10x Engineer – The Root Cause

10x Engineer
10x Engineer

What is the root cause of a 10x engineer? It is questioned whether “10x Engineers” are mythical creatures that exist only in our imagination or are real but simply elusive. If elusive, how do we find them?

People in high growth and highly successful companies swear they have seen them. Having worked at various such companies, I absolutely believe they exist. As leaders, I believe one can find them, hire them, inspire them, develop them. Similarly, one can also take the wind out of their sails if we’re not careful. One objective of this blog is to look into various avenues to inspire, develop and leverage such people. In my experience in various startups including helping take a company from Pre-IPO to a $46B valuation, I witnessed multiple occurrences where 5 engineers outperformed 50 – so, I’m a believer.

There is talk about finding a 10x engineer, recognizing them and hiring them. There’s not much root cause analysis of what allows someone to become and remain a 10x engineer. What sets them apart and how did they become that way? Understanding that can help in developing and keeping them happy where they are. Once you have a unicorn, you certainly want to retain them. Also, it’s not really that someone is 10x “smarter” or “better.” They are 10x plus as impactful as others in how they apply their knowledge and abilities. They have the mindset and potential to have a 10x impact if provided with the right environment, processes, and support to allow it to come to bear.

Hence, it helps to understand how to find, hire, inspire those with the potential to be 10X-ers that will thrive in a world changing at an accelerating pace. Hiring and inspiring people capable of Human Transformation is particularly relevant in the age of Digital Transformation.

Bill Gates, Reed Hastings and Marty Cagan on the 10x Engineer

Reed Hastings - Netflix 10X Engineers - The Root Cause

A couple of years after I originally posted this, I came across Reed Hastings’ take on 10x Engineers in a CNBC article: Netflix CEO on paying sky-high salaries: ‘The best are easily 10 times better than average’

With a fixed amount of money for salaries and a project I needed to complete, I had a choice: Hire 10 to 25 average engineers, or hire one “rock-star” and pay significantly more than what I’d pay the others, if necessary.

Bill Gates said: “A great lathe operator commands several times the wages of an average lathe operator, but a great writer of software code is worth 10,000 times the price of an average software writer.”

Reed Hastings discovered: “Over the years, I’ve come to see that the best programmer doesn’t add 10 times the value. He or she adds more like a 100 times.”

In his book Empowered in Chapter 26: Competence and Character, Marty Cagan refers to the 10x employee. As quoted by Silicon Valley Product Group

“To be clear, there is most definitely such a thing as 10X employees.  
These are people that have demonstrated their ability to contribute on the order of 10X more than their peers.  However, it’s also no secret that having a 10X employee does not necessarily translate into having 10X results.

10x Engineer Mindsets

10x Engineer Dweck.Mindset

During my hiatus into teaching, I learned  about Carol Dweck’s notion of learners possessing “fixed mindsets” or “growth mindsets.” Those with a fixed mindset believe we have an innate intelligence and set of skills. Whereas those with a growth mindset believe our intelligence and skills can be developed. If you’re endowed with certain intelligence and abilities, those more readily develop if you push beyond the challenges you meet. That are various differences between the two illustrated in the graphic below. What is key is understanding how to develop and foster the growth mindset.

Telling a child getting an A (or an engineer solving a tough problem) that they’re smart implies an innate intelligence. Remarking on the effort or approach creates a mindset encouraging taking on challenges and overcoming them. Saying someone hasn’t achieved something “yet” implies they can achieve it. People with growth mindsets thrive in uncertainty; they have a hunger for overcoming challenges and a high tolerance for risk. For them, failures are mere setbacks telling them they need to try a different approach. They welcome criticism as it helps them recognize they’re on the wrong path and allows them to course correct sooner. There is a wealth of information out there if you look for Carol Dweck and Growth Mindset…

Turning our Confidence Villains into our heroes converts Radical Candor into energy that makes us 10x-ers. See Also: How Microsoft Uses a Growth Mindset to Develop Leaders (Carol Dweck, Kathleen Hogan)

10x Companies and 10x Leaders

In his book, Great by Choice, Jim Collins also refers to 10x companies and 10x leaders:

We labeled our high-performing study cases with the moniker “10X” because they didn’t merely get by or just become successful. They truly thrived. Every 10X case beat its industry index by at least 10 times.”
We labeled our high-performing study cases with the moniker “10X” because they didn’t merely get by or just become successful. They truly thrived. Every 10X case beat its industry index by at least 10 times.” …
On the one hand, 10X-ers understand that they face continuous uncertainty and that they cannot control, and cannot accurately predict, significant aspects of the world around them. On the other hand, they reject the idea that forces outside their control or chance events will determine their results; they accept full responsibility for their own fate.

