A World of Increasing Expectation: 10x Engineers and Unicorn Designers

Throughout my career, I have enjoyed working across a number of disciplines. I began as an engineer who gravitated to digital in the early to mid-90’s where I worked (as many did in those days) across multiple disciplines; mine being project management, development and design. I later settled on design as it gave me the opportunity to pursue a more creative endeavour, work with a variety of people on challenges ranging from tactical to strategic, solving problems and ensuring I always progressed, with the intent of never growing bored of what I did. Along the way I acquired a masters degree in creative writing to complement my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering.

These days I describe myself as “engineer, storyteller, designer” because for many years I thought you could only be one of those things at a time, and couldn’t accept that it was alright to be (or have been) all of them at the same time. My growth was organic, not enforced, and grew out of my own interests and curiosities.

Bring on the 10x engineers and unicorn designers

While I’ve enjoyed the kind of organic growth as a professional that has led me to learn and experience a number of disciplines, it seems that today people are being asked, indeed expected, to be deeply skilled across multiple disciplines. This seems to be being asked of the young, the middle-aged, and the older professional. There is an agenda whereby some — not all — individuals in positions of authority, are trying to enforce their teams, or potential new hires, to be skilled in many different areas of a discipline, or indeed across multiple disciplines.

I’m all for multi-skilling. I would be, given that my own career has followed a number of paths that have led me to being multi-skilled. It was my path. It was my choice. It happened organically. It is not a path, nor is it a choice, that I would be quick to try and enforce on others. You go through periods of identity crisis where you’re no longer sure what you are. You don’t fit into specific roles anymore, and for those hiring managers who aren’t themselves riding the 10x or Unicorn carnival ride, you can appear to be veneer-thin across a number of areas, rather than particularly deep in any discipline. They aren’t sure how you fit into their structures, and even if they felt they would benefit from having a couple of cross-skilled individuals in their teams to help bridge disciplines, they aren’t likely to want everyone to be 10x or Unicorn. They also really want depth and variety in their teams.

Those in the 10x and unicorn designer camps will make the argument that having a full team of cross-skilled individuals results in a stronger workforce, that 10x skills result in the need for less people, and diversity of experience enables more agility in terms of designing and delivering work. Personally, I believe the reality is that you end up confusing people, not creating anyone of any particular depth, and creating teams that are light on experience and overly competitive to move onto the next skillset before mastering the previous one.

I particularly worry for those starting out. What a confusing world it must be to be fresh into a new discipline only to find that before you have a chance to gain any mastery of that discipline, you’re expected to be capable of delivering 3 others. What kind of expectation are we setting? Again, proponents of this approach would say we’re training them for the real world. It’s interesting that in many (though not all) of the individuals who are pushing a Unicorn approach, most of them are themselves barely practitioners, and at best veneer thin across a few capabilities themselves. It almost makes me think that there is a sub-set of design manager, for instance, who deciding to follow a management path and dump the idea of being a deeply skilled practitioner have no greater expectations for their design team’s skills than the expectation they had for their own path as a practitioner. Provocative, I know.

And what about 10x engineers or developers? I’ve known some very talented technical people in my lifetime. To say they are 10x more productive than their nearest peers would be a stretch.

Is being veneer across many areas the new deep?

We used to use the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” to describe people who never grew too deeply experienced in any area, but flitted frequently from discipline to discipline. This used to be considered a bad thing.

We’ve entered a world of exaggeration and hyperbole — a world where expectations are now rarely tied to reality. Just turn on the news or attend any conference and you will inevitably be exposed to heightened fantasies, disinter-mediated from the experiences many of us have as human beings. We’re led to believe that not only can we become anyone (which with hard work and a bit of luck and support can be true), but can also be everyone simultaneously. We’re creating a generation of young people who now have difficulty focusing on any one thing, or being in any one place for any period of time without getting antsy and feeling that there is an expectation, at first taught, and then internalised of having to switch gears. For these people, perhaps being veneer across many areas is the new deep.

It may be interesting to see what comes out of this great social and professional experiment. For instance, if you strive to learn a great many different things, only to a very lightly applicable level for each, does this mean you will be able to view challenges and problems through more lenses than if you were simply deep in one thing? Does this kind of thinking apply better to an agile way of working where work is meant to be iterative as opposed to fully formed?

In this world, who will decide what fully formed looks like and what you are working towards if no one is deeply experienced enough — or has the attention span — to design a vision for the thing you are working on — or towards?

Do you see how confusing this gets? Which gets me back to where I was trying to go with this at the start. I believe that those who develop organically in multiple directions, following their curiosities and interests, have the ability to put things together and become deep in different areas over time. Time being the key factor. People today aren’t being given the time to become properly cross-skilled. They are unable to build the kind of depth that will enable them to bring real substance to the challenges they face. They are pushed at pace to be unicorn designers, learning many different skills simultaneously, indeed being taught that if they don’t think this way they cannot be successful as designers.

Engineers or developers who are held up to the standards of a handful of people who are genuinely multi-skilled, experienced and know how to deliver value at 2x, 5x or 10x the ability of others, are being sold short. Sure engineers, developers and designers could add additional value if they brought more skills to the table — provided they have enough experience in them for them to be of value — but this doesn’t (or shouldn’t) de-value an individual whose goal is to become the best (deepest) practitioner in their area that they can be. I worry that some people are so focused on this idea of 10x or unicorn that they never allow others to find their natural paths organically, ensuring we almost never find out what those individuals could have been capable of if left to pursue their life and their skills in their own way.

And so…

We’re living in a world today where expertise is being increasingly devalued. Science is disbelieved. Medical advice (vaccines) is discounted. People seem to react, absorb, and modulate their belief systems now at an increasingly rapid rate. We’re moving from a fast food society to a fast thought society, where everything is expected to be done at pace. If we’re not careful, we’ll become a society of short attention span, thinly experienced humans who believe the ability to deliver thin slices of a lot of different cakes is better than delivering a cake in its entirety.

I want to go back to the days when we celebrated great designers, developers, thinkers, instead of trying to turn every human being into one. There is nothing wrong with aspiration, but when a design leader’s aspiration is to only have a team of unicorn designers — or create one — then I think we have lost the direction and focus of who we are meant to be in this world — and instead of nurturing and mentoring people, we begin to disassemble them creating creatures in an image we seek to enforce upon them. This isn’t natural. It isn’t organic. It cannot be right.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with some great engineers over time. I think it was right that they were acknowledged for their achievements. I also think they would have found it odd to come across a hiring practice that states: “why hire a 1x, 2x or 5x when we could hire a 10x engineer/developer.” It sends a message that no one appreciates the uniqueness of every human, nor their ability or potential to develop — over time — into someone great. If you try and push a thing too hard, too fast, you risk breaking it. If you set expectations so high, you limit the possibility of being the one to discover and nurture someone great.

I guess that it is the false economy of believing you have created someone unique by having a unicorn view, or dismissing someone who could be great by having a 10x view that bothers me so much. In the rush to create polymaths you forget that not everyone is a polymath. With the desire to only hire people who deliver 10x the value you lose the potential to create and nurture an individual into becoming that person — worse yet, you potentially discourage them from ever trying. We have a responsibility as leaders and professionals to recognise and nurture talent, not discourage it. If everyone is a 10x, what is their career path, if only to leave your organisation to be a higher paid 10x elsewhere.

And really… do unicorns and 10x engineers really exist? Who talks like this about human beings? Or are they just fantasies we create to make ourselves feel like we are playing in a world of myth and giants? Who knows — maybe being veneer thin across a bunch of disciplines is the new deep. Perhaps “Jack” was right after all.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *