Thursday, October 24, 2013

The 10x Engineer

Shanley attacks the "Myth" of the 10x Engineer in her blog.

 On the other hand, in Quora, there is an interesting discussion positing the existence of 100x and 1000x engineers.

Is this a myth?

One point Shanley makes is that:
There is no conclusive body of scientific research to suggest that the 10x engineer is in fact a real phenomenon, much less one that provides us with a deep and actionable understanding of the factors, conditions and stipulations of their existence. 
Make no mistake. I'm going to disagree with Shanley. But first, I'll partically agree. There is no scientific research to back up this notion, because controlling the variables is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Also, finding an objective measure of productivity is problematic.

That doesn't mean that the phenomenon is unreal. It means that science -- at present -- is unable to study it. There are plenty of things that fall outside of the purview of the Scientific Method of Experimentation, controlled variables, and double-blind-placebo-controlled systematic testing. Political behavior, for example, cannot be subjected to this, despite the misnomer of "Political Science."

However, as to the 10x engineer, I can cite plenty of anecdotal evidence: while recognizing that this is not scientific, nor an attempt to establish the fact scientifically. Using a concrete example to think about has a lot of positives advantages; keeping our ideas tied to reality being one of the most important!

At one client we had a Programmer/Analyst, Bill, we'll call him, who designed and wrote detailed specifications for approximately 60% of the modules to be developed. The remaining 40% were divvied up between the other 8 team members. And the complexity of the 60% was far in excess of anything found in the other 40%. Bill's were basically the crucial accounting and financials portion, while the rest were less important ancillary functions. Nice to have, but unessential. I got one of these areas -- how to monitor the Oil and Natural gas production relative to the lease provisions and actual cost of production.

That's pretty close to an order of magnitude more work being performed by Bill than by the rest of us. This was borne out by the programming staff who were ramped up on each team to code the final product. Bill's team was close to 20 or 25 (it's hard to specify exactly, because team size is not a constant value in most projects; they expand and contract).  The other teams all put together amounted to about the same.

That didn't mean that Bill was better than us. Yes, he was more productive. He got a whole lot more done than any of us. I didn't really envy him the position. He was the one who was always there late into the evening, while I went home to my wife. He was the one who had trouble getting away even for lunch, or a coffee break, while I headed out to Downtown Subscriptions for a premium Expresso.  But he was also recognized as indispensable to the project. At one point, his rate got increased above ours. But only about 10-15 % higher. Not enough to compensate him for the additional effort required, in my opinion. I don't think Bill was 10x better, whatever "better" means. He wasn't 10x more intelligent, either. But he was 10x more productive, there is 0 doubt.

But I didn't begrudge Bill his extra rate premium. I didn't resent him for the overtime hours. And I didn't envy the security he attained through his work. I merely reflected that with another such worker, the team would have been complete! Of course, it hadn't been possible to locate another such worker. And I don't know of any process or method for so doing. They seem to arise spontaneously. I can assure you that if I had interviewed Bill, I would never have guessed him to be a 10x outlier, in advance. I don't think Google would have selected him; I doubt he was very good at brain-busting puzzles. I don't think that having him write a spec at the white-board would have helped anyone spot the potential.

But Bill's accomplishment I celebrated and uphold to this day as spectacular, inspiring, and praise-worthy. Without it, the team would have needed another ten employees and the product would have been much worse, in accordance with the Cartesian Law that the more minds involved, the less the stamp of one clear integrating plan. [Cf. the Mediations] Why should Bill's accomplishment be denigrated, denied, or claimed to be mythical? The achievement was Herculean, heroic and Heroes should be rewarded.

In contrast, Shanley claims of the 10x Engineer, that:
It over-focuses on the role of the individual and individual contribution in success, reinforcing Silicon Valley’s tendency towards hero worship, elitism and destructive individualism while ignoring the context of situation and privilege.
This is bizarre. How can you possibly "over-focus" on individual contribution, when that is the basis for any collective accomplishment? What is wrong with worshiping Heroes for their accomplishments? What in the world has situation and privilege got to do with this? In the case I used above, "Bill," was in reality a minority and a woman, and hardly came from a privileged background. She was brought in at the beginning, just like everyone else, so there was no situation there. And she was told, "If the client doesn't like you, you're out of here, pronto!," as she related to me at one point. So, I'm sorry, I must have missed out from Shanley how I should not uphold the accomplishments of a minority female struggling against prejudice and stereotypes and yet producing an order of magnitude more work than anyone else on the project!

I'm sorry (OK, I'm not, but it sounds good, rhetorically) but ANY individual accomplishment an order of magnitude greater than the other team members is worthy of hero worship, worthy of considering that person an "elite," and far from destructive. In fact, it is pure inspiration for us to strive toward this as a goal. The more productive we are, the better our lives will be, and the better-off everyone will be.

So please, let's not have any more of this gratuitous attack on the "Lone Genius," or the "10x Engineer."  Let's recognize that there are amazing outliers. Let's celebrate them. Let's be encouraged to emulate them.

[part 2 may be read here.]

I Remain,


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