Oct 28, 2019

What Matters Most for Great Developers

TL;DR

  • "Great" software engineers are defined by companies they work for and programs they code
  • What matters most is finding program-company fit
  • Program-company fit creates a halo effect to help become a sought after "rock star" engineer

What makes a great software engineer?

When VCs or CEOs in Silicon Valley talk about "rock star" engineers, there's often a patterned narrative: "We really want this candidate. She was the 20th engineer at Google and worked on the core search algorithms—some of the most complex, critical work. And she has a stellar reputation."

Let's break down the narrative to understand it better.

Software is transforming our world, weaving into every industry, business process, and aspect of our daily lives. Software often defines what we watch (Netflix), what we buy (Amazon), what we eat (GrubHub), and how we connect with one another (Facebook).

But software doesn't really matter.

It's not about the code itself. 0s and 1s aren't ultimately how great engineers are judged. No one becomes a great engineer by having the most commits or lines of code in production.

Engineers are judged by proxies. They are judged by business impact and halos.

In Silicon Valley, seven-figure compensation packages are regularly offered to top engineers. Packages can be even bigger for acqui-hires, when a company buys a smaller company primarily to acquire the developer talent. At companies like Facebook, the median salary is over $240,000.

Here's a weighted framework for how great engineers are judged at the point of hiring and compensation—when "great" gets defined and converted into hard dollars and cents.

developer framework
Framework for great developers.

The only thing that really matters is how much you contribute to the right program at the right company.

You might actually be the greatest engineer in the world by technical and teamwork merits, but it comes down to indicators of proof.

The biggest and most obvious indicator of proof is the success of your previous or current employer—their impact on the world, number of users, market capitalization or value, and the reputation of their engineering organization.

Of course, you could be front-end web developer for a trivial set of pages on the Google website, or you could be a lead architect (minor program) and developer for TensorFlow, their leading open-source AI framework (major program). And you have to be early enough in the program to make a difference—preferably at the start.

So after company, program matters most.

Yes, technical skills and interviews matter. And teamwork and references matter, too. But these are largely antes into the game, they're not why companies make the big bet to hire a star developer.

Work hard to find the right company, one that will make a difference in the world, and then work hard to get into the right program or product, because that will ultimately define how the world will judge your contributions in dollars and cents.

developer bullseye
Developer bullseye.

If you get the right program-company fit, it can change the trajectory of your entire career, as it did for Joe Lonsdale.

Finding Program-Company Fit at PayPal

According to Joe Lonsdale, he was "just a kid"—a freshly minted Stanford computer science grad—when he joined PayPal and "doesn't get any credit" for the success there.

But PayPal faced a critical problem—payment fraud was costing the company millions and sinking their financials.

So he started working on an innovative internal program to identify and stop the fraud, creating a man-machine symbiosis, where they used software to identify potential fraudulent activity and put the data quickly into the hands of humans, who could use their judgment and context to quickly evaluate and act on any suspicious activity.

Their program worked, PayPal's financials turned around, and the company successfully went public.

In the end, Joe's contributions to the program put him in an incredible position (despite his youth and lack of experience). He went to cofound Palantir with the likes of Peter Thiel. Palantir is a secretive analytics giant that reportedly helped find Osama bin Laden and was valued at $20 billion in a private financing round.

Today, Joe Lonsdale is the primary partner of 8VC, a firm that manages more than $2 billion in VC investments. He not only cofounded Palantir, but also cofounded Addepar and OpenGov. Addepar has built a new data platform to transform wealth management, and OpenGov is digitally transforming government spending by providing a transparent financial app as a service.

program company fit paypal

Joe's accomplishments read like a long, fulfilling career in Silicon Valley. And he accomplished all of it by age thirty-five. All by finding his program-company fit, the only thing that matters for great engineers.

In our next post, we'll go deeper into how to find program-company fit.

Parts of the this article are excerpted with permission from a book on innovation titled, Disrupt or Die.

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