In his case studies, it is clear that 10x leaders are not only very conscious of how they choose their teams, but it also become how they role model for and inspire they teams to greatness to outperform other teams by 10x or more.

10x Engineer Risk Tolerance

10x-Engineer Female

While studying cultural diversity, I recognized that only a very small minority were born in Silicon Valley, and a disproportionate number come from other countries. The founding fathers left behind the safety and known world in Europe. They risked crossing the ocean into an unknown environment. They came willing to take risks and overcome challenges to attain something they didn’t have before. Often the immigrant leaves behind their home, family, friends and culture. They’re eager to conquer challenges in an unknown world to attain something more at the cost of what leave behind. This could also be a high-school graduate from Arkansas or West Virginia… These are entrepreneurs and pioneers arriving at new ideas and approaches, breaking new ground and creating great companies.

People with a high risk tolerance aren’t afraid of change. In fact, they often seek it out as a life without challenge would seem dull to them. They are drawn to a life composed of a series of paradigm shifts that evoke and require continuous human transformation These thrill-seekers may be ideally suited to thrive in the Age of Digital Transformation.

In Munich, we loved hiring engineers from East Germany. They were consistently very eager to succeed in a new and unknown world. Many had often undergone great risk and left behind family and friends to find something better for themselves. After the wall came down, the desire to hire people from the East faded. Many from the East no longer had to risk much to get there. They often weren’t used to jobs rewarding engagement and risk taking. The Berlin Wall had been a barrier to those faint of heart, much like the ocean to the pioneers. Once gone, coming from East Germany was no longer a valid differentiator to find ambitious risk takers.

10x Engineer Hiring

10x Engineer Male

Hiring 10x-ers, it’s key to recognize what sets them apart.  Take the candidate outside their comfort zone with structured questions. This allows various avenues and depths for the interviewer to go. You learn a great deal more than if you probe them for what knowledge they have. Candidates taken down a path beyond their existing knowledge need to collaborate with the interviewer. They need to first understand the problem and then explore possible solutions.

People with fixed mindsets quickly stall or give up when you take them down this path.  People with a growth mindset will derive energy from a new challenge. They’re able to grasp specifics of problems they’ve never seen before with a willingness to be vulnerable in potentially failing as they explore possible solutions. The ultimate question is if they are drained or energized by collaborating and exploring solutions. To get ahead, you need to solve problems others haven’t solved and/or to solve them in ways others haven’t solved them before. Hence, hire those eager to explore the unknown and learn and discover than to hire someone who knows existing answers to existing problems.

Other Perspectives on Hiring 10x-ers

Dan Slate, from Wealthfront asks: “What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from a peer and how have you used that lesson in your day-to-day life?” It shows a willingness to learn from others (rather than be threatened by them).

Similarly, in How to Hire for Growth Mindset With One Interview Question Jessica Tower uses a prompt: “tell me about a failure;” a question that I also like using.

Jeff Boss determines a growth mindset during the interview; it seems his questions could also be done by a coached recruiter during a phone screen: 5 Questions That Identify Growth-Minded Employees.

Jonathan Fulton former SVP Product & Engineering at Storyblocks suggests a process we also used at IMVU in 7 Steps to Hiring 10x Engineers, , . In the post-interview huddle, we required a champion for a candidate and allowed anyone to veto. I’d also go around the room asking each interviewer how they would feel if they would be the new-hire’s spin-up buddy. Engineers tend to be analytical in assessing others, but this question to accessed their intuition. Great hires were consistently ones people would want to buddy with.

I don’t entirely agree with Fulton’s closing statement that he pulled from Steve Jobs: “You know what’s interesting, you know who the best managers are? They’re the great individual contributors who never, ever want to be a manager but decide they have to be a manager because no one else is going to be able to do as good a job as them.” In my experience, the best managers are often started as the best engineers. Great managers also benefit from a 10x Mindset; however, great managers, like any 10x-er, love what they do no matter what it is. I have yet to meet a great manager that hates their job.

