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An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  2,177 ratings  ·  226 reviews
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 of complex management challenges can make the difference between fulfillment and frustration for teams, and, ultimately, the success or failure of companies.

Will Lars
Kindle Edition, 289 pages
Published May 28th 2019 by Stripe Press (first published May 2019)
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Jul 06, 2019 rated it it was ok
I'm so sad that I can't give this book more stars, particularly since, based on the press around it, the author put a lot of hard work into transitioning this content into a blog, and Stripe Press, the publisher, did a FANTASTIC job rendering it into a physical book that is beautiful to look at and pleasant to hold. Writing books and putting them out into the world is a hard, lonely task.

However, there is too much wrong with it to be able to let the physical manifestation sway over the content:
Sebastian Gebski
Jul 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
One of my 2 favorite books on engineering management written by actual engineering managers ;P not "professional authors" or consultants (the other one is Camille Fournier's one).

There's a lot of goodness covered in a very concise & pragmatic way - focused on principles, not on recipes. The book covers topics like: efficiency, growth, applying systems thinking (in understanding your organization's limitations), strategizing, aspects of product management, long-term evolution (described as "migra
Herval Freire
Jun 09, 2019 rated it it was ok
Beautifully laid out, to the point and no-fluff content.
Unfortunately, the content itself is formulaic, hard to validate (lots of “trust me, it works”) and dogmatic (the fixation on number of people on teams, for instance, is super odd).
Jonathan Mckay
Oct 23, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: leadership-f693
69th book of 2020: An elegant turd.

After being in the business of ‘managing’ for about two years, it feels like I’ve learned enough to write a book. I have the scars, fines, and wrecked relationships, to prove the tuition paid for becoming a better manager. Will Larson takes a similar experience at Uber and in ‘An Elegant Puzzle’ actually turns it into a book. Unfortunately, both Will and I have no business writing so much about a subject we know little about.

This isn’t to say that the lessons

Diana Pojar
May 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is a great resource and contains a lot of useful information for senior ICs and management, but I think it's definitely more tuned towards management / leadership folks. So if you are on that track you should definitely prioritize and read this book, as it has great advice and insights.

Something that I felt the book was lacking was more structure and flow into how the story was said and how all the information was organized.

Overall, a great book that give a wide range on information and ins
Szymon Kulec
Jul 02, 2022 rated it really liked it
4 out of 5 - I really liked it.

The book delivers what promises: a brief through various aspects of Engineering Management. It covers different areas of organizations of different sizes. Things that I really liked are the following:

The idea o gelling a team (I don't think I heard it before) as well as reasoning beyond team size (especially, the lower boundary that should be high enough to blend members).

Metrics, baselines, controls, strongly resonate with High Output Management. I liked the idea
Dec 26, 2019 rated it it was ok
The saying goes "you can't judge a book by its cover." I think that's true. And this book is beautiful.

The quality of the printing of the book is really excellent. Unfortunately, that quality does not fully extend to the content.

My biggest complaint with the book is the faux-scientific graphs that are included. If you were to casually flip through the pages, you might think "wow, there's a lot of data to back up what the author is saying." If you actually read the graphs and associated words, yo
Tomasz Onyszko
Jan 31, 2020 rated it it was amazing
First, I have to admit - I like the style of the book: it is dry. There are no analogies, there are no stories about random people repeated 10 times to prove the point and make it stick.

Author provides his experience and receipts to problems he encountered from his perspective and which worked for him. Now - it doesn't mean it will work for you and it is not a recipe book (although content partially is delivered in recipe way "do this in this way, it will work").

Filter it through your lens. Rem
Sep 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Excellent practical advice from someone who has been in the trenches of managing engineering teams in large and small organizations. Provides a lot of substantial pointers on practical approaches with no fluff. Great reference book for building out ones own “best practices”. The wealth of papers, books and articles referenced all over the book alone was worth the hardcover for me.
Sérgio Isidoro
Jan 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
Short, and to the point. Feels like a manual. Probably should be skimmed every 6 months because it's hard to integrate solutions to problems you don't yet have. ...more
Nov 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Remarkably practical manual, and not just for engineering management.
Dmitriy Rozhkov
Apr 26, 2021 rated it really liked it
No BS actionable book on software engineering management. Although I would appreciate the examples to be more developed in some places, thus 4 stars.
May 21, 2022 rated it really liked it
Larson's book is concisely and thoughtfully written. I read it with the perspective of an engineer rather than a manager, wanting to better understand what choices my manager may make and the decision tree they might navigate. I came away with a better understanding of my organisation and discussion points I could have with my manager.

