How to be a 10x engineer: Business value for technologists

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Since joining an enterprise (the world’s largest business-travel company) 6 months ago to drive their DevOps transformation, my ongoing mental evolution regarding the value of technology has gone through an almost religious rebirth. I now think in a completely different way than I did 10 years ago about what technology is important and when you need it. If you want to become a 10x engineer, you need a different perspective than just working on things because they seem cool. It’s about working toward the right outcomes, whereas most of us focus on the inputs (what tech you use, how many hours you work).

It all comes down to business value. You need to contribute to one of the core factors of business value, or however incredible the technology is, it just doesn’t make a difference. If you don’t know what that really means, you’re not alone — most of the technologists I know have trouble articulating the business model of their employers.

I think about it as 4 primary factors:

  1. Money. This comes in two flavors. First, you’re creating new efficiency, which increases the profit margin. This could either be through lowering the underlying fixed costs of running the business, or decreasing the cost of goods/services sold by saving a little money on every one. Second, you’re increasing sales, which grows overall revenue. In a cost center within a larger enterprise, or in saturated markets, the former is the most common mode of operation because it’s hard to capture new opportunities. In the latter, it’s about growth mode – investing to capture new value, and often assuming you can make it profitable later. This could be framed as “land and expand” or with the assumption that your company will increase the price and margin once it’s gained a sufficient market share to do so with lower risk. Do you understand your company’s business model? Where does the money come from, who are the customers, what are their needs, what is the sales process and cycle, and what are they buying?
  2. Speed. Again, there’s a couple of versions of this that overlap. The overall goals are either initial time to market or speed of iteration. Time to market can come at the expense of significant technical debt, while long-term accelerated iteration cycles are about product-market fit. If you know of the Lean Startup approach promoted by Eric Ries, this should sound familiar. From a long-term perspective, iteration cycles require a balanced approach of customer perspective and technical debt. Otherwise, your company can’t deliver value to customers quickly due to accruing interest on its tech debt. In practice, this can drive an approach that involves gradual refactors with the assumption that long-term rewrites (or e.g. strangler pattern) will be required. It’s the classic “design for 10x but rewrite before 100x,” to paraphrase Google’s Jeff Dean.
  3. Risk. As before, this essentially boils down to executing on new opportunity or loss to existing opportunity. Dan McKinley has a fantastic post on why you should choose boring technology, because the important risks are in the business model vs the tech. You should only make a small number of bets on new technology when it will really make a difference in your ability to deliver on business value. For existing opportunity, it’s more about risk avoidance. Typical approaches tend to end up in some mainframe application that one nearly retirement-age developer knows but is afraid to touch. However, a more sustainable model is to implement heavy automation if it truly is a business-critical application that justifies the investment. Relatedly, risk avoidance is where security shines. One of my favorite perspectives is Google’s BeyondCorp model, which assumes your perimeter is compromised and acts accordingly.
  4. Strategy. Often not immediately visible in the above approaches, investing in strategic growth opportunities is consistently a great path to success in your business. Do you know your company’s strategy? They probably have posters up and meetings about it all the time. Could you say it out loud? Do you know how it maps to concrete actions? Although any individual opportunity may fail, your contribution to executing on the technology behind that opportunity will not go unnoticed. Similarly, if you’re involved in divesting from areas your employer wants to leave as part of its strategy, you have a real but often smaller opportunity to leave your mark upon the work.

Although many other factors have an impact upon business value, those are 4 of the most important ones that can make you consistently successful as a technologist. The key is to understand which ones play into your work, so you can act accordingly in your day-to-day efforts and as part of your career strategy. Are you building software for a cost center, a growth incubator, a risk center, or at a company that cares to invest in speed? Taking full advantage of this approach could make you the 10x engineer you’ve always wanted to be. Best of luck in your journey, and may you spend time where it matters!

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