UPDATED 11:52 EDT / FEBRUARY 18 2016


When hiring engineers, crank it up to 11

The hallowed notion of the 10X Engineer has existed for more than 40 years and remains widely discussed today. The idea emerged out of a study in the 1960s that compared performances of the best and worst programmers within a group and found that the most productive members were 10 times more productive than everybody else. This finding has been corroborated many times since.

However, the 10X engineer doesn’t hold the same weight  it once did. The proliferation of developer tools, programming languages, resources, open source libraries, infrastructure, APIs, and more have dramatically lowered the barriers to creating software at scale. The profound shift in the programming landscape also requires a shift in how we think about elite programmers. We are entering the era of the 11X Engineer – quite possibly the most important competitive advantage that your enterprise will have.

 The 11X Engineer

10X engineers are characterized by their productivity, while 11X engineers are characterized by much more. Hiring 10X engineers increases the performance of an engineering team by a limited amount, whereas hiring 11X engineers sets off a cascade of benefits.

These people are a unique category of developers that elevate the productivity of their entire team. While skill and speed are prerequisites, 11X engineers possess a number of key character traits that are unrelated to programming. It is these traits that inspire the people around them to push harder, think outside of the box and work together more effectively.

The first trait is humility. In a world in which software developers are referred to as “rockstars,” “ninjas,” “black belts,” and even “unicorns,” humility is an an undervalued virtue. Developers are in high demand and they know it. That easily leads to overconfidence. Confidence is a good thing, but it can also cause developers to pretend to know more than they do.

11X engineers have the humility to admit that there are many things they do not know. They never let pride get in the way of doing the best job possible, and they acknowledge that there is always room for improvement.

This connects to another core trait of the 11X engineer, which is relentless pursuit of continuous improvement. As with elite musicians or athletes, 11X engineers view perfection as an ideal that can never be met, but is always worth striving for. They are comfortable being uncomfortable.

These engineers never accept the status quo as good enough and constantly push themselves to be better. For example, the 11X engineer may take time to learn a new programming language or ask questions of their co-workers, or even non-developers.

Just as 11X engineers strive to learn from the people around them, they also go out of their way to collaborate. They see themselves as part of a collective effort. Thanks to their humility, egos don’t get in the way of working with a group. They are highly communicative with people on their team and in other departments. 11X engineers can work together with people in sales or marketing and effectively communicate an issue to C-Level executives. They are honest, transparent, empathetic, and understand how their work fits into the big picture. They are not only enthusiastic about the code, but about what the code makes possible. Moreover, they inspire their team-members to follow their example.

11X engineers are also leaders. They are committed to ensuring that everyone around them succeeds, whether that means carving out time to help someone who’s new to the team or being proactive about establishing a new workflow that makes everyone more productive. They not only do what stakeholders express, but take the extra step to find out what is left unasked in order to figure out a better solution. They strengthen the people around them.

Finding 11X engineers

Understanding the value of 11X engineers is one thing, but recruiting is quite another. Finding and hiring them requires broadening the scope of what an organization looks for, beyond a prestigious university degree, high GPA or even work history. None of these factors speaks to a prospect’s propensity for high-performance collaboration or ability to catalyze business transformation. Face-to-face interactions and interviews are critically important. This may seem obvious, but it isn’t. The high demand for developers has caused many organizations to limit candidate assessments to resume searches or online coding challenges, especially if they are looking abroad. These forms of assessment relegate personality considerations to the background.

Finding 11X engineers requires everyone in an organization — from recruiters to developers and even colleagues in other departments — to always be on the lookout for potential prospects. Maybe these prospects work for another company and are not actively searching for a new job or maybe they are self-taught. Either way, the scope of the search should be ongoing, flexible, and wide.

The recruitment process also involves interactions with a variety of people, so teams have more opportunities to learn about the recruit and vice versa. Interviews should focus on skill, but also on how the potential hire would react in certain situations. For example, a manager could ask if candidates would be willing to do twice-a-day status calls. If they say “yes, whatever you want,” then they aren’t 11X engineers. That’s because 11X engineers try to find more efficient ways to communicate.

Let them spend time on the engineering floor. And rather than having candidates do whiteboard coding exercises or brainteasers, have them write real code that is relevant to what an organization does.

Once you’ve found 11X engineers, make sure they want to work there. Talented developers typically have a number of options, and salary and benefits are only a small part of the decision-making process. 11X engineers want to work on interesting problems and know that their work will have an impact. They want to know their voice will be heard and that they will have opportunities to learn and grow. They want to work with talented and like-minded people and they want autonomy. This requires organizations to be completely transparent about their core values and to demonstrate that those values are deeply-rooted.

Cultivating an 11X Environment

11X engineers can be cultivated. Creating a team culture that positively reinforces the characteristics of 11X engineers drives all members of that team to aspire to that example. Promoting collaboration, humility and ongoing education provides all engineers with the space and support needed to become an 11X Engineer, and the process feeds on itself until everyone on the team has earned the distinction. Once that tipping point is reached, the team will be unstoppable.

Glenn BurnsideGlenn Burnside is executive vice president of operations at Headspring LLC. He ensures the successful, “zero-surprises” execution of all client projects through Headspring’s Post-Agile delivery framework. A graduate of Texas A&M University, Glenn has been delivering software projects and leading development teams for over 14 years, ranging from high-speed data acquisition libraries to global e-commerce solutions, as well as enterprise products for both the medical and financial industries.


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