The book is written with a clear style in mind as evidenced by the overly-simple diagrams which emphasize a concept, rather than being information dense. Like all
Erika RS
Sep 15, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: kindle, leadership, owned
This was a book full of good, practical advice. However, in the end it didn't go beyond beyond a collection of loosely related essays on a myriad of topics. I will give it credit for being a set of tips that is targeted at managers of managers in tech, so in that sense it was quite applicable for me.

The book failed for me though because, ultimately, it was a pile of fish and I wanted to be taught how to fish. The author told the reader his approach to handling leadership challenges. I like his a
Max Wolffe
Oct 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorite-cs
Phenomenal. Probably the best book on Engineering management I've ever read. This reads a lot like "Hello, Startup" by Yevgeniy Brikman and would be an excellent sequel to it for someone a little further in their career, considering whether management is for them.

I really appreciate the approach, starting with the "Why is this topic important to you" and then going into tactical "Here's how I've approached this, YMMV, but this is the reasoning behind each recommendation".

Recommended for enginee
Mindaugas Mozūras
Oct 16, 2019 rated it liked it
As an organizational leader, you’ll always have a portfolio of risk, and you’ll always be doing very badly at some things that are important to you. That’s not only okay, it’s unavoidable.

The "An Elegant Puzzle" was crafted by taking blog posts and arranging them into a book. I felt the disjointedness, the chapters and their order didn't always make sense.

Despite how it was arrange, I found a lot of good practical advice in "An Elegant Puzzle". It's worthwhile read. And if not the book, I would
Lukasz Nalepa
Jun 23, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-work
Pretty straightforward guide for new people that are coming into the role od Engineering Manager or similar. Surprisingly, a mix of high and very low level activities to consider, areas to be watchful of, and considerations to be made. I didn't like it much, as by going into small details sometimes, the author removed the flexibility of this position, focusing on exact definition of the role - and yet, each company, especially outside of Silicon Valley does understand Engineering Management role ...more
Adam Schuck
Jun 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
Pragmatic, opinionated approaches to engineering management, with a strong bias towards systems thinking. Early sections on team growth and evolution were particularly useful.
Manas Saloi
Jan 02, 2021 rated it it was amazing
One of the most practical books out there on Engineering management.
Vitor Capela
Feb 13, 2021 rated it liked it
The book has many insights, especially for organizations going through rapid growth. If you're a direct manager, it's good to be aware that a lot of what's discussed is pertinent to roles a few levels above — those responsible for managing managers and defining company-wide processes.

I happen to be in a software company going through hypergrowth, and it was interesting to recognize many of the stages we've left behind, as well as reading descriptions of the vicissitudes of our current solutions.
Scott Maclellan
Apr 11, 2021 rated it it was amazing
A strong perspective on the fine art of management. Having been hooked on Will's talks, blog and newsletter I wanted more.

Covers a wide variety of topics directly from the blog. Want to shape your career? How should you size teams? Structure an amazing hiring pipeline! The writing style is easy to digest and approachable. Most topics are advice gained over many attempts.

There is a strong systems thinking aspect throughout the book. What is the system being reviewed and how do you systematically
Feb 07, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I find Business books fall into two categories, psychological research then applied to business, or a group of tactics from a particular persons experience.

This is the latter, and because of it, if your organisations aren't like the organisations of the author, you might struggle to apply these.

Having said that, of the books I have read that are like that, this is by far the best, and takes a kind, learning and systems thinking based approach to most of the tactics described within.

The advice is
Aug 23, 2021 rated it liked it
Kind of scattered, in terms of topics and especially their applicability -- there's some reasonable small company advice, some decent large company advice, and lots of rapidly-growing-company advice. This latter case is probably where this book is most useful. I tended to agree with everything said, which makes it hard for me to evaluate if the writing here is going to change anyone's mind, but generally gives me a positive feeling about the book.

Actually, probably the biggest thing this book ch
Sett Wai
Feb 16, 2022 rated it liked it
A collection of advice based on the author's experience in engineering management at hyper-growth startups.

A decent book to keep as reference for those who find themselves inadvertently having to make management or leadership decisions, however some of the advice is somewhat shallow and difficult to apply unless you're in a hyper-growth startup.

I'd argue the author's blog (https://lethain.com) has been more helpful than his book. I ordered a physical copy based on his consistently good writing.
Scott Wozniak
Sep 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a management manual for software company managers. The examples and tactics are all focused on that space, so if that’s you, this could be one of the best management books you have read. If you are a leader in a different space then still 2/3 of the book applies.

