The 10X employee

Ensuring we stay one step ahead of the machines is the sweet spot of how we can 10X our careers.
Kevin Phillips
By Kevin Phillips, Founder and CEO of IDU Holdings.
Johannesburg, 04 Jun 2019

The myth of the 10X programmer has long done the rounds in the software world. Stories abound of unicorn software engineers that can churn out 10 times, or 100 times, as much code as the average programmer. The rock star coders that accelerate start-ups with their ninja skills.

For some people there is no doubt that the 10X programmer exists, and is essential to success. The argument goes that programming is not linear, so 10X programmers can compound experience, knowledge, an uncanny ability to achieve efficiencies, and a creative flair for coding that allows them to outstrip their team mates.

The other side of the argument goes that it doesn’t matter whether or not they exist, rather that very often these 10X programmers cause so much disruption (of the unhelpful kind) in the long-term, that they aren’t worth the short-term wins.

This chaos ranges from technical debt – where down the line the fallout from their “genius” causes a whole lot more coding and debugging work; to poor culture fits: the stereotype of the unapproachable, unwashed, sleep-deprived coder.

It is very clear that we all need to 10X our skills and experience to remain relevant in a rapidly digitalising, fourth industrial revolution world.

Whatever your views on the 10X programmer, it is very clear that we all need to 10X our skills and experience to remain relevant in a rapidly digitalising, fourth industrial revolution world. This challenge was rather beautifully summed up, as only an accountant could, at our user conference earlier this year.

“Am I an asset to my company?” asked one of the attendees during a keynote and Q&A session with Sameer Rawjee, the founder of Google’s Life Design Lab, and currently working with companies and schools to tackle continuous learning and purpose at work.

“Or am I just OpEx?” the attendee continued.

The rest of the audience of accountants chuckled that he had managed to avoid using the word “liability”. But this insightful question really gets to the heart of a matter that affects us all, as individuals and business owners in a rapidly changing workplace. How do we ensure we stay relevant in our own roles, plus, as leaders, how can we help our people stay valuable in our companies?

I think that on day one of our jobs, we are all assets to our company. But we run the risk of depreciating every single day, unless we actively work to ensure our growth, to 10X ourselves and the people around us continuously, to keep pace, stay relevant and remain impactful.

Darwin nailed it when he highlighted adaptability as the key to survival. And today, as digitalisation gains pace, we need to adapt over a shorter time frame than ever before. However, if companies and their people adopt the right mindset, this offers immense opportunity.

Much has already been written about how artificial intelligence (AI) and automation promises to relieve us from repetitive, mundane work. And it is becoming increasingly clear that companies will need to spend some of the savings and increased earnings gained from digitalisation’s greater efficiencies and productivity on helping their people continue to learn. In the same way that businesses have an imperative to digitalise in order to survive, they have a moral obligation to their people to help them adapt around these changes.

Ensuring that we stay one step ahead of the machines, doing the things that AI can’t yet, or won’t ever, do is the sweet spot of how we can 10X our careers.

A good way, and perhaps the only way, to focus on the things that the machines can’t do, is to hone in onthe skills that require emotional intelligence. One of the challenges here is that these skills are difficult to measure and grade in the formal learning system.

But, ironically, they could be the key to successful uptake of automation and AI in an organisation as well: communicating change effectively; listening empathetically to people’s concerns; leading the way in this new way of working. These are all “soft” skills. Others that will be critical to the take up of digitalisation are creative problem-solving and ethical judgement.

A way that this ongoing learning can happen, I would suggest, is that responsibility needs to be shared. Individuals must identify their areas of growth, and companies need to ensure everyone is very clear about the business’s vision, goals and plans, so that the two can align.

This is not dissimilar to how I advise companies to canvass the grassroots of their organisation during the budget process as they know what needs to be done at the coalface, especially during tough times.

Likewise, it’s the people on the ground who know what they need to learn to remain relevant, and happy, in their roles. They may not always get it right but it is the role of management to guide them and help them align their goals with what the company needs to survive and grow.

Working to continuously 10X our careers, and those of our people, is going to ensure we remain true assets, constantly appreciating, and continuously adding value in ever-changing times. And never becoming expenses, or worse, liabilities.