Disambiguation: I’m sticking closely to the term “10x programmer” here. Others have used titles such as “Rockstar Programmer“, but I think this muddies the water on the discussion as it is a poor metaphor.
So what is a 10x programmer? Quite simply, this describes the result of a study of a study that showed that the top performing individuals outperformed the worst performers by ten times.
You could also call these people 2.5x programmers, because they outperformed the median by two and a half times.
In one example (Coding Wars 1984), it was the difference between completing a milestone in 100 minutes, rather than 900 minutes.
So a 10x programmer is simply one who is more productive than a vast majority of their peers.
What a 10x Programmer Is Not
A 10x-er is not a personality archetype. People have a tendency to link extreme personality types with the 10x programmer. This is a mistake, especially when they then reverse the link: “Susan was an introvert and she was a 10x-er. Gary is an introvert, so he must also be a 10x-er”. If you think that all eccentric people are geniuses, go back and check your argument for logical fallacies.
Similarly, 10x-ers are not destructive within a team. Whilst some people have linked them to the introvert personality type, others have linked them to dominant extroverted personalities. This too is wrong.
A 10x-er is not necessarily an experienced programmer. Once you have a couple of years under your belt you are just as likely to be a 10x-er as someone with ten years experience.
The bombshell really comes when you zoom out from the individual results.
When you look at the study in more detail, you find that the individual results do group into some common ground. It isn’t personality, years or experience, programming language, or salary: it is the organisation they work within.
The individuals that outperform the worst performers by 10x and the median performers by 2.5x worked in the same organisations. The performance within any given organisation only differed by 21%.
So the truth at the heart of the 10x story is that your organisation is either attracting/enabling the 10x-er or it is repelling/disabling them. Yes, there will always be people outperforming others, but within a single organisation it is not likely to be by 10x.
If you want to know how to become more like a 10x organisation, check out Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister it’s on my recommended reading list.