The real 10x developer makes their whole team better

Single individuals make less of a difference to the success or failure of a technology project than you might think (and that’s a good thing).

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Credit: Alexandra Francis

We’re all familiar with the concept of the 10x engineer or developer: “the nerdy, antisocial genius who makes groundbreaking products almost by accident,” per one description. People love to cite my hometown hero Steve Wozniak as an example of this character: the superdev who’s ten times smarter or more productive than their so-called peers. The 10x developer attracts mythos, not to mention VC funding.

But one thing you learn working at Stack Overflow is that single individuals make less of a difference to the success or failure of a technology project than you might think (and that’s a good thing, or burnout levels would be off the charts). What really makes a difference is the quality of the social learning communities your employees have access to.

Instead of an engineer who’s an order of magnitude “better” than their peers, leaders should look for people who are willing and able to learn—and to help their whole team learn and execute, too. After all, your organization should be more powerful than any one person.

How community learning works (and why it matters)

As we’ve written before, successful engineering organizations demand a strong culture of community learning. They need a way to collect and distribute knowledge while enabling communication and collaboration across teams. That’s why we’ve counseled organizations to invest in building communities of practice around their product offerings and the tools and technologies they use.

Communities of practice are self-directed groups organized around a common interest, whether that’s a specific programming language or a field like cybersecurity or generative AI. These communities are “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly,” as one formal definition goes.

From a business perspective, CoPs serve several functions: breaking down silos and encouraging cross-functional collaboration, enabling more autonomy, building trust and confidence among employees, and accelerating innovation. When it comes to a new and relatively untested field like GenAI, CoPs are more important than ever.

CoPs allow colleagues from teams who might not interact on a regular basis to connect around specific topics, share experiences and resources, and leverage their collective expertise to solve problems and refine best practices. With the community’s help, users can uncover important context and draw connections they might not have made on their own. Building on those connections allows the community to generate new solutions and preserve reusable knowledge.

Of course, building and sustaining communities of practice at your organization requires your employees’ time and energy. Are their efforts to promote community learning worth the time away from their core job responsibilities?

If you’re asking that question, you might need to reconsider your whole approach. Fostering a culture of community learning and practice is one of their core job duties. Doing so improves outcomes for individual developers and dev teams by giving technologists ready access to learning resources, subject matter experts, and community-vetted knowledge, so they can self-serve knowledge and get up to speed quickly. Communities of practice encourage developers to share their mistakes and what they’ve learned from them, so the whole community can benefit from those learnings.

How developers can cultivate community learning

Communities of practice give developers an excellent opportunity to learn at work. Not only do developers want to learn at work, but giving them the chance has a major positive impact on hiring, retention, and performance. A recent Stack Overflow survey found that for half of developers, access to learning opportunities contributes to their happiness at work. More than half of devs surveyed would consider leaving a role that didn’t offer enough learning opportunities.

Our friends at Pluralsight identified some specific ways that developers (and their managers) can build a culture of community learning. Here are some of the approaches they mention:

  • If you’re a manager or senior contributor, set an example by prioritizing your own learning. Busy as you might be, do your best to set aside regular time for learning and practicing new skills. Let your direct reports know what you’re doing and report back on what you’ve learned. You want them to recognize that learning is simply what you do at your organization.
  • Ensure that your employees have dedicated time for learning. Empower your teams to block off time for learning. When we asked developers how much time they get at work to learn, nearly half (46%) said “hardly any or none.” Failing to support employees’ efforts to learn at work also communicates the expectation that people should devote their own time to learning, rather than making learning an integral part of your organizational culture and day-to-day work.
  • Shout your mistakes from the rooftops. Or at least share them with your colleagues. Any misstep is an opportunity to learn—not just for the person who made the error, but for everyone else on the project. And when senior developers and managers admit their mistakes fearlessly, the prospect becomes a little less intimidating for junior developers.
  • Provide learning resources. Putting learning resources at developers’ fingertips—making it easy for them to access the knowledge resources they need—is key to fostering a culture of learning. Whether you’re talking about a formal curriculum to acquire new cloud skills or a knowledge-sharing platform that captures institutional knowledge for the benefit of everyone in the organization, learning resources are crucial for individual and team growth.

Brilliant, gifted individuals make a difference on engineering teams, but expecting someone to be a 10x developer — or expecting that of yourself — is counterproductive. Pushing yourself to 10x your efforts is a reliable recipe for burnout. This thinking also puts the onus on individuals to propel their teams toward success and prop them up when they falter, an approach that’s unsustainable over the long term. Communities of practice, rooted in a culture of social learning, lead to high-performing teams without hanging the responsibility on one mythical 10x developer.

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