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Does Your Software Development Team Need a 10x Engineer?

10x engineer

In a dark room, a hacker who is definitely a “10x engineer” hunches over their computer screen. They’re typing so fast that you might wonder if they hold a Guinness World Record for it.

After a few seconds, they punch the air — “I’m in!” they exclaim, as if there’s a direct correlation between typing speed and someone’s ability to crack the government’s (or sometimes an alien’s) network security.

It’s a trope from countless movies and TV shows. But it’s a cliché in real life, too. Talk to any startup founder, and you’ll often hear about how the CTO or first tech lead they hired was one of these coveted “10x engineers.” Sometimes, they’ll boast their entire dev team is comprised of them.

What makes someone a 10x engineer?

How good is a 10x engineer versus a “regular” engineer? If I were to make an analogy, I’d say it’s a lot like the viral video of three professional soccer players versus 100 kids (the kids lose).

Despite what you might read elsewhere, 10x software engineers or “rockstar programmers” aren’t myths. They do exist, and, sometimes, they can outperform 100 other developers.

Steve Wozniak, in the early days of Apple, might be one example of a 10x engineer. 10x engineers tend to always put in the “extra hour” and see “the big picture.” Maybe they have 20 years of experience as a principal engineer, or maybe they just write code and solve problems like they do. Whatever the source of their talent or knowledge, they can be transformative for your team and, more than that, your whole company.

But the counterargument goes something like this: team players are more important than any one talented person (and usually that person is a prima-donna anyway). In fact, some argue that 10x engineers might hurt most teams more than they help because they take on so much it makes the rest of the team lazy or, worse, resentful. A 10x engineer, they say, is more susceptible to burnout and boredom. They’re more likely to be poached and leave with all of that institutional knowledge everyone else has poured into them.

So, should you hire 10x engineers? Should you try to build a team of them?

Software development is NOT a team sport — but it’s not an individual sport either.

In most sports, you practice all year only to perform just a few times. Software development, on the other hand, is an always-on game. The competition and the practice are the same thing. And the rules are always changing.

Each day has the potential to introduce an entirely new set of dynamics based on a new project, a new customer, or a new hire. For one sprint, a developer might work mostly by themselves. For another, they might need to lead a whole team.

Software development is NOT a one-skill activity.

Knowledge economy professions like software development require multiple skills. A practitioner can’t be adept at software development without continuous learning and improvement.

But nobody, not even a 10x engineer, can be “10x” at everything. No one person alone has all the skills a successful software development team needs. The industry is too dynamic, too changing. There are no 10x engineers that remain 10x engineers for years on end.

Should you hire a 10x engineer?

By all means — hire Steve Wozniak if he’s looking for a job, but for your organization’s long-term health and success, a 10x culture is better than a 10x individual.

Staff your team with engineers who can complement each other and elevate each other’s best traits. Hire the developer with 10x the energy or project management know-how who can motivate the developer with 10x the problem-solving capabilities or technical skills.

In other words, don’t overlook someone with a 10x trait because they don’t have 10x everything else.

That’s how you build a strong, sustainable 10x team, from entry-level engineers to senior engineers to the C-suite itself.

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