An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management

by: Will Larson (0)

A human-centric guide to solving complex problems in engineering management, from sizing teams to handling technical debt.

There’s a saying that people don’t leave companies, they leave managers. Management is a key part of any organization, yet the discipline is often self-taught and unstructured. Getting to the good solutions for complex management challenges can make the difference between fulfillment and frustration for teams—and, ultimately, between the success and failure of companies.

Will Larson’s
An Elegant Puzzle focuses on the particular challenges of engineering management—from sizing teams to handling technical debt to performing succession planning—and provides a path to the good solutions. Drawing from his experience at Digg, Uber, and Stripe, Larson has developed a thoughtful approach to engineering management for leaders of all levels at companies of all sizes. An Elegant Puzzle balances structured principles and human-centric thinking to help any leader create more effective and rewarding organizations for engineers to thrive in.

The Quotes

Organizational design gets the right people in the right places, empowers them to make decisions, and then holds them accountable for their results.

An important property of teams is that they abstract the complexities of the individuals that compose them. Teams with fewer than four individuals are a sufficiently leaky abstraction that they function indistinguishably from individuals.

A team is innovating when their technical debt is sustainably low, morale is high, and the majority of work is satisfying new user needs.

The Reviews

22 pages are of QR codes to outside resources.24 pages are for other book and paper recommendations with brief descriptions of each.10 pages are blank for notes.Blank pages at the beginning and end of the book.Blank pages between chapters.Entire pages devoted to sparse diagrams.The pretty diagrams do not make up for the lack of content. The given advice lacks meaningful context. This would've worked better as a series of blog posts.

Very prescriptive. To me, seemed applicable especially to higher management rather than immediately applicable to my day-to-day as a line manager, but still valuable, I think.It's presented as advice, not argument. The author relies mostly on his own personal experience at successful tech companies as the main source of authority, not data. Seems like sensible advice, as far as I can tell. Also, the text is rich with references, which I intend to be exploring soon.

I recently completed a read of this on my Kindle, and promptly bought three physical copies to share with other leaders within my workplace. Page for page, this is the best contemporary IT management book I've read in the past year. That the author (as of this review) works at Stripe, and that the company saw fit to publish this book, is one of the best bits of endorsements for a company I've encountered in quite a while.The author and their editor have done a superb job of distilling a significant amount of value into a brief and accessible text. Included within are recommendations on everything from organizational design, tools to improve the act of engineering management, higher-level approaches to tackling common problems within the field, and specific methods by which you can shape an organizational culture. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover more than a token acknowledgement of the importance of creating and fostering a diverse workforce, something too easily overlooked in the tech industry. Finally, there are a wealth of additional book recommendations (thoughtfully re-listed in the appendix) to further your own learning.I have worked in management roles within the tech startup scene and in more traditional enterprise IT environments. Of the recommendations found within this book that I've personally implemented or seen in my career, I agree with the author's perspective on their value. Of the ones I haven't, this gave me the vocabulary and a framework to explain how they can address problems of which my current workplace is suffering. I look forward to trying them out.

This is one of the best texts on organizational design and praxis I've ever read.Larson's earned wisdom is presented as practical but not overly prescriptive as he encourages readers to filter his insights through their own context. The humility is refreshing and powerful in space dominated by "thought leaders" who have done little of the work themselves. Larson speaks with the measured qualification of someone who has earned their knowledge on the ground, and it makes the book both an enjoyable read and imminently useful, even for those building, managing, and guiding teams far outside the realm of engineering.

An Elegant Puzzle is to date the most hands-on perspective on engineering management within a high-growth, tech-first organization, that I have read. It's a long overdue book for engineering managers and leads. I like how it takes an engineering-focused view on management, instead of taking a management-focused view on software engineering, that other books on this topic have.Having read many management and engineering management books, what set Will's book apart is it starts right where the others end. An Elegant Puzzle wastes no time - especially not in the beginning - on covering the generic manager's toolkit, such as 1:1s, giving feedback, team building, which many other books devote a good chunk of their content. Instead, it talks about the engineering pain points that come with a high-growth organization and team, once management fundamentals are in place. What to do when our systems are slowing us down, but we have too many migrations? What's a good way to pay down tech debt? How do we say no, when there is so much work, but not enough people? How do we grow seniority evenly across the team?The tone of the book is casual: it feels like we're sitting with Will, having coffee, while he talks about problems he's faced at different companies, systemic approaches he's seen work best, then giving examples of things that worked for him, in the past. I like how the book rarely presents "best" approaches, instead, Will shares what worked for him - with a healthy dose of systems thinking - and approaches he recommends to his peers and managers on his team.The book is a good read for product managers and engineers working at high-growth companies will find it a good read. Other disciplines working with engineering - such as recruiters or operations - can get more empathy towards engineering, when reading it. The head of product at a large startup recently told me how she was devouring over the book and a recruiting manager, who read the book, shared how he thought the book translates well to managing people in his field.

Cheaply made and definitely not meant for a macaw or any other parrot for that matter, maybe a parakeet

I love this they are perfect for my cockatiel cage.

I needed to purchase large ladders for my parrot not tiny ones. Very deceiving.

Too small for large parrots

I've ordered the hardcover version of this book twice, once in 2019 and once in 2022. The older book from 2019 looks and feels like a really high quality book; it's beautiful. The book from 2022 looks like a cheap copy. It went from having a smooth, subtle crosshatch texture with off-white and subdued black on the cover to a rough texture with stark white and pure black. The pages also feel thinner and cheaper as well.

I bought this book without too many expectations: most management books are usually either poorly written, either full of banalities, either too abstract.However, this book is one of the rare excellent ones, and most probably a must-read for any manager (probably even outside tech).I'm a junior manager and I initially thought the book was not a good fit for me as I started to read the first chapter: this book is written by an upper-manager and talks about many problems related to upper-management that a junior manager does not encounter himself, especially in the first two chapters.However, I kept reading and it was the right thing to do: the book is incredibly complete and covers everything. Many points are actually relevant whether you are a junior manager or a more experienced one. For the other parts more related to upper-management (for example, restructuring a department), those are still very interesting and eye-opening to read for a junior manager: you get to better understand what your own manager is doing now, or what challenges he will face soon. It truly allows you to connect the dots and reflect more about your own company environment.Besides that, this book is very practical. It's very easy to understand each point and how to approach each problem. Of course, each company is different and you can't have a cooking-recipe that works everywhere: you still need to adapt based on your environment, but you are much clearer on how to do it, and what should you pay attention to. This is much better than most other books out there that focus on banalities everyone already knows, or only stick to an abstract level such that you don't know much more than when you started reading them.I can't recommend enough that book.

An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management
⭐ 4.5 💛 708
kindle: $9.99
hardcover: $25.77
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