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Tales of the Autistic Developer - The 10x Engineer

baweaver profile image Brandon Weaver ・5 min read

For those who don't know me, I'm autistic. Asperger's Syndrome to be precise. I've been a developer for the better part of 8 years now, and have been programming for somewhere over a decade.

I didn't find our I was ASD until 19, and didn't really reconcile with that until likely years later. These posts will be a combination of advice I've given to those who are like me, as well as a letter of sorts to my past self who could have used a lot of it.

I write these posts in the hopes that someone like me will find value in knowing a very simple and very important truth about ASD:

You are not alone, and you are loved.

The 10x Engineer

A myth, a legend, a figure from fantasy that will save a company from the jaws of death while quoting lines from "Hackers" and "The Matrix". Stalwart, alone, a force unto themselves.

Doesn't that last part sound a good deal like someone with ASD?

There's a reason for that, and a very dark secret behind it.

In Need of Affirmation

People on the spectrum need affirmation. Many of us were considered failures of a sort in school, outcasts, rejects. To us school was a nightmare from which there was no end, but then there was the end, and at that end we found salvation in technology.

Like all edgy borderline-emo nerd millenials, I'd preached the Hacker's Manifesto like it was gospel:

I made a discovery today. I found a computer. Wait a second, this is
cool. It does what I want it to. If it makes a mistake, it's because I
screwed it up.

Not because it doesn't like me...
Or feels threatened by me...
Or thinks I'm a smart ass...
Or doesn't like teaching and shouldn't be here...

Surely they just didn't appreciate my obvious brilliance! (cough cough /r/iamverysmart cough cough)

The problem with this mentality is it left a rift, a visceral need for approval, and then came the tech jobs.

Invincible

Some on the spectrum have an ability to hyper focus, to rush through anything and work at paces that are considered insane. They can do this to the exclusion of literally everything else in their lives, often of their own volition.

The problem?

Their managers see that level of output, and praise those engineers. To many, this is a new feeling, a reinforcement that they're finally doing something right.

What is well intentioned becomes a rallying point to push deeper into that hyper focus. That 10x engineer checklist? ASD people are very likely the prototypical 10x, and it's destroying them.

To the Exclusion of All Else

Those on the spectrum are already inclined towards that obsession, but when compounded by praise it becomes a driving force that they cannot and will not stop.

They'll forgo meals, sleep, social activities, health, everything. Anything to get just one more drop of productivity and go even faster.

They'll be insanely productive, sure, but there's a reason most engineers don't do this. They have limiters, and for good reasons.

A runner cannot and will not race at 100% of their speed, doing so would likely get them seriously injured if not outright kill them in the process.

People on the spectrum do not always have these limiters, and I can tell you from first hand experience that they burn out just like anyone else. If anything, they do so faster. A brilliant flash, quickly extinguished.

Predatory Leadership

Remember, people on the spectrum aren't the best with social cues, and many have a deep need for affirmation that hasn't been worked through.

A good manager will quickly tell such a person to take a break, to stop, to moderate themselves. They won't stand idly by while they go sailing off the proverbial cliff.

There have been managers in my past that have exploited this capacity, and many that are advocating for 10x engineers vocally, even defending practices around it.

Make no mistake, there are those on the spectrum who have gotten very wealthy off of doing just that, but everyone has a limit.

Burnout does not discriminate. It doesn't care where you are or how well you're doing, it exacts a steep price and sometimes that price is the very thing which gave you the wings to fly in the first place.

This is not a mutually beneficial relationship, but a predatory one in which leadership takes advantage of the naivety of those on the spectrum.

Arrogance

With enough people praising someone on the spectrum, they can start to believe the hype, and eventually get into a state of arrogance in which they believe they are the infallible 10x engineer of legend.

Collaboration will dwindle, they'll become hostile to anything and everything perceived as "not getting things done", much as certain posts implied with refusal to mentor and attend meetings.

It becomes a vicious cycle to where the person will destroy any and all engineers around them in the pursuit of more praise and validation, and the longer it goes on the more they start to become a stereotypical brilliant asshole.

The irony of this is two-fold.

Firstly in that such an engineer will propel themselves even faster towards burnout and destruction. Make no mistake, people on the spectrum need friends and support. Forsaking them for some ideal productivity boost will have just the opposite effect in the long term.

The second is that many on the spectrum are blind to a whole range of issues in understanding, potential evils of their work, and more that make them a potential force for great evil (cough cough Palantir cough cough). When I say "to the exclusion of all else", morals are very easily included in that calculus.

A person on the spectrum may well be brilliant, but so are others, and in many ways that person on the spectrum may not be. We thrive through collaboration and covering each others weaknesses, not by creating a myth of additional productivity through destroying it.

Glorifying Destruction

Many a company in the Bay Area are built on the burned out husks of engineers on the spectrum without the knowledge of their own limits.

We glorify and exult such engineers as heroes, giving them such frivolous titles like "Rockstar" or "Ninja" or "10x Engineer", all the while speeding them faster and faster towards their inevitable snapping point.

The harsh truth of this relationship is that once that engineer is spent, they can just go and find another one to step into their place, and the cycle continues. Life moves on, and finds another willing "hero" to spend.

There's no shortage of those on the spectrum willing to make this trade, but I would beg of them:

At what cost?

No More

We perpetuate a system built on ruined engineers, a system that almost demands it by its very nature, and it's time to say no and regain our humanity.

This system is not sustainable, and every year we face greater and greater shortages of engineers. By prioritizing short term profits and gains, we've sold our souls and hope for the future, and there will be a day of reckoning.

Take that vacation, go on break, work 40 hour weeks and stick hard to the schedule. Reclaim your lives, because once they're spent you're not getting it back any time soon.

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baweaver profile

Brandon Weaver

@baweaver

Ruby, Javascript, Lemurs, Puns, and Art. Aspie, He / Him. Currently Ruby Infrastructure and Frameworks @Square. Opinions are my own.

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Fellow aspie dev here. Great post, this is very relatable to most devs on the spectrum. For me, the solution has been maintaining side projects so I can compartmentalize work development vs hobby development. The biggest issue for my ASD in the workplace are the social aspects of working with a team, especially working with NT management that may not understand the aversion to communication. I’d be curious to hear your perspective on the communication portions of “career survival” in a future piece.

 

I'm already drafting ideas for such a piece :)

It may take me a few weeks to get to as I have a conference talk to prepare for, but it will be out in early August at the latest.

I'd like to put a good amount of thought into it, because that's been one of if not my greatest struggles. Realizing how critical communication and collaboration was, and how becoming a Senior engineer was entirely based on that rather than how well I coded.

 

It's good to note that the opposite of praise, i.e. subtle doubts about your work can have the same destructive effects.

The following may come out of thin air for some: it may also be helpful to look into your 'trauma biography'.

 

Great read! I'm also an aspie (found out at 20), and I can see many parallels in our experiences, though I also had some differences that (I think) might have come from being socialized female and entering the dev world from that standpoint.

The need for affirmation and the tendency to push harder and harder absolutely resonates with me, but at least in my experience, I wasn't the first one to be called 10x or "hero" - more like unable to say no, and burning out behind the scenes.

I'd hear, "oh, this mundane, manual task would be PERFECT for you, because you're like a robot, right?", and since technically I would be the most effective choice for it, I should take one for the team. It's an interesting balance as I grow in my career and take better ownership of things I want to do, while still acknowledging my weaknesses and strengths in the context of company needs.