One of the greatest myths perpetuated in the software industry, particularly by recruiters, over the last number of years has been the idea of the 10X engineer. The idea that some rock-star or ninja can arrive into your team and will code his (and in the case of the self-described 10x engineer it is invariably a guy) way through everything you throw at them in an incredibly short time. A myth. A fallacy. And missing the real qualities of a truly great engineer.
Does the 10X engineer exist though? Yes, absolutely. I have had the privilege of working directly with several in my career, and the lesser privilege of working with several dozen who thought they were 10X engineers, and clearly were not. The 10X engineers I was lucky enough to work with are not, however, people who solely churn out tonnes of code.
When it comes to truly great engineers almost all the large technology companies have a role called distinguished engineer. I have had quite a few conversations around this subject over the last year, it is obviously something of interest to many people. Rather than looking at what allows someone to crank out code that ultimately someone else ends up maintaining, let’s look at some of the areas which came up in these discussions that help define what makes a makes a distinguished engineer.
Of all the attributes that go to make up a distinguished engineer, being the engineer that inspires and helps others is, to my mind, the single most important. A distinguished engineer is someone a team can build around for any project, a person who will spend time developing others and making them far better at their job then they were before.
But this is also a person that genuinely enjoys investing time in others, sharing their knowledge and seeing them develop and succeed. An engineer who is patient with others. An engineer who is optimistic, cheerful and always trying to bring teams along, even in their darkest moments.
A truly great engineer is humble, be it by recognising the work of those that have gone before them, or ensuring those that they are working with now are not just properly recognised for their contributions, but highlighted when possible.
They will always seek input from others, and try to be inclusive where possible in decision making. They will always share when they are learning, especially when they are learning from people around them. They also know when to take a decision, when to compromise and how to bring others on the journey with them.
Leadership & Responsibility
A distinguished engineer not only leads; they also take responsibility. A distinguished engineer will not throw any of his or her team under the proverbial bus to protect themselves, nor will the make technical decisions that involve a massive pay back later (technical debt) without explaining why and getting buy in and understanding for the decision.
Communications & Interpersonal Skills
As an industry communications are an area we collectively fail on. Repeatedly. A distinguished engineer can communicate with multiple audiences with relative ease. From talking at conferences to customer meetings and everything in between, a distinguished engineer can find the right pitch and tone. I say with relative ease as good communication skills are learned and practiced – they come naturally to very few people.
A distinguished engineer is also good with people on a one on one level. The have empathy and they listen – a lot. More importantly they can put themselves in another person’s shoes and understand where they are coming from. They can see when someone is having a bad day, and when someone is displaying toxic behaviour.
Project Management & The Big Picture
A crucial aspect of being a distinguished engineer is strong project management skills. This has many facets, but most crucially it involves being able to estimate the level of work involved effectively. Outside of a product engineering team there is generally an army of people working on other schedules – continuously answering ‘when will it be ready’ with ‘mañana’ is just not an answer other parts of a large company can work with.
While a distinguished engineer may lead several projects, they invariably are involved in many more. They also have an in-depth understanding of the overall strategy their company is adopting in at least a major section of its business, and know where the work their team fits into this. More importantly they can clearly articulate how their work fits into the overall strategy.
A distinguished engineer understands politics, be it organisational politics within a company or industry level politics at standards committees, open-source communities, foundations or other industry bodies.
They understand the levers to pull within these organisations to get things done, and are happy to guide others through political minefields. They often have soft power, and understand precisely how and when to use it.
A distinguished engineer will bring a relentless focus on delivering value for customers. They understand the customer need, and when it’s a new market they spend a lot of time trying to understand what the potential needs will be. They adjust course when necessary, and bring their team long with them.
Code comes last. It also comes first, but for the truly great engineers it comes last. It is a given that a distinguished engineer is extremely strong technically in their specific area. It is a given that they understand the architecture, the underlying concepts, the tooling, the quality assurance approaches. It is a given that they can delve into a new area and quickly come up to speed.
But technology does not define them, it is just the foundational layer for everything else they do.
This is far from an exhaustive list, but these eight areas have come up frequently in conversation. Currently within the technology industry there are people that are being held up in various companies and communities as being that 10X engineer based on code alone. 10X code – perhaps, but trust me if code is the only metric they can be measured on, they are not 10X engineers.
Credits: Engineering Hubris Strip from XKCD, shared under a CC 2.5 License