When you say the word, “management,” it’s easy to drum up terrible images. Dilbert, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Office and Silicon Valley reinforce these bad stereotypes. Poor leadership and management is common as people transition into a different role for the very first time. As the old saying goes, “It’s not a promotion, it’s a role change.” Great management may be emotionally exhausting but is also extremely rewarding. Unfortunately I can’t point to enough material about what great management looks like. That’s why I’m excited by “An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management.”
In my constant journey of learning, I stumbled across Will’s blog. Add it to your RSS feeds today (assuming you still use one these days!) If not, at least go back and peruse the great entries Will published. It was through his blog that I learned about his upcoming book and joined the waiting list. I bought it as soon as it came out and pleased to say I’ll be recommending it from here on.
Managing engineering teams is different from many other fields. Software systems interconnect via invisible API, data or tech dependencies. While the pace of software increases, so does the tech stack complexity. Any reasonable software product demands strong collaboration across many people. All these people often have very different backgrounds and skill-sets. Harmonising and optimising this ever-changing environment demands managers understand complex adaptive systems.
When I read Will recommending Systems thinking early on, I knew this was going to be a good read. You can’t manage modern software organisations with Tayloristic mental models.
What’s in this book?
The book contains five main sections Organizations, Tools, Approaches, Culture and Careers.
This section covers many elements of effective organisation of engineering teams. It discusses optimal team sizes, breaking points, varying structures and trade-offs. Many people underestimate the impact of the poorly designed organisation. Yet many people suffer within them. This topic is also close to my heart, as an advocate for the Inverse Conway’s Manoeuvre and the Target Operating Model (TOM) I recently wrote about.
This section is the largest in the book. It offers a broad range of concrete and actionable advice. This section covers everything from systems thinking, basics of product management, vision and strategies, metrics, how to deal with migrations and reorgs amongst many more.
This section highlighted the author’s variety and breadth of experience. Not all engineering management will find themselves in each of these situations. It’s useful to have tools to approach these situations in advance.
I like to describe this section as the author’s personal style to engineering management. It covers how to handle execution, personal philosophy’s, managing in growth and common traps.
Of all the sections, I found this the most opinionated. It may or may not suit you, the reader.
This section covers deliberate approaches to cultivating culture. An example is the opportunities you create and who you offer these opportunities to. Another example is reflecting on the representatives you have with your leadership team. A final example are the ranges of policies and the impact that has on the types of freedom.
In this section, I learned the concept of negative and positive freedoms. These are sometimes referred to as negative or positive liberties. Negative freedom is the freedom from external constraints, freedom of interference, or absence of external limits. An example of negative freedom is the USA’s right to free speech.
Positive freedom (or liberty) is the ability to act on one’s free will, or the absence of internal limits. Examples of positive freedom include personal growth and self-mastery. This article has some great examples of positive freedom.
This section covers everything to do with the employee lifecycle at a company. It covers sourcing, recruiting, interviewing, performance management and career growth.
My thoughts on the book?
This book will appeal to a broad range of people. Those considering engineering management will taste the different set of responsibilities expected in the role. Existing engineering managers will grow their toolkit and discover new ideas. Directors or VP Engineering will particularly benefit with concrete approaches to managing managers.
This is an opinionated book. The author offers approaches that worked for them across many situations. You won’t find a rule book or a guided how-to. Instead, you will find a wealth of experience packaged into actionable chunks. This may or may not be relevant to your current situation. It may or may not suit your own personal style. That is part of the difficult and challenge of effective management. An Elegant Puzzle offers you a head start.
What would I like to see done differently?
I understand how hard it is to write a book, and it’s rarely perfect. Two of my issues stem from reading the book in its digital form. Unfortunately the printed copy was not available in Germany, where I’m currently living. My first is the regret of not experiencing the beautifully designed front cover. I’m sure it’s a better experience in real life than on the Kindle. My second issue also stemmed from this, with some of the visuals being hard to read on the kindle. My final issue was the constant use of the word, “resources,” when I’m pretty confident the author meant, “people.” At least in many cases.
Highly recommended. Grab a copy now!
Agile methods and practices went mainstream over the last two decades. We’ve improved our architectural, technical and processes landscape. It’s time we pushed our management and leadership practices even further. An Elegant Puzzle is a great addition to the field of engineering management.
Get a copy of the book here.