James Governor's Monkchips

Further thoughts on 10x engineers

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Muscle shoals sign

I have been thinking for a while about the myth and reality of the 10x engineer. My colleague Fintan wrote an excellent piece on the subject, with his take on the role and character of 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.”

One of my thoughts about the 10x is that there are indeed engineers that command a premium in building a technology and associated community. These are engineers that are also social leaders, that create movements, that others watch to take cues for where to go next. Engineers that communicate well are such an incredible asset – Stephen recently argued James Hamilton of AWS should be a balance sheet item – not just because of his engineering but his communication effectiveness.

“Every large organization has people who are energetic and communicate candidly and well. They also have individuals with deep expertise. It is not common for those categories to overlap, however. Businesses – particularly those competing with Amazon – need to try and identify and cultivate this type, because they’re critically important for reaching audiences that are otherwise hard to persuade.”

What is Adrian Cockcroft if not a 10000x engineer, given his outsize influence on tech culture? Or Eric Brewer at Google – how much is he worth, as an engineer and communicator? Scott Hanselman at Microsoft, what’s he worth? Or Scott Guthrie for that matter. What kind of impact does Dr Fei Fei Li make, running Google’s AI programs, given what an incredible story-teller she is? Jessie Frazelle, security leadership in the container space. John Allspaw, creating science around systems resilience. Kelsey Hightower, again in containers. Doug Crockford in Javascript. Bryan Cantrill (containers, OS), Camille Fournier (Zookeeper, technical management), Max Ogden (Javascript, DAT), Charity Majors (ops management, scaling Mongo).

These people are not just engineers but also tastemakers at scale. Talking to Jeffrey Hammond of Forrester Research last night he broadened this thinking out to other disciplines. Think of music, where the people that actually do the work are not always the ones leading the movements. Muscle Shoals, the Wall of Sound, Lou Reed. We shouldn’t forget that tech is a fashion business, with South of Market as Shibuya.

Last week I noticed a few selfies on my stream with Mark Imbriaco and Pivotal. I am a bit slow so it took me a while to realise Imbriaco had just joined Pivotal. Great hire. Imbriaco helped build the skills and stories that define the devops/site reliability engineering movement. I think the Pivotal case is instructive it has explicitly hired for technical communications leadership – see Andrew Clay Shafer, Bridget Kromhout, Michael Coté, Richard Seroter, Josh Long, Kenny Bastani.

There is a spectrum between coder and developer advocate. Of course technical communications leadership is not the same thing as technical leadership, but when they overlap it’s tremendously powerful. It’s a force multiplier.

That said, it’s always worth considering and celebrating the unsung heroes that quietly maintain the projects, do the work, just get on with it, without spending as much time explaining what they do. Let’s hear it for the maintainers!

Blogging vs Building. Communicating and or, doing the work.

I would love to know your thoughts, and if you have anyone you’d like to add to my list above of 10x people above.

[update: one of the things with blogging every day is that generally the need to publish overcomes the need to write the once and future piece you might like to. I woke up this morning, jetlagged at 5:30am and asked myself: what about the data? So we will be pulling together a data-driven follow up in the next week – I think it might be fun to scatterplot Github followers against Twitter followers, for example, and look for correlations. There are a few potential pivots on the Github side. One issue to consider is that some people are all about Deep focus to a single project, language or framework, whereas others take a more magpie approach and contribute in multiple areas.]


Amazon Web Services, Google, Microsoft and Pivotal are all clients.


  1. Totally agree that the idea of a 10x engineer should be seen more in the context of a line item than in pure technical ability. There are many great engineers who cannot communicate well (or choose not to have a social following). It does make me wonder whether the developer communities really grasp that fact though. Yes we should care about the maintainers, but as in the nascent Serverless community at present, the 10x people are not necessarily “the ones who code everything”, but they are more visionaries who “see what people could be coding” in the future. At least, that’s my experience of this space.

    10x engineers as purely coders don’t really exist I believe. Hiring people who can teach, train and share a tech vision of the future to a team/community is actually what makes someone 10x.

    1. Jeff Dean needs to be on your list. I’d probably also add DHH and Mike Olson.

      From a legacy perspective, you might put Adam Wiggens there, although he’s gone largely off the radar since Heroku.

  2. It’s the classic case of being a herder or part of a herd. I also think that “all codes” movement for better or worse via Agile probably buries some would be 10x from surfacing.

  3. I always liked Peter Seibel’s “How to be a 10x engineer: help ten other engineers be twice as good”, and I’d expect that a lot of doing that would be communication.

  4. Terminology is important here; 5 years ago when you spoke about a 10x engineer, you were talking about a rock star, with both the benefits and shall we say “pathologies” of rock star.

    This new new 10**?Developer is all about collaboration and communication; the antithesis of the “rock star”.


  5. […] Governor’s recent ‘Further thoughts on 10x engineers‘ explains quite clearly that communication is an essential part of (tech) leadership. […]

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