Thrust and Drag

Via John D Cook, I found the article Thrust, Drag, and the 10x Effect by Venkatesh Rao. Rao's post fits right in with my recent interest in applied psychology in the workplace and ordinary life.

The starting point for Rao's post is the 10x engineer. The 10x engineer is the fabled programmer who is ten times more productive than average programmers. I'm not a software engineer, but there are definitely folks in the other engineering fields who seem to be able to get a hell of a lot more done in the same amount of time. I think it is worthwhile to investigate how you can make yourself more productive, and in a general sense, know what it is that makes things happen. This is good for me, and even better if I can encourage it in others, or recognize it when I see it.

A 10x engineer in a more concrete discipline seems more rare. A 2-3x engineer is probably about as common among mechanical or electrical engineers as the 10x engineer is in software. Since these disciplines are less abstract, you lose some of what makes the 10x engineer so productive: not doing what doesn't need to be done.

When you have to actually build something, even if you already know how to do it, there is only so much you can do to hurry the process along. The skillset you need to make a project happen faster makes for a pretty good engineer, but those skills aren't engineering skills. You need to know how to manage priorities and people, how to plead and beg and threaten people just right to motivate them without shutting them down. Lots of people without any technical skills at all are good at this.

Some of these skills match up with what Rao calls "drag". I found his post fascinating because it captured something I have felt. In order to get more done, I have to off-load work on other people. Managing this takes a lot of time and energy, but if you try to do everything yourself you will never be able to accomplish as much as you can with a team. On the other hand, deep technical knowledge requires you to delve into the details of a subject for long periods of time. Not just stretches of time, but intense sessions of thinking and doing. Needing to manage is usually in direct conflict with finding uninterrupted time to think about some intricate problem. Or at least it is for me.

I like Rao's suggestion that we gain energy in technical disciplines by making time to delve into a subject that energizes us, a thrust engine. These are sources of both mental energy and technical know-how that combine to make for very productive engineers. I'm curious whether you can turn managing into leadership, which seems like it ought to be a thrust engine in its own right. If you can build an organization that embodies some of these ideas, it ought to outperform one where everyone is simply left to their own devices.