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What is a ‘10x developer’ and do they really exist?

Some claim 10x developers are a myth, others that they are a fact. Who has the right of it?
Stock Adobe / alphaspirit
Andrea Tallarita
Andrea Tallarita

You may have heard the expression (or more aptly the title) ‘10x developer’ used in tech circles. It refers to programmers who are putatively 10 times more productive, or even 10 times more able, than their peers, and it is a somewhat contested category. Some refer to it very liberally, others deny that it even exists.

I’m not about to delude myself that writing a blog on the internet will put these diatribes to rest, but the question has gained enough traction that it deserves a little space on our platform. Do 10x developers really exist, and if so, how would we distinguish them?

Framing the Issue

Let us begin by acknowledging that the range of skills in most human activities can be prodigiously wide. A marathon runner can cover roughly 10 times the distance that an untrained person could, while a professional film critic can shell out in a few hours a quality review which would take days for a regular person to emulate.

Coding, which is a hugely complex field unfettered by physical limitations, should naturally show differences in skill that vary by orders of magnitude. Thus, if by 10x developer we simply mean a person whose level of skill is in a different league compared to someone else, then clearly they exist. How could anyone argue otherwise?

Here’s the rub though, in the data-driven and lexically precise world of modern tech, that’s not what 10x developer means. Instead, a 10x developer is supposed to be someone who genuinely outperforms others by 10 times or more on some quantifiable scale. That ‘quantifiable scale’ is where the problems start.

The Problem with Measuring Skill

Even where skill can vary wildly, differences will not necessarily be quantifiable. A talented poet may know how to write a poem that is in a whole other world compared to the rest of us, but you can’t attach numbers to that poem’s beauty. The work of a dev isn’t nearly as abstract, naturally, but not all of it can be reduced to metrics either, and certainly not programming skill itself.

A less extravagant approach may be to judge a 10x dev not in terms of skill but in terms of productivity. Someone who can write 500 lines of code in the time that it takes others to write 50 would then fall in that category.

If you know anything about programming, however, you’ve probably already spotted the problem with this line of thinking. Longer code isn’t necessarily more efficient, and for most people there tends to be a positive correlation between how quickly one works and how many bugs one creates.

This is not to say that the world’s top programmers can’t produce bug-free code much faster than their peers. Where this statement proves fallacious though, is in trying to peg that difference to a single metric. There are myriad factors at play that will affect a developer’s productivity outside of their skill, including their team and the environment they find themselves in. (In fact, depending on the situation, the 10x tag may be inaccurate because a developer could be programming well over 10 times as much as another!).

What, then, should be our conclusion? There can be no doubt that the field of programming has its own Mozarts and Einsteins, and few would object if these people were described as being ‘orders of magnitude’ better than the rest. But it is important to recognize that this is only a figure of speech, and not something meant to be used according to its precise quantitative meaning.

I can’t presume to speak for the tech industry as a whole, but I for one have noticed a worrying tendency to read the expression ‘10x developer’ literally. Ultimately this does more harm than good, as it spreads the myth that there is some universal metric whereby every programmer’s value can always be quantified. Important qualities like creativity and teamwork are completely omitted in this way of thinking, which is why our final advice is to stop worrying about lofty 10x developers and whether you are, aren’t, or may or not become one. Simply focus on being the best developer you can be. That will always be enough.

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