Imbalanced People


There’s a saying that a great developer is 10x more productive than a mediocre one.

That’s not true.

You can’t put 100 average designers on a committee and get a fabulous design, right?

A great developer, or a great designer, is better than 10x an average one — they’re better than an infinite number.  Because they’ll come up with ideas and implementations that 100 others wouldn’t.

This is approximately true everywhere. A great writer (content marketing, social media) versus 100 average bloggers. A great manager who develops the careers of their folks versus several average ones who are glorified project managers. A great customer support rep thrilling customers and causing love on Twitter versus 100 others “answering tickets” but never evoking an emotional reaction. A product manager driving consistent, brilliant output driven by salability instead of under-the-hood technical gymnastics.

Even in sales, which is tempting for Vulcan engineers to think of as revenue-acquisition-robots with zombie-like drive to make phone calls, in which a slew of barely productive “closers” may not be financially efficient but will still get the job done. If you see it that way, please don’t make yourself responsible for building out the sales group, else your dream might be actualized. A great salesperson is a factory producing cheerleader customers who are actually thrilled and referenceable after the sale, and who excites the entire company around what’s possible around growth, the engine that makes everything else possible, locking arms and bringing along every person at every position, and sharing and promulgating the corporate culture rather than developing a separatist roost of vultures feeding on the entrails of leads bagged by the comparatively friendly and accessible marketing department.

If you think “sales” can’t be that way, that’s because you are the one with incorrect expectations. (At WP Engine, we’re living proof of this.)

In fact, if you think there’s any position at your company where this rule of “better than 10x” doesn’t hold, you’ve never worked with greatness at that position.

Now, if you understand this universal, timeless, human rule, you then realize you cannot afford to hire anyone less.

If you’re competing against a company with the intent, the pocketbook, and the storyline needed to hire those people, but you don’t, you’ll need to sit down and figure out how your business will thrive anyway. Which might be possible, of course, but it’s a special sort of optimization.

And not one I’d be excited about executing. I’d rather work with the best, do amazing things together, and have a chance to learn new things every day from those amazing people.

Life’s too short, and high tech moves too fast, to mess about with mediocrity.

14 responses to “Imbalanced People”

  1. I read this, enjoyed it, and then started thinking about GPUs and 1024 chickens vs 2 oxen to plow a field. Which is to say… your article reminded me why I need to get out more :-)

  2. ok, so how do you differentiate from the crowd and find the best? is it all thru references from friends, or do you run a trial hire and figure out if they are as good as their cv says they think they are? or a combo of both approaches?

    and the heights an eagle can soar to is determine by it’s tether, which is to say if you don’t have the right internal culture and reward the work that should be rewarded, the best will leave for better skies. sometimes that is the more pressing problem than finding “great” associates.

    • Definitely not “references from friends.” But definitely references from folks already thriving inside the company, as they now have a notion of the culture and performance of the company, and thus we hope to trust their judgement as to who else they’ve actually worked with before who would fit in.

      Trial hires are OK for certain roles, not OK for others. Some dev is contract-to-hire, but that’s a big waste of time if you don’t have separable projects.

      Hiring is always hard, of course. The answer is the same as hiring anywhere, for any position, which is that it’s a combination of open questions, job-specific technical tests, culture-fit stuff, consensus of existing folks, and some art. And it can’t be a perfect system.

      Of course I agree with you that the rest of the company needs to match.

  3. Great post Jason. In your opinion, what are some characteristics that make 10x salespeople?

    • Well, it doesn’t mean they close 10x the revenue of an average one. For example, if “average” is meeting quota, the top sales person will not 10x their own quota, every period. In the same manner, a 10x developer doesn’t literally type 10x the number of lines of code, or produce 10x the number of shipped features.

      Rather, it’s the softer things as listed in the article, in my opinion. For example, actually being a promulgator of the core company culture rather than setting up a new separate “sales culture.” How would you know this in an interview or similar? Ask them how they think about building their team, how they interview. Do they talk about culture-fit there? What culture is a “fit” in their view? Ask how they interact with Engineering, esepcially when they need a feature done. What processes do they like with that? What makes for a successful customer?

      What do you do in the sales process to set up the customer for long-term success? On that last question, for example, you can tell pretty quickly whether they’ve ever thought about that question, i.e. whether they rattle of 3-5 things you have to do, or whether they’re stretching to make up an answer. You can dig further, asking for specific examples where they’ve set up a customer well, or others where it went badly, and why that was. Do they blame the account manager or support or Engineering or do they identify ways in which this coudl have been detected before the sale?

      So this is just drilling in on the “culture” part of that question, and surely there are more questions and things that are company-specific that you’d probe around, but you see the idea — you’re looking for their thought processes and what they truly value, and thus what life they will lead once they’re in and the pressure of the quota is upon them.

  4. Good point. It always seems to come back to quality over quantity, and yeah realistically you can only throw so many people on a project.

  5. I don’t agree that the “average” people can never produce the same results as the great ones. They can and likely will do it by accident, they are just far less consistent. You may also get a lot more negatives in some areas. For example in customer service the upset customers might outweigh the occasional great experiences meaning that you lose in the end even if you hire enough people to accidentally create a lot of great experiences.

    While this rule may be true most of the time, especially for anything that is a major driver of your business, it’s worth understanding the real impact and actually making a decision. In some cases you don’t need to do this and the added cost and delay can hold you back. If you need a taxi and you wait until one of the top 1% of drivers in the city comes by, you’re losing.

  6. It’s not just about hiring a great designer. A company needs to understand and prioritize great design starting from the top. Too many companies that I’ve worked for have been driven exclusively by engineering and data. You can get an ok product with that being the focus, but not a world class product. Many would-be great designers get their hands tied behind their backs and end up working on mediocre products because they don’t have the power and leverage that many c-level people have.

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