10x engineer (I see the contradiction here - let’s just say by average engineer we mean average engineer in the industry). To encourage 10x behaviour, we often acknowledge each other’s actions that helped us. Did someone do a detailed code review beyond expectation and helped you learn something new? Did someone pair with you to work through a difficult task? Did someone clean up all the old tickets on the product backlog? They are all signs of 10x behaviour which we encourage and complement. Our goal, thus, is to nurture our teammates into becoming 10x engineers through this encouragement and support.

This is why we believe in the existence of 10x engineers. And we hope to have more and more of them at Up Learn.