This weekend a small storm hit tech Twitter (as happens most weekends) when a VC named Shekhar Kirani posted a long thread about 10x engineers, how great they are, and how to identify them. If you’re looking for a laugh you can definitely check the thread out, but it is pretty much exactly what you’d expect. It has some gems like “10x engineers laptop screen background color is typically black”, but at its core it’s a collection of outdated misconceptions about what good engineers are like, the kind of misconceptions a lot of us thought we moved past already as an industry.
The mythical 10x engineer, if you’re not familiar with the term, is essentially what you imagined a good engineer is when you were 14. It’s someone who works best by themselves, writes code very quickly, doesn’t like planning ahead or discussing their technical decisions, has bad communication skills, and gets away with it because people think they produce so much that it’s worth it to put up with how inconsiderate and reckless they are.
The most obvious issue with this myth is that it’s simply false. Pushing up a bunch of code no one else on your team saw or understands, without planning, documenting, or considering maintainability, does not make you a good engineer. Not being able to work with other people, being careless and thoughtless in your process, and not planning ahead will almost always make you a bad engineer, hurt your team, and create a lot of bugs and other problems down the road. Twitter is now full of beautiful 280-character explanations of why this type of behavior is not desirable. I think a lot of people responded to this so strongly because a lot of us had the experience of working with people like this, a lot of us had to rewrite their code, document it, untangle it, fix it, and generally clean up their mess. A lot of us were hurt by working with people like this or saw the damage they caused their teams. We know from experience that it doesn’t work, and, again, we thought we moved past it.
But beyond being false, I think it’s important to acknowledge that this myth also perpetuates stereotypes that hurt women and people of color who work in tech (or want to work in it). It should be clear to anyone who reads this thread, whenever someone talks about a 10x engineer — they are imagining a man, and almost definitely a white man. When people try to identify these magical cowboy engineers, they are always looking for cowboys, never cowgirls. They imagine a very specific kind of guy, and many of us would have a hard time trying to fit into the 10xer mold.
It’s not only that this trope, much like the megalomaniac-tech-founder-genius trope, is pretty much reserved to those who are white and male, it’s also that the behaviors people revere in these 10x engineers would be regarded very differently coming from a woman or person of color (not to mention a woman of color). Imagine if an engineer who’s also a woman started acting like these magical 10xers. She would show up to work at 12pm, complain about having to be in planning meetings, refuse to explain how her code works to other engineers, push full features without discussing them with anyone else, and generally regard herself as the smartest person in the room in every situation, making it clear that everyone else is just slowing her down.
It’s hard to imagine. It’s hard to imagine because this woman would never get hired anywhere to begin with. And if she did magically get hired somewhere and then suddenly started acting like this, she wouldn’t be seen as a 10x engineer (no matter how much she was getting done), but as a 10x bitch. She would eventually be fired for having a bad attitude, being aggressive, not being a team player.
This is a trope that women don’t identify with because we don’t get rewarded for this kind of behavior, in tech or otherwise. Most of us would have a very hard time imagining ourselves being this person, because we know this myth is not for us. We get rewarded, pretty much from the minute we are born, for collaborating, being agreeable, communicating, and compromising. We get penalized for the type of inconsiderate behaviors people respect so much in 10xers, and we know that we could never get away with them, no matter how smart we are. Even something as simple as thinking highly of yourself or taking credit for your own work is often read as aggressive or bitchy when coming from a woman.
Whenever I tell my story about going into tech, especially when I talk to other women who are thinking about doing the same, this 10xer myth is exactly what I try to dispel. So many people know this stereotype and think “well, if this is what a good engineer is, I’m obviously not going to be one”. I try to explain that good communication skills, empathy, thoughtfulness, and patience are actually extremely important qualities for engineers. That not being a 10xer is actually a huge strength. That engineering, despite what you might have seen on TV in the 90s, is a team sport, and that so many of the challenges engineering teams face come from having to work together and collaborate, not from needing their engineers to code faster. Any engineer can write a feature in a day, but not every engineering team can effectively plan, break down, and collectively execute features consistently and reliably. Knowing how to do that, being a team player, helping other engineers learn and grow, and being able to discuss and explain your technical decisions with engineers of any level — that’s what makes coders good engineers.
There are many reasons why tech is so male dominated and why women and other underrepresented folks have a hard time getting into tech. Having these collective myths that only resonate with white men and make it so only they can imagine themselves as good engineers, is one of those reasons. We do ourselves a disservice in keeping these myths because when we reward cowboy engineer behaviors we end up with worse results, and we do the industry a disservice because we keep excluding people who could actually make great engineers. We miss out on people who could not only write code, but can also work with other people, create strong teams with effective processes, and help grow the people around them instead of just themselves.