Aug 14, 2016

The Inner Workings of “10x Engineers"

I recently gave a talk to our interns and co-ops, and I was pleasantly surprised by the questions they asked about my career growth and the advice they sought. During one of the questions, I shared my perspective about how to get noticed early in your career. Afterwards, I realized that this is the same pattern that I’ve seen with our most highly prolific and transformational software engineers— the 10x engineers. These are the best software engineers in any organization— the “difference makers” on any project. They solve the hardest problems, and blaze a trail for others to follow. They don’t have direct reports— but somehow they are the thought leaders that the team seeks out. They are prolific with their code, and they find ways to make the team better.

Throughout my career, I’ve led some very large Engineering teams, and I’ve found ways to stay close to the top engineers in my teams. I have watched the ways these top engineers worked, and I found that the top 1% can be ten times more productive than the average engineer. Three engineers, in particular, exemplify these traits: Jeff Brewer, Jim Showalter, and Joe Wells.

These 10x engineers excel in three dimensions:

  • Effort
  • Effectiveness
  • Influence


Let’s face it, all of us have meetings in a given week. These meetings take away from “keyboard time” to crank out code. The best engineers will find more hours in a day and week to write code— and they will work more hours than the average engineer.

For illustration, let’s assume that the average engineer has 10 hours of meetings in a 40-hour week, which leaves only 30 hours for writing code. When you work more hours, the weekly overhead of 10 hours remains the same, but you’ve just created more time for cranking out code. A 50-hour work week provides 40 hours of coding time (33% more than average). A 60-hour week provides 50 coding hours (66% more than average). A 70-hour week provides 60 coding hours, which is double the average. Jeff, Jim, and Joe are some of the hardest working engineers I’ve seen, and they are committing code at all hours of the day and night.


Writing new code is only part of the software life cycle. Getting your code ready for production and fixing bugs after production eats into the time you have for writing new code. The best engineers create fewer bugs and spend less time debugging their code, which gives them more time to tackle new initiatives. While their teammates are fixing their bugs, they’re working on stories from the next sprint or finding creative solutions to problems that they see coming down the road. They are also very conscious of their time and they manage their time wisely— so that they can carve out more hours for coding. They attend only those meetings where they feel like they are needed and are adding value. They rearrange their calendar so that they have large, consecutive blocks of uninterrupted coding time. Jim teaches other engineers about his approach to time management and how he stays “in flow.” When Jim is “in flow,” he is prolific, and his code is high-quality, tested, durable— and it just works!


These 10x engineers don’t isolate themselves in a cave. I’ve found these engineers to be at the center of their project teams, no matter how large the team. They actively influence the broader team, and they are sought out by others on the team for advice or help. And boy, are these top engineers vocal! You will find them sharing their opinions on team e-mail aliases and in meetings. They interactive proactively with execs and constructively share their ideas. All of this passion and energy comes from a place of not accepting the status quo so that the team can do great things.

Joe led our largest Engineering initiative—the transformation of the QuickBooks Online (QBO) user interface and tech stack, which resulted in QBO Harmony. Jeff invented the QBO plug-in framework, which allows us to rethink how other applications from Intuit and third-party developers can integrate seamlessly into QBO. Both of these initiatives evolved from their early prototypes and experiments into game-changing technologies. Along the way, they evangelized their work and got “buy in” from other engineers and execs— and they changed the way teams work.


The top engineers are two to four times better than the average engineer in each dimension, and as a result, can achieve 6-10x the output of the average engineer. I’ve also found that these top engineers identify and mentor the engineers they see exhibiting these traits.

Staying close to these top engineers has provided many benefits. I got insight into the inner workings of the broader Engineering team. These engineers were also able to drive change at scale, since they have such amazing “tech cred” with the broader team. Working together, we have achieved amazing outcomes for the business.

1 comment:

Arun said...

Hello Mr Vinay

I am Arun, a recent MBA graduate from Purdue University, Indiana. We are
building a game that will teach everything taught in a traditional 2 year
MBA program, at a level that is relevant to a small business
owner/counselor. The game will cover all business topics including
analytics, accounting, economics, finance, strategy, marketing, HR,
business plan development, product-market fit, business case studies etc.
We have been meeting many SBDC (small business development center) executives in Indiana to understand the problems faced by small business owners, with respect
to training and education.

The game will have a city map with many buildings. The player goes to each
building and finishes quests to proceed. The quests will be in the above
mentioned subjects and will have a variety of interactions like entering
text, multiple choice questions, drag-drop-match, graphs and tables. The
player starts by running a small pizzeria and will see his or her company
expand as the game progresses.

Below is a news release of a previous game that we were building

Due to our unique design and core focus on user engagement, we strongly
believe that our game will be very effective at imparting knowledge of
business subjects at a fraction of the cost of traditional training
programs. Would it be possible to connect with someone at Quickbooks regarding this? Maybe someone who is related to small business training?

Any help is greatly appreciated.

Thank You