Keystone Developers

In Peter Seibel’s Let a thousand flowers bloom, then rip 999 of them outhe points out:

“The top tier of developers are far more than 10x more valuable than the average developer. Not because they produce 10x more lines of code, or “crush” 10x as many bugs or sprint points, but because they build. better. systems. Period.

One common scenario that Seibel suggests involving such “keystone” developers:

There’s a tiny team or a startup working on an ambitious product. Despite their limited resources they produce something of significant value and quality, something that normally would require a much vaster number of average developers working for much longer to achieve a similar result. This leads to runaway success.

Let a thousand flowers bloom, then rip 999 of them out

Hiring for a Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck speaks to hiring for the Growth Mindset as part of her talk The Growth Mindset at Google.

In my experience, a key contributing factor contributing to what makes a 10x individual may well be a 10x manager, teacher, coach or parent…

Here is my take on The Five Why’s Behind a Growth Mindset:

  1. Why can one 10x engineer be so much more productive than another?
    Because they approach problems differently.
  2. Why does a 10x engineer approach problems so differently?
    Because they have a fundamentally different Mindset.
  3. Why is it that they have a different Mindset?
    Because they come from an environment that fosters a different perspective and experienced the rewards that this mindset brings.
  4. Why is this environment so different leading to such a different outcome?
    Because they have been influenced by parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, teachers, mentors, role models, coaches, peers, and/or managers. People that help them recognize the values of not fearing failure, embracing challenges, and seeking to understand the unknown.Those that support their willingness to take risks, be inspired by others, persist in the face of setbacks, be open-minded to trying novel approaches. Supporters that help them learn from criticism, find lessons and inspiration from the successes of others.Ultimately it helps that they experience that this has helped them overcome challenges they may have previously seen as insurmountable.
  5. Why are these influencers so different from other people?
    Because they understand what has helped them succeed and are willing and able to invest in sharing these insights with others.

Happiness and the 10x Engineer

When I interview manager or director candidates, I ask them how they would differentiate an engineer they cannot find a way to help succeed and one they would love to clone. Some say they are smart or hard-working or highly skilled. If those are the answers, I like to ask: What do you think makes them that way? What is the root cause behind someone having all these qualities? More experience/insightful managers will offer passionate or motivated. Ultimately, people that love what they’re doing are more likely to work hard, learn, be engaged become skilled, … They have or develop a Growth Mindset or they are simply happy at whatever they do.

I listened to a Udemy course on management where an experienced manager stated “I’ve never seen anyone get fired that was happy in their job.” Comparatively, you may discover that resonates with your experience. The conclusion being that people that love their jobs will succeed and will be valued. I found some related research below.

Planting the seeds for 10x Engineers

As teachers, coaches, managers, parents, adults, humans, … we find ourselve in a unique position. We may plant a sense of confidence, potential, almost invincibility and sense of worthiness in those looking up to us. We can help them  appreciate that within them lies the ability to unlock potential they previously didn’t realize they possessed.

Studies have shown that employees, especially highly desirable engineers may join a company, but they leave a manager. The number one reason for leaving a job is the manager.

Google researched what makes the most effective and desirable managers that develop and retain the most effective engineers. They came up with:

Michelle Donovan speaks to How Google Makes 10x Managers

Eight Habits of a Highly Effective Google Manager:
1. Be a good coach
2. Empower your team and don’t micro-manage
3. Express interest in employees’ success and well-being
4. Be productive and results-oriented
5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team
6. Help your employees with career development
7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
8. Have key technical skills, so you can help advise the team.

Developing the 10x Engineer

Talent Code is a book where Daniel Coyle describes deep learning through short repetitions and feedback loops. His examples include repeated sources of top athletes and musicians. I have applied this approach in coaching sports and in business. As leaders, understanding how to apply the talent code can help us enable 10x talent to develop more quickly than through brute-force hard work.

Josh Waitzkin won his first National Chess Championship at age nine; later he became World Champion of Tai Chi Chuan. In The Art of Learning, Josh insists he wasn’t a prodigy and that we can all achieve these levels of accomplishment with the right approach.

The moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability, we will be brittle in the face of adversity.”- Josh Waitzkin

Are You Missing the Point?

If you read this hoping to learn how to get the most out of your employees, then you’re missing the point. When that’s your motivation, you’ll discover it’s hard to motivate those you lead. If you’re hoping to create the best environment for them to flourish, you may find yourself in a virtuous cycle.

How do I get the most out of my people
How do I help my people work at their natural best?

