10x engineers or 10x impact?
Hiring 10x engineers is hard for most companies. It’s a tough battle out there for talent, sometimes an endless chase when every company on the planet (including FAANGs) is fighting for the same talent. In times of such tough competition in the hiring market where 10x engineers are high in demand and extremely short in supply, hiring 10x engineers can become a game of luck. So how should most companies approach building their team?
Why do we need 10x engineers
For 10x impact. That’s what we really care about. That 10x impact is the goal. Hiring is a way to get to that goal. Unfortunately, many companies who manage to hire 10x engineers often fail to retain them. They get their 10x impact in the short term but get stuck in the loop of chasing 10x talent over and over again because they have a leaky bucket of employee retention. And they don’t get lucky every time.
Eventually, failing to retain and hire 10x engineers leads to making compromises like adding more heads in the team to work on more things in parallel, hiding incompetencies by putting too much engineering process, and squeezing valuable time of CTOs because they have to jump back in to solve problems (CTOs should absolutely solve problems and get hands-on if necessary but should have the time and mind space to spend on other business problems as well).
What do 10x engineers need
10x engineers need a sense of purpose and an environment to thrive in to be able to create that 10x impact. Their sense of purpose drives them to do everything they do. Even without organisational support, they make things happen. But working without organisational support can go on only for so long as it can be taxing. Failure on leadership’s part to make it easy for your most talented engineers to function will lead to them burning out, eventually leading to their exit.
So to hire 10x engineers and to make them successful, you need to create a supportive environment where they can easily work and not feel dragged when they are trying to get anything done.
Create 10x impact
If 10x impact comes by having 10x engineers on the team, you want to turn that luck of hiring 10x engineers into a deterministic process that delivers results. But that’s still solving the problem by hiring and that’s not a fast process(more on this later). So how do we create 10x impact today?
The answer, unfortunately, does not involve getting results immediately. At best, you can improve results today and prepare for the long term. It’s not everything we desire but it is better to be certain of the future than leaving things to chance.
Things that come naturally to 10x engineers can be taught to other engineers by giving them the right environment, guidance and opportunities.
10x engineers demand (directly or indirectly) a great culture and work environment. A great environment and culture, even though demanded by 10x engineers, is good for everyone in the team. It creates the time and space for engineers to learn the skills to solve tough problems. So a baseline requirement to create 10x impact is having a supportive environment where it is easy for engineers of any skill level to learn and solve problems.
The first step to creating an environment where high impact work can happen is, well, acknowledging that there is high impact work to be done. 10x engineers can naturally identify the kind of work that they must do that leads to high impact. In their absence, identification of such opportunities still needs to happen. CTO or whoever is the best person in the team today should prioritise identifying such projects that can lead to high impact.
The second step is to create structures that make it possible to systematically work on these high impact projects. Given the time and clear mandate to solve high impact problems, any engineer can execute. They will probably take longer but they can get there. That is a much better situation than not having anything happen and just waiting for 10x engineers to join your team. Although, making such structures and investments requires alignment with the rest of the organisation, which can be achieved if you can prove that your high impact projects remove big bottlenecks.
There are several benefits to this approach. The immediate benefit is that you have made progress instead of just waiting for new engineers to join. The long term benefit is that you have systematically started providing exposure to your existing engineers to train them on identifying and solving high-impact problems. Many companies that have abundance of 10x engineers did not always have 10x engineers. In fact, they systematically made it possible for engineers, who wanted to create an impact, to do high impact work and prime themselves to do more of it in the future.
An approach that I particularly like is to set explicit expectation of senior engineers to identify and deliver high impact projects that act as force multipliers for their teams. This kind of work can include things like driving adoption of new practices, improving ways of working, adopting new technologies, fixing teething system issues that comes in the way of shipping, etc. Setting explicit expectations upfront helps engineers identify their purpose in the organisation and work towards that expectation.
Building a 10x team
So create an environment for 10x impact work to happen. Acknowledge that there is high impact work that needs to be done, and then create the time and space for engineers to do that kind of work, even if they are not 10x engineers. With time, they will get there. Even if they become 5x engineers (if that’s a thing), that’s a much better place.
All said and done, you should still keep looking for those 10x engineers. That should never really stop. But being able to create a healthy environment will help you grow your engineers to be able to continuously do high impact work. This will also help your 10x hires be successful when they join. In fact, this can also become the reason why 10x engineers will want to join your team.