These developers run a website to buck the myth of the '10x engineer' who is a brilliant jerk and promote a healthy work-life balance in tech

© WOCinTech Chat/Flickr   WOCinTech Chat/Flickr

By Rosalie Chan, Business Insider

  • After Accel partner Shekhar Kirani posted a viral, controversial tweet thread last July about how founders should try to hire "10x engineers," open source developer Tierney Cyren responded by building a site called "1x Engineer."
  • The idea of a "10x engineer" is popular in Silicon Valley and is used to refer to a rare engineer who can achieve 10 times more than an average developer. The trope also comes with "toxic" ideas about the tech industry, Cyren says.
  • That's why Cyren built "1x Engineer": to dispel the myth that amazing engineers are poor mentors who won't collaborate. He's instead preaching more positive practices, like having a healthy work-life balance and building community among other engineers.

Last July, Accel partner Shekhar Kirani tweeted about how tech founders should hire "10x engineers" to increase the odds of their startup's success. How to spot one? According to Kirani, these rare engineers hate meetings, are poor mentors, have a black background on their laptop, and can easily turn "thought" into "code," among other things.

The idea was that a "10x engineer" is incredibly productive but also often what is referred to as a"brilliant jerk." According to Silicon Valley lore, a single 10x engineer can do in one hour what it would take others ten hours to complete. While that one person can do the work of ten ordinary engineers, they can also be hard to work with and obsessive.

Kirani's tweet thread quickly went viral, sparking controversy between those who agreed and those who found its stereotypes to be problematic.

For example, open source developer Tierney Cyren felt that Kirani's tweet reasserted trope behaviors that he found "toxic" in the tech industry. So shortly afterwards, as a joke, he started a website called "1x Engineer."

He used the site to list the values of a "1x engineer," such as maintaining a healthy work-life balance, working well with others, and making mistakes sometimes.

"I mostly made '1x Engineer' as a joke to slap back and move towards things that I thought were more sustainable," Cyren told Business Insider. He wanted to represent what "I practice and what I see others practice and preach."

When he tweeted about his new website, it went viral, too. And because it's an open source project, other users can contribute suggestions about what they believe a healthy 1x engineer looks like. Post-launch, software engineer Cher Scarlett found the project, loved it, and signed on to help maintain it.

"One thing about the project that's cool is it's given people the autonomy to express what being an engineer is to them," Scarlett told Business Insider. "In a way, they get to be connected."


'1x Engineer' doesn't glorify 'toxic' practices

Scarlett agrees with Cyren that ideas about 10x engineers from Kirani's tweet promote ideas that do the industry more harm than service. For example, she's opposed to the notion that an amazing engineer would hate meetings and think they're a waste of time.

"That's not somebody who is collaborative," Scarlett said. "It's toxic because they don't care about the people they're working with. No matter what kind of a person you are and what your personal life is, somebody who doesn't show up to be a part of your team is always going to be the worst part of your team."

© Tierney Cyren   Open source developer Tierney Cyren Tierney Cyren

Another practice Cyren wanted to call out from the tweet thread was about how 10x engineers need code documentation, a process that involves providing information on how its written and run that future developers can follow.

"That is super malicious towards their teammates and coworkers who will have to maintain things after they're gone from the company," Cyren said. "A lot of the things I've seen around the concept of a 10x engineer are mostly very self-centered and self-promoting. And yet people continue to lift them up as the ultimate 'God of code.'"

Scarlett, Cyren, and others believe that glorifying those kinds of traits sends the wrong message. Some of the ideas from Kirani's thread are even actively harmful, they say.

For example, one tweet said that 10x engineers rarely write code for user interfaces. UI engineers, who develop how an app looks and how users interact with it, is more often associated with female engineer, Scarlett said.

"It ends up reinforcing these ideas that women can't code because they're mostly doing UI," Scarlett said. "It's saying this person is not an engineer."

In an industry that already struggles with bleak diversity stats and stereotypes — men make up the majority of technical roles at many major tech companies, while women and people of color often feel like they don't belong — viral tweets that play into that narrative may further discourage people.


'10x engineers' don't exist

After the 1x Engineer project went viral, it led to healthy discussion, Cyren says, including about the importance of mentoring in engineering, which bucks against Kirani's tweet that crowed about 10x engineers being poor mentors. Cyren hopes that the 1x Engineer project can be an online resource that people go to in order to shape their ideas of what an engineer can be. Being a successful developer doesn't have to look like Silicon Valley hustle porn or being an entitled jerk.

Cyren himself began his engineering journey far away from the Bay Area.

"When I was starting in tech, I had zero role models and zero mentors," Cyren said. "I lived in a city of 4,000 people. There wasn't anyone around me in tech."

Likewise, Scarlett had few female role models in engineering.

"I was very alone, and plus, I was a mom," Scarlett said. "I had no support at home, and I had no support at work. On top of that, I felt like I had to be 1,000 times more than what I was capable of being. I really wanted to be part of things like this because I don't want anybody to feel like that, but especially not other women."

As a single mom who also needs to take care of her child, Scarlett doesn't code around the clock. She would not fit into the archetype of a 10x engineer. So, she wants to help smash that archetype into the ground.

"Engineers are human beings who have lives," Scarlett said. "It's cool if your whole life revolves around engineering, but it's also cool if it doesn't. Burnout is super real in the industry."

Overall, the over-hyped idea of a 10x engineer does not actually exist in real life, Scarlett says, and, really, there's no reason to put any sort of standard or idea on a pedestal about what it means to be an engineer.

"[The 10x engineer trope] makes everyone feel like an imposter and feel like they can't ask for help," Scarlett said. "They're going to be less likely to go ask for help. They will think they could be fired because they don't belong there and they're not actually as good as their job title says they are."

See more at: Business Insider

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