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C'est la Z

A 10X Student Story

There were a bunch of threads on the 10X Developer recently. You know - that mythical beast that's 10 times more productive than the regular software engineer. I didn't see any of the original threads but I'm guessing they started with "your startup needs them" and then moved to the "they can't work with anyone" along with tons of fun tongue and cheek 1X engineer tweets.

It got me thinking about 10X students.

Regardless of what you think about 10X developers, 10X people do exist - at least to the way I'm thinking about them. There are people who in any given dimension are "better," however you define that, than other people. In our society, if they're 10X in popular sports we treat them like demi-gods and frequently when achievements are group efforts, we, as a society designate one individual as the 10X star and laud them rather than the group.

Regardless, there are 10X people. At Stuy, I've had a chance to work with a number of them and I want to tell you a story about one and how it affected the way I look at my students.

Let's go back to the early to mid 1990s. I was teaching my first crop of CS students. Many were math team aces. One in particular, Alex was a superstar. Alex would end up representing the US in the International Math Olympiad where he scored a perfect paper. He ended up going right from Stuy to grad school even though his friends, the math chair and I were trying to encourage him to start as an undergrad. Why were we pushing Alex not to skip undergrad? Because Alex was wired differently. While he was truly a genius with respect to mathematics and he did pretty well in his other classes by turning everything into a math problem he was not good with people.

His friends spent years pulling him out of his shell and seemed to be making progress but felt that if he ended up cloistered in grad school all progress would be lost.

In the end, he went to grad school but this story is about a programming competition.

At some point, one of my students, Eliot, told me about the USACO and that he and a few others wanted to participate. It would be one day at Stuy - a Saturday I seem to recall. While Stuy was on the internet back then, the competition wasn't. We were working on IBM PS/2 machines running DOS. The students would write the programs and run them, print out their solutions and I would compare the solutions with the correct answers. When all was said and done I either had to mail a disk with the solutions or printouts, I forget which to Rob and Don in Wisconsin.

Over the course of the day, participants would come up to me with solutions and I'd check them off. At one point, Alex came up and said he was done. I asked him to bring up his printout. I got a blank stare. We went back and forth for a while with Alex seemingly being recalcitrant about not bringing it up but he finally did.

Meanwhile, the other participants started to notice.

I started to look over Alex's code. Lots of variables. Typically named X, XX, XXX, XXXX etc. Maybe there is something to the 10X dev not being able to write code well with others :-).

I told Alex that I needed to see the printout with the input and output. He looked at me quizzically. Again we had a few minutes of back and forth and Alex went back to print out his results.

One again, the other students took note.

Finally, Alex gave me the printout with the results and I started comparing the answers to the desired output - the answers were REALLLY LONG integers so I had to check digit by digit. All the while Alex looked at me as though I was nuts.

The competition concluded, we packed up and I took the stragglers out for dinner at the local diner.

The next week, some students apologized for Alex's behavior. They thought it was rude. Not as bad as what another math ace would do to a teacher a couple of years later which caused that years math team to go west side story on him and almost beat their teammate up for disrespecting a teacher but still they thought Alex was out of line in the way he treated me during the competition.

After thinking about Alex's interactions with people, I had a different take.

My take was that Alex very much respected me. To him, at the start when he said he was done, he felt that I was a smart guy so I saw how trivial the problems would be for him to solve. He then understood that rules said that he had to give me the printout of the programs.

Then, to Alex, again, I was a smart guy so clearly I could instantly see that his printouts were correct so why was I insisting on the output? Finally when I had to compare the digits, Alex was very confused. "Z's a smart guy, surely he can instantly see that my answers are correct…"

Alex wasn't being disrespectful. He was showing me more respect than I deserved.

My interactions with Alex through the rest of the year as well as observing him with others confirmed this. This wasn't a super smart kid being a jerk and looking down on us mere mortals. Here was a kid who saw the world differently and thought that the rest of us had his gifts if not more.

I've had the opportunity to interact with a number of 10X individuals. Some as students, some as peers and colleagues, and some as friends. More often than not, in my experience, they're wonderful unassuming people. They assume I bring as much if not more to the table than they do and they value what I have to say. It's my insecurity that makes me uncomfortable if I don't have my A game.

Sure, sometimes they're jerks but most of the 10X people I've encountered are anything but. The nice thing is that when I do meet a 10X who's a jerk, I can remind myself that I know an 11X who isn't so I don't have to waste my time on the 10X who is.

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