An Elegant Puzzle Review
In which An Elegant Puzzle, an engineering management book by Will Larson is reviewed and found excellent.
I’ve been following Will Larson’s blog for a while now. It’s focus is on engineering management, especially in line management and manager of managers roles. Quite specific, but very pertinent to my current situation. The fact that he also worked at Digg, Uber and is now at Stripe - companies which have gone or are going through hypergrowth periods much like Bolt - adds to the usefulness of the advice. So when I heard there’s a book out I was quick to grab it.
Overall it is a compilation of his blog posts, extended and unified in book form. So some of the material was familiar to me. But there was enough new or unfamiliar stuff to make this a good fresh knowledge capsule. Having said that, even copy-paste job would have been enough for me - the insights are good and worth revisiting from time to time.
And in general, as in the blog, the subject matter is usually “the delta” above and beyond what books like The Manager’s Path, Peopleware or High Performance Management offer. So things like organisational design, succession planning, engineering processes design etc are covered in more detail than in the aforementioned books - usually because the authors are far away from the practice as CEOs, CTOs etc. There’s also nice and frank talk about career planning and optimization. Which is needed past a certain point - things don’t just happen.
The first chapter of the book deals with organisation design. And it covers everything from team planning to succession planning, but also goes into performance management for teams. Specifically how to “rescue” under-performing or overwhelmed teams and bring them to innovation status. There’s also an eye-opening discussion on “organisational debt” - the management ladder equivalent to tech debt. Things like implicit bias, unequal pay scales stc. And just like tech debt, this one needs attention and a slow process of “refactoring”.
The second part covers a heterogenous sweet of tools for a manager. Micro skills if you will. From taking to the media to speaking executive to product management 101s. It’s good to be aware of the breadth of stuff here, but it doesn’t go into great depth. The part about tech migrations was interesting because I never thought of this as a tool, that is something you can deploy tactically when it’s needed. I’ve mostly seen it as a thing which happens, usually without right dedicated resources.
The third part is called approaches and is the most generic of the bunch in the sense that it applies to any sort of manager. It’s also a bag of tips and tricks for being a good manager and good player in the wider organisation.
The fourth part is about the broad topic of culture in engineering organisations. It’s also the shortest one. It covers inclusivity and equal opportunity, keeping good morale and building senior positions via folks from inside the company.
The fifth chapter deals with the broad topic of careers. From designing a career ladder, to building an interview pipeline, to actually running interviews, sourcing candidates and thinking about performance management. I liked the part about cold sourcing candidates best. This is often not part of a mm Manager’s role at big companies, and folks usually assume it’s the recruitment team’s responsibility everywhere. But in many places this luxury doesn’t exist. Including fast growing startups. So managers must be active about finding good people to join.
Perhaps the one thing I’d have liked would be more examples. Will’s had an interesting career going back to Digg and their famed rewrite. That would have probably pushed the book in 500+ pages territory though, which I imagine is dangerous for such books.
Anywho, that’s it for the review. Hope I’ve piqued your interest in the book so go out there and get me some sweet referral cash. Also, visit and subscribe to Will’s main site Irrational Exuberance for newer articles.