How to forget 10x engineers for the good of your team

Successful digital transformation requires much more than a single superstar developer. Instead of searching for 10x engineers, try these three strategies to improve your whole team's results
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In 1968, a team of researchers at the Association for Computing Machinery set out to quantify the performance of a group of developers at a Santa Monica company called System Development Corporation. After running the developers through a set of controlled, standardized tasks, the researchers found major discrepancies between the highest- and lowest-performing participants – namely, they found that the best developers could perform 10 times the work of their lower-performing peers.

The idea of the “10x engineer” – those iconoclastic, almost mythical developers who can do the work of 10 people – has been plaguing Silicon Valley ever since. But in the last few years, it seems like every company in every industry is doggedly on the hunt for their 10x engineer. With the immense pressure on companies around the world to innovate faster through software, they have been led to believe that hiring only the most efficient developers will give them a competitive edge to supercharge their digital transformation.

Unfortunately, this approach is misguided and may be just as outdated as the refrigerator-sized, vacuum-tubed computers that the ACM researchers used in 1968. Though careful hiring is absolutely necessary, successful digital transformation requires a lot more than a single superstar developer. Instead of searching for a 10x engineer, leaders should focus on making their entire company 10x. Here’s how to get started.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

1. Boost collaboration

Transitioning to a 10x company mindset begins with prioritizing cross-team collaboration.

Transitioning to a 10x company mindset begins with prioritizing cross-team collaboration. Pair developers with experts from all departments to pinpoint issues, identify creative solutions, and build serious applications to solve them. Even the most brilliant developers can benefit from the perspective of their company’s executives, business analysts, sales teams, and front-line workers – and vice versa.

Business leaders should strive to create a developer-led culture, where developers are fully integrated into the organization and are brought to the table with decision-makers from the outset of the company’s digital transformation journey.

[ Are your digital transformation metrics up to date? Read also: 10 digital transformation metrics to measure success in 2021. ]

2. Celebrate non-traditional backgrounds

Leaders also need to reframe the hiring process by opening the door to great developers who have taken non-traditional paths. For too long, business leaders have maintained a remarkably narrow view of the developers who can drive digital transformation. Some think that only a specific type of developer – highly-educated, young, pedigreed – will fit the bill. But those types of developers are not only in short supply, they’re also not necessarily the best choice to implement a successful digital transformation strategy. 

Differing backgrounds mean alternative points of view, which is the engine of creative problem-solving.

Great developers today have unique backgrounds, perspectives, and paths to entering the field. A company’s next great tech lead may have learned programming through online courses, community college classes, or a coding bootcamp, and they may have studied something other than computer science in college or (gasp) not gone to college at all. None of these factors exclude them from being a great developer. In fact, they may actually give them the edge in being the type of collaborative, holistic developer that can create software solutions that produce real results. Furthermore, differing backgrounds mean alternative points of view, which is the engine of creative problem-solving. Team diversity inevitably leads to better, more creative solutions.

[ Are you recruiting diverse teams ? Read also: How DBS Bank is improving gender diversity in technology. ]

3. Set talent up for success

One of the most insidious effects of the 10x engineer myth is that it pushes talented developers toward burnout and encourages employers to place a ridiculous amount of responsibility on small development teams without fully integrating them into their organization as a whole. It’s a dehumanizing view that implies business leaders can simply turn up the productivity knob on their development teams by hiring the right people instead of providing the resources and organizational support they need.

Practices and policies that enable speed, flexibility, and collaboration across disciplines are particularly essential for setting developer talent up for success. One example of this is how companies and IT departments prioritize tackling technical debt – a major financial and time constraint on development teams. Companies that have plans in place to confront the causes of technical debt remove this burden from developers and allow them to focus their talents on innovative solutions.

When business leaders develop a digital transformation strategy, it’s all too easy for them to become focused on recruiting remarkably productive employees – those ever-elusive 10x engineers – rather than thinking about the broader ways they can optimize the entire team for digital transformation.

And what of the vast majority of companies that are not even in a position to lure the elusive 10x engineer? Investing in the right practices, platforms, diverse teams, and collaborative approaches to problem-solving delivers far more productivity and creative, innovative solutions than betting the business on the 10x needle-in-the-haystack.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Barry Goffe
As the Senior Director of Platform Strategy at OutSystems, Barry Goffe leads the OutSystems team that develops guidance for its customers on how to extract the most value from the platform and identifies opportunities to expand the platform’s capabilities—ensuring it addresses customers’ most critical needs.