The Alpha Engineer
July 21, 2013

The Alpha Engineer

by Brian de Haaff

The Alpha Engineer rules Silicon Valley and all great technology ecosystems. He holds the highest rank in technical communities worldwide and is rewarded with the greatest access to resources — which only leads to greater domination. Tough to find, he is a genius in thought, workhorse in productivity, and is worth 100 or more mediocre or lower skilled engineers.

The most productive software companies I have worked in have all had an Alpha Engineer. And it is typically his pure force that has driven product breakthroughs and true thought leadership in market. Considering that there are likely only a few thousand worldwide*, I have had the good fortune of working with two.

Now, we are consistency told that a well-balanced team will outperform a superstar. And go ahead and say your favorite cliché out loud…. “we is better than me” or “there is no I in team.” I am writing to tell you that this is B.S. A lovely group of third-place finishers even with a ton of consensus will never outperform one genius.

This is true for software engineers and for any job that requires deep understanding and complex thinking.

That’s why it would be ridiculous to suggest that any of the following could possibly be true:

  • a group of mediocre architects could have built a better dome in Florence than Brunelleschi

  • a group of mediocre stock pickers could have outperformed Buffett

  • a group of mediocre designers could have built a better computer than Jobs

  • a group of mediocre basketball players could have beaten Jordan in the NBA finals

The insight that genius will always trump “group think” is not well-appreciated and violates our basic beliefs about democracy and equality. Most companies work hard to waste tons of money bringing employees together to generate ideas and solve problems collectively. How many hours have you wasted in “brainstorming” sessions in the last year?

The reality is we all tend to do our best thinking alone. We benefit from feedback, but initial sparks usually are generated from deep thought. And genius is only diluted early on with every new contributor. There is a reason that Alpha Engineers write code exponentially faster by themselves, artists work in small studios, and authors head to the woods. There are always exceptions, but it generally holds true that radical breakthroughs come from one.

While we all are created equal, we are not the same when it comes to performing complex tasks. So when a specific effort can be completed by one person, others should be purposefully excluded. Teams are critical for success but they tend to cluster around genius and work on idea refinement. And for anyone looking to build a better technology company, it is worth thinking about this and the impact that an Alpha Engineer can have.

Consider the following three reasons the Alpha Engineer dominates.

A better product Idiosyncrasies are where brilliant products are born. An Alpha Engineer can hold the complete product vision and technical implementation in her head. This leads to a more opinionated product experience with less compromise. One strident developer can set the tone for an entire project. Yet, if a team is involved from the start, it is much harder for the personality of one developer to show through. Would Linux or Rails be as opinionated as they are if they had been started by teams?

Massive productivity Alpha Engineers are amazingly productive. The problem is that for most teams, communication and coordination costs dominate the cost of software development. This is because as soon as there is more than one person involved, communication overhead starts to create inefficiency. Communicating the vision, reaching consensus on decisions, reviewing poorly written code are all unintended engineering tasks. How many engineers do you have that do not actually write code?

Rapid improvement It is easier to refactor when one person writes everything and there is less likelihood of unintended consequences. There is also less fear of upsetting the original creator or needing to drive consensus before making radical changes. This is particularly problematic in larger teams where the friction due to egos and fear of changing existing code means that refactoring does not happen. Are multiple code reviews part of your week?

Remember that I am writing here of discrete work that can be produced by one Alpha Engineer. To be clear, it is highly desirable to have product management, marketing, and/or design experts work with the engineer when complementary skills are required.

When multiple skills are required on a project, breakthrough product and innovation created by the Alpha Engineer can help attract others to the team as well. And when geniuses with different skills come together and demand excellence from one another, great and sustainable value is created.

If you are a product manager and work with an Alpha Engineer (or wish you did), you may want to sign up for a free 30-day trial now to build a brilliant roadmap, create lasting product greatness, and be happy doing it.

* I assume that genius takes both massive intellectual capacity and a relentless work ethic. Thus, I estimated that there are only a few thousand Alpha Engineers by completing the following basic calculation: Total engineers worldwide x Percent intellectual genius x Percent relentless work ethic. I used the following data to come to my conclusion. There are about 18.2 million software developers worldwide, a number that is due to rise to 26.4 million by 2019, a 45 percent increase, says Evans Data Corp. in its latest Global Developer Population and Demographic Study. About .0025 of the population is true genius and of those I estimated, 10 percent have the required work ethic.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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