Demystifying The 10x Network Engineer

The best network engineers are curious, think holistically, and enable others to succeed.

John Harrington

February 23, 2016

3 Min Read
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The 10x engineer is an old, yet controversial idea. Frederick Brooks Jr. first used the term in the 1975 classic "The Mythical Man-Month," where he proposed that the best software engineers were 10 times more productive than the worst engineers. I rejected the 10x theory outright when I first heard it. I couldn't see how any engineer could be 10 times better than the worst engineer. 

However, as I've progressed in my career, I realized there were many awesome 10x engineers and I've been lucky to work with some of them. Measuring the productivity of a network engineer is harder than that of a programmer. You can't measure an engineer by lines of code impressive features, but  money made or money saved are great yardsticks. The 10x engineers I worked with were able to provide huge cost savings and benefits to their employers.

In my experience, 10x network engineers are holistic thinkers. They have the ability to step back to see the entire process. On one project, we were sending custom fiber cabling harnesses for the data center to the cabling team that would install the fiber. Each cabling job took days to complete and was complicated and error-prone. This led to long delays, poor-quality cabling, and expensive rework. 

A 10x engineer reviewed the entire process and optimized it, arranging for the cabling to be sequentially packed in reverse order of use and adding laminated cabling instructions to the top of each box. To further reduce rework, he added a fiber-cleaning cassette to each box, arguing that the 10 hours of rework due to dirty fibers more than justified the cost of the cassette. 

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10x engineers connect people with similar interests. This completely contradicts the common stereotype of the lone genius with poor social skills. The 10x engineers I've met have sufficient people skills to engage others and bring their team along for the ride. 

Some of the greatest advice I've received came from hallway conversations with one particular engineer who was curious about what I was doing. He would suggest some crazy solution, a way to shortcut my process or tell me what others were doing in that space. Great engineers can gather ideas from outside your industry, and make them relevant to you and your problems. 

10X engineers are always in other people's business. They provoke debate, question requirements, and consequently annoy many of their peers. With their finger on the pulse of the organization, they can spot opportunities but also duplicated or contradictory projects. I've seen a five-person team halt a six-month development effort because an engineer pointed out that another team had already written 90% of the code. Top-class software engineers are not cheap, so that saved the company a lot of money.

10x network engineers have a ton of experience in systems, networks, and design and use that wisdom to quash issues before they arise. When a senior engineer quietly mentions  to you that the network device you're about to order doesn't support a critical feature you need, you want to buy him or her a beer.  

Now, this kind of engineer is a far cry from the "seasoned" engineer who shuts down discussions by barking, "Tried it before, doesn't work!" That's not engineering; it's laziness and certainly not the hallmark of a 10X engineer. Strong engineers bring their experience to the table, but are smart enough to adjust it to the challenge at hand, discarding personal viewpoints that add no value.

It's likely that most of us are not 10x engineers, but that's not a cause for concern. You shouldn’t be threatened or jealous, nor should you bow at the altar. If you’re fortunate enough to work with one of these engineers, be humble enough to learn from them and help them. You may not become a 10x engineer, but you might become a 2x engineer. Becoming twice the engineer you once were is an achievement worth celebrating. 

About the Author(s)

John Harrington

Network Architect John Harrington is a network engineer who loves network design, deployment and testing. He has designed and deployed enterprise, mobile telecoms and public cloud data center networks. He values efficient processes and business-driven networking. John enjoys sharing his mistakes, learnings, and insights on his blog The Network Sherpa and on Twitter.

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