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An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management

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4.12  ·  Rating details ·  912 ratings  ·  109 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
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Kindle Edition, 289 pages
Published May 28th 2019 by Stripe Press
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Vicki
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:
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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).
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
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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
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Vishwanath
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.
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
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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
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Matt
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
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Mason Jones
Jul 09, 2019 rated it liked it
For people new to engineering management, this will no doubt be a very useful book, as it offers more practical, prescriptive advice than many others do. I did feel that the later sections about hiring and performance management were less structured and perhaps less detailed. That's understandable in the case of hiring, which could of course be a book of its own. A fair amount of the last quarter of the book was lists of other books and papers, and the papers in particular -- being technical pap ...more
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
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Tomek
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
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Valerie
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
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arity
Dec 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: technology
Probably the best book about engineering management I've read.
Diego Caxito
May 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Very good

Direct to the point and with simple and practical examples that guiding you through the book. I recommend this book for everyone on engineering manager career path.
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.
Claudio Souza
Aug 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The book I wish I had written. :)

Great insights and a very human view of Software Engineering Management state these days. Can be a bit prescriptive sometimes (which might be a good thing if you're looking for that) and gives you a sense of wanting more.

All in all, I recommend to anyone working in the Software industry.
Richard Marmorstein
May 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Prescriptive, Insightful

Very prescriptive. Mostly applicable 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.
Jake McCrary
Dec 08, 2019 rated it liked it
(reviewing this many months after reading, so it is going to be a short one).

There were some good observations and suggestions on managing in this book. The book was adapted from a blog, so you may be able to read that blog and get what you need.

That brings to me on thing I found annoying which was that there are an extreme number of links in this book to other writing online. Sometimes a new word or label would be introduced with a link to some web page (I'm assuming about that just introduced
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Mikhail Filatov
Nov 06, 2019 rated it it was ok
This book is a collection of lightly edited blog post of M2\M3 Engineering Manager. There are some interesting thoughts and observations but it's not really a book with any cohesive structure\content\message\research.
For example, the author discusses different stages of team - starting with one struggling with their commitments up to "innovating". His advice to fix a struggling team - "add headcount". Did he mention\discuss "Brooks law" from The Mythical man-month and why his advice is against t
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David
Jul 13, 2019 rated it it was ok
While Will is a fan of systems thinking, his book falls quite short of providing anything that close. Worse, the writing is painfully verbose and drawn out - it's clear he's mostly copy-pasting blog post ideas (or perhaps the entire posts themselves). The diagrams used throughout are laughably bad, providing negative value and failing miserably to convey a useful idea, even after spending time slogging through the extensive explantory text.

All that said, there's plenty of nuggets of value here.
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Adam Nowak
Jun 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
Practical to the core! It was hard to consume as an audiobook, but I bought Kindle version and right now everything is much easier to find and consume.

There’s a lot of useful tips and guidelines for all the aspects of Engineering Management - from recruitment to presenting thoughts effectively.
Simão Freitas
Sep 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
Overall interesting. I enjoyed the parts about performance management the most, but other aspects seemed very coupled with high growth, heavily funded companies. Still, a rather valuable book.
Sean
May 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A previous manager gave me this book last year. He was impressed by it and gave a copy to everyone on his team. After reading it, I can see why; it's a fascinating read, and maybe one of the best books on issues unique to the management of software engineering organizations.
The author, Will Larson, has bona fides from managing technology in some well-known, high-profile organizations, including Digg, Uber, and Stripe. Not all of the ideas in the book are going to be useful to everyone, as most p
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Adler
May 27, 2020 rated it it was ok
A lot of the principles laid down are built on scenarios that most software companies don’t have the “luxury” of undertaking: very fast growing companies, strongly hierarchical organizations, technical debt as well-defined tasks that only needs to be checked-off, and so on.

This reads more like a playbook: you gotta find what works for your specific scenario. It takes you far from the trenches rather than along it, works for some, but not for others.

Rather, it takes the perspective of a bridge or
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Alessandro Berardi
Aug 04, 2019 rated it it was ok
An Elegant Puzzle is mostly a cookbook of potentially good recipes with variable applicability. Some fail to consider the broad variability of business realities, taking on too much of a Silicon Valley flavour. Other are more generalisable, though at times the author fails to provide sufficiently strong rationales to justify their effectiveness. Many seem valid and sufficiently adaptable and the author suggests experimenting with them.

The book is at times repetitive, with variable levels of deta
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Olivier Grange-Labat
This book is about management in engineering organisations and teams.

The table of content is promising considering Will Larson’s extraordinary experience. The book seems to be aimed at experienced managers, with techniques now largely documented such as delegating or delivering feedback largely absent, which was nice.

Basically, I was excited when the book was announced.

Unfortunately, chapters after chapters I got more and more disappointed.

The book probably badly needs some editing: I was often
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Haley
Aug 30, 2020 rated it liked it
Received a copy of this at the management offsite last summer and finally took the time to read through it. My team has found a lot of value in the "stages of a team" concept and has begun using it as a diagnostic tool for identifying where to invest.

I usually leave books like this with one or two main lessons or ideas that stand out to me. In this case, I found Larson's advice about how to organically disseminate process throughout an organization to be particularly relevant to some of my curr
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Stefan
Nov 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is the best book on engineering management I've read (sample size 3). It is a collection of blog posts but the design of the book is so nice that you'll notice your fellow commuters looking over your shoulder to get a glimpse of it.

I found the style of presentation perfect for describing how to improve processes and otherwise covering a large area of blind spots new managers have. The interview/career section really lays out how to remove bias and improve hiring processes for the interviewe
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Vivek Gupta
Nov 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Will Larson’s An Elegant Puzzle - Systems of Engineering Management, is one of the few books about the practical sides of managing an engineering team. The book offers pretty good advice based on author’s own experiences at large technology firms.

Though the book does not flow very well (probably because it was based on author’s blog), it still provides great guidance on many relevant topics if you are leading a group of engineers - sizing teams, careers, succession planning, managing technical
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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 criteria I use to evaluate if a team’s sprint works well: Team knows what they should be working on. Team knows why their work is valuable. Team can determine if their work is complete. Team knows how to figure out what to work on next. Stakeholders can learn what the team is working on. Stakeholders can learn what the team plans to work on next.” 0 likes
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