How do I get somebody to do something?
I hear this all the time?
I get this question,
How do I get the most out of my people?
How do I get the best out my people?

They’re not a towel.
You don’t wring them.
You don’t see how much you can get out of them.

How do I help my people work at their natural best?
That’s the right question, and it profoundly changes the answers you’ll come up simply by changing the question.

So, you might be coming up with all the right answers to all the wrong questions. That’s the problem.
How do I get the best out of my people?
Well, you can whip them; that’s works.
It works really well. Try it. It does; it does. Try it.
But, it’s not sustainable.
Teachers will become demoralized, they’ll quit.
Or, they’ll just become bad teachers.

Simon Sinek – Simon Sinek- Getting the most out of your team?

Does the 1/10th Engineer Exist?

Another way to look at whether 10x engineers exist is to consider if there are 1/10th engineers. Engineers that are one tenth as productive as others we’ve seen. I would argue this too is not only a real possibility, but I’ve discovered these as well. Often if you have a team or single engineer that is operating without motivation, with an extremely high interrupt level, within a poor environment or in code heavily laden with tech debt, or mismanaged, and/or constantly being asked to start something new before the previous work was completed, … Then it is easy to imagine them performing at 1/10th or even less of their potential, capacity or ability.

I believe for many of us, the 1/10th engineer is easier to imagine than a 10x engineer, and yet it all boils down to the same basics. If we do the inverse of filling our engineers’ sails with winds then we can take all the wind out of their sails. When we do that, we shouldn’t be surprised when that ship appears motionlessly adrift.

If, as leaders, we look for the root cause of a 1/10 engineer,
we may well find ourselves looking into the mirror.

A boat crew analogy of how, as leaders, we can create 1/10 engineers or 10x engineers – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin explain how leadership can directly effect the success of a team.

The above analogy from Jocko Willink and Leif Babin comes from their first book Extreme Ownership. Afterwards, they realized there were subtle yet critical nuances they had left out of that book which actually created poor leadership practices. So, they decided to write second book to speak to some of these critically important nuances:
The Dichotomy of Leadership
If you’ve only read that book, you missed the boat.

How a 10x-er Approaches the Job from Hell

I was presented this question in an Organizational Psychology course and was surprised how few leaders appreciated why a good employee would excel in what they believed to be the job from hell:

If you took your least productive employee and asked them to describe their dream job, and you took your most product employee and asked them to describe the job from hell.
If you then created both jobs and put the least productive employee into their dream job and the most productive employee in the job from hell, after two months in those jobs, who do you think would be more productive?

Akin to the Navy Seal exercise, it’s not about the challenge, but how someone chooses to approach it.

For the 10x-er, I’d expect them to define a very mundane job that isn’t challenging and possibly repetitive. Once put into that job, a 10x-ers will typically find a way to systematize or automate the task to make it happen more quickly with less effort to free time up for more challenging work. Doing this, rather than just doing the job is at the core of what makes a 10x-er a 10x-er. The automated/systematized task will often be completely 10x as fast as when done manually.

Similarly, consider that It’s very rare for someone who loved their job to be let go (Exceptions: Layoffs that are true Reductions in Force). The corollary is: It’s very rare for someone who hated their job to be promoted.



A 10X-er is “that rare person with outsized skills, an abnormally positive attitude, and lots of vision, balanced with enough humility to pivot when great advice comes along.  When great advice doesn’t come organically, the 10x-er solicits it, knowing where and how to look for feedback that will help most.  Deep curiosity and enthusiasm are always part of the 10x-er’s game-changing makeup.  10x-ers often work harder and smarter than everyone else in the room.  From their perspective, inefficiency is just a bug they’d love to squash.  They see a world filled with opportunities and can move on to the next available own when things don’t go their way.  They are fundamentally reasonable and willing to accept responsibility for their role in outcomes.  In essence, the 10x-er alone has the raw materials to go from very good to great to excellent to sublime and beyond.”

Michael Solomon and Rishon Blumberg in their book Game Changer: How To Be 10X In The Talent Economy,

Further they call out differences in leaders as follows:

We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us.
We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary.”

Paul G. Stoltz tells us in his book Put Your Mindset to Work

Ability to persevere begins with you, the individual. However, change is rarely easy. In fact, sometimes it is downright formidable.

Daniel Coyle premise in The Talent Code is that “Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown”.

Perspectives on Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset

References for Motivation/Happiness vs Productivity Correlation

10x Employees – Other Perspectives

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