It’s clear, practical and empty of all fluff. In fact, for the first time in years I would like the book author to flesh out the ideas a little more (most add so much fluff).

It covers everything from performance rating systems
Lampros Pappas
Oct 18, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This read may sometimes seem a bit dogmatic, particularly when an attempt to define a framework of thought is made. Most of the content is based on the author's blog and reflects his experience from growing companies and startups. The most powerful feature of this book is that the author gives concise advice on handling several circumstances and challenges while providing lots of references to other books, blog posts and papers. The Appendix is very detailed and it's a very good reason to recomm ...more
Jul 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
I do not aspire to be a manager, however I wanted to read this book. I wanted to get to know what type of problems you might face as a manager.
Despite this, the book was useful for me. I am always allowed suggesting how we can improve our processes and what we should change.
If you are a manager, I would recommend this book to you; if you are not you also should read this book. You do not have to read the whole content (some subchapters are written precisely for managers), but after reading you s
Oct 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a truly seminal book on modern engineering practices at tech companies scaling up in Silicon Valley. The book is full of reference frameworks (aka systems) that Larson has constructed to simplify common problems facing growing engineering organizations, in order to perform consistently and ethically. The audience is engineering leaders of every level, or those seeking to pursue a path into engineering management.

Some of the scale and suggestions will certainly exceed what you need at you
Bassam Ismail
Feb 19, 2021 rated it really liked it
There are a lot of useful nuggets in this book. I particularly liked the parts detailing the hiring pipeline and organization structure. However, I too related with the reviews talking about how the book reads like a series of disconnected blog posts which makes it a hard read. I did slog through it regardless bu it wasn't fun.
I sure hope there is a second edition where this gets addressed.
Matas Tvarijonas
Jan 08, 2022 rated it really liked it
Operational guide for engineering managers. Book covers several aspects of leading teams, and leading leaders. I found it useful to for changing some responsobility boundaries and rethinking some processes. Also found some advices which are already implemented in my company 🙂 it is good in two ways, someone read the book and adopted some practices, and I really like some of it!
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Denver Engineerin...: 2020-03: An Elegant Puzzle 1 4 Mar 19, 2020 10:40AM  

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“Where to stash your organizational risk? Lately, I’m increasingly hearing folks reference the idea of organizational debt. This is the organizational sibling of technical debt, and it represents things like biased interview processes and inequitable compensation mechanisms. These are systemic problems that are preventing your organization from reaching its potential. Like technical debt, these risks linger because they are never the most pressing problem. Until that one fateful moment when they are. Within organizational debt, there is a volatile subset most likely to come abruptly due, and I call that subset organizational risk. Some good examples might be a toxic team culture, a toilsome fire drill, or a struggling leader. These problems bubble up from your peers, skip-level one-on-ones,16 and organizational health surveys. If you care and are listening, these are hard to miss. But they are slow to fix. And, oh, do they accumulate! The larger and older your organization is, the more you’ll find perched on your capable shoulders. How you respond to this is, in my opinion, the core challenge of leading a large organization. How do you continue to remain emotionally engaged with the challenges faced by individuals you’re responsible to help, when their problem is low in your problems queue? In that moment, do you shrug off the responsibility, either by changing roles or picking powerlessness? Hide in indifference? Become so hard on yourself that you collapse inward? I’ve tried all of these! They weren’t very satisfying. What I’ve found most successful is to identify a few areas to improve, ensure you’re making progress on those, and give yourself permission to do the rest poorly. Work with your manager to write this up as an explicit plan and agree on what reasonable progress looks like. These issues are still stored with your other bags of risk and responsibility, but you’ve agreed on expectations. Now you have a set of organizational risks that you’re pretty confident will get fixed, and then you have all the others: known problems, likely to go sideways, that you don’t believe you’re able to address quickly. What do you do about those? I like to keep them close. Typically, my organizational philosophy is to stabilize team-by-team and organization-by-organization. Ensuring any given area is well on the path to health before moving my focus. I try not to push risks onto teams that are functioning well. You do need to delegate some risks, but generally I think it’s best to only delegate solvable risk. If something simply isn’t likely to go well, I think it’s best to hold the bag yourself. You may be the best suited to manage the risk, but you’re almost certainly the best positioned to take responsibility. As an organizational leader, you’ll always have a portfolio of risk, and you’ll always be doing very badly at some things that are important to you. That’s not only okay, it’s unavoidable.” 2 likes
“The fact that something stops working at significantly increased scale is a sign that it was designed appropriately to the previous constraints rather than being over-designed.23” 1 likes
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