To Be a 10x Engineer, or Not to Be

By Maish Saidel-Keesing, IOD Expert
I am sure you are all familiar with those select few in your company who supposedly have super powers or hidden technological gifts.
Yes, I mean those co-workers who know exactly how to fix the most esoteric issues that no one has come across, ever. Perhaps you share a cubicle with the guy who’s able to conceive of breakthroughs time after time after time. Or maybe you were hired the same month as the woman who can code like no one has coded before, and it’s like reading poetry — smooth, with meaning, and plays on your most inner emotions. Or you’re the manager who hired the weird dude that sits in the basement, who can be woken up at 2:43 am on a Sunday morning after partying endless hours the night before, and still be able to drone off the precise sequence of events that you need in order to prevent your production NoSQL database from exploding … because someone forgot to run maintenance.
These are the few I am talking about–the 10x Engineers (10x because HR and others in the company think that that they are worth 10 times the average employee or they can do the work of 10.)
Otherwise known as “the rockstar,” “the Iluy,” “the unicorn.”

But the 10x Engineer May Put You at Risk

It’s great when your wunderkind is able to swoop in from above and save the day from events you didn’t even know were happening … events you don’t anyone to find out happened.
But when your magical wizard is not around, and no one other than he knows how the system works, or how all the pieces fit together in the puzzle, what will you do? When your 10x Engineer is completely off the grid — she’s in labor, he’s deathly ill — and won’t even answer the phone, but no one else can avert the DDOS attack your site is currently experiencing because they have no idea what to do? These are the times you wish that this magician was not the only one who understood the innards of your system.

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When your 10x Engineer is the only one who can handle hiccups or a disaster, they become a bottleneck, a huge bottleneck in your organization’s productivity: nothing can get done without him. Not only is this a risk for the entire company, but it’s also a risk for the 10x Engineer, him or herself.
He becomes overworked, pressured to finish too many things at the same time, constantly juggling between tasks and priorities, because everything is important for this go-to employee, everything is urgent. Relying only on the 10x Engineer to solve all your problems can also lead to antagonism within the organization. Others will or perceive they will have a more difficult time advancing in the organization because there is a single person everyone turns to. You keep your 10x Engineer happy, of course, and well-compensated and this may make the rest of the team members “less happy” with what they receive.
New projects are put on hold because you need your 10x Engineer in the planning meetings, and as was said above, they do not have time for planning meetings.
New technologies are put on hold because the spaghetti code that the 10x Engineer wrote and maintained over the years, the code they are the only ones who will ever be able to understand, is not well-documented. (No one else but the 10x Engineer ever needed to understand it until now).
In short, the downside to the 10x Engineer for the greater organization is that it can lead to burnout, stress, and poor morale.

Another Way

I was once a 10x Engineer. It was not such a great experience for me. I was constantly on call, and constantly worrying about the health of the systems I managed. I had four children: three of my own human kids, plus work, all the projects and products that had to be nurtured, minded, and cared for. There was no real seperation of life and work for me at that time. It was all one jumbled bunch of responsibility, 24/7.
I assure you it is not something that you should or can live with for extended periods of time.
Only when I taught myself to delegate responsibility (even if things took longer as a result) did I take back control of my life. In the process, I helped others to advance, which led to a healthier, more productive team, and a better product.
Hiring a 10x engineer can do wonders for your company, but will only take you to a certain level. I am happy to work with them, but honestly I would prefer to have two 5x engineers over one 10x.
I’d prefer two engineers who share their knowledge with each other, build each other, can cover for each other when one is on a vacation in a rural rainforest in South America (without a phone or a laptop). Two engineers who can share the burden, too, and work together to build a better and healthier team and a healthier organization. And, engineers who cover each other’s weaknesses prevent the organization from being subject to a single point of failure.
This is the path I would choose each and every time, and the path that I try to lay forward for myself, for the people that I add to my team.

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