In the mid 1990s I took a job at a growing startup. The delineation of talent at the office was pretty clear: Four partners (President, VP/Technology, VP/Sales, VP/Marketing) and four employees (Video producer, Graphic Designer, and two Application Developers).
Then there was Martin.
Martin didn’t work at the home office in Boston, he worked somewhere near the mountains of Utah. For the first few months I only heard rumors of who he was and what he did. I heard he lived in an impossibly small apartment, slept on a small mattress on the floor, and owned only a handful of personal items.
I heard he never cooked for himself, and legend had it no matter which restaurant he would go to, he would refuse to even look at a menu, instead telling the waiter to “Bring me whatever is good.” I heard his “vacations” involved flying to Washington, DC and attending random government hearings that were open to the public for hours on end. I heard he was often cranky and difficult to work with.
But one thing was apparently never in dispute about Martin: He was a wildly brilliant computer programmer.
I asked the VP of Technology why he would put up with such a cranky, quirky employee and let him work from the other side of the country (remember that this was pre-internet). He didn’t hesitate, telling me of all the programmers the partners had worked with at their last venture, Martin was by far the best.
Furthermore, while he might not have used these exact words, he implied Martin by himself was such a genius for the type of code they needed for this new project, he was worth more than 10 other engineers combined. One day another employee told me how much money Martin made. I remember two things: 1)He got paid by the hour; and 2) he got paid a lot.
That was my introduction to what is known in Silicon Valley as the “Lore of the 10x engineer,” the concept that one single, valuable employee could produce the output of 10 mediocre ones.
Twenty years later, the concept still seems intact, at least at high tech companies where the battle for upper level talent can be fierce. When Twitter released its IPO documents in October 2013, it was disclosed that Christopher Fry, their Senior Vice President of Engineering, took home more than $10 million in salary in 2012, second only to CEO Dick Costolo’s $11.5 million, and more than four other C-Level executives.
Clearly Twitter must feels Fry’s vision and engineering talent is so valuable, they are willing to pay him nearly on par with the company’s top executive.
Another example might be Elon Musk. Entrepreneur and investor David O. Sacks remarked on Quora.com, “Elon is quite likely the world's best applied engineer. How many people could successfully design a reusable rocket and an electric car (and at the same time)?”
What’s up for debate is exactly what skills a 10x employee must possess. For an engineer, it could be the speed at which quality code is written, its accuracy, the number of features created, or finding and correcting errors.
But it also likely extends beyond that. Do they create code that makes the product or service not just marginally better, but grows it by a multiple factor? Are they able to look beyond the code and push the vision of the software forward, and also effectively communicate that with others? Like an MVP athlete, do they serve as mentors, inspire others, and make those around them better?
One of the best benefits of having a 10x employee is that they help attract other 10x employees. People want to work with the best.
Like any person who is the best in their field (CEOs, actors, surgeons, athletes), employees in demand can command the highest end of the salary range for their given profession. But like the A-list actor who takes on a low-budget independent film as a passion project, or the quarterback who takes a “hometown discount” to stay with his current team, there is more than just money.
Sure, perks like company cars and working remotely help, but there are bigger picture values that appeal to the best employees: working on a uniquely challenging project that needs to be solved, having a sense of purpose that aligns with their core values, and having the autonomy and freedom to approach problems as they see fit.
Back on Quora.com, Yishan Wong (who has done recruiting at Facebook and Paypal) gives his tips for finding upper level talent:
Do not rely on your HR staff to source top-tier engineers for you. (He notes while HR is vital to the hiring process, they may be no better at finding top engineering candidates than an engineer would be at identifying top-tier HR professionals)
Look to referrals of referrals. (Hire the best people you know, then find all the best people they know)
Don't look on job boards. (Top-tier candidates are never looking for a job, so networking is key)
Attract them to you. (It's hard to dig them out, so get them to come to you)
Intelligence and talent only make up part of the equation. (Someone with an overwhelming amount of drive and the ability to finish projects is much more likely to be productive, especially when placed in an environment with smarter people and great ideas)
One reader on Quora asked a question along the lines of, “I am a rockstar employee, how can I get paid more?” The top response was, “First off, stop calling yourself a rockstar.”
In other words, if your employee needs to call himself a rockstar, Jedi, ninja, guru, or any other kind of nickname to call attention to his work, then you need to recognize he's probably trying too hard. Likewise, directly bragging to you, his manager, that he's 10x more productive than his lazy co-worker John and throwing him under the bus is also a red flag.
Instead, look for a history of accomplishments that illustrates mastery of the job and a tangible benefit to you as an employer. If this is an employee whose work affects the company as a whole -- bringing everyone closer to their goals, satisfying customers, motivating fellow team members, and bringing in more revenue -- then give serious thought to a pay increase.
While 10x engineers like Martin or Christopher Fry might exist in the tech world, are there employees such as 10x lawyers, plumbers, and chefs, or are they as rare as a unicorn? Actually, a unicorn employee (a software developer that is also skilled at design) is a story for another day.
If you're going to hire one superstar employee who does 10 times the work of others, you're probably going to have to pay that employee a significantly higher salary. So make sure you do your research before hitting the bargaining table.