10x Engineers – The Root Cause

10x Engineer
10x Engineer

The “10x Engineer” has been discussed as to whether they are illusive creatures of our imagination or 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. 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. I’ve 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,” but that they have the mindset and potential to have a 10x impact if provided with the right environment, processes, etc.

Hence, it helps to understand how to find, hire, inspire those with the potential to be 10Xers 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.

10x Engineer Mindsets

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…

10x Engineer Dweck.Mindset

See Also: How Microsoft Uses a Growth Mindset to Develop Leaders (Carol Dweck, Kathleen Hogan)

10x Engineer Risk Tolerance

Studying cultural diversity, I came up with a theory on why there are so many brilliant minds in Silicon Valley. Only a very small minority were born here, 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 a completely new and 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 seeking 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 enagement and risk taking. The Berlin Wall had served as the 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 people willing to take risks.

10x Engineer Hiring

Hiring people more likely to be or become a 10x engineer, 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 pretty 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 have some skills in grasping the specifics of problems they’ve never seen before along with a willingness to be vulnerable in potentially failing as they explore possible solutions. The ultimate question after a serious of such interview sessions is if they are drained or energized by collaborating and exploring solutions with the interviewer. If your business is to get ahead of others, it will need to solve problems others haven’t solved and/or to solve them in ways others haven’t solved them before. So, it’s much better to hire someone eager to explore the unknown and learn and discover than to hire someone who knows existing answers to existing problems.

Dan Slate, from Wealthfront likes to ask: “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).

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

In How to Hire for Growth Mindset With One Interview Question Jessica Tower leverages the “tell me about a failure” question that I also like using.
I’ll hopefully soon finish my post on interviewing to dive deeper on this.

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, andseeking 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 themlearn from criticism, find lessons and inspiration from the successes of others.Ultimately it helps that theyexperience 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.

Earlier this year, 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.” Think about, you’ll probably 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:

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

Michelle Donovan also speaks to How Google Makes Managers Awesome and how that then results in awesome engineers:


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?

Perspectives on Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset

References for Happiness / Productivity Correlation

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