The dangerous myth of the 10x developer

A story about the most able developers, not only without a shred of evidence but is actually damaging to the whole industry

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When the original study (dating back to 1968) coined the term 10x. This Medium post is not about that original study (although it postulates the shaky foundation of the term)



The origin of the term

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The origin of the 10x developer ratio

The origin of the 10x developer comes from the table above. That is, in 1968 a study of 12 programmers compared the poorest and worst programmers in terms of debug hours and efficiency (in terms of CPU time, coding hours, program size and run time) for two leetcode — like problems.

The main technical issues with the study

Most studies agree that comparing performance in terms of productivity is tricky, and the difference between effectiveness and efficiency not immediately obvious.

Comparing with the norm

Of course this also does not control for the individual, and this time does not take into account the work performed. We would also need to control for the conditions the workers work in, rather than labelling them as inefficient. As we shall see, this is a damaging idea.

Why the study is dangerous

The brain the rewires itself

Why is it that developers often claim that you cannot become a 10x programmer, and it is due to some innate ability and you even have it or you don’t.

The idea that you cannot be trained in programming, that it is an innate ability prevents new entrants to the field. It promotes elitism and is without a shred of foundation, and is often used to punish workers perceived to be inferior.

The metric is damaging

The idea of this limited metric is damaging. It excludes team contribution.

Solving problems is not the same as debugging them

If these aren’t measured, how are any of the claims we have seen true?

Defenders of the 10x principle defend it with their experience

However, in this case that time your firm took a developer straight out of University and deleted your backend database isn’t really a study. You identified someone who needed support to be successful, and instead of training your firm gave him the ssh key and a desk.

Your experience can be valid, but is at best partial evidence.

The arrogance factor: The 10x principle is about the best outperforming the worst, and is some form of universal constant and cannot be changed

If you have an employee substantially better than the others and will not help others, they may be better outside your organisation. In fact it might be OK to have them as a short-term consultant but not as a member of your team.


Are you supported in learning new technologies?

At interview time are you memory tested rather than behaviourally tested?

Does your interviewer pass the A**hole test?

Is there a training budget?

If you believe that there are 10x programmers and some people are just better than others, to be honest you don’t need a manager. You just need to be a 10x programmer, and since you cannot learn to do this if you’re not one already you might be better to quit.

I don’t recommend this line of thinking, especially as some who say they are 10x programmers have a distorted view of their own work and productivity. But good luck to you.

If not, continue on the path of learning and development. Teamwork skills are important and you need to make sure that they are part of your overall offer as an employee. If not, we are living in a world where there will be vanishing small numbers of software developers in the future.

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