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The Dirty Secret of 10x Engineers

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There is a mantra in the startup world - “we only hire 10x engineers”. This is exactly the arrogant, bullshit attitude that turns your company into a fear-driven, political and unproductive place to work. Nobody is consistently a 10x engineer. Here is why:

If someone constantly works at a rate 10 times more productive than the average engineer, this person is an expert who has stopped challenging himself. This could be due to a variety of reasons, but trust me, the smartest engineers got there by constantly challenging themselves and learning new stuff.

In flow theory, the “flow state” is when the right amount of expertise and right amount of challenge intersect. This is a rare occurrence when you are productive at your highest potential. This is your “10x” state. Everyone can have this 10x state. (for more, read this post by Jeff Dickey)

However, almost by default, you are rarely in the flow state when you are working at a startup. Startups work on problems that have not been solved, and they are usually extremely challenging. You should have enough basic understanding in related topics to gain the expertise, but rarely do you already have the expertise. (Already having the expertise would mean you are working on the exact same problem as the one you solved before, and we have a much bigger problem here)

The mode of operation is usually something like this:

  • Hit your head against the wall for a few days
  • Search google, email friends, read papers / books
  • Prototype a few different solutions, realize they are all flawed
  • Cold email experts in the field (or get introduced by friends), set up coffee/skype meetings
  • Build new prototype with newly gained knowledge
  • Repeat

This process is filled with learning new tools, new terminologies and new ways of thinking. None of this qualifies for the prerequisite of operating at your 10x state.

Will you eventually learn all the things you need to learn to be productive? Of course. But that’s usually short-lived. You will get to be 10x when you are building the last prototype (which will grow into the real product). At this point you are so knowledgable in this particular topic that it takes you 10% of the time compare to the first prototype. This is your 10x state.

At this point, you realize the problem you solved is just one piece of the 3000 piece Seurat Sunday Afternoon Jigsaw Puzzle Now you have to move on to the next problem. And the seemingly never-ending death cycle of prototyping starts all over again. Oh by the way, you have to somehow magically align this effort with timeline on the business side, figure out a reasonable deployment strategy, manage your AWS instances, find time to see your boy/girlfriend, etc.

But there is a silver lining here. The more you go through this process, the better you get at navigating the unknown. You learn to use the right tools, you learn resources to look for, you meet other smart people, and most importantly, you learn to look at a unknown problem from an inventor’s eye. All of the experiences you’ve learned will increase your chances of entering your 10x state, and soon people will start calling you a 10x engineer. But you won’t let that get to your head, because now you know too much to know that you can’t possibly know it all.

So this is OUR mantra at Wildcard - “We hire ridiculously intelligent people and challenge them to constantly get better”. We are working on problems no one has solved, and we will constantly push ourselves to learn new things. May we never become 10x engineers.