I Was A 10x Engineer. And I’m Sorry.


You probably saw the big discussion this past weekend on Twitter about 10x Engineers. It all started with a tweet about how to recognize a 10x Engineer, followed by tons of responses about how useless they were and how people that had encountered them were happy to be rid of them. All that discussion made me think back to my old days as a Senior Network Rock Star. As I reminisced I realized that I was, in fact, a 10x Engineer. And I was miserable.

Pour Some Work On Me

I wasn’t always the epitome of engineering hatred. I used to be a wide-eyed technician with a hunger to learn things. I worked on a variety of systems all over the place. In fact, I was rising through the ranks of my company as a Novell Engineer in an environment with plenty of coverage. I was just learning the ropes and getting ready to take my place in a group of interchangeable people.

Then I started getting into networking. I spent more time learning about routers and switches and even firewalls. That meant that my skill set was changing from servers to appliances. It also meant that I was spending more and more time working on devices that no one else could work on. I had special knowledge that made me much more valuable to the organization. Soon, I found myself spending less and less time working on the Novell command line and more time working on the Cisco CLI.

That was the first extra “x” on my resume. Because I had special skills it meant that I was being relied upon more to do work that no one else could do. Suddenly I wasn’t just a replaceable cog in the machine. Instead, I was a critical part of the infrastructure that needed to be on-site for certain jobs and deployments. I knew that I needed to have someone else to help me out or I was going to quickly find myself overwhelmed with work. But networking wasn’t the thing that ended up pushing me all the way to 10x territory.

A Voice In The Wilderness

In order to truly become an insufferable 10x Engineering talent, I had to pivot into voice deployments. That’s because my skill set went from “important but we’re training others” to “so complicated no one else can understand this”. Thanks to my knowledge of networking, I was asked to pick up the voice banner and run with it. And I ran really, really far.

I was the only person in the office working on Cisco voice deployments. I had my own method of doing things. My own flow for deployments. My notes were contained in a OneNote file that only I had access to. You can probably see all the issues already. But I couldn’t. To me, this was my jam! I had all the tools and talent to make this happen. I could type MAC addresses faster than filling them into a BAT spreadsheet. I could configure crazy hacks to get around limitations thanks to all the extra research I was doing. I was invincible!

I was also gumming up the works. Voice deployments had to be constantly rescheduled if I was out of town. Vacations were a distant memory at best. I wasn’t just the most important cog in the machine – I was the machine. Nothing went forward unless I was doing it. And that’s not scalable at all. Even when my boss realized that I couldn’t scale any more he also knew that getting someone up to speed on my deployment methods and knowledge was a very daunting task at best.

This is the classic setup for a 10x Engineer. All the talent in the world and all of the hubris. Large portions of the line-of-business relying on their knowledge and process. No documentation. No way to get things done other than to go through me. If you’ve ever read The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim you realize that I was Brent through and through. In fact, when I finally did get around to reading it I self-identified with him before I’d even made it 100 pages in.

Pride Goeth Before

Ultimately, it wasn’t failure that caused my 10x Engineering career to come to an end. Instead, it was success. I left my old job six years ago to come to Tech Field Day. I knew I wouldn’t be fixing routers or voicemail systems any longer. I’d be in for an entirely new and different kind of work.

But I couldn’t see how my old job would be able to work without me. I secretly confided to some friends that I thought their business would fall apart without me. How could it survive? I was responsible for so much! I was the only one that knew all of these things! Even a lengthy two-week info dump wouldn’t be enough.

The pride and hubris I displayed is still shocking to me all these years later. To think that a company that had been in business for almost 20 years before I got there would go out of business months after I left because they couldn’t do what I was doing. They did stay in business. They changed, for sure. They moved away from my specialized knowledge and found new ways to utilize their talent. They were able to keep my systems up and running with my notes and when the time came to replace them they used new systems that didn’t need my help to manage and install. They survived because they realized that what I represented was special and couldn’t be replicated.

Me? I’m happy they did. I didn’t want my 10x Engineering efforts to be an anchor around either of our necks. I couldn’t go back to fixing my old systems with my new workload. And my old company couldn’t count on me being available to fix things when I was gone. They made the right choices to put themselves into a position to keep going. And just like most positive 10x Engineer stories they found a happy ending.


Tom’s Take

I’m not proud of my engineering roots when it comes to how bad I was at times. It wasn’t always intentional. It was a product of where I was and the work I was doing. But I totally couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I realize now that I should have taken more people under my wing and helped them understand what I was doing. I should have documented my work and used repeatable methods to build processes that could be done by anyone. My institutional knowledge should have been a resource, not a crutch. And I should have had the humility to understand that companies can live and grow past a single engineer. Knowing all that today makes me realize that I may have looked like a 10x Engineer but everyone is much better off now that I’m just a simple ex-engineer.

21 thoughts on “I Was A 10x Engineer. And I’m Sorry.

  1. This post hits too close to home. Thanks for writing it, you’re one of the most insightful, forward-thinking people in this space. Bravo.

  2. Reblogged this on Cisco Skills and commented:

    Saw this post, glad Tom shared it something to always remember, Don’t be the machine that runs the company! Share your knowledge and be a resource!!

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  13. Allow me to ask a very individualistic question: Is it not in your best interest to not make you replaceable? Or is that an issue because you knew you would always find jobs afterward?
    Thanks you.

    • The greatest advice that I ever got from a mentor was when I was at IBM. My mentor Renee said, “If you make yourself irreplaceable, you make yourself unpromotable.” If you write code only you can understand or have processes that only you can do then you’ll never be able to leave them behind. You’ll always be the one person that is needed to make the magic happen if something breaks or needs to be upgraded.

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  15. I guess a 10x is pretty much a side effect of poor culture. While you now see in retrospect all that was wrong in this situation, your managers should have noticed it at real time. So a lack of 10x in a team is actually a good thing, not a bad one.

  16. I don’t think you can self-identify as a 10x engineer, that’s for others to decide. This also reads more like someone with control issues, over someone that struggles with the differences in output.

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  18. Some of us who have also been around for a while appreciate and applaud the honesty that can only come from enough years to develop the necessary hingsight. That said, how would you respond to a variation on the theme?

    Let’s say I also believe I’m a 10x engineer but in this case because I spend significant time teaching and mentoring those around me. I truly people to get promoted and come take my job because over time we have built a better support structure with more capable engineers. Except that the company and its culture decided since that was working so well already, they could now outsource the more junior tiers to the lowest bidder. Contractors that have no vested interest in the company itself because they aren’t employees. We’ll save soooooo much money! Big shock coming…complete failure. But because the Executive VP of pencil sharpening had already slashed all that OpEx money from the budget now they’re really stuck. Stuck with contractors in a foreign country with almost zero practical experience, average age 22. Average tenure, 9 months. Because they reap the benefits of mentoring and use that to catapult themselves into a 2x salary bump when they leave. Why such a huge salary disparity? Because the contracting company gets a pile of money while paying their folks squat. Because the EVP made a sweet backroom deal for himself and the contracting company. Meanwhile those of us who have stuck around are constantly amazed with the huge gap between proclaimed “company values” versus the real world. And ultimately it’s 1000 external customers who suffer.

    I stick around because in spite of all that I mostly love what I do, as does the rest of my senior level team. Ultimately, how do you get VP’s to pull their collective heads out of their collective arses and quit messing with what was a great thing?

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