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What Does A 10x Developer Even Mean?

I first heard the term “10x developer” a decade ago. My initial reaction to the term was confusion.

What does that even mean? That one person types code 10x faster than another person? Or completes 10x more JIRA tickets?

Photo by Jon Tyson

And if you’re using a descriptor of 10x, who is the base? How are you calculating what someone is being 10x of?

At the same time, some developers provide an outsized amount of value and it’s obvious to everyone.

My first job out of college was on a project that was a complete mess. The entire original dev team had left, with maybe a 2 week overlap to the new lead developer.

The project was not all in source control. In fact it was distributed on five different computers, one of which was a dinky old laptop that was years old and on its last legs.

The code base required concurrency at a fundamental level, yet it was clear that none of the original developers knew how to properly use Java threads.

Fun fact: I spent 3 weeks rewriting two 1500 line functions that had a race condition buried in.

I have a pretty healthy opinion of my abilities, but I was no where near good enough to right this ship back then. It require way more experience than my internships and coursework provided.

The lead developer had that experience. He knew how to set the priorities, how to reverse engineer some of the work, knew which parts could be fixed, and most importantly knew which parts had to be completely rewritten.

This was a live product by the way. Customers were using it. They were often angry (inconsistent behavior from race conditions tends to do that). While we provided patches for a fix here or there, those customers really needed a functional product with a reasonable code base. With our lead dev, we had that in less than 12 months.

Without him, we would have been patching fixes forever. Our customers would have eventually abandoned our product for our competitors. We certainly wouldn’t have acquired new ones.

What value would you put on that? It certainly sounds more than 10x to me.

In fact it sounds almost impossible to measure accurately. The problem with the “10x developer” is that we are using a number as part of the description because numbers are easy to understand. However, the number doesn’t mean anything here so we are not getting an accurate description.

Are there better ways to describe developers with this level of expertise and decision making? I’d say job titles are a mechanism we already have to do so, but some companies like to hand out titles like candy.

That leads to another question though: do we even need a new term here? Does it provide us any value? Can’t we just say “That developer is really good!” instead of making up buzzwords?

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