Book Review — An Elegant Puzzle

In the recent years, there has been a certain (and welcome) uptick in interest and content on the topic of engineering management. In mid-January this year, I was fortunate to receive an early-access copy of Will Larson’s new book on management — An Elegant Puzzle. I’ve followed the author’s excellent blog and was thus excited to learn that he had a new book in the offing.

The discipline of engineering management lies at the unique intersection of engineering and management. What sets this book apart from the other recent books on management is that this isn’t so much a book on an introduction to management than a book on applying very engineering driven approaches to management problems, with a strong bias for action and implementation while striving for fairness at every step. Seldom have I seen such a rigorously analytical and metrics-driven approach adopted to address concrete, pressing problems faced by organizations, be it structuring a team or ensuring the equitable distribution of opportunity to foster an inclusive environment.

There are two common threads that run through every chapter of this book. First, the book distills valuable insights into high level frameworks that can be customized, instrumented, quantitatively evaluated and iterated upon to serve different contexts and needs. Second, the book provides the reader with tools and techniques that are lightweight enough to be able to provide immediate value without being too prescriptive.

An Elegant Puzzle is comprised of 7 chapters, the most important of which are the ones on Organizations, Tools, Approaches, Culture and Careers. Each of these chapters has something relevant to offer to a wide cross-section of readers, from senior managers responsible for an organization to line managers to even individual contributors.

Organizations

The chapter on Organizations deals with the anatomy of teams. It explores the factors that govern the origins, composition, sizing and evolution of a team. Most importantly, this chapter lays down strategies for walking the tightrope between managing risk and sustaining productivity in the face of shifting priorities. The section on navigating change in the time of hypergrowth, in particular, will be extremely valuable to folks working at fast growing organizations or companies.

Tools

The chapter on Tools is an introduction to applying systems thinking (as popularized by the book Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows) to model engineering management problems.

Many effective leaders I’ve worked with have the uncanny knack for working on leveraged problems. In some problem domains, the product management skillset is extraordinarily effective for identifying useful problems, but systems thinking is the most universally useful toolkit I’ve found.

The chapter details how to break down goals into discrete steps, providing the reader with a notion of what to aim for while also laying down a realistic path toward getting there. Like for instance:

Although shifting from a discussion about velocity to one about prioritization is a good outcome, expressing your priorities convincingly can be a difficult, daunting task. I recommend breaking it down into three discrete steps: document all your incoming asks, develop guiding principles for how work is selected, and then share subsets of tasks you’ve selected based on those guiding principles.

Furthermore, the chapter provides empirical frameworks (as well as metrics to track success) for aims as wide-ranging as articulating a vision to picking what problems to work on to calibrating success to restructuring priorities when required.

Approaches

The chapter on Approaches presents guidelines for implementing the frameworks described in the chapter on Tools. The approaches described here can help one manoeuvre a variety of challenges running the gamut from establishing realistic policies, to working through constraints to forming interpersonal relationships, while underscoring the moral and ethical precepts of management at every turn. To wit:

It was in that era of my career that I came to view management as, at its core, a moral profession. We have the opportunity to create an environment for those around us to be their best, in fair surroundings. For me, that’s both an opportunity and an obligation for managers, and saying no in that room with my manager and CTO was in part my decision to hold the line on what’s right.
We have such a huge impact on the people we work with — and especially the people who work “for” us — and taking responsibility for that impact is fundamental to good management.
This doesn’t always mean being your team’s best friend. Sometimes it means asking them to make personal sacrifices, letting go of a popular member of the team, or canceling a project the team is excited about. It’s remembering you leave a broad wake, and that your actions have a profound impact on those around you.

Culture

The chapter that stuck with me the most was the one on culture. Culture can be a bit of a double-edged sword, and at startups it can be used to justify all manner of idiosyncrasies, from the sublime to the downright ridiculous. That said, every single company and team I’ve worked on has had its unique culture, and over the years I’ve grown to believe that the best aspects of an engineering culture can be painstakingly cultivated and preserved, whether it’s a culture of innovation or a culture of accountability or one which prizes ownership or rewards impact above all else. Even when the best of intentions are at play, not having a robust cultural scaffolding in place leaves room for a variety of pitfalls.

Every single company I’ve worked at has expressed the desire to improve representation in its engineering workforce, yet truly earnest attempts to this end have often been met with somewhat mixed results. This is a problem that plagues our industry at large. In the recent decade or so, while there has been a rise in awareness and education about this topic, there have been far fewer proven solutions, albeit some organizations do a better job than others at addressing this problem. This is a hard problem in general that calls for putting in place nuanced, considered and ultimately results-oriented processes.

The most effective way to provide opportunity to the members of your organization is through structured application of good process. Good process is as lightweight as possible, while being rigorous enough to consistently work. Structured application allows folks to learn how the processes work, and build trust by watching the consistent, repeated application of those processes.

While I doubt there’s any process under the sun that can serve as a silver-bullet, I do subscribe to the belief that small, concrete steps undertaken with enough forethought and awareness can lead to incremental improvements. This chapter provides a reader a sketch of what a concrete implementation of such processes might look like, as well as how the success of these processes put in place can be tracked over time.

Careers

The final section is on career paths and narratives, which covers everything from establishing career ladders to systematizing a sustainable recruiting process, starting from sourcing all the way to closing. Recruiting and hiring well remains something of an unsolved problem in this industry, what with hiring practices often being cargo-culted without due consideration.

Albeit the chapter doesn’t promise easy wins, it walks one through what a thoughtful and well-designed interview process might look like. It also sheds light on how to measure the effectiveness of the process in order to optimize it. Moreover, the chapter helps one reframe career narratives and identify opportunities for growth during different phases, eschewing some of the conventional wisdom about what an upward career trajectory necessarily looks like.

It’s suggested that mature companies have more stable periods and startups a greater propensity for change, but it’s been my experience that what matters most is the particular team you join. I’ve seen extremely static startups, and very dynamic teams within larger organizations. By tracking your eras and transitions, you can avoid lingering in any era beyond the point where you’re developing new masteries. This will allow you to continue your personal growth even if you’re working in what some would describe as a boring, mature company. The same advice applies if you’re within a quickly growing company or startup: don’t treat growth as a forgone conclusion, growth only comes from change, and that is something you can influence.

Conclusion

I’d be remiss on my part to write this review without stating that I have myself never been a manager in my career. However, I also believe that management is ultimately not so much a job title or a role than an important and indispensable function of a healthy and productive team. This belief is in no small part influenced by the years I spent working at companies where, as often as not, there wasn’t a dedicated employee with the title of a “manager”, but all the same, the management function still needed to be fulfilled in order to ship and evolve a successful product. While said function might look different in the context of different teams, organizations and companies, ultimately, when distilled to its very essence, it’s about enabling successful execution.

An Elegant Puzzle is a masterful study of the challenges and demands of the discipline of engineering management viewed through the prism of systems thinking. The book has the promise to serve as a guiding spirit and help break down “sociotechnical” problems faced by growing organizations along different axes. Readers can expect to leave with an actionable template for addressing complex problems with finesse, creativity and fairness.