Talent and opportunity are not uniformly distributed. When it comes to music, the top 1% account for 77% of all artist recorded music income. A study of more than 600,000 researchers, entertainers, politicians, and athletes found that high performers are 4 times more productive than average ones. When the nature of the work relies on exchanging complex information and managing a network of interactions, high performers are an astounding 8 times more productive than a peer with average proficiency. A top-notch/ “10X Engineer” is certainly much more productive than the average engineer.
According to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, the Chief Talent Officer of Manpower, here is the scientific finding
- the top 1% accounts for 10% of organizational output
- the top 5% accounts for 25%, of organizational output
- the top 20% accounts for 80% of organizational output
It is also noteworthy that talented employees are “force multipliers”, raising the performance bar for their colleagues, and particularly for their direct reports. By word and deed, they model and teach winning behaviors that shape high-performing cultures. Simply adding a star performer to a team boosts the effectiveness of other team members by 5-15%. No wonder, then, that study after study shows stronger financial performance in companies that make proportionally greater investments in identifying and developing top talent.
Where I depart from Shekhar Kirani’s view is that the 10X engineer (or the top performer) is thus entitled to flout the rules of an organization that others live by. Several tech firms focus on the tangible and formal components of talent—hard skills, expertise, and technical knowledge— rather than personality, values, or abilities.
As Kirani says, “Given a product feature, they can write that entire feature in one or two sittings of 4 to 6 hours with a caffeinated drink without distraction”.
Teaching, mentoring, sharing a status update or designing a User Interface, all involve having conversations, inspiring and taking others along – a task that the 10X engineer thinks is a waste of time. The result is a surplus of proficient individual contributors with little potential for management and leadership. Yet, as the firms grow, these very people get pushed into positions of leading teams and people with disastrous results.
Uber used to believe that “stepping on a colleague’s toes” was a terrific quality. What mattered was not the team that did the job, but the person who shot off the announcement in the e-mail. The bro-culture created a culture of harassment and bullying that finally led to Travis Kalanick’s ouster. The culture norms that have now been created at Uber aim at things like “doing the right thing” and “celebrating differences”.
Several startup founders wear the black turtle neck and jeans hoping that dressing and abusing colleagues like Steve Jobs will ensure some of his brilliance rubs off on them. Elizabeth Holmes, briefly created Theranos, a $9 billion business on the basis of fraud. She too (like many other founders) modelled herself after Steve Jobs.
“But Steve Jobs was a brilliant jerk”
As Adam Grant says it best,
“Steve Jobs has become a Rorschach test. Our reactions to him reveal more about us than about him.”
Jobs succeeded because of his ability to disrupt the status quo with his creativity and design sensibility – not with his people skills. By the same yardstick, we should only view Polanski as a talented film maker and ignore his evading justice for being a convicted sex offender. We should admire Elon Musk for his vision but ignore the dark side of his behavior. Or think of Dominic Strauss Kahn only as managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), while ignoring the financial and sexual scandals involving him.
Our personality has a bright side that comes through in settings where we manage our behavior. It is under times of stress that our derailers come to the surface.
Uber’s culture under Travis Kalanick produced a litany of scandals including allegations of sexual harassment, intellectual property theft, and driver manipulation. But it did create a unicorn valued at several billion, you could say. Should financial metrics be the sole yardstick to measure success or failure of an organization or individual?
Work has become too complex for the lone genius model. It needs an interdisciplinary perspective. To be successful, the product needs to be in perpetual beta. It must be continuously refined based on the users’ feedback. When a 10X engineer gets challenged, the conclusion is always the same. “The consumer is a moron”. The market disagrees.
What is the culture you want to build?
Shekhar Kirani makes poor people skills sound like a badge of honor. “10x engineers are poor mentors as they can’t teach others on what to do OR parcel the work. They always think ‘It takes too long to teach or discuss with others, I would rather do it myself.’ They are also poor interviewers.” The result is as the startup grows in size, its survival depends on pandering to this superstar. What happens when this person quits (as it happens when too many customers complain about the product-usability)?
9. 10x engineers are poor mentors as they can’t teach others on what to do OR parcel the work. They always think “It takes too long to teach or discuss with others, I would rather do it myself.” They are also poor interviewers.
— Shekhar Kirani (@skirani)
Collaboration is a casualty
When the rest of the employees see the toxic behavior of the “10X engineer” is celebrated, it gives a license to turn the workplace toxic. The narcissists believe their superior talent makes them special and the rules that govern the rest do not apply to them. It breeds a culture where everyone else’s role is dismissed as trivial. Collaboration is one of first casualties of such a culture.
Read the research on why Silicon Valley is not the benchmark when it comes to understanding talent
A great product is not enough
The major challenges for big technology firms are no longer cognitive, but rather, social, political, and ethical. One can collect the data about the consumers and then use it to manipulate elections and change how we view controversial issues. The technology is designed by a lethal combination of techies and psychologists who know what levers to push to make it addictive. But should they? That is an ethical choice. But then training in ethics would be seen to be “non-value added” activity.
Shekhar Kirani’s final piece of advice,
“10x engineers rarely job hunt or move out of the company. They move out because you make their life miserable with the process, meetings, training, and other non-value-added activities. If you come across them, hold on to them. Celebrate them.”
Sorry, Mr Kirani, such a brilliant coder should be a gig worker and work from the privacy of his home. But when such a narcissist works in an organization, it creates a toxic workplace culture. There is enough research to show that constant exposure to workplace rudeness leads to long term consequences. From errors to long term impact on health. Building a billion-dollar unicorn or an amazing app is not the only worthy goal a human-being lives for.