The 10x Programmer Problem

by | Software Development

There’s a popular technical phrase that seems to be bandied about lately, especially from technical recruiters and folks from Human Resources departments of many organizations. The “10x Programmer”.

Or “Rockstar Ninja Programmer”.

Or “Super Teenage Ninja Turt-“ … well, you get the gist.

What these terms imply is the notion that there are two major classifications of software programmers.

One classification is where the majority of software programmers belong. They’re the ones that come to work, determine what’s on their current backlog of work activities and tasks, and go about implementing those tasks with the help of their technical and business domain knowledge, experience and expertise.

Day in, and day out, this majority classification of programmers grinds it out, day after day.

There’s no fireworks or flashy hacking going on. At least, not like the typical Hollywood hacker scenes you see in so many movies these days. Everyone knows what I’m talking about … the sound of “clickity-clackity” keyboard keys as the hacker furiously pounds on the keyboard, the visual fireworks-like display of flashy colors and graphics the movie audience sees on the programmer’s display monitors, and most of all, the fact that the computer hacker ALWAYS gets their code right the first time. (If only this were true in real life!)

What regular programmers do is figure out what kinds of business requirements are involved in the project they’ve been assigned, and based on those requirements, start implementing them through the act of writing computer source code in the computer. Quietly, and without any flash.

I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, I belong in this category classification of software programmers (and I’m quite happy and content to be in this category as well)

I get paid to use my technical knowledge and expertise in implementing the business requirements of an organization, with the goal of saving time and/or making money for that same organization.

I’m certainly no census taker, but my educated guess would be that the majority of software programmers belong in this mainstream category.

Yet what many technical recruiters and HR representatives seem to be head over heels with, is this OTHER special category of software programmers.

What Is a 10x Programmer?

The name pretty much describes the concept, word for word. A 10x programmer is TEN TIMES (or greater) better than a regular programmer.

According to recruiters and Human Resources departments, the 10x programmer is a rare and mythical creature, worth their weight in gold, and much more valuable than a regular programmer.

I still see advertisements from many recruiters and HR departments loudly clamoring for the 10x PROGRAMMER. 

When you consider their motivation for wanting said 10x programmer, it’s pretty self-evident.

The 10x programmer is BETTER. FASTER. SMARTER.

A recruiter will be able to command higher rates for the 10x programmer. The human resources department of an organization will value the 10x programmer over the 1x programmer. It’s natural selection, after all. As an organization, of course, you’ll choose the highest caliber programmer, given the choice of a group of candidates.

Sounds logical enough, right?

Yet, I somehow find the concept of the 10x programmer a problem.

Actually, I have several problems with the so-called 10x programmer.

I’m certainly not denying that there are different calibers of software programmers, just as with any other profession.

There are basket players and then there’s MICHAEL JORDAN.

There are hockey players, and then there’s WAYNE GRETSKY.

There are golf players, and then there’s JACK NICKLAUS.

So if there are superstar players in the world of sports, why can’t there be superstar, rockstar programmers?

What I find most problematic with the 10x programmer concept is WHY must an organization only be content with hiring a 10x programmer?

There are only so many available software programmers on the planet to choose from.

And within the ranks of the total available number of software programmers, there are even fewer programmers that would likely qualify as a “10x” programmer.

What about the majority of programmers who are competent at their jobs and know how to hit the ground the running, tackling projects and writing code, the way they were taught and the way they learned how to write software?

Does a typical software project even require the work of a 10x programmer?

It’s a very important question to ask. Here’s an even better question. Would a so-called 10x programmer even be interested in a normal, typical software project? At what point would they get bored and decide to jump ship for the next new project at a different company or organization?

It’s the crux of being a 10x programmer. If a software programmer is a 10x programmer caliber engineer, I can’t imagine they would be content working on every day, ho-hum projects.

They would need to be working on projects that demand their level of skill and experience.

And history has proven this to be true.

10x programmers… actually, I really don’t like using that term, let me use the term, SOFTWARE PIONEER instead.

History’s Software Pioneers

Let’s go down my personal list of pioneers.

Brian Kernighan and Dennie Ritchie, the original inventors of the C programming language and UNIX operating system, perhaps the two most influential technological software products of the latter twentieth century.

Admiral Grace Hopper, one of the key architects and designers behind the COBOL programming language, which even after 60+ years since its original inception, is still widely used by many financial institutions to this day.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the original architect and designer of the World Wide Web, which continues to resonate its power and influence to this day.

Linus Torvalds, the original programmer behind the Linux operating system, an offshoot of UNIX, and one of the most powerful and influential operating systems used by companies and organizations on the planet.

Steve Wozniak, the original architect and designer of the Apple I and Apple II personal computers, which kickstarted the first generation wave of personal computers in the 1970s.

Richard Stallman, the pioneer behind the Free Software movement and inventor of many useful programs and utilities still widely popular today, including the GNU C compiler, the Emacs text editor, and many other groundbreaking applications.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it gives you an idea of the kind of projects that these SOFTWARE PIONEERS like to work on… they usually involve working on groundbreaking projects, that when released to the general public, initiate a new wave of technology and followers.

But how many operating systems does the world need? There’s UNIX. There’s Linux. Windows. And the Macintosh OS. And that just about covers the majority of mainstream operating systems in use today.

The same goes for programming languages. C, C++++, Java, and a handful of other programming languages make up the majority of languages that software developers use today.

Do Companies Really Need 10x Programmers?

Nobody is going to rewrite the architecture of the world wide web. They’re certainly welcome to try, but it’s highly doubtful anybody will adopt a completely new internet architecture. It’s just too entrenched and accepted by too many people.

These software pioneers will only work on things that personally interest them.

Companies shouldn’t assume that their everyday projects and assignments will interest these 10x programmers.

But regular programmers will. In fact, that’s where most of the demand for software programmers comes from, not from creating brand new operating systems, or new versions of the internet.

But for localized software applications to help a business balance their books. Or help sales staff track and maintain new and existing sales leads. And so on.

These companies and organizations shouldn’t be dismissing the vast army of 1x programmers. They are perfectly competent to work on ordinary projects.

By no means, does this diminish the pioneering work and importance of pioneers.

But sometimes the 1x programmer is enough to do the job.

Yeah, the hole in one golf shot is undoubtedly fun to watch.

But most of the time, shooting par for the course is good enough.

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