Wait, the 10x software developer is now an endangered species?
Deep expertise and obsessive drive is more essential than ever as the industry welcomes waves of newcomers
My friend Justin Searles recently penned a long, thought-provoking piece titled “The looming demise of the 10x developer.” It’s full of insightful observations about shifts within the programming community. Justin starts by sharing his personal journey and challenges in learning Sorbet for a new project — an early detour from the meat of the essay, but interesting nonetheless since I am also wrestling with learning Sorbet for my current obsession, Olympia.
This excerpt is a good example of how a 10x developer lives.
I am an enthusiast programmer.
I stumble on a problem like this one [ed: Sorbet] and I stay up late every night until I find the solution. I wake up early each morning with new ideas of things to try. I don’t take enough breaks, but when I do, they’re tactically-designed to exploit my brain’s asynchronous processor to generate solutions for whatever I’m currently stuck on. I irresponsibly defer responsibilities from other areas of my life. Eventually, I realize I’m only at the 20% mark and that a pattern is repeating where a month or more of my life is about to disappear from the calendar. Towards the end, I find myself rushing to find the maze’s exit because my desire to unlock the puzzle’s final secret starts to be overtaken by the shame of all the other balls I’m dropping. It’s excruciating as I approach that inflection point — as intense as an overbearing manager’s “do or die” deadlines ever were, except in this case the pressure I feel is entirely self-imposed.
And then, at some uneventful moment at 4 pm on a Sunday, it’s done.
- Justin Searle in The looming demise of the 10x developer
Throughout the piece, Justin portrays his relentless drive to solve problems, late-night work, and the personal toll taken by his passion for programming. His life experience along these lines feels remarkably similar to mine. He correctly notes that the kind of passion that drives us to obsessive feats is something seen in many programmers of his generation, those born before 1990. As a reference, I was born in 1974 and came up in the industry surrounded by the kind of people he describes, so I think the bounds of the generation he’s describing is at least a couple decades wide, and thankfully there are still legions of us.
Where my opinion diverged with Justin is when he posits that the intense passion and drive to obsess over problems is not a positive trait because despite the productivity, such obsessions lead to imbalances between work and personal life. For some of us, occasionally referred to as 10x programmers, our work is our personal life, and we like it that way.
The traits that have often been attributed to 10x developers — an intrinsic motivation to learn, a relentless drive to solve complex problems, a deep passion for the craft — are not merely the product of a bygone era, nor are they so easily discarded. Those traits are integral to the practice of software development, and, I would argue, to any discipline that demands a high degree of skill and innovation.
The current socio-political climate is rife with anti-intellectualism and reactionary politics on both sides of the spectrum. I believe this is, in part, a backlash against the values that my generation of programmers embodies: a commitment to continual learning and an unwavering belief in the transformative power of technology. Those of us arguing for the preservation of relentless drive in our work are not relics of the past; we are, in fact, more relevant than ever.
Most troubling to me, there seems to be a growing trend, particularly among more extreme liberal perspectives, to view our traits with suspicion or even outright hostility. “Passion” is dismissed as a veiled expectation for unpaid overtime, and “craftsmanship” is derided as an exclusionary gatekeeping term.
As a lifelong liberal progressive myself, I find this troubling in the extreme. Not because I don’t believe in the validity of work-life balance (for people that want it) or inclusivity (of all people) — in fact, I firmly support these principles. But I question whether the rejection of terms like “passion” and “craftsmanship” is truly in service of these goals.
To me, passion represents the love of the work, the joy of solving a complex problem, the satisfaction of writing clean, effective code. Craftsmanship speaks to the pride we take in creating software that is not just functional, but well-designed, robust, and maintainable. These are not qualities to be dismissed lightly.
Instead of rejecting these concepts outright, or even acknowledging their rejection as a valid viewpoint (as Justin seems to do), perhaps we should be focusing on how to foster a culture that celebrates the passion of the passionate, that values craftsmanship without elitism. After all, isn’t the ultimate goal to create a work environment that allows for both personal fulfillment and professional growth for everyone?
Please don’t write me off as resistant to change or dismissive of the new generation of programmers. On the contrary, I am excited to see a more diverse range of people entering the field, bringing with them fresh perspectives and new ways of thinking. I do not see the new generation as a replacement of the old guard, but rather as an expansion of what our community can be. We need the deep expertise and obsessive drive of the 10x developer more than ever, more than we need the ambition and fresh perspectives of the newcomers, especially if the primary motivation for most of those newcomers is economic stability and not a passion for technology — this is not the first time in computing history that waves of money seeking newcomers inundated the field. Anyone that lived through the original dotcom boom can attest to that.
Anyway, I refuse to write an obituary for the 10x developer. Instead, I’ll celebrate the increasing diversity of our field and look forward to seeing how the interplay between the old and the new shapes the future of software development.
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