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Book Review of An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management by Will Larson

Introduction

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.

The beautiful book cover of An Elegant Puzzle (image courtesy of @lethain)

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.

Organizations

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.

Tools

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.

Approaches

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.

Culture

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.

Careers

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.

The Trident Model of Career Development

Careers ladders are all the rage in software firms. They create structure and shared expectations around different levels. Like any model, career ladders have pros and cons. Career ladders are a starting point for shared expectations across an organisation. However career ladders cannot be comprehensive, as people are unique, like snowflakes. People bring their different strengths and experiences to what they do. Everyone will do this differently. As a result, I like to explain that levels in a career ladder do not represent a checklist. Rather, levels reflect how people can have a different impact in an organisation in different ways.

In my most recent talk, “Talking with Tech Leads,” I explain how, some companies have a two-track career model. Two tracks are great, as they allow for more development and growth in different areas. Most of the research I did seemed to focus on two main tracks. In Silicon Valley they refer to these as Individual Contributor (IC) and Management tracks. I actually don’t think a two-track ladder is enough. This is why I present you the Trident Career Model below.

The Trident Model of Career Development

The Trident Career Model has three tracks. Each track represents where people spend most of their time or energy.

The Management Track

In this track, people spend a majority of their time (70-80%) on management activities. This still includes leading people, supporting people, managing structures & processes and organising. People in this track must still have some background in the topic they are managing.

Most importantly, their main value add is not necessarily through making decisions related to the specialist field (e.g. system architecture). Instead, they manage the surrounding system & structure to ensure people closest to the work have the best context and information to make better decisions. They provide enough support, time and/or budget to enable others to do what they do best.

Example roles in this track: Engineering Manager, VP Engineering, IT Manager

The Technical Leadership Track

In this track, people spend a majority of their time (70-80%) leading people on a technical topic. People in this track must have relevant hands-on technical skills and experience. They should have good but not necessarily the best skills in the team they are leading. People in this track draw heavily on refined leadership skills to be successful. Classic activities for this role (in the field of software) include:

  • Establishing a Technical Vision
  • Managing technical risks
  • Clarifying/uncovering technical requirements
  • Ensuring non-technical stakeholders understand technical constraints, trade-offs or important decisions
  • Growing technical knowledge and cultivating knowledge sharing in and across teams

Example roles in this track: Lead Developer, Tech Lead, Principal Engineer, Software Architect

The True Individual Contributor (IC) Track

In this track, people spend a majority of they time (70-80%) focused on “Executing/Doing”. Software engineers early in their career reflect this very well. This track still requires people to have excellent communication and collaboration skills. People in this track have impact through the deep/detailed knowledge or skills they offer. Most small companies do not need a deep IC track, as there is no need for specialisation. As an organisation grows, they may need more of these roles. The number of these roles will always be smaller than the other two tracks in a well-functioning organisation.

Example roles in this track: DB Specialist, Performing Tuning Specialist, Domain Specialist.

Conclusion

This model is indeed a simplification. In real life, the Management and the Technical Leadership tracks are not always so clearly separate. I know some companies where Engineering Managers also take Technical Leadership responsibilities, or where Tech Leads or Lead Developers are also expected to take on Management responsibilities. This is not necessarily wrong.

I have personally found that, at scale, it is often hard to find people who have deep skills and experiences at both of these areas, and that it can be useful to have a discussion around where someone’s focus, passion or development progression lies.

As the famous quote goes:

All models are wrong, some are useful.

George EP Box

I have found this Trident Model a useful starting point to contrast differences in roles or expectations. Considering using this model:

  • To develop skills in an area you may want to work
  • When building out your own company’s Career Ladder
  • To explain differences/focuses on existing roles and responsibilities

I hope you found this post interesting. Please leave a comment about your thoughts of the Trident Model of Career